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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Book Review: Trains Buses and People

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An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit by Christof Spieler

Published by Island Press October 2018  ISBN 978-1-61091-903-6 Paperback Full color 290 Photos 185 illustrations 248 pages Price US $40.00


This review will be mainly of interest to my US readers. While there are some references made in the book to how other places do things, this book is concerned with how transit is provided in the US and how to do it better. In the same way that “Walkable City Rules” spells out how to improve car oriented cities – which is most of them – this book identifies what needs to be done to make transit more useful. Given this morning’s events here – where the Mayors’ Council voted to suspend work on the Surrey LRT and start on the process to switch priorities to SkyTrain to Langley – his thoughts on modes are very relevant.

“…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 … one mode or another may be a better fit in terms of capacity, cost or capability”

It is also significant, I think, that he lives and works in Houston, Texas and takes light rail for most of his journeys. It is frequent – every 6 minutes – and has its own right of way with signal priority at intersections. So he gets pretty much the same sort of on board experience as someone who rides SkyTrain here – but without the need to use an escalator or elevator. He probably has a much better chance of getting a seat. For me that is another essential but then I am very nearly as old as Prince Charles.

” most importantly … it goes to the right places” so it can be used for a wide variety of trip purposes not just the journey to work. Far too many US railroads with passenger service take Commuter Rail far too literally – and West Coast Express is one of the prime examples of how useless it is for anything other than the weekday commute to downtown.

Fortunately not only is there a really good book, with lots of information, there is also a web site.   And that will do much more for you than reading any review.

This is a reference document which you will want to keep handy. It is also something that is worth just idly skimming – for places you know or those you might want to visit. And yes there is a list of best and worst – you can learn from both. Toronto does get a couple of mentions. Vancouver none at all. Neither does Montreal rate a mention. I hope that one day Mr Spieler comes here. I would be happy to show him around.

I would also say that I would disagree with him about speed. The actual pace of the mode over the ground is much less important than how long the overall journey takes, and how convenient it is. If there is a lot of stair climbing and hanging around in grim surroundings, the fact that you get onto a fast train eventually is less than adequate compensation. The Canada Line is downright slow – but it is still better than the #15 bus for almost any trip. And if you want to avoid the traffic congestion that often impacts the bridges to the airport, more reliable than driving, on most trips. In my most recent travels the impact of a two hour wait for a METRA train from Naperville to Union was far more significant than the fact that it never seemed to get much faster than 30 mph, and stopped even more frequently than the CTA Blue Line to O’Hare airport. And the walk from the end of the train to the taxi was a significant issue too.


And when we got home we felt that is was worth splashing out on a cab rather than struggle with our bags on and off a train and a bus – and then a drag through the streets. Had we not been so encumbered then the transit ride would probably been a comparable time but considerably cheaper. You note that fare doesn’t even get mentioned in “what riders care about”.

I would recommend this volume for everyone who likes maps and data, and is interested in US transit. I would also like to see something that does like for like comparison with cities around the world. We used to like to compare Metro Vancouver to Zurich – and Phoenix – just because they were comparable but very different indeed.  I know that I am going to find myself thumbing through it quite a lot. It is a lovely production.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 15, 2018 at 4:30 pm

Posted in transit, Urban Planning

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