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Advocates host discussion on what makes good transit

Monday, February 3, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

November’s transportation bond hasn’t taken shape yet, but is likely to feature the largest public transit investment residents have ever been asked to consider.

In light of that, transit advocates and grassroots organizations hosted a talk Wednesday with Christof Spieler, engineer and author of the book Trains, Buses, People, in order to discuss what makes transit plans fail or succeed.

In short, Spieler said good transit systems make frequent and reliable connections between centers with relatively high activity. And while Project Connect – the high-capacity transit vision that could cost the city up to $6.4 billion in capital costs alone – wasn’t discussed in detail, Spieler said this simple rule is applicable everywhere.

Providing the local background, Mayor Steve Adler made no secret of the city’s past failures with big transit investments. Not only did voters reject a well-designed light rail project in 2000, but the city came back with a much worse concept in 2004, the MetroRail Red Line.

“In 2004 we did something that I believe, in retrospect, was not the right thing for us to do,” Adler said. “We did rail on the cheap; we did rail to be able to get something on the ground because it was the least expensive option for us to do that. But as far as actually putting rail where people were, to be able to move people, to be able to demonstrate that something like that could work, it was not the place or the project that we needed to do.”

Spieler agreed, showing maps of the Red Line corridor overlaying a map of the city’s population density by neighborhood. “If you look at that line, it manages to skip all of the ridership,” he said.

Spieler said cities often choose projects based on convenience when they should be doing the exact opposite. “Over and over again our politics of rail are trying to avoid the places where people are against it,” he said. In reality, he explained, good transit systems are built where there are the most people, where it is the hardest, both politically and physically, to build a transit line.

Spieler’s book features maps of numerous transit systems across the nation that are built in places where nobody actually works or lives. “We have built a bunch of really dumb transit,” he said. “We plan systems from the city we imagine in our head rather than the city we actually have.”

Spieler argues that building high-performing transit is actually rather simple. He proposed 10 guidelines with which to analyze any transit plan and figure out its weaknesses: density, walkability, frequency, travel time, connectivity, reliability, activity, capacity, legibility and inclusivity.

The key, he said, is to avoid convenience and build transit where demand already exists.

“Good transit systems connect multiple hubs of activity,” he said. “You link centers of activity, of education, of jobs, of health care together, and you get a good transit system. Systems which focus only on downtown and ignore the other centers don’t do nearly as well.”

Spieler explained that activity centers are created through land use decisions that allow for a dense mixture of activities in compact, walkable environments. Many U.S. cities are dominated by single-family residential zones and other land use regulations that he said are legal limitations on the number of people who are allowed to live next to a transit system.

In addition to density, he said land use regulations can also be hostile to public transit while perpetuating car dependency.

“A lot of our land use regulation actually forces cars onto people,” he said. “Almost every city requires a parking lot for every new building, but it doesn’t require a bus stop for every new building; it may not even require a sidewalk to the front door. The fact that we have built cities which are so car-dependent is very much due to the regulations we have put in place. This is not the market playing out; this is public regulation.”

Spieler said the antidote is to run transit right into the middle of walkable places where there is already a lot of activity.

“If you want transit to be successful it has to go into the center of those activity centers, not somewhere at the edge,” he said. “What you see successful transit systems do is go out of their way to end up in the middle of walkable places.”

Besides that core principle, Spieler said transit lines need to be well integrated into a city’s entire transit network so that each line works in coordination with the others. Transit routes also need to be reliable and frequent.

Frequency is by far the most important consideration in any successful transit line. As for reliability, he said that’s what makes the difference between someone keeping or losing their job. Both of these depend upon getting buses and trains out of vehicle traffic and into dedicated lanes.

Spieler said legibility – making a transit system intuitive and easy to use – is the most ignored component of quality transit. Things like knowing when the next transit vehicle is coming, where it connects to other routes, and which direction the vehicle is heading, make a significant contribution to system ridership.

Transit systems also need to be inclusive. While that’s difficult to measure, Spieler said it comes down to the fact that “successful transit systems make people feel welcome.” This means a route is easy to use for people of all abilities and can be easily boarded by someone in a wheelchair or a parent with a child in a stroller.

Adler concluded that Austin’s latest attempt at mass transit in 2014 was the wrong plan presented the wrong way. This time, he said, may be the city’s last chance to do a transit investment before rapid development makes such an infrastructure project “prohibitively disruptive.”

Spieler said Austin can become a culture of transit users, despite its poor record. “Places are less unique than they think,” he said.

As an example of a quickly changing culture, he noted that over the last decade, Seattle’s downtown population grew by 75 percent, adding 26 percent more jobs, while reducing total vehicle traffic into downtown by 20 percent and dramatically improving its transit system.

“That is what good transit can accomplish,” he said.

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