Author Archive

Mapping Time: Christof Spieler on Metro Bus Service and Transit When You Need It

At METRO, we are reimagining Houston’s bus system, and are proposing to complete it next year. This is one of the most transformative transportation projects in Houston right now. Why? Because it dramatically improves what Houstonians can access with transit.

When we think of transit, we tend to think of routes as lines on a map. Look at any transit agency website and you’ll see little colored lines, representing the path a bus or a train will take. Seen that way, Houston’s local bus system looks like this:

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Light Rail Construction, Photograph by Christof Spieler

A Referendum of Confusion: Time for Leadership in Transit is Now

OffCite continues its coverage of the METRO referendum. Colley Hodges cut through the confusion in our last post. Below, METRO board member and longtime Cite contributor Christof Spieler calls for vision beyond the immediate politics.

This Tuesday, Houston voters face a choice on transit. A “yes” vote will make more of the one cent METRO sales tax available for transit—but that additional funding is specifically allocated so it will not go to rail. A “no” vote could mean more money for rail—or it could lead to legislative action that would actually cut transit funding or even dismantle METRO. In either scenario, the future of the University Line—which was specifically approved by voters in 2003 to be completed by 2012—is uncertain. The most important new connection in the Houston transit system could be 20 years away.

Meanwhile, other cities are rapidly expanding transit. By 2013, Dallas will have 90 miles of light rail radiating out from Downtown to the suburbs. Salt Lake City just opened two new lines and is completing another to the airport. Denver is adding a fourth light rail spoke to its system and building electric commuter rail to the airport.

So, what’s different in Houston?

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OffCite Goes to China: Time Warp

In this post, Christof Spieler finishes his series of reports on his trip to China for an upcoming special issue of Cite. Read more about RDA’s China initiative here, which includes a knockout lecture series in the Fall. To browse all of Spieler’s posts from China, click here.

The most startling aspect of the China is the feeling that everything is moving in fast forward. From the windows of the Beijing airport express train, speeding along the expressway on its way from the Norman-Foster designed terminal of the second busiest airport in the world, you can see farmers working small plots with their hoes. From their small houses they can see the five-star hotels and modern office buildings of the airport business park. This is 1911 and 2011, coexisting alongside each other.

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OffCite Goes to China: High Speed Rail

In this series, Christof Spieler gives regular reports on his trip to China for a special issue of Cite. Read more about RDA’s China initiative here, which includes a knockout lecture series in the Fall.

The Beijing-Shanghai high speed rail line opened on June 30; I rode it four days later. Cruising along smoothly at 190 mph, I could not help but be impressed by the ambition of this project. It’s 800 miles of new, double-track, grade-separated electrified railway. Eighty-six percent is elevated, including two major river crossings; where a hill got in the way it was obviated by one of 22 tunnels. Twenty brand new stations serve cities along the way, and the Beijing and Shanghai stations were completely rebuilt to serve high speed rail. Imagine traveling from Houston to Atlanta by train in 5 hours and you get the idea.

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Offcite in China: Planned Community

In this series, Christof Spieler gives regular reports on his trip to China for a special issue of Cite. Read more about RDA’s China initiative here, which includes a knockout lecture series in the Fall.

This is the Chinese version of a planned community: 30 highrise residential towers, each 30 stories tall, all behind gates and security guards. There are enough people here to support an entire shopping complex, including a full-sized supermarket accessible from within the gates. There’s a whole private riverfront, too, on the banks of the newly cleaned up Suzhou Creek, for residents only. This is housing at a density that we can’t imagine in Houston, but it still seems familiar: a city designed as a series of self-contained gated enclaves, marketed for their private amenities and perceived safety.

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OffCite Goes to China: Hutong

In this series, Christof Spieler gives regular reports on his trip to China for a special issue of Cite. Read more about RDA’s China initiative here, which includes a knockout lecture series in the Fall.

You walk down a busy street in Beijing: busses, cabs, mopeds, bikes, crowds. But then you turn into an alley—a hutong—maybe 25-feet wide, between two buildings. You pass a store selling groceries, a four-table restaurant grilling meat over a charcoal burner, a small workshop. But then the alley turns residential. The homes themselves are hidden behind lines of walls; occasionally, a portal opens into a courtyard, crammed with small buildings. There is life everywhere: laundry hanging out to dry, old men playing mahjong, kids running around, men loading a truck. The alley twists and turns; the busy city is lost somewhere behind you. As it gets narrower, you’re sure you’ve hit a dead end, but there’s a narrow way through, a path only six feet wide between buildings. After a few more twists, you suddenly emerge onto a major street again, back in modern Beijing.

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Deng Xiaoping billboard in Shenzhen. Photos by Christof Spieler.

OffCite Goes to China: Patron Saint

In this series, Christof Spieler gives regular reports on his trip to China for a special issue of Cite. Read more about RDA’s China initiative here, which includes a knockout lecture series in the Fall.

History is always shaped by the present, and Shenzhen’s economic boom gives it a different view of the past. In Beijing, Mao’s portrait overlooks the city; in Shenzhen it’s a billboard of Deng Xiaoping, who led China from 1978 to 1992. It was Deng who designated Shenzhen as a special economic zone in 1980, and his triumphant 1992 tour of Shenzhen cemented the economic reforms after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

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Beijing Planning Exhibition, photo by Christof Spieler

OffCite Goes to China: Planning

In this series, Christof Spieler gives regular reports on his trip to China for a special issue of Cite. Read more about RDA’s China initiative here, which includes a knockout lecture series in the Fall.

In Beijing, like in most Chinese cities, there’s a planning exhibition. The centerpiece is a huge scale model of the urban core. Families stand around and see what their city will look like — the activity centers, the neighborhoods, the expressways, the transport hubs, the monuments, the parks. And in the surrounding galleries they learn what their city planners think is important to present: the Olympics, transport networks, sustainability, historic preservation.

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OffCite Goes to China: Park

In this series, Christof Spieler gives regular reports on his trip to China for a special issue of Cite. Read more about RDA’s China initiative here, which includes a knockout lecture series in the Fall.

Shenzhen is China’s prototypical boomtown. In 1980, when it was only a small fishing village, it was designated one of China’s first Special Economic Zones open for Western business. Just across the border from Hong Kong, it was perfect for companies looking to establish new factories. Today, the city has 10 million people (the equivalent of the Chicago metro area), with an average age under 30.

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All photographs by Christof Spieler

OffCite Goes to China: Colonials

In this series, Christof Spieler gives regular reports on his trip to China for a special issue of Cite. Read more about RDA’s China initiative here, which includes a knockout lecture series in the Fall.
Shanghai is unique among mainland Chinese cities: at its core is a large 1920s European city. In 1932, three international concessions—French, American-British, and Japanese—were home to 70,000 foreigners. Despite numerous demolitions, much of that remains today. The Bund on the Huangpo river is still lined with old office buildings and hotels, Nanjing Road has old highrises and department stores, the French Concession has tree-lined streets of old mansions, and north along the river there are still blocks and blocks of old two- to four-story apartment buildings with ground floor shops that could stand in for Paris.

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