Urban planner Christof Spieler tells us what cities are doing right and wrong.
US public transportation is notoriously underdeveloped compared to most other wealthy countries. In fact, according to a recent study, the New York City subway is the only US rail system that ranks among the 10 busiest in the world.
Another report found that transit ridership fell in 31 of 35 major metropolitan areas last year, including in Washington, DC, Chicago, and New York City. However, 2018 has birthed some new transit projects, including a high-speed rail line from New Haven to Hartford, Connecticut, and the TEXRail, which will travel from downtown Fort Worth to DFW Airport.
Christof Spieler, a structural engineer and urban planner from Houston, has lots of opinions about public transit in America and elsewhere. In his new book, Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit, he maps out 47 metro areas that have rail transit or bus rapid transit, ranks the best and worst systems, and offers advice on how to build better networks. I recently spoke to him by phone about what cities are doing right and wrong in investing in public transit, and what they should focus on for future projects.
Which cities have good service?
Seattle is doing a really good job of both expanding its rail system and improving its bus system at the same time, and actually linking the two systems together to make a much more useful system overall. And not coincidentally, it’s one of the few US cities where transit ridership is growing.
One of the things I found very interesting is there are some smaller cities that are doing a very good job of building transit networks and, in many cases, are actually more impressive than in larger cities. Richmond, Virginia, just redesigned their bus network and built a new BRT [bus rapid transit] to go along with it. I think it’s a really smart implementation. The bus rapid transit in Hartford, Connecticut, is a really good network.
I’m also generally very impressed with the Twin Cities [Minneapolis and St. Paul], which is another case of a really good bus network including some new routes — like the A Line which I think is probably one of the best bus routes in the country, just in terms of how good the passenger experience of riding the bus is. That links very well with two rail lines that connect at exactly the right places that really connect a lot of major centers together.
Even when there’s bad weather?
I’ve actually heard a presentation from their team on how the Twin Cities handles snow days, and they are organized about it. They have a special operating plan for blizzard coverage where certain routes operate and certain routes don’t. Despite the weather, they actually figure it out quite well.
I think something that you also notice is that operating cultures are very different. When I talk to transit people in the Twin Cities, they take a lot of pride in operating their system well. Whereas I think there are other systems where their reaction to weather is, “It’s not our fault, don’t blame us.” In the actual passenger experience of transit, the culture of the agencies can make a lot of difference.
What are small cities implementing that is so impressive?
Technically it’s buses, but what they have in common is their bus rapid transit line. Those buses have their own lanes, they have stations that resemble train stations. One pattern in all these cities is that they are integrating multiple lines together.
Successful transit networks aren’t a series of individual routes; they are a network made up of multiple routes. One of the problems with how we talk about transit is that we often talk about it one route at a time, and that’s not how good transit systems work. You’re adding a route to other routes that makes the whole system more useful. And that’s really a pattern in the cities that I’ve seen to be successful: They think about their entire networks, not just one route.
What city is doing it wrong?
I think one city, for example, is Denver, which has built a huge amount of transit, but in the process of building a huge amount of transit, they haven’t actually reached a lot of the places where people want to go. If you look at the busiest transit route in Denver, I believe it is not actually one of the rail lines, it’s the Colfax bus running on city streets in mixed traffic. Whereas places with much lower ridership get full light rail. So I think if you look at where the resources have gone compared to where the demand is, it doesn’t fit very well.
We’ve also seen some cities invest in streetcar lines that really don’t do a lot of good. I think Cincinnati is a really good example of that. It’s a city that has four major activity centers lined up in a straight row, a really strong natural transit corridor, and they built a streetcar that connects exactly one of the four. That has a lot to do with limited resources and politics and everything else, but the result of that is adding a new line that doesn’t make the system more useful.
Why do you think cities slap together these lines that aren’t as useful?
I think there’s a couple of reasons. First of all, I think we tend to talk too much about technology. There’s too much focus of bus versus trains. And we often think of technology as an end to itself.
A lot of cities say things like, “This city needs light rail,” or, “This …read more