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Meet our episode 23 guest Christof Spieler

Why is US public transit successful in some places and not in others? Christof Spieler believes the answer lies in how leaders deal with public opinion, why they build transit infrastructure in the first place, and the metrics they use to measure success.

Episode Transcript

Cohen: Christof Spieler’s new book, Trains, Buses, People is subtitled An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit, and he does not shy away from the opinions both in the book and in our conversation today.  If you’ve ever wondered why some transit works and why some doesn’t, today’s episode has the answer.  Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future.  To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities.  Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real.  Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: Regular listeners will know by now that the thesis of The Movement podcast is that to get where we want to go we are over indexed in technology and under indexed in the hard decisions that are necessary by elected and appointed officials.  This is easily seen in decisions made for public transit routing, especially that with infrastructure. And so my guest today is one of the foremost experts on transit infrastructure in the U.S., Christof Spieler, who wrote a fantastic book Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit.  Welcome, Christof.

Spieler: Happy to be here.

Cohen: Well, good.  Well, let’s get started first by giving an overview of how Trains, Buses, People came to be.

Spieler: Well, I’ve cared about transit for a long time.  I think I’ve always loved cities, and I came to realize that good cities depend on great transit, that if we make transit better, we make cities better.  In my own life I live in Houston, which is a famously car oriented city, but I actually get to commute every day by light rail, and that makes my life a lot better every day.  And I saw a gap; I saw two gaps.

One was there really wasn’t a comprehensive, easy way to compare different cities to each other, so the idea of mapping every metro area that has rail or BRT at the same scale, with the same information, including population density and employment so people can just readily compare and understand how different cities are different.  And that’s actually something I did originally for an article I did in Houston all the way back in 2003 when Houston was considering its long-range, light-rail plans. And I did a series of maps for five different cities saying, you know, “Here’s what their systems look like.”

But over time the other gap that I realized we really had is I feel like we don’t have enough honest, critical, discussions about the decisions we make about transit, that if you look at rail systems, BRT systems, transit systems in general across the United States you will notice there are huge differences in the amount of ridership they get.  And those differences are not because some cities are inherently more transit-friendly than others. I mean, obviously New York has high ridership because it’s built that way, but you can see cities that are very similar cities with very similar urban form having completely different results.

And I think to build better transit we have to make better decisions on where to put it, and we’re not going to do that unless we talk about what makes some transit systems effective and what makes some not effective.  And a lot of the writing I’ve seen about transit basically treats success as building transit. You know, “You built a 20-mile, light-rail line. That is a success story.” And my question is did that 20-mile, light-rail line actually make people’s lives better; did it increase transit ridership?  Did it change that city? And I wanted to write a book about that.

Cohen: It really is a fascinating, fascinating book.  I mean, it starts out with some kind of context around the making of some of these decisions, and then it dives into these really detailed overviews of each of these communities that have this high level of transit in the U.S.  And what I love about it is that the subtitle is An Opinionated Atlas.  And I kind of chuckled a little bit about that, and then as I was reading through some of the write-ups you can see that opinion kind of show through.  I mean, Memphis was one that jumped to mind where it said it has the potential there, but it’s just it’s not working.

Spieler: Yeah.

Cohen: You know, and in ways that you wouldn’t necessarily see a book that you would normally see about this type of infrastructure.  I really like the opinion piece of it, because I think that’s a critical aspect that was missing.

Spieler: I’m clear about it being opinions.  I realize that different people could have different takes on these cities, and I welcome that kind of discussion.  But I will say in going through this I ended up concluding that some places which are often held up as failures are actually quite successful.  Buffalo’s light rail for example, which is one of the few light-rail systems in the United States never to have been expanded since it originally opened, actually has really good ridership.  They actually built it in the right place. And some places like Dallas and Denver that have been held up, when you actually look at where it goes you find it’s not nearly as useful as you think.  So I have found that really useful, and I’ve loved the discussions I’ve had with people who read the book and agree or disagree with me on these things.

Cohen: That’s a great point, because when I was reading it one of the things that jumped out to me was a passage.  It was right near the beginning. It was actually in the introduction, and it was talking about the avoiding of opposition.  And the line that you have in there which jumped out to me is, “In fact, if nobody opposes the project, that is a sign that it is a bad project since it doesn’t go anywhere crowded enough to justify good transit.”

