By Kristina Michel
A robust mass transit system in an urban environment is integral to sustainability, quality of life and economic opportunity. That was the big takeaway from the University of Houston Office of Sustainability’s first sustainability meetup of the fall semester, featuring METRO board member Christof Spieler, P.E., LEED AP.
Spieler discussed how METRO dramatically redesigned its bus network to improve frequency, reliability and convenience for the Houston community. According to Spieler, the old network was complicated, hard to understand, significantly outdated and required too many transfers to get to dense, popular destinations in the city.
“We had a network that was a historical artifact,” said Spieler. “It was based on what Houston used to be 100 years ago, not what Houston is today.”
METRO decided to scrap the old network entirely. It designed a new grid pattern-based network that was more convenient for riders, easier to understand, ran more buses more often, was more interconnected with walkways, bike paths and the light rail, and had more stops within walking distance of key destinations for both visitors and daily commuters. METRO also introduced technology such as integrating Google maps to help riders plan their trips, the Nextbus app and texting system that tells riders when the next bus is coming to their stop and a new mobile ticketing app that lets riders buy bus and light rail tickets on their phones.
One year later, METRO is already seeing evidence of improvements in customer service and increased ridership.
“Compared to the rest of the country, we’ve had the biggest ridership change year over year,” said Spieler. “It’s working.”
Spieler said that even in a world with vastly improving transportation technology, such as self-driving cars, and ridesharing options like Uber and Lyft, there will always be a need for mass transit.
“People say things like, ‘Uber now exists and self-driving cars exist, so we don’t need transit.’ Guess what? There’s something transit is really good at that none of these other things are good at. That’s packing a lot of people in a little space and moving them through dense areas,” Spieler said. “Transit is integral to sustainability. One of the most sustainable things we can do is put more people in a single vehicle.”
Spieler said METRO is also demonstrating its commitment to sustainability by improving its bus fleet. METRO is already in the process of replacing its diesel and diesel-hybrid buses with new natural gas buses.
Spieler capped off the evening by encouraging students, faculty, staff and community members to not only take advantage of METRO’s new bus network but also to reach out to METRO and city officials about improving mass transit and other ideas to make Houston more sustainable.
“There’s a generational change happening in the transit industry. We have a generation now that actually loves cities and loves transit,” said Spieler. “One of the best things that will happen to this world is when this generation takes over. I think it will make transit hugely better. I’m totally looking forward to that.”
A full bio of Spieler is available on the METRO website.
For more information about upcoming Office of Sustainability meetups and events, go to www.uh.edu/sustainability.