Top 40 Under 40 2013: Christof Spieler

Sept. 13, 2013
Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County Board Member/Morris Architects Vice President and Director of Planning Christof Spieler, PE, LEED AP.

By understanding how integrated successful transit is with the context of the adjacent land uses, Christof Spieler has developed a broad toolbox of transit innovations in these plans, including signature bus service, bus rapid transit lines and enhancements to historic streetcar lines. He has also developed transit-oriented development strategies for communities to capitalize on stronger transit service. His broad experience as well as ability to effectively communicate the opportunity that well-thought-out transit systems can provide has culminated with his nomination to the Houston Metro board or directors. He was appointed by Houston Mayor Annise Parker in March 2010.

While serving on the board, Spieler has helped the agency set a more strategic direction for providing transit service for the Houston region. He has continued to be an advocate for stronger customer service and the increased transparency of Metro discussions on the future of transit in the region. He served as a board spokesperson through a challenging political referendum on the future funding options for Metro.

Spieler is also chair of the Strategic Planning Committee. This committee has helped define the strategic direction for the agency as long- and short-range planning decisions are made. This committee has helped develop the approach for “re-imagining” the Houston bus network to better serve the community and increase ridership. It has also begun a strategic look at long term capital projects for the agency.

The most significant current project is the transit system re-imagining, a project to define the goals of Houston's transit system and then to re-design the entire system, particularly local bus service, from scratch. As committee chair, he championed the project, helped define the scope and consultant selection process, helped set up the stakeholder group, and serve as an interface between the project and the board.

Other major projects Spieler played a role in are three new light rail lines opening in 2013 and 2014 and a new bus rapid transit line that will connect Uptown, one of the major employment centers, to the park-and-ride commuter bus system and two major bus transit centers.

At Morris he leads public planning projects and provides urban design input on architecture projects. Current and recent projects include the Downtown-EaDo Livable Centers Study, which looked at integrating transportation, land use and the public realm in an area including the George R. Brown Convention Center, Toyota Center, Minute Maid Park, the new Dynamo stadium and Discovery Green; a new land use plan for the city of Sugar Land; the Fort Bend subregional mobility study; LEED-ND certification for a large mixed-use project; and a 1,000-room convention center hotel in Houston.

Spieler is is a graduate of Rice University with a Bachelor’s of Science in civil engineering, as well as a Master’s of Science in civil engineering and is also a senior lecturer there. He teaches one course a semester on structures for architects and frequently participates in other courses by taking part in design pinups and guest lecturing.

He is a registered professional engineer in Texas and a LEED accredited professional. He has been honored by Rice University with the Outstanding Young Engineer Alumnus award in 2009 and was named to the 40 Under 40 by “Building Design + Construction” magazine in 2009.

Spieler was a major contributor to the American Public Transportation Association’s recommended practice on "Design of On-street Transit Stops and Access from Surrounding Areas," published in March 2012. He has become a noted speaker and has presented at many national and statewide conferences, some of which include: Railvolution, Greenbuild, Texas Society of Architects Conference and New Partners for Smart Growth Conference. Locally, he as presented at many community and civic organizations as well as civic clubs.

Spieler joined the Citizens Transportation Coalition, an advocacy group supporting Houston neighborhoods in advocating for improved transportation options, with a strong focus on better transit. He has been on the transportation committees or technical advisory committees for the East End Chamber of Commerce, Central Houston, the Greater Houston Partnership, Super Neighborhood 22, and the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

“I really love figuring out how transportation can fit into a city. We're in a fascinating time right now when cities like Houston that focused only on cars are trying to accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists and transit riders. We've done a series of studies at Morris that looked at how to create livable, multimodal neighborhoods. That requires taking multidisciplinary approaches, coordinating among multiple agencies, and engaging residents and businesses. When you bring everyone together you can come up with really good design solutions and we're seeing those studies lead to results like better sidewalks, new bike connections and a city program to incentivize downtown residential.

“In 2005, I started writing a blog called ‘Intermodality.’ I wrote detailed pieces about Houston transportation, with a special focus on transit. It wasn't a typical blog — the pieces were infrequent but long, with detailed looks at local projects and analysis of what makes transit effective. I never had a big readership, but agency staff, transit planners, community leaders and elected officials started reading. One day I was standing in the back of the room at big public hearing on the University light rail line and a city council staffer told me they were relying on my blog to understand what was in the Environmental Impact Study for the project. When Annise Parker was elected mayor, several councilmembers suggested she consider me for the board. The blog got me my position and it also reminds me now that I'm on the inside that the best ideas can come from outside.

“From 2004 to 2008, I commuted by local bus. We had moved into our downtown loft, but I worked in a suburban office building. My bus was the 9 Gulton, a completely typical route. It's not frequent like the Westheimer bus, and it doesn't speed down an HOV lane like the park-and-rides. It runs every 15 or 20 minutes in the peak, every 40 at mid-day, and when its gets stuck in traffic it runs late. To get from the bus stop to the office, I had to cross a five-lane road without a crosswalk alongside students headed to the nearby middle school, and on the way home the stop had neither a shelter nor a bench, so a late bus in August could be a trial.

“But the bus made my life better — I didn't have to stare at the car ahead of me in a traffic jam, I could write on the bus, my wife and I could sell one of our cars and spend the money on more enjoyable things, and for most of the year I enjoyed the beautiful weather. Five years ago, I got a new job downtown, and now my only 10 blocks and I can take the train for all my daily needs, though I still use the bus frequently to get to meetings elsewhere in the city. But riding the bus every day left me with a lot of sympathy for what our riders experience every day — and now I'm in a place to make that experience better.

“Great transit builds great cities. It makes people's lives better every day. It sustains the business centers, universities and medical centers that sustain our economy. Transit agencies can play a huge role in the places they serve.

“I think transit needs to be easier to use. I think most transit agencies have become too internally focused. They're putting a lot of thinking into how to operate a system and how to build projects, but they don't consider what it's like to use those systems as a rider. We have too many bus systems that are complex and confusing and too many rail lines that don't actually go where people want to go. Transit planning isn't actually that hard — services should be frequent, direct, easy-to-understand, and right in the center of dense residential and employment areas.”