Spieler: Yeah.

Cohen: And I just thought that was so, so brilliant and spot-on because it really highlighted to me kind of the dichotomy of where you put transit.  And you talk about that a little bit later when you get to the density section. But, you know, when you put it in the middle of a freeway median it’s really easy to kind of build, but it’s crappy access for people to use, versus building it in a high-dense corridor like the Texas Medical Center area in Houston that has a lot of density and a lot of jobs.  That’s going to piss off a lot of people.

Spieler: Yeah, and I think those are two related things.  One is that there’s a tendency for us to build transit in places where easy rights of way exist.  Like, “Here’s an abandon freight-rail line; here’s a freeway.” And occasionally that works out. Like, St. Louis happened to have an abandoned underground subway in their downtown, and, you know, that wasn’t exactly the right place.  But often they’re not. And especially in newer cities what you find is rail lines tend to go to industrial areas, not to activity centers.

Freeways, like you said.  You put a station in the middle of a freeway, you draw a quarter-mile circle around it; half of that circle is freeway, which is a place that is not a destination for anybody.  So you just put a station in a place that inherently, geometrically makes it less useful, so there is that basic problem. And there’s also the problem that elected officials, transit boards, transit agencies tend to avoid conflict, and that often means drawing these lines that are intentionally designed to avoid areas where they get pushback.  And the problem is that pushback generally correlates to density of activity.

That pushback is often, “This is too crowded.  We can’t afford to give up any room for transit,” for example.  And it’s the crowded places that need transit. That’s exactly where the destinations are, and one of the really important things about transit is station location matters down to a quarter mile or an eighth of a mile.  I show several examples in the book, and there is the example outside Atlanta where getting the station in the middle of things rather than somewhere close to things—you mentioned the example of comparing Dallas to Houston in terms of the medical centers—makes such a huge ridership difference.  And there’s a lot of reasons why transit agencies tend to put stations in the wrong places. It’s entirely understandable, but that, I think, is why we have to push back on it.

Cohen: Well, you brought up these elected officials and transit-agency leaders who don’t like that pushback, and it kind of feels like that’s the one thing they need to do—right—is accept that pushback to put that transit into useful places.  And so why don’t more leaders deal with that pushback better?

Spieler: Well, I would say, number one, most of the people making decisions about transit in the United States do not ride transit.

Cohen: Hmm.

Spieler: And that is not only—I mean, it’s true in places like Houston.  It’s true in places like New York City.

Cohen: Right.

Spieler: The key transit-decision makers in New York City do not use transit.  And I think if you don’t use transit you actually don’t understand transit well.  And I’m not even saying you have to ride transit every day, but just things like walkability, things like frequency, things like connectivity, like, transit isn’t the same as a car.  And what people imagine they need as a driver is different than what you need when you’re riding transit. So I think that’s part of it.

I also think a lot of it has to do with how we talk about success, that people like ribbon cuttings; people like projects being complete; people like measuring transit in miles rather than in ridership.  And that’s coming from elected officials; that’s coming from the media; that’s coming from the public. Frankly, it’s coming from the fact that we have the wrong discussions. I think a lot of these low-ridership systems are actually successes by the metrics they were designed for.  You know, like, often that metric is, “We want to build as much as possible,” or that metric is, “We want all of our member jurisdictions to have at least one station.” And you see systems which meet those goals really well, but ridership wasn’t one of those goals. And so often I think it has to do with where we’re starting the discussion, what we are seeking to do.

Cohen: Right.

Spieler: There’s good examples in the book of how the way the discussion was initially framed really changes outcomes.  Like, Salt Lake City is a really good example of a place where they created a regional vision for how they wanted to grow, and they saw transit as an integral part of that.  And you can see how their transit system directly came from those goals they set as a region.

A more cautious example is Cincinnati, where I argue that they had a good goal, which was, “We have this series of five activity centers in a straight line, and it would make sense to connect them with transit,” which morphed over time into a not-useful goal, which was, “We need a streetcar.”  And that at the end of the day when they had political headwinds and didn’t have enough funding, the goal they paid attention to was the second one, which is, “We need to build a streetcar,” not the first, which is, “We need to connect five places,” and so they built a streetcar that connected one out of the five places.  And unsurprisingly it has really low ridership, because it turns out it doesn’t really go where people are trying to go.

