Trains, Buses, People

An Opinionated Atlas of US and Canadian Transit, Second Edition

By Evan Osenton

by Christof Spieler
Island Press
2021/$45.00/344 pp.

I’m a fan of mass transit, everything from how it allows cities to be denser and more interesting, to the clack and rumble of a good subway—New York’s, Boston’s, Toronto’s. I enjoy unique atlases. And I appreciate an expert opinion. How could I say no to Christof Spieler’s Trains, Buses, People…?

Spieler opens with the basics of great transit (oddly the Texan planner doesn’t call it “public transit” even as all 57 networks he profiles are owned by their riders). Cities weigh many options: bus vs. train, at-grade vs. buried, routes, fares. The best systems offer “access, opportunity and freedom,” he writes, citing the “life-improving” Houston LRT he rides daily. “People who don’t ride benefit too,” he adds. Transit whisks workers around, boosts the economy and cuts traffic and CO2 emissions, as “everybody on a bus or a train represents one less car on the road.” Conversely, bad transit can make a city intolerable.

The author’s short history of North American transit covers the birth of private trolleys and subways, to their decline as cars and suburbia took over. Cities “nationalized” transit rather than let it die. “Transit-oriented development” emerged in the 1990s as ever-expanding roads threatened to bankrupt cities. Spieler cites light rail in Edmonton (begun in 1978) and Calgary (1981) as forerunners of the new transit: LRT is cheaper than subways even as it’s still desirable to the white, suburban, male “choice riders” that he says urban planners in the US mainly cater to.

Spieler shows what US transit systems often get wrong, bypassing dense poor neighbourhoods in favour of rich suburbs, or discounting walkability (most transit trips begin on foot), connectivity, frequency, travel time, reliability and inclusivity. In Canada, transit’s critics obsess over cost and ignore long-term value. For example, having buses share the road with cars costs less than building dedicated bus lanes, but those buses are slower, less reliable and used less, so the cheaper option soon starts to look like a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The final 250 pages contrast—through maps, charts, photos, stats and analysis—North America’s biggest transit systems. Spieler’s best maps show areas within walking distance of transit overlaid by population and employment density. Alberta earns praise. Calgary’s “remarkable” LRT carries far more riders than any other LRT, partly due to costly downtown parking, while Edmonton’s Bus Rapid Transit outperforms all but a handful of US cities. Spieler does knock Calgary for its infrequent buses, Edmonton for its plodding LRT growth.

Climate change demands a rapid shift to low-emission transportation, which won’t happen if we don’t get transit right to start with. Spieler’s atlas is thus “opinionated” and timely.

Evan Osenton is editor of Alberta Views.

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