Update: We received word that the opening of the new rail lines has been pushed back to May.
To get to West Alabama Ice House the other Friday afternoon, Christof Spieler told us that he’d taken the bus from downtown along Westheimer. Also that he’d walked the last six minutes of the trip. Also that “right now, there’s a bus on Alabama every 40 minutes, a bus on Richmond every 20 minutes, and a bus on Westheimer every 12. So I chose Westheimer.”
It seemed like a great deal of effort to expend just for a glass of cider in an ice house, but then Spieler is a METRO board member. He and his wife own an apartment downtown just off Main Street, take turns driving a Kia Soul—“the cheapest car we could get”—and rent out their second parking spot. A civil engineer, Spieler rides METRORail to board meetings, to Morris Architects, where he works as an urban planner, and to Rice, where he teaches both architecture and engineering. “The fact that I ride transit basically every day is part of the reason the mayor appointed me to the board,” he said.
Spieler seemed to be in a celebratory mood, and why not? Just around the corner lay this month’s opening of the new Green/East End and Purple/Southeast rail lines. After years of work and months of delays, it was finally, probably, almost definitely happening—Spieler had recently ridden the Green line, which was being tested. He cheered the businesses popping up along the new east-west lines downtown, as well as the ways the projects will improve Houstonians’ lives.
Still, there was something that excited Spieler even more than the new rail lines. “If I’m a transit rider making a decision about how to get somewhere, I’m not asking whether it has steel wheels or rubber tires. I’m asking: How often does it run? Does it go where I need to go? How reliable is it? How long will it take?”
What Spieler wanted to discuss, in other words, was the reimagined bus routes the METRO board approved in February. We knew that the changes, which will be implemented in August, will be the most dramatic for the bus system in 30 years, but dramatic for the bus system is the kind of phrase that makes our eyes glaze over. We considered switching topics. Then:
“This bus redesign is the most meaningful thing I'm going to do in my life.”
When a man says something like that, you sort of have to listen.
Right now, he told us, only about a quarter of riders take buses that run at least every 15 minutes, seven days a week. It’s “the kind of service where you don’t have to look at a schedule,” he said. “You can just show up at the stop and know there’s going to be a bus.” Once the new route system created by Spieler and others is implemented, however, three quarters of all riders will have the same convenience and dependability. It’s something he finds gratifying.
“To be able to say I can make tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people’s lives better every day, that’s meaningful. That’s what actually matters.”
Spieler grew up in the San Francisco suburbs, he told us, before moving to Houston for college. “I thought Houston was an awful place, but I would put up with it to go to Rice. But by the time I graduated I loved this place.” Our attraction? An openness to new ideas.
“There are cities which try really hard to block any change. And politically, the questions you get asked are: how long have you lived here? Who were your parents? Who do you know? I never would have ended up on an appointed transit board in a city like San Francisco. This is a city where, if you have good ideas and you’re willing to push for them, people will listen to you. It gives me endless hope for Houston’s ability to keep changing.”