CityFixer

Why the People in Charge of Transit Systems Should Be Required to Actually Ride Transit

It may sound obvious, but it's a big problem in cities across the country.

Image Sean Davis / Flickr
Sean Davis / Flickr

Christof Spieler moved to downtown Houston about nine years ago and began a reverse commute to a suburban office park. He took the No. 9 Gulfton Metro bus because he liked to get things done during the ride and hated sitting in traffic, but the service left much to be desired. The bus didn't run very often (every 20 minutes or more, even at rush-hour); transfers were hard to coordinate; and the pedestrian infrastructure near the stops was terrifying (to reach the office, he braved five lanes of car traffic without a signal or a crosswalk).

"It really gave me a good feel of what the system's like," he says.

Fast-forward to today and Spieler now sits on Metro's board of directors. An engineer at Morris who also lectures at Rice, Spieler played an instrumental role in developing Metro's Reimagining plan—a dazzling redesign of the entire bus system that stresses all-day frequency and smart connections. But he couldn't have done it without his experience on Metro as a guide, which makes him Exhibit A for why the people planning America's transit systems, from board members to senior management to project designers, should be riders themselves.

"There are way too many people working on transit who don't actually ride transit," he says. "If you're going to be making decisions about transit, you really need to know what it's actually like. Not what it's like in theory, but what it's actually like. "

The problem is familiar to transit leadership across the country. In August, a San Francisco Examiner op-ed challenged the people who run Muni to "actually ride Muni." Last year, an analysis of Chicago's CTA found that the board chair rode the system only 18 times in 2012, and a Washington Post survey found many D.C. Metro board members either couldn't or wouldn't "name the exact bus lines or rail stops they used regularly." In 2008, the vice chair of New York's MTA board famously asked: "Why should I ride and inconvenience myself when I can ride in a car?"

Such a practice would be unimaginable in private industries—think of an Apple employee using a PC—and Spieler thinks the same should go for public transportation. The importance of service frequency, or rather the immense frustration of infrequency, is hard to grasp for someone whose car is always ready and waiting. The mindset that agencies should only care about customers when they're on a transit vehicle, but not during their walk to the station, is also an artifact of inexperience, he says.

Take, for instance, a pedestrian oversight that occurred during the roll-out of Houston's light rail system. When the Northline stop was under construction, recalls Spieler, the walkway from the light rail station to the adjacent bus transit center was so indirect that riders had worn a more direct path in the dirt. It was an easy fix, but the type of issue any veteran rider would have spotted in a second—as Spieler originally did while cycling by to watch the progress.

"The reason nobody had caught it was that whole thing was essentially designed by people who were used to seeing the world through the windshield of a car," he says. "If that's your point of view of the world, you do not notice that."

Today Spieler commutes on the light rail ("It's absolutely reliable," he raves, "and it's freedom"), but even his old No. 9 bus would get a modest upgrade in Metro's Reimagining plan. The proposed system expands the network of "frequent" buses that arrive every 15 minutes or better, and it reaches job centers across the city instead of only the downtown core—all for no new operating costs. Spieler says transit experience was "absolutely key" in creating the new vision, pointing out that many long-time riders (in particular, planning director Kurt Luhrsen) helped guide the concept.

Houston Metro / TEI & Asakura Robinson Co.

Metro cemented this new leadership culture by establishing a policy that required senior management to ride the system at least 40 times a month. Spieler believes all city agencies and transit boards and even design firms should self-impose similar mandates. That's not just to improve the system; it's also a credibility thing, both among lower-level staff and the public. Spieler recalls a time when he introduced himself to a bus rider and got the following response: "A board member on a bus? I thought you only did this for photo opps."

"I see a lot of our system," he says. "I see the good parts of the system. I see the bad parts of the system. And it makes it real."

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