Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | March 16, 2016
METRO Houston board member Christof Spieler has a long list of people he thanks for the recent redesign of the city’s bus system, which simplified routes and aims to increase ridership.
Among them: former Mayor Annise Parker, METRO planning director Kurt Luhrsen, his fellow board members and the many bus drivers who served as the front lines for the overnight transformation.
But the work was no small feat: virtually every bus route in the city underwent a major change last year. Despite Spieler’s modesty, he was at the heart of the project which has drawn national attention.
It’s an interesting path for someone who came to Houston from the San Francisco Bay area to attend Rice University. He fell in the love with the city, stuck around, and today is considered one of the sharpest minds in town on urban planning and transportation issues.
I sat with Spieler at the Rice University campus to discuss the redesign, his first impression of Houston and the future of the city. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with what you called the “most meaningful” thing you’d ever do: the bus route “reimagining.” Why is it so meaningful?
It’s one of those remarkable opportunities to really improve a lot of people’s lives in a very short amount of time. It’s hard in a city to find projects that can literally touch hundreds of thousands of people and transform the way one of our fundamental systems works.
Was it hard to persuade people to focus on rerouting bus lines?
They had us all put together a list of, what are things you’d like to see done. This was on my list. It took about three years for the agency to be convinced to do it.
There was a lot of focus on the fact that ridership was dropping. I was actually offering up a solution that addressed that problem.
It probably didn’t hurt that it was budget friendly?
It’s funny when you look at this. Why haven’t more agencies done this? Because on the surface it’s a no-brainer: make a system better without putting money into it. In the end we put a little bit of money into it, but using your current resources to do more seems like it’s something everybody would be doing. But it turns out it’s actually really rare.
Why is that? People seem much more excited about light rail and those sorts of projects.
This isn’t a bus versus rail discussion. What we did would not have been possible without the new rail. I think a successful transit system is probably doing both, and I would say a lot of U.S. cities have gone wrong by focusing on rail without taking their bus system seriously at the same time. But it would also go wrong to say we’re never going to build rail or [bus rapid transit].
In addition to serving existing riders, were you able to capture new ones?
Well, the key to this is that every year about 20 percent of our riders are new riders. People always simplify it as, you’re trying to get people out of their cars. That’s not really the way it adds up. If you want to move the needle, all you have to do is this: every year, every month, every week there are people moving to the area, graduating from school, starting new jobs, or getting a new apartment. Some percentage of them will choose to ride transit to make that new trip. That grows ridership. You don’t need anybody who is making a trip today to switch to transit in order to increase ridership.
Now, I think we will shift some people in terms of their current trips. But I think there’s huge potential to increase it, just in terms of all of those people who are asking “how will I get to this new place.”
So you’ve had this huge impact on the city. When you got here, were you planning on staying?
What did you think of Houston when you first arrived?
Oh God, I hated Houston. I went to Rice because I loved Rice, and I absolutely made the right call on that one. I remember very distinctly feeling that I hated Houston, but I love Rice, so I’ll just put up with the city.
I fell in love with the place and part of it was getting to know the city better. Houston as experienced from the freeway on the way to the airport is not the real Houston. You have to actually get into the neighborhoods.
But it was really also the people. It’s a city that is open to change and open to new people. I really love that. And it’s a forward-looking city. People in Houston aren’t desperately trying to hold on to what the city was. They want it to change and change for the better.
So Houston is open to change and your project has been a progressive triumph. But is the city ever going to reach that urban planning “nirvana”?
Yes. I think we’re actually getting there. There are people from all over the United States looking at Bayou Greenways as a model, looking at Discovery Green and Market Square. We’re a city that has suddenly ended up in the national spotlight when it comes to urban planning, and that’s really interesting because 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, we were the joke at the beginning of every urban planning presentation.
Yes, I distinctly remember the slide in those presentations.
It’s funny. One of the most famous pictures is that picture of downtown Houston covered in surface parking lots, and that’s where Discovery Green is now.
Some of the things we got held up for as being bad, like the lack of zoning, I think are turning out to be advantages. The good restaurant scene we have actually has something to do with the fact we don’t have zoning.
It’s really odd, parks people are looking at Houston, development people are looking at Houston, transit people are looking at Houston.
That’s got to feel pretty good.
It feels pretty darn good.
If you were king for the day, what one thing would you change to get Houston a step closer to that urban planning ideal?
I wish I could really change how we think about streets. That’s where we are most behind. We are still building streets with cars — and not just cars, but moving cars through quickly — being the primary concern, without the consideration being pedestrians or bikes or transit or even access to local businesses.
There’s a new mayor in Sylvester Turner and a new METRO chair in Carrin Patman. What does that mean for the city?
Carrin was on the board with me when I started. I loved working with her. I’m really excited about the new mayor. He’s articulating that we need to change as a region how we think about transportation. It seems like the next four or eight years could see positive change as dramatic as what we saw in the last six. I’m very optimistic from what I’ve seen so far.