But it met the goal that they sort of had in their minds as what they were setting out to do because they were essentially—you know, whenever a city has a discussion that says something like, “In order to be a world-class city, we need a rail system,” or, “We really need commuter rail in this region,” that’s a dumb discussion.  Whereas if we have a discussion about, “Here is this corridor, and this is the kind of transportation we need in this corridor, and what alignment and what transit mode best fits that?” we are going to end up with much better results.

Cohen: Or even that, you know, “We want to have X percent of our population to be able to access X percent of jobs within a certain timeframe.”

Spieler: Yeah, that’s perfect.  And I always love metrics which actually measure people’s ability to get somewhere.  I mean, that’s actually one of the—I think one of the things we do wrong in how we talk about transportation is we often use words like mobility.  And the thing is transportation isn’t about moving around; transportation is about getting somewhere. Like, one of the arguments—this is a little wonky, but one of the arguments I’ve had with people about the book is the metric I use for ridership is ridership per mile; this is how many boardings you have; this is how big your system is.  We divide; we compare different systems, which I find very useful.

And what people often come back to me with is, “You shouldn’t use ridership; you should use passenger miles and divide by the number of miles.”  In other words, you should count a 15-mile trip as being more important than a one-mile trip. And I come back and say, “If person A gets to work and they had to travel 15 miles to do it, and person B, their coworker, gets to work and they lived only one mile away, both of them getting to work has the same value.”  The first person is not 15 times more valuable because they traveled 15 times as far.

Cohen: Yeah.

Spieler: And so just facilitating movement isn’t what we’re trying to do.  What we are trying to facilitate is people being able to do the things they need to do in their lives.

Cohen: Yeah.  And I guess that example you gave, it makes me think about in the Houston area you’ve got obviously this dense core, and then you have this ring of suburbs that kind of go around it.  And obviously if you’re living out in that ring of suburbs right now you have a lot less opportunities to move towards that downtown than someone who’s already in that urban core. And certainly there’s some impact on gentrification and redlining from history, maybe not in Houston as much—I’m not as familiar with your area—but certainly in other areas.

Spieler: And I will say, I mean, I think one of the real challenges across the United States is there’s several things we know how to do very well with transit.  Number one, we know how to serve downtown jobs very well. We know how to serve relatively dense, gridded, walkable neighborhoods. We know how to do that.  It’s not that we do it well, but we know how to do it well.

Cohen: Yeah.

Spieler: And we also know how to run suburban park-and-ride service.  We know how to put big parking lots out there and run busses in, and all of those things can be very successful in all sorts of places.  Houston, for example, for the people who live in the suburbs and work downtown, about half of them use the bus to get to work because that park-and-ride system does that very well.

What we don’t do very well is serving post-World-War-II neighborhoods without using park-and-ride, with people walking to transit.  And in growing regions you will definitely see more and more of the poverty is in those areas, simply because if your region is growing, the number of low-income residents you have is growing.  They can’t all fit into the neighborhoods that used to be low-income neighborhoods. And on top of that gentrification in the core is also driving people outwards. So we are seeing more and more poverty in cul-de-sacs, strip mall, disconnected street pattern, post-war neighborhoods, which were not built around transit and which are harder to serve with transit.

But I definitely think they can be served, and one of the really interesting patterns in the book is if you look at city after city you will find clusters of density in unexpected places.  And often those clusters of density are post-war apartment complexes, which don’t look anything like the urbanism we are used to talking about but actually have the level of density to support really good transit and if we retrofit them appropriately can be quite walkable.

Cohen: So not necessarily high-rise but just—

Spieler: No, just two-story, three-story.

Cohen: Wow.

Spieler: The densest census tract in Texas is two-and-three story apartment complexes on suburban arterials.

Cohen: There’s just a lot of them.

Spieler: There’s just a lot of them and fairly large household sizes.  That’s Gulfton in Houston, which has a lot of immigrants and a lot of fairly large families and often crowded in fairly small apartments.  Those are places we can figure out how to serve. And, likewise, our employment pattern is no longer that everything is downtown. Every place has these secondary employment centers, and some of those we can serve very well as well.  And I think one mistake a lot of cities do is forget about their hospitals, forget about their universities, forget about those secondary hubs and plan transit systems that are entirely downtown-centric while missing all of the people who work in those other places and go to school in those other places.

Cohen: Yeah, it’s interesting.  I mean, and I fall prey to this too in thinking about, “Oh, it’d be really nice if we had a train to the airport.”  I know a lot of people talk about that as well.

Spieler: Yes.

Cohen: And, you know, even the most seasoned travelers are going to the airport at most maybe twice a month, three times, four times, like, compared to their daily commute which they’re doing on a daily basis.  So it’s easy to fall into these traps of things that seem—I don’t know the right word. Sexy is probably not the right word, but seem attractive, but in reality aren’t actually what will serve the needs of the community the most on a daily basis.

Spieler: Yeah.  Jarrett Walker at Human Transit, who was definitely one of the inspirations for this book, I love the way he talks about transit.  He talks about elite projection—

Cohen: Yeah, definitely.

Spieler: —the idea that decision makers think about their own lives when thinking about transit, and one of the truths is transit agency executive, elected officials, and transit planners tend to fly far more often than the general population.  And so that is part of what makes airports bubble up as destinations. And that’s not to say we shouldn’t provide transit to airports, but the amount of ridership you will get will never be as good as serving your major employment centers.  And when cities have those as their first priorities for transit it often doesn’t work that well.

Cohen: Yeah, definitely.  I was going to say that elite projection falls through to that riding transit on a regular basis as well for the transit-agency leaders and elected officials.  The same general thing—right—without actually riding the transit themselves and having that experience of the wait or of the crowd or of the bus lane and how smooth it cuts through the traffic when the city does prioritize the time of those 70 people on board as opposed to those 70 individual vehicles.  It does open up some eyes, I believe.

Spieler: Yeah, and one thing I would say too to what you said as well is I see lots of articles out there, lots of coverage out there which is framed something like, “How do we make buses sexy?”

Cohen: Mm-hmm.

Spieler: And it always bothers me.  I mean, it bothers me because it leads to the wrong outcomes, like things like New York City focusing not on speeding up buses but on putting USB ports on them, but also because it sort of frames the whole transit discussion as if the problem were individual decisions.  Like, there’s this way of thinking that says, “The reason we don’t have transit ridership in the United States is because people don’t want to ride transit or because people aren’t choosing to ride transit.”

Cohen: “The market has spoken.”

Spieler: Yeah.  Well, but it’s often used in a way of, like, “Let’s promote it better.”

Cohen: Oh, okay.  I see.

Spieler: Or, “If you really cared about the environment, let’s shame you into riding transit.”

Cohen: Yeah.

Spieler: And I would say that in general Americans are making rational decisions about riding transit.  In places where we have built good transit, people are riding. Like, one of my favorite things in Houston is every year we have the rodeo, and you are seeing cowboys get on light-rail trains to go to the rodeo.  It’s wonderful. It’s like, “No, this is not like some cultural anti-transit thing;” where we provide good transit, people ride it. And where people aren’t riding transit it is largely, directly related to the fact that that transit is not useful, it is not fast enough, it is not frequent enough, it is not reliable enough, it is not legible enough, it is not connected enough.  And so when we look at what is going wrong with transit I think we should always look at what is the quality of that transit.

And the same goes when we have discussion about losing ridership to Lyft and Uber or to subprime car loans.  Like, all of that comes back to people are making decisions based on the quality of that transit service; and if we improve that transit service, people will make different decisions.

Cohen: I totally agree, and I think that’s a good way to frame it.  Well, we talked a little bit about the role of leaders in taking public transit as one kind of tool in the tool belt to help them.  What else can we do to build more leaders who are going to be willing to make some of these harder decisions and the right decisions, again, about where to put transit or even not related to infrastructure as much or directly but around getting more funding and so forth?

Spieler: I mean, a couple things.  I mean, first of all, more people need to get involved.  I mean, I was writing a blog about transit in Houston, and a new mayor got elected, and I kind of raised my hand and said, “I’d like to be on the transit board.”  And as a result of that I spent eight years at the actual decision-making table. And so one thing I would say to everybody out there in the transit world is there are opportunities to get involved and be heard.

