Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Book Review: "Straphanger"

Taras Grescoe's Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile (forthcoming from Times Books in April) is a masterful argument in favor of affordable, efficient, ubiquitous public transportation both within and between the world's cities. Grescoe travels the world exploring the theories of public transit, the histories of different cities' systems, and the best (and worst) examples of public transit implementation and practice.

Full disclosure: I've never owned a car, I don't drive, and I would be delighted if I could get through life without ever having to do either. But in today's America, it's a tricky way to live. As Grescoe notes, inter-city public transit in the United States and most of Canada is generally either overly time-consuming, unpleasant, or both - and that's when it exists at all (the Northeast Corridor's Acela train and Amtrak's Downeaster from Boston to Portland are notable exceptions, and thankfully they're what I get to use most often).

Grescoe goes deep beneath the streets of New York to witness construction on a new subway line there; he ventures onto the freeways of Los Angeles, and into the far reaches of car-required Phoenix (a city he describes as "his nightmare"). "This book," he writes, "is, in part, the story of a bad idea: the notion that our metropolises should be shaped by the needs of cars, rather than people" (p. 17). But it's also a showpiece for how good networks of public transit can rejuvenate cities, decrease pollution, improve the quality of life for billions of people.

I particularly liked one of his analogies, in which he compared a healthy city growing like an avocado, "nurtured by a solid pit of culture and commerce," to Phoenix, growing more like an onion: "remove the successive layers of subdivisions, and there is nothing - apart from an overpriced stadium, some car dealerships, and a few half-vacant office buildings - at its core" (p. 86).

As Grescoe argues, there's no one simple recipe for creating a viable public transit system: what works (extremely well, apparently) in Copenhagen wouldn't fly in Atlanta, and Philadelphia's model probably wouldn't do for Moscow. But, Grescoe maintains, by having a convenient, regionally-based network (of rail, bus and subway systems, or some combination thereof) combined with dedicated transit lanes within cities and, where possible, widespread pedestrian areas, it's possible to bring cities back from automobile-based hell. By changing rules which make construction and city planning to focus on automobiles (with rules about required off-street parking and things like that) and by shifting the priorities to favor mass transit to the extent possible, the reign of gridlock might someday be brought to an end.

It's not just intra-city transportation but also inter-city travel that needs a helping hand; the fact that most rail track in America is owned by freight companies means that inter-city passenger trains are generally at the mercy of freight, which has meant that the kinds of improvements which would allow faster trains (like those currently being built in Europe and especially China) haven't gotten off the ground in America. It will take a major investment, Grescoe admits, but in the long run, with train travel as by far the most sustainable method of long-distance travel, isn't it worth it?

I'll be interested to hear what others think of this book. I'm sure that my own personal views on the subject affect my opinion of it. Obviously in many areas of the country there's no question but that the private car must remain the transportation method of choice for the forseeable future, but I think Grescoe's point, that we can and should make cities and near-suburbs easily accessible by a fast, reliable, affordable and comfortable mass transit system, is not only a good idea, but an entirely necessary one. Not easy, of course, but necessary.

Highly recommended for anyone at all interested in mass transit systems around the world, or frustrated about how long they have to sit in traffic every day, or sick of standing out in the cold waiting for an old, clunky bus which might or might not show up when it's supposed to. By profiling the bad and the good, Grescoe offers both a cautionary tale and a call to action, and it's one I hope will resonate with many readers.