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Fewer Riders & Cleaner Buses: A Look At How DART Has Changed During COVID-19

Dallas Area Rapid Transit says its buses and trains provide 62.5 million rides in 13 North Texas cities each year. But that task has become challenging during the COVID-19 outbreak, especially because of a substantial decrease in riders.

So what's changed for DART and the people who rely on it? 

On a cool and quiet afternoon in Dallas, bus rider David Gruber walks out of his office in the Wilson Historic Districtand begins walking to a bus stop on Gaston Avenue, near the edge of downtown and on the border of Deep Ellum.

"One reason I like working here is that you're literally so close to so many things," Gruber says excitedly.

Toting a backpack, with his face covered with a cloth mask, Gruber breathes heavily as he explains that there are literally four or five bus routes that he can take in order to begin his trek home.

 David Gruber leaving work at the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance and readying himself for a 70-minute bus ride.
David Gruber leaving work at the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance and readying himself for a 70-minute bus ride.

"See, over here at the corner," he points, "you can get three different busses. You can get the 11, you can get the 76, or you can get the 19. You can also walk over to Baylor University Medical Center Station and jump on another couple of buses too."

Gruber's encyclopedic knowledge of bus routes is impressive. But he doesn't think so. "DART is really not that complicated. They've got an app. And you can plan routes in it and everything," he explains.

His passion for public transportation is obvious. "I am one of the only people in Frisco who uses DART," he says. "As you might know, Frisco is very decidedly not part of DART, so my wife drops me off at Northwest Plano Park & Ride."

It's at that park-and-ride that Gruber begins his nearly 70-minute journey to work at the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, where he's the director of development and communications.

"I'll take the express bus and get off at Baylor station, walk over to Cafe Brazil, get my coffee, come back here, day starts. All is good," he says somewhat sardonically.

Though, once the coronavirus hit North Texas, Gruber, like many other riders, started feeling anxious about his workday bus rides. He says he's got three kids and a wife at home to worry about.

"I drove the first couple of days," he says. "But I hate driving all the way — you know? It's tiresome. Our family's only vehicle is an SUV and guzzles gasoline. Plus, tolls!"

DART employee spays sanitize on targeted areas on train.
Credit Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART)
A DART employee sprays sanitizer on targeted areas of a train.

Gordon Shattles totally gets that. He's a spokesperson for DART, and an avid train rider, and says people shouldn't be concerned.

"We're wiping down. We're sanitizing. We're using EPA-qualified cleaning materials that have been identified to actually remove coronavirus and other viruses as well," Shattles says.

According to DART, buses and trains are cleaned more often now than before the COVID-19 outbreak. And the cleaners are targeting "high-touch" areas, like grab bars, straps, buttons and exit doors.

Gruber says he's noticed the difference, even says the buses smell cleaner.

"Honestly, it's fine. The buses look immaculate. And I see maybe two other people on the bus each day," he says.

One of the other things Gruber's noticed on his bus rides during the outbreak is the efforts DART has made to decrease social interactions.

"What they've done is chained off the first few seats," Gruber explains. "You know, like where disabled folks sit. And so you can't enter up at the front anymore. They let you get on in the back. So you can't get close to the driver."

A look inside of a DART bus. In the picture you see a chained off front of the bus.
Credit David Gruber
A look inside of a DART bus. In this picture you can see a chained-off area at the front of the bus.

Gruber says the drivers have other protections too. "They have, like, a shower curtain or something in front of them."

Shattles says entering up front is reserved for people who really need it.

"There's a ramp there at the front door for people who have mobility issues," he says. "And, yeah, it sort of does look like a shower curtain. But if you have to pay with cash, you can come up front and pay."

Dallas native Micheal Thomas waits for a bus at Mockingbird Station. Thomas is one of the riders adversely affected by the schedule changes DART's made during the outbreak.
Credit Hady Mawajdeh/KERA News
Dallas native Micheal Thomas waits for a bus at Mockingbird Station. Thomas is one of the riders adversely affected by the schedule changes DART's made during the outbreak.

But there have been other changes, too, changes that are disproportionately affecting DART riders who, unlike Gruber, do not have any backup means of transportation.

"I do not like the fact that these buses are running on a weekend schedule," says 27-year-old bus rider Micheal Thomas.

The broad-shouldered Dallas native says he relies heavily on DART. That evening, he had already taken one bus from his job at an Amazon Fulfilment Center to a train station in North Dallas. Then he took the train to Mockingbird Station. That's where he was waiting for the final bus he'd need to take in order to get home.

"I just missed it, so I got another hour," he says while pressing down medical tape wrapped around his forearm.

Thomas missed the bus because after he hopped off the train, he went to donate plasma for money. He says he thought he had timed it perfectly. But he hadn't. Thomas says the new schedule — which is actually called a "modified weekday schedule"— has ruined his life.

"Honestly, the new DART schedules that have started because of COVID-19 don't make any sense to me. I don't know how changing the time for buses I ride every day is supposed to help with anything," he says.

Thomas uses public transportation for everything. He rides a bus to go to the grocery store, to run errands and to visit his kids in Garland.

"I just missed the bus, so I got another hour."

"When I want to go see them, it's like, damn. I'm on the bus. I'm on the train, I'm walking everywhere. When I see people, they want to elbow dap, and I could be transfering the virus," he says. "And on top of that, I'm sitting at bus stops all day long, because I miss my transfers. It's hard."

He understands this whole situation isn't anyone's fault. But he thinks the people making the new DART schedules don't understand how much the shift is affecting the lives of riders like himself.

"I understand not a lot of people are outside," Thomas says. "But the people who have to go to work or have to go donate blood to put food on the table — the schedule that they have going on is not giving us that much time for us to sit up there and do the things that we need to do."

Gordon Shattles, with DART, says he and DART leadership sympathize with people like Thomas. But there are a few reasons for the changes.

"We are seeing a reduction in ridership, like most of the country, about 75% to 80%,  depending on which mode you're taking," Shattles says.

DART says it'll continue monitoring the number of riders at each bus stop. Shattles says extra buses are deployed on certain routes when necessary. But, fiscally speaking, DART just can't afford to work like it used to.

"DART is driven by a one-cent sales tax from our 13 service area cities. And as everyone knows, sales tax is definitely going to take a hit," Shattles explains.

So, until things return to normal, riders like Thomas are stuck waiting. DART's stuck too — stuck trying to navigate how to serve North Texans during a global pandemic — on a limited budget.

Hady Mawajdeh has been a reporter, producer, and digital editor at KERA since 2016. He is the creator and the co-host of KERA's first narrative podcast, Gun Play. And prior to his work in engagement, he also reported on arts and culture, social justice, and gun rights for the newsroom.