I think also for the professionals in the transit world, be they consultants or be they on agencies, being willing to talk about tradeoffs.  Like, everything about transit is about tradeoffs. You can have A, or you can have B, and you can’t have both. And I think one of the mistakes we make is we tend to talk too much as if we can have everything.  When we write vision statements, when we talk about projects, we don’t talk about the opportunity costs; we don’t talk about what we’re losing by doing this.

And what I have found is that a lot of elected officials and most of the public actually really like being engaged in that way, actually really like being told, “Here’s the constraints we have to work under, and we have to make a decision, and it’s not an easy decision.”  And there’s a tendency in the transit world to not be transparent about those decisions and to treat things as technical that are actually policy issues. And I think the more we actually engage in intelligent discussions that recognize tradeoffs, the better we will do.

And finally I think the thing is everybody underestimates how much the public’s voice can actually have an effect.  You know, one of the things I know from people I know on city council, that I very much know from my own experience on the board, is how few voices can actually sway something.  And I think a lot of people out there who want better transit are not saying that in the venues where they will be heard. They’re not writing that letter to the city councilmember.  They’re not showing up at that board meeting and saying it. And that’s so important.

Like, even a case where we talked about those hard choices, if you want to build a project in the right place that has some opposition and you take the opposition seriously and you address the issues you’re talking about and you try to make it as good a project as possible, if you as a transit board member or city councilmember know it’s the right project but the day that you’re going to vote 20 people show up to oppose the project and zero people show up to support it, it’s really hard voting yes.  If 20 people show up to oppose and five people show up to support, it’s a lot easier voting yes because you are at least perceived as responding to something the public is saying.

It’s not even a numbers a game; it’s not even that it has to be an equal number of people.  But if the voices in favor of something are simply not heard at all, it makes it a lot harder for the elected officials and the appointed officials and the staff to do the right thing.

Cohen: That’s a great point.  And I’ve heard that similar theme echoed in some of these other conversations, that obviously no public official wants to be an island by themselves.  Right?

Spieler: Yeah.

Cohen: And I think you just gave a great example of that.  And I love that visual too that you just painted for me, which is the 20 folks there versus zero and the 20 versus five.  It’s not that big of a difference, and you know those five are out there; it’s just they have other challenges or they just didn’t even think about it.  And so I think if we can bring some more of those folks into that process by reaching out and then also by inviting them, I think that will certainly help on that front.

Spieler: Right.  And I think it’s transit agencies and professional planners can really help with that.  We can help with that by using more venues for reaching the public, for example, not just evening public meetings which already exclude the vast majority of the population from even being able to attend.

Cohen: Yeah, as a young parent that’s the bane of my existence too.  Let’s maybe wrap up with I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Trains, Buses, People.  I hope everyone will have a chance to check it out.  Is there a better place to get it?

Spieler: You can order it directly from Island Press on the Island Press website.  If you go to, which is the website for the book, you will also be able to find the order-it link.  But it’s also available on Amazon and in lots of bookstores.

Cohen: Excellent.  And what if folks want to learn more about the work you’re doing and some of your thoughts that you have on transit and maybe even get some pictures of some of your recent trips by train?  Where would they find you?

Spieler: They might want to follow me on Twitter at @CristofSpieler on Twitter if you want to see lots of pictures and random transit thoughts.

Cohen: Yeah.  They’re quite fun.  It fills a lot of my train gaps, since I’m living in an area that only has long-range passenger rail.  I don’t have the heavy infrastructure and light rail that is profiled in the book, so this gives me an opportunity to scratch an itch by following Christof on Twitter.  So that’s another great place to do that as well. Well, Christof, thank you.

Spieler: I was going to say one thing we really haven’t mentioned is I visited all of these systems in the book.  Every photo in the book, I took. And that’s really been a really fun thing to do. It’s been a really amazing experience to actually see all of these places.

Cohen: That is.  And maybe that’s shown in the credits.  Maybe I didn’t quite appreciate that until you said that, but that’s a really unique aspect of that.  I’m sure you’re probably one of the few who have taken all of the pictures in their book and done it in such a great way.  So that’s certainly tip of the cap to you for that.

Spieler: Thank you.

Cohen: Well, thanks again, Christof.  I really enjoyed this. This is fascinating, and I love the work you’re doing, and I appreciate it.

Spieler: Good.  Thanks a lot.

F: Thanks for listening.  If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast.  You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.