Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit by Christof Spieler

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Posted 2021-04-08

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

"The measure of success in transit ... is whether transit makes people's lives better. it is remarkable how much of the public transit we build in the United States doesn't go where people want to go or when they want to go there." (p. 1).

Christof Spieler is an engineer working on transportation and land-use planning and a Senior Lecturer at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He has experience as a transit board member and consultant on projects such as a mixed-use district plan in downtown Houston, a transit-oriented master plan in Seattle, and a citywide land-use policy in Sugar Land, Texas.

In this book, Spieler profiles 47 US metropolitan areas that had, at its writing, rail transit or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The author also presents a remarkable, concise overview of transit concepts and an agenda for the future of transit.

In writing this book, he states that "I've photographed every rail transit system in the 50 United States, and talked to transit agency staff, elected officials, and transit advocates around the country." (

The author's cogent, clear, and concise explanation of transit concepts and an agenda for the future is the real, lasting treasure of this book. With a generous amount of informative charts, graphs, photos, and maps, the book tells an intricate story. Spieler conveys not just the physical extent and description of transit systems, but the machinations and politics that roiled the decisions that shaped these systems. He provides a sober evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of transit systems.

In the introduction, "Transit Where the People Are," he states a general approach that introduces the main themes of the book:

"To build good public transit... we need to focus on the quality of service, not the technology that delivers it; to talk about all kinds of transit riders, not just about a narrow target market; to understand that the transit experience depends on buildings and streets and sidewalks as much as it does on stations and trains; and, above all, to talk about getting transit in the right places." (p. 1)

On page 2, he presents a general methodology of planning transit:

  1. Identify density
  2. Identify centers
  3. Identify bottlenecks
  4. Identify corridors
  5. Decide the level of service, capacity, and travel time
  6. Pick a mode

He further cautions (p. 3) that one must take the time to do planning well, plan for networks, plan for multi-purpose transit, use data, think of walking scale, think of destinations, and welcome opposition.

In Part 1, "The Role of Transit in the US" (pp. 6-16) he outlines a terse and useful overview of transit in the US, including modes, history, planning, and political challenges.

Spieler covers what transit does well (it is available to all, serves space-efficient land-use patterns, connects with walkability, and gets people where they want to go). He outlines the history of transit (from streetcars to rail).

Spieler provides thumbnail sketches of transit modes (pp. 10-11):

In the sections covering "Hopes and Fears," he writes about the conflicts of funding and governance and the sources of opposition to transit (political, racial, self-interest, fear).

Part 2, " Basics of Successful Transit" (pp. 17-37) is a wonderful primer on transit concepts. He introduces a useful framework:

The bulk of the book consists of the metro area profiles. He selected these metro areas which had either rail transit or BRT. They are arranged in rank order of population size. These profiles contain detailed and concise coverage and maps.

As an example profile, I'll highlight his coverage of the city where I live, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He presents a critique of Milwaukee's streetcar, now known as "The Hop." Milwaukee just made the book based on its streetcar construction plans and progress at the time of the book's writing. Milwaukee's profile is listed in population rank order at #30 and consists of a two-page entry with a description and maps. The majority of the text is the tale of political antagonism that killed light rail and then was settled, with some money and a TIGER Grant and local funds, to build the streetcar.

Milwaukee's profile in the book is:
click for larger image

Spieler's one-line critique of the streetcar system, at the time of his profile, was based on a realistic evaluation that can't be argued with: "- Short downtown streetcar that doesn't go far enough" (p. 200). He concludes that:

"The Milwaukee streetcar began as a plan for a larger system. Each leg is actually a short version of a much longer corridor that could be built in the future. That more extensive system could improve transit in many of the city's densest neighborhoods and serve important destinations like the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee and Marquette University. Eventually, Milwaukee may get the more expansive system it was trying for all along." (p. 200)

His conclusion is "A Transit Agenda for the Future of our Cities" (pp. 242-243) which sets out the need to:

I see some definite themes throughout this book:

The book does lack attention to equity concerns. There is a sea-change of awareness since 2018 of the way underserved and minority populations have been misserved by transit infrastructure for the past century. Spieler does outline the racial and political dimensions of transit opposition in this book. Spieler's 2020 article does cover this issue: "Racism has shaped public transit, and it's riddled with inequities," August 24, 2020, Urban Edge, The Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

His book-support Web site,, contains an assertion that wasn't in the book. He states "Riders care about walkability, connectivity, frequency, travel time, reliability, capacity, and legibility much more than they care about steel wheels or overhead wires."

I do care about energy efficiency because I think that emissions-free transit should be a key goal of cities. Steel wheels give the rolling-resistance efficiency that allows overhead wires or onboard batteries to propel emissions-free vehicles through city streets efficiently. For example, Milwaukee's Liberty Modern streetcar has withstood polar vortex conditions and all the snow that Milwaukee's winter could throw at it. A durable transit mode that gives this capability is very important. Combined with the ADA-compliant, user-friendly layout, and steady ride of the streetcar, A modern streetcar has distinct qualities and advantages as a transit mode. It seems odd that Spieler singled out "steel wheels" and "overhead wires" in his declaration of what people don't care about. Environmental and health concerns, usability for the disabled and elderly, and ability to run efficiently in a four-season climate under electric power, are all something I care about. I don't automatically declare that a streetcar should be a mode choice for every transit system, but I do know what works because I have experienced it. I have learned from Spieler's book, and so I call it as I see it: I see transit benefits of a particular transit mode and see how it "makes people's lives better" (p. 1). I care about the health and equity issues that high-quality transit can bring to a community.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms ©