Aug 19, 2015

Transit Leadership in the Lone Star State

Houston Metro Board Member Christof Spieler. Photo Credit: Shannon O'Hara for Al Jazeera America
Houston Metro Board Member Christof Spieler. Photo Credit: Shannon O’Hara for Al Jazeera America

Regular readers of our blog have gotten to know that TransitCenter’s interests are at the intersection of new ideas and sound leadership. So you won’t be surprised that this week we’re saluting Houston Metro board member Christof Spieler for his role in the bus network redesign that launched on Sunday.

Transit agency board members may sometimes feel they have a thankless role, but the best of them seize the opportunity to improve their agencies and through this shape the city. In Getting to the Route of It our 2014 report with the Eno Center, we concluded that wise use of the power to appoint transit agency board members was a key determinant of whether those bodies would be effective. Board members who take their responsibility to represent the public interest seriously, do their homework, challenge agency orthodoxy, and press for service improvements have the ability to bring positive change to transit agencies and the riding public. Houston Metro board member Christof Spieler has just shown the industry how to do that job.

When Houston Mayor Annise Parker thought about the qualifications she wanted in candidates for her five appointments to the Metro board in 2010, she did one of the most simple yet important things an elected official can do to support transit: she recruited talented nominees who had demonstrated knowledge and passion about transportation, and understood transportation’s ability to serve the city and its residents, economy and environment. Swearing in her new picks, Mayor Parker gave them a license to move Metro in a new direction. The Mayor was quoted as saying, “I approached this as if I were assembling a corporate board, in a sense, because they will have oversight of hundreds of millions of dollars and they will have an impact on the lives of millions of citizens.” With that dual charge to oversee sound fiscal management and to serve the public, Mayor Parker decreed the proper fundamentals for any transit agency: be a steward of public resources and maximize the positive outcomes for the residents of the city. As one of her picks, the Mayor called on Christof Spieler. He may not have seemed a conventional choice for such a august civic position, as he was younger than 40, a transplant who had come to town to attend Rice University and had gotten to know Houston from the saddle of a bicycle rather than from the executive suite high atop the Centerpoint Energy Plaza Building or the 35th floor of the Petroleum Club of Houston – but he was the right choice for the time.

Mr. Spieler embodied the new breed of well-qualified, passionate public servant that met the Mayor’s criteria. An urban planner and structural engineer who works at an architecture firm, and an author who had articulated an agenda for transit on the blog Intermodality, he not only knew the basics of “transit as it is” but already had a vision for “transit as it could be.” In our recent report A People’s History of Recent Transportation Innovation we describe the essential role that civic activism plays in pushing new ideas and empowering new leaders, the very path that Mr. Spieler took from being outside Houston’s power structure to gaining a seat on one of its most influential institutions. At the time of his appointment, in a blog post puckishly titled, “I’m an insider now,” Mr. Spieler told his fellow travellers, “I was not nominated because I was a blogger, but had I not blogged, I never would have been nominated. I met readers in person, got to know them, and was lucky enough to work with them” on advocating for Metro improvements, which brought him to City Hall’s attention. He went on to note that his appointment “is one testament to the power of the internet to organize and the willingness of Houston to embrace outsiders. I was an outside agitator; now I’m an insider.”

Mr. Spieler helped the board to rediscover Houston’s characteristic openness to transportation innovation, consistent with its 19th century origins attributable solely to new railroads and waterways and its 20th century fame as the control center for space flight. In the early 21st century, the catchphrase could have been, “Houston Metro, we have a problem.” But that problem was common to other U.S. transit systems: a route network drawn over fifty years before, with routes and operating practices oblivious to the demand patterns of today. Travel on Metro was often slow and inconvenient, with confusing routes, long transfers, and infrequent service. Mr. Spieler used his bully pulpit as a new board member to simply say: we can and should do much better than this. He became the leading voice for the daring idea that Houston Metro should effectively start from scratch in designing where its bus routes would go and how they would be scheduled. This was a daunting challenge, and would come to involve years of analysis and airing of alternatives. Mr Spieler learned the social and psychological norms of working effectively with others: how to both cajole and compromise with peers, find common language with supporters and skeptics, and how to set expectations for agency management without doing their job for them.

Mr. Spieler, a transit supporter prior to his appointment, was already familiar with transit expert Jarrett Walker, whose blog Humantransit.org articulated basic principles for transit system productivity and convenience. When Walker’s book Human Transit shot to the top of transit aficionados’ must-read lists in 2012, the revitalized team in Houston could already cite chapter and verse. Selectively engaging outside consultants like Walker but more importantly unlocking the pent-up creativity of their own internal staff, Houston Metro embarked on the extensive work of redefining their bus network, setting explicit new performance measures related to access for riders, trip speed, and better linking origins and destinations that were in demand.

They literally redrew the map. It now looks like a grid, with new high-frequency routes readily apparent where a multi-hued mess of pastel spaghetti previously baffled the eye. The transit map now reflects Houston’s multiple employment centers and destinations in addition to downtown. But the Houston Metro redesign is more than a new map. The network’s redesign was guided by principles like the importance of frequency, responsiveness to market factors, and allowing the greatest number of Houstonians to travel to more places, without trying and failing to be all things to all people.

Now that the new system has been implemented, other cities will have the opportunity to learn from Houston about whether or not the predicted ridership gains, cost-effectiveness, and mobility objectives will be achieved. But several lessons are already clear, and as TransitCenter’s past studies have demonstrated, both good governance and civic engagement are at the “root” of the story. It started with Mayor Annise Parker’s boldness in appointing transit agency board members willing to rock the boat and demand that the transit system serve the public’s objectives better. And the story of making that happen was the result of an individual with vision being willing to step up and persuade other members of the board, management, workforce and riders that public transit doesn’t need to be the unchanging, substandard service that it sometimes appears to be in this country. That combination of new ideas and new leadership is a bright example shining in the Lone Star State this week.

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