What a ride!

Rice alum, lecturer Christof Spieler brings home awards for ‘reimagined’ Houston METRO 

It took Christof Spieler ’99 a while to appreciate Houston’s charms. He didn’t know when he came to Rice University as a student that he’d not only learn to love the city, but would also be an agent of great change.

The Rice alumnus and lecturer at the Rice School of Architecture and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering has gathered two major awards in recent weeks on behalf of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO), of which he’s a board member. The awards recognize the city’s successful comprehensive redesign of its bus route system.

Rice lecturer and alumnus Christof Spieler spent more than four years spearheading the reconfigured Houston METRO bus system.

Rice lecturer and alumnus Christof Spieler spent more than four years spearheading the reconfigured Houston METRO bus system. The "reimagined" system went live in August. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Spieler was a motivating force behind the 4½-year project that went live in August. METRO has revamped every bus route in the city and runs more buses more frequently for the most users.

And he did it all from the perspective of a guy who rides the system every day.

METRO picked up the 2015 Outstanding Public Transportation System Achievement Award from the American Public Transportation Association earlier this month in San Francisco, Spieler’s hometown. A day later, he appeared via video at the Houston Tomorrow Catalyst Awards, where he was named the “Engaged” award winner for his public service.

Both mean a lot to one who is first and foremost a customer. “It started because I rode the system,” said Spieler, a vice president and director of planning at Houston architecture firm Morris. “My wife and I share one car, so my daily trips are by METRO, and until I got my current job, I commuted to Greenway Plaza. I took the bus every day.” (Now he takes METRO’s light rail to work.)

“I really like riding transit. The reason I use it is it makes my life more enjoyable, but I also saw what was broken with the system.”

Spieler’s desire to share those observations led him to write a blog about Houston transportation in his spare time. “As a result, I got to know agency people, but I also got to know a lot of community people, which means I got to know a couple of council members,” he said. “When (Rice alumna) Annise Parker got elected mayor, several council members said to her, You ought to consider this guy for the METRO board.

“I didn’t know her at all. The first time I ever had a true one-on-one conversation with her was when she called me up to appoint me. I think there’s that very Rice trait in her of saying, ‘I want to put smart people in a position where they can do good things.’ If you look at her administration, she’s done a lot of that.”

Spieler certainly wasn’t thinking of the political consequences when he told the board, early in his tenure, that the bus system was broken. “We had lines that dated back to old streetcar routes that had always been modified bit by bit but never completely rethought,” he said. “It was a system designed for a Houston that doesn’t exist anymore.”

‘A lot of cities have systems that need redesign, but few have done anything like this.’                  — Christof Spieler

To bring it up to date required, first, a serious gut check, and then sufficient diplomatic skills to explain to many of the 250,000 daily riders why what he calls “reimagining” the system was necessary.

“Essentially, we ended up changing every local bus route in the system,” he said. That involved 1,200 buses and 10,000 bus stops, “and it changed completely over one night.”

Once Spieler convinced METRO that change was necessary, he ran interference with the board and the public. “I didn’t draw any maps. What I did was run the committee where the board was briefed and helped figure out who needed to be on the stakeholder committee. I gave presentations all the time, everywhere, to tell the story of what we were doing, and really helped work through the politics.”

To convince wary riders, Spieler said he drew heavily on his experience as an editorial board member of the Rice Thresher while earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. “What I learned there — how to express an idea in as few words as possible, how to tell a story — was absolutely essential to doing this project,” he said.

“A lot of cities have systems that need redesign, but few have done anything like this,” Spieler said. “I think a lot of the difference is that those cities didn’t have political leadership willing to do this and did not do a good job of explaining what they were doing.”

Spieler spearheaded the shift from a spoke-and-wheel route design that centered on downtown Houston to one that established a grid with light rail lines as connecting spines. METRO also runs buses more frequently on the busiest routes, even on weekends. “In the old system, if you were in the Heights and wanted to go to Memorial City, you first had to ride east to downtown, then ride west to your destination,” he said. “Now you can ride west, transfer and get to Memorial City. That saves you 40 minutes one way.”

Spieler maintains strong connections to Rice through teaching two “structures for architects” courses and a transportation class in civil engineering each year. He also served as structural engineer on Rice’s entry in the 2009 Solar Decathlon, the ZEROW HOUSE.

Those connections have kept him here long enough to go native.

“When I got to Rice, I hated Houston,” he said. “Basically, I loved Rice, but I thought of this as a pretty horrible city that I was going to put up with for four years. And after four years, I felt good enough about it to stay for another two, and after six years, I had actually grown to love it, and I don’t want to leave.

“I think it’s an amazing city, and it’s actually a place where it’s easy to make change happen.”


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.