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About this book

What are the best transit cities in the US? The best Bus Rapid Transit lines? The most useless rail transit lines? The missed opportunities?
In the US, the 25 largest metropolitan areas and many smaller cities have fixed guideway transit—rail or bus rapid transit. Nearly all of them are talking about expanding. Yet discussions about transit are still remarkably unsophisticated. To build good transit, the discussion needs to focus on what matters—quality of service (not the technology that delivers it), all kinds of transit riders, the role of buildings, streets and sidewalks, and, above all, getting transit in the right places.
Christof Spieler has spent over a decade advocating for transit as a writer, community leader, urban planner, transit board member, and enthusiast. He strongly believes that just about anyone—regardless of training or experience—can identify what makes good transit with the right information. In the fun and accessible Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit, Spieler shows how cities can build successful transit. He profiles the 47 metropolitan areas in the US that have rail transit or BRT, using data, photos, and maps for easy comparison. The best and worst systems are ranked and Spieler offers analysis of how geography, politics, and history complicate transit planning. He shows how the unique circumstances of every city have resulted in very different transit systems.

Using appealing visuals, Trains, Buses, People is intended for non-experts—it will help any citizen, professional, or policymaker with a vested interest evaluate a transit proposal and understand what makes transit effective. While the book is built on data, it has a strong point of view. Spieler takes an honest look at what makes good and bad transit and is not afraid to look at what went wrong. He explains broad concepts, but recognizes all of the technical, geographical, and political difficulties of building transit in the real world. In the end,Trains, Buses, People shows that it is possible with the right tools to build good transit.

Table of Contents

Frontmatter

Introduction: Transit Where The People Are

Abstract
I live in Houston, Texas, a famously car-oriented city. I work at an urban planning practice, teach at Rice University, and serve on a transit agency board. I can do all of that on public transit. Almost every morning, I walk out my door, go three blocks down the street, and get on a train. It will take me to work, to meetings, to lunch with friends, to medical appointments, to lectures, to museums, to the park. I find it as convenient as driving, and considerably more pleasant. Transit makes my life better.
Christof Spieler

The Role of Transit in America

Frontmatter

What Transit Does Well

Abstract
Transit is not the primary mode of transportation in the United States. Seventy-seven percent of Americans commute in a single-occupant car, and only 5 percent by train, bus, or ferry (the rest carpool, walk, or bike). Improving transit options and ridership is essential for two reasons.
Christof Spieler

The History of Transit

Abstract
The history of transit in the United States goes back to the 1800s, but since the 1970s, transit in the United States has been reinvented and reinvigorated. Today’s networks reflect over 150 years of evolution. □
Christof Spieler

Modes

Abstract
Many transit discussions focus on modes. There are people who advocate specifically for light rail, commuter rail, streetcars, or monorails, and it is easy to have a debate about any of these. But mode is not the most important aspect of transit. What riders care about most is where transit goes, how fast it is, and how reliable it is. It is better to think of modes as tools, so that once a transit corridor is selected, one mode or another may be a better fit in terms of capacity, cost, or capability. □
Christof Spieler

Hopes and Fears

Abstract
Like any public project, transit is political. Whether people support transit in general, or whether they support a specific project, depends on what they value. These values—expressed as hopes and fears—determine who will advocate for and against transit and which arguments they will deploy to win over the public. Every city is unique, but the arguments are often similar—both because they are fundamental to how cities work and because both transit proponents and opponents share ideas, strategies, and funding nationally. □
Christof Spieler

Funding and Governance

Abstract
Nothing—not physical geography, not population density, not existing service—does as much to determine where transit is built as the invisible structures of governance and funding.
Christof Spieler

Basics of Successful Transit

Frontmatter

Density

Abstract
Nothing matters as much to making transit useful and successful as population density. Every mile of transit costs money to build and operate. Fundamentally, the usefulness of that mile is a based on simple math: how many people will that mile of transit reach? A mile of route puts roughly a square mile of area within reach of transit. If 100 people live in that square mile, there are 100 potential transit riders; if 10,000 people live in that square, there are 10,000 potential transit riders.
Christof Spieler

