Urban planner Christof Spieler is a transportation hero. As a leading force behind Houston’s bus network redesign, he knows a lot about what makes transit effective. He’s poured this knowledge and well-considered opinions into his new book, Trains, Buses, and People.
Those who love the minutia of how individual cities handle transit will return time and again to the heart of the book: detailed discussions of the top 47 transit systems in the United States. Perhaps even more useful, though, are the introductory sections and the conclusion, which provide invaluable advice for improving our country’s at times poorly conceived, under-funded, and under-utilized transit systems.
A blueprint for designing high-quality transit networks
If Trains, Buses, and People offers one crucial piece of advice for transit planners, it’s this: Look first at an area’s transit needs. Then plan for the needs.
“What riders care about most,” writes Spieler, “is where transit goes, how fast it is, and how reliable it is.” It’s a mistake to start the planning process with a mode already chosen, such as light rail versus bus rapid transit (BRT). Rather, pick the mode late in the process, based upon what best meets a particular project’s needs.
Where possible, don’t let short-term economic and political considerations block the best route. An old rail right-of-way might seem like a bargain, or local NIMBY opposition may seem insurmountable, but yielding to such considerations is likely to result in an underperforming system.
Instead, run transit through the densest population areas and run it so it connects as many destinations as possible. A density of 10,000 people per square mile seems to be the tipping point at which frequent, all-day transit works best. Running trains or buses every 15 minutes or less will get people to feel they can depend on transit without having to check schedules and to make it part of their everyday routine.
It is also important, Spieler points out, to think about creating networks (how the various buses and trains connect, even if they’re ostensibly separate systems) as early as possible. Reaching many desirable destinations, from work to shopping to entertainment to residential clusters, is more important than the sheer number of miles traveled. Standardizing payment—such as with a single card—and flat fares across modes further increases ridership.
It’s also a mistake, Spieler continues, to focus solely on commuter trips. The best transit is built with all-day and weekend service in mind to make trains and buses the fabric of a community for entertainment and shopping, not just work. Strong branding is important, but clear and accessible maps and signage are even more so, allowing anyone to use transit and feel good about the experience.
Finally, transit with dedicated lanes has a huge advantage over transit stuck in traffic—it is worth the political battle needed to attain these lanes. Traffic-signal-priority and speed of boarding—best through pre-payment—are other ways to increase transit flow, although nothing makes up for a dedicated lane.
Trains, Buses, People includes a brief history that shows how transit plummeted to a pathetic state in the mid- to late twentieth century, and then rebounded to the better, but still inadequate, point it finds itself in today. In brief, 20th century government subsidized roads systems but failed to do the same with public transit, which could not compete. Meanwhile, zoning laws encouraged sprawling land-use patterns. When building new roads failed to reduce congestion, local jurisdictions got involved with transit, with some support from the federal government.
An Atlas holds it all together
The heart of the volume is the Atlas, which provides in-depth, lavishly illustrated information and discussion about the country’s major transit systems, from New York City, the mother of them all, down to Fort Collins, Colorado, which recently opened a five-mile BRT system (with an average weekday ridership of 4,680 and a ridership per mile of 936—statistics like this are provided for each system). If you want to know about Honolulu’s transit, now you can (it is still largely under construction). The book is filled with intriguing information nuggets, such as that Eugene, Oregon has one of the nation’s best BRT systems.
The Atlas is smartly organized. Each section shows logos for all transit agencies in that location, rates each individual system, such as a specific bus network or a commuter rail, as high performing, low performing, or in between, and includes two maps, one showing the overall transit system and the second breaking down frequent transit availability, showing population and proximity. It even shows gaps where coverage is lacking, as is invariable for even the best system. Finally, the book includes a thoughtful and detailed discussion of the history and capacity of each system, as well as assessing its strengths and weaknesses.
Transit in Washington, DC
Let’s take Washington, DC – the metropolitan area I am most familiar with – as an example. Spieler discusses the transformation, beginning in the 1970s, from a car-oriented city with a few bus routes to one of the most impressive transit cities in the United States, in which 40 percent of residents use public transit. Metrorail is the heart of the system, six lines that converge in the city to provide local transit as well as reaching out to commuters at the periphery. Many of the transit stations, even outside the core city, are surrounded by dense, walkable places. By the admittedly low U.S. standards for public transit, the DC region is a dazzling success.
Spieler does miss some of the problems with the Washington, DC system, however. The number of transit stations with forbidding parking lots that discourage walking remains high. Even more important, for at least the past decade the region has been on the verge of a “transit death spiral” due to deferred maintenance. This has meant frequent delays, prominent accidents, and poor performance in key areas such as escalators. these problems, in turn, reduced ridership and fares, making it difficult to pay for needed upgrades.
Fortunately, a couple of interventions from the federal government and local jurisdictions have largely turned the situation around. Yet service is still only adequate on weekends and off-peak hours, and the region remains halfway between having full-service seven-day options and being a primarily commuter-oriented system. So one lesson that could be added to Trains, Buses, People is for transit to invest early and generously in maintenance.
Of course, a relatively slim volume cannot possibly cover 47 metropolitan areas in all their complexity. What Trains, Buses, People does accomplish is impressive enough, particularly as the work of one individual. All in all, the book shows what’s wrong and right with U.S. transit, providing an invaluable blueprint for planners. It will also keep transit wonks happily browsing for years to come.
Photo of people boarding a bus in Arlington, Virginia by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab.