Alumnus Profile: Keeping Houston Moving
Christof Spieler, ’97 ’99 might be one of the few people in Houston who loves his commute.
“It’s a 10-block walk from my loft to my office,” the civil engineer laughed.
In fact, commuting is something that’s become Spieler’s lifework. He sits on the board of Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (METRO), a post he was appointed to five years ago by Mayor Annise Parker ’78. Back in August, METRO made sweeping changes to its bus routes and rail lines, and Spieler was excited to be part of it.
“Every bus route in Houston changed,” he said. “And it all stemmed from the question: what would the network look like if you designed it from scratch? It’s an optimization problem—and that’s where being an engineer is useful.”
There are three engineers on METRO’s nine-member board, and Spieler said that one of the most valuable takeaways from his engineering education was learning how to approach problems, define them and determine the steps necessary to solve them.
“Engineers don’t design things to work, they design things to not break,” he said. “That’s an important distinction.”
That approach to problem solving has proven useful in his time at METRO.
“We knew that we had limited resources, and we had to look at what was the most good we could do. We had two choices: we could carry as many people as possible, or we could go to as many places as possible. We couldn’t do both. Our solution increased the frequency of buses across the city, and frequency is freedom. It will now be easier for riders to go where they want to go, when they want to go there, rather than planning their lives around the bus schedules.”
The plan was the first massive overhaul of the system in 30 years, and is projected to increase bus ridership by 20 percent, in addition to making commute times on some routes 40 minutes faster.
“Three-quarters of our riders now will have seven-day frequent service; the service increases on the weekends are huge to me,” said Spieler. “I love being part of these important decisions.”
Spieler grew up outside San Francisco, and chose Rice because it had not only a great engineering school, but also a strong liberal arts program. Spieler liked the energy the students had. In becoming a civil engineer, he didn’t intend to work on transit issues, but he’s happy that’s how his working life has evolved.
Following graduation, he worked as a structural engineer, and began a transportation blog because he has always been interested in how cities evolve—and transportation is an important part of that. “When I started that blog, it was just for me, and now it’s my full-time job,” he said.
“I spent a summer working in London while I was at Rice, and that was a transforming experience,” he said. “Not visiting as a tourist, but getting around as a commuter.”
He’s quick to point out that experiences like that one—and writing for the Thresher—played just as much of a role in shaping his career as did his Rice academics. Working on the student newspaper, he learned the importance of effective communication.
In addition to serving on METRO’s board, he is now a full-time urban planner, vice president and director of planning for Morris, a Huitt-Zollars company. He’s working on projects such as the new Marriott Marquis across from the George R. Brown Convention Center and a light rail operations facility in Seattle. He also teaches three classes at Rice, ARCH 207/507, Technology I – The Frame; ARCH-309/509, Technology II – The Shell; and CEVE 452, Urban Transportation Systems.
He said he encourages his students to consider how their skills and opinions can be used in real-world projects.
“I think engineers are used to thinking that they implement other people’s policies, and not that they have a voice in creating those policies. I want them to see engineers take a more active role.”
Spieler has one year left on his METRO board term, and admits he’s trying to do as much as he can in the time he has remaining. (METRO board members serve at the pleasure of the Mayor.) No matter what happens after his term is over, though, he’ll continue using his engineering skills to help build the Houston of tomorrow.
“Houston is a really fun place to do planning right now,” he said. “We’re right in this great moment where we’ve realized the whole world is changing, and we can change with it.