Activity

Abstract
Building transit where people live is not enough; transit needs to go where they go. □
Christof Spieler

Walkability

Abstract
Nearly every transit trip begins or ends on foot or on a bike. Across the country, most local bus passengers walk to the bus stop. Passengers have been walking to the busy rail systems in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago for a century. Even rail networks that serve auto-oriented suburbs and provide lots of parking get many of their riders on foot. San Francisco’s BART has a total of 45,984 parking spaces at 34 of its 45 stations, but only half of passengers get from home to the train by car. Moreover, those passengers arriving in a car don’t have a second car waiting on the other end of their trip; once they arrive, they, too, become pedestrians. Making walking convenient, comfortable, and safe builds ridership.
Christof Spieler

Connectivity

Abstract
Every transit network depends on connection. On DC’s Metrorail, a relatively simple system where every train goes downtown, a third of passengers use more than one of the six lines on their trip. Connections are what make transit useful, turning a line that goes to a limited number of places into a network that covers a whole region. But connections can be where a trip goes wrong: they are often sources of delay, confusion, and hassle. Good connections offer freedom; bad ones offer frustration. □
Christof Spieler

Frequency

Abstract
At the intersection of Jeffery and 71st in Chicago (below), rail meets bus. Metra Electric and the Jeffery Jump bus both stop here, and both take about 20 minutes to go downtown. But the bus runs every five to 16 minutes during the day, and the train runs every 20 minutes at best, and once an hour for much of the day. Approximately 100 people a day board the train here; nearly 1,000 board the bus. Riders care more about frequency than they do about mode.
Christof Spieler

Travel Time

Abstract
Travel time matters. It matters to people who have access to a car and will simply choose to drive if transit offers an hour-long commute in place of a 30-minute drive. It may matter even more to a low-income or fixed-income person working multiple jobs and juggling childcare. □
Christof Spieler

Reliability

Abstract
Reliability is nearly as important to transit users as travel time. A 2014 TransitCenter survey ranked it as the secondmost important factor in what mode people chose. Being late can mean disappointing friends, missing an important appointment, or losing a job. For transit trips that involve connections, delays further compound with every connection that gets missed. It is possible for a rider to try to compensate by leaving early, but that increases travel time.
Christof Spieler

Capacity

Abstract
All modes of transit have high capacity. Even an ordinary city bus route, running in mixed traffic, can carry thousands of people per hour. Any transit technology can carry more people than single-occupant vehicles in the same space. Often, then, capacity is not the driver; the drivers are speed, reliability, and quality of service. □
Christof Spieler

Legibility

Abstract
A transit trip is a series of decisions: whether to take transit or not, which station to walk to, which platform to go to, which stop to get off at, where to go from there. Every one of those decisions requires information, and a good transit system provides that information when it is needed, in an easy to understand form. □
Christof Spieler

Good Ideas from Abroad

Abstract
US transit has taken many ideas from overseas, but it still suffers from a “not-invented-here” mindset. Pushed on New York’s high construction costs in 2017, the MTA chair explained that New York has “unique challenges” like high ridership, old infrastructure, historic buildings, and density. Transit agencies in London, Paris, and Tokyo, which have built far more new transit in recent decades than New York, probably find those challenges familiar. The world has some great transit systems and there are many good ideas that US systems could implement.
Christof Spieler

Metro Areas

Frontmatter

Best and Worst

Abstract
Different metro areas have taken very different approaches to transit. As the chart on the pervious page shows, some cities outperform their peers and some cities underperform. Here are some decisions that turned out well—and some that didn’t.
Christof Spieler

The 47 Transit Areas

Abstract
No other North American city is as dependent on rail transit as New York City. It accounts for two thirds of U.S. rail transit ridership and one third of all transit ridership. New York City has only one car for every four people. Most of the population uses public transit not just to get to work but for errands and entertainment. Even in the suburbs, where car ownership is typical and freeways cross the landscape, commuter rail carries almost a million people to work daily.
Christof Spieler

Backmatter

Additional information