Review: Trains, Buses, People: A Book Talk with Christof Spieler

Last night, I attended the talk given by author Christof Spieler about his new book, Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit. As a planner, he approached the topic that is typical of planners. According to his formula, density should be the motivating factor of developing transit systems and places should be made around transit instead of transit being forced to move around places. He gave several examples of how single-family housing was one of the contributing factors to the lack of viable public transit. When I was thoroughly disgusted with his failure to address the elephant in the room and asked him a question after his presentation, he immediately acknowledged that all people needed to be treated equally and that we will never have reasonable transit if opposition is treated as more important than ridership.

The problem with this presentation was this: as long as White authors discuss how nations are shaped without addressing how race and class have played significant parts in shaping how communities are developed, systemic inequality will continue. There is such an urgent desire to deny that inequity ever occurred in human history that people will relentlessly strive to describe the next steps forward without addressing any of them. When Spieler stated that transit needs to be planned so that “everyone feels welcome aboard,” I pointed out that the problem is not mostly about people feeling unwelcome on the bus. In fact, the problem is that mostly White homeowners have wanted nothing to do with people who use transit. After all, feeling “welcome” on transit means nothing if, upon arrival, people call the cops and shoot riders whom they feel “belong elsewhere.” Traffic is caused because the working class is forced to commute into a city that needs it constantly but is repulsed by it, not by people moving between cities.

Also, by not discussing how race affects transit, people are allowed to divorce themselves from uncomfortable situations that regularly happen and continue to happen. For example, Spieler did discuss that it was easier and safer for him to travel on public transit because he is a White man, and he described how there were armed officers on transit in neighborhoods of color. When the audience gasped, I turned and said, “That’s here. That’s CapMetro,” before continuing to listen to the presentation. Riders of color are used to being profiled at airports, targeted for fare inspections on buses, arrested at transit centers and stopped on the roads. To fail to discuss that as part of the general conversation about transit is to imply that none of our circumstances are worth discussing. “Placemaking around transit” has become code for displacement that begins with higher rents and property taxes. Hearing that collective gasp reminds me that people will refuse to care as long as allowable.

Speaking of displacement, the discussion about density has meant nothing but a land grab from people of color. In the city of Austin, a newspaper just released a story about a “mixed use” structure being built in the formerly Latino community. While the fact that Spieler discusses density as a proper recipe for transit is true, single-family housing has been described as “dense” because the houses were close together. Luxury housing at unaffordable rates have been touted as the answer to housing costs because apparently, once the wealthy have finished playing with our cities, we will be allowed to return to them. There are more houses than there are homeless people in the United States, and it is the shouts of “Density!” that keep people homeless, not a lack of property being developed.

Finally, refusing to discuss how transit is affected by the presence of marginalized populations does not address the fundamental mindshift that must occur in predominantly White communities. Everyone needs to be able to traverse cities for work as well as for amenities, and no one should be allowed to deny access to other human beings. The tech industry is the worst offender because all of those moguls hie themselves as far away from Black people as humanly possible, clog up the road with traffic, and then laugh about how many tax incentives they get. Custodial and service workers are not garbage that no one gets to look at and should not be forced to maintain vehicles that deplete their meager resources. Civil servants are part of society, and should not have to maintain vehicles because of “the market.” Fortunately, Spieler is aware that a shift is required; he needs to let all of his potential readers in on that reality.

Leave a Reply