When a new rail or bus line gets built in the United States, its mere opening is often cause for celebration among transit advocates. That’s understandable, given the funding gaps and political opposition that often stymie projects.
But not all trains are bound for glory, and it’s often not hard to see why. In the new book, Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of U.S. Transit (Island Press, $40), Christof Spieler, a Houston-based transit planner, advocate, and former METRO board member, takes stock of the state of American transit with a tough-love approach. In nearly 250 pages of full-color maps, charts, and encyclopedia-style entries, Spieler profiles the 47 American metropolitan regions that have rail or bus rapid transit to show what works, what doesn’t, and why.
”There are a lot of people out there who tell every story as a positive story,” Spieler told me in an interview. “But I think it’s important to question whether we’re doing the right thing. Otherwise, we’re going to keep making bad decisions.”
For example, Dallas has been cheered for its significant investments in light rail over the past 20 years. When the sprawling metropolis set out to build, it prioritized maximizing the number of rail miles and reaching every community. Now, DART is the longest light-rail network in the country. But that hasn’t translated into particularly effective service. “It skips a dense concentration of jobs in Uptown, barely serves the city’s biggest medical district… and misses Love Field’s airport terminal by half a mile,” Spieler writes in a section that calls out the best and worst transit cities, including “Most Useless Rail-Transit Lines.” Dallas gets slapped with the kinder “Missed Opportunity” label, as “it carries half as many people per mile as San Diego, Phoenix, or Houston.”
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