CRITICAL REACTION TO STRAPHANGER
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
GLOBE AND MAIL
(reviewed September 7, 2012)
PD Smith [author of City: A Guidebook to the Urban Age] admires a polemical
tour of the world’s great underground systems.
Margaret Thatcher once declared that "a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count
himself a failure". Taras Grescoe is proud to be – in Thatcher's estimation, at least – a failure. Although he
can drive, the Canadian author, who is in his mid-40s, has never owned a car. And he is not alone. Half the
population of cities such as New York, Toronto and London do not own cars. Every day some 155 million
people take the underground. And although being a straphanger in North America may be, as Grescoe
shows, a "depressing experience" due to underfunding and bad planning, elsewhere public transport –
particularly in cities – is enjoying a renaissance. The heyday of the car has passed.
In this passionately argued and important book, Grescoe takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of world
cities and their transport systems. He accuses the private car of destroying cities, turning streets into kill-
zones for the vulnerable, polluting the air and burning up increasingly scarce fossil fuels. Although the
scope of Straphanger
is global, it clearly targets car-loving, gas-guzzling North America and the statistics
he cites are truly shocking. In the US – "the most extravagantly motorised nation in the history of the
world" – vehicles now outnumber drivers by five to four. Los Angeles, once hailed as an "autopia", is now
the most congested city in the US with drivers wasting 72 hours a year stuck in traffic jams – Americans
now spend nine years of their lives sitting in their cars, and the pollution they produce kills 30,000 US
citizens each year.
But change is in the air. In 2009, the total number of cars in the US shrank. In its early days in office,
the Obama administration conjured up visions of a new golden age of public transport, offering funding
for ambitious rail and subway schemes. Streetcars, which used to be the main mode of public transport
in American cities, are being reintroduced in such unlikely places as Houston and Denver and, in 2010,
public transport use reached a 54-year high. In this suburban nation, people are also moving back into the
cities. Recently released figures from the 2011 US census show that many of the largest cities are now
growing faster than their suburbs, the first time this has happened in a century. This trend is being led
by young Americans, many of whom are also choosing not to learn to drive but are instead relying on
bicycles and public transport. Even New York's billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is now known as
the "straphanger mayor", riding the subway a couple of times a week. Although, as Grescoe notes, he is
taken to the subway stop by chauffeured SUV.
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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
(reviewed August 24, 2012, by Wayne Curtis)
Guidebooks to the City of the Future.
America is becoming more European. It's as if a recessive gene has become dominant, reshaping the
American character. Never mind Obamacare, SmartCars and fussy foodcraft. Just look at the demographics
and urban life of American cities and how they're changing. Today, many American cities are safer and
healthier than they have been in a half-century, vibrant and full of culture and street life. City-sponsored
bike-sharing stations have begun to crop up on our shores, in cities such as Washington and (next spring,
with luck) New York City…
Being off again is the whole idea behind "Straphanger," a sort of love letter to mass transit—and an oddly
compelling and entertaining one at that. Taras Grescoe lives in Canada, which of course has long had
a reputation as a sort of halfway house for those with pro-European sympathies (socialized medicine;
unfamiliar bacon; Quebec City). Also, perhaps more alarmingly, Mr. Grescoe has never owned a car.
How does one survive without a car? Mr. Grescoe shows us, in part by traveling to 10 cities in 10 chapters
(plus a conclusion that looks at his current home of Montreal). His destinations range from transit
nightmares like Phoenix ("a centerless city built almost entirely after the coming of the automobile") to
transit utopias like Copenhagen and Tokyo.
In his portrait of the state of public transit around the globe, America comes up wanting more than not.
(Exceptions include New York and Portland, Ore.) Mr. Grescoe notes that a rail trip from Chicago to
Minneapolis took 4½ hours in the 1950s; today it takes eight. The last American manufacturer of rail cars
closed up shop in 2008; today we're more likely to ride in new rail cars imported from Spain. Veolia, a
French transit company, increasingly runs the transit networks across America. (I live in New Orleans, the
first major American city to subcontract the whole of its transit operations to Veolia.)
Europe is exporting not only transit hardware and management to America but also vaguely utopian
concepts, notably that of a bicycle-centric city. Mr. Grescoe toddles around Copenhagen happily on a
bicycle, marveling at the bike infrastructure. It gives the lie, he suggests, to the notion that biking won't
work in northern climes. Indeed, American bicyclists may grow wistful reading about red-cheeked Danes
braving winter winds to bike a dozen miles to work—Mr. Grescoe notes that Danes plow bike lanes before
car lanes after snowstorms. Also, if you maintain a pace of 12 miles per hour—a good pace on a bike—you
won't hit a red light. (They call this "the green wave.")
Then, on to warmer climes: Mr. Grescoe travels to Bogotá, Colombia, where a pair of outspoken mayors,
Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa, have made bus rapid transit and bike lanes popular by employing
not much more than showmanship, flair and argument. "If, in a democracy, all citizens are equal before the
law, then a bus with one hundred passengers should have the right to one hundred times more road space
than a car carrying only one person," Mr. Peñalosa says. This seems a distinctly American ideal and yet,
somehow, distinctly not. Intriguing asides like that help make "Straphanger" a far more engaging volume
than you'd expect from mere accounts of travel by subway, bus and bike.
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(reviewed August 20, 2012)
This paean to public transportation is front-loaded with statistics edifying to city dwellers ... American households average eleven car trips each day. Nine out of ten American commuters drie to work, three-quarters of them alone ... The book unfurls into studies of a dozen cities around the world. Grescoe travels on foot (and by public transit) in Bogotá; and Moscow. In Los Angeles, he details backroom deals that helped doom the adoption of streetcars there; in New York, he describes a subway prototype, from 1870, constructed inside a huge pneumatic tube. In Paris, he visits an empty, shuttered Métro station that looks like a time capsule either of the urban past or of its future...
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(reviewed July 18, 2012, by Colin Fanning)
I'll admit I was a little skeptical when I cracked open Taras Grescoe's latest book, Straphanger
, which is both paean to public transportation and an evisceration of car culture. Living happily car-free in New York, I feared I might be the choir to the Montrealer's preaching. But while the book—part history, part travelogue, and part manifesto—might not seem terribly radical to city-dwellers, Grescoe makes the argument for mass transit in a way you might not have heard before.
In the course of writing Straphanger
, Grescoe visited a dozen cities across the world and spent considerable time getting to know their transit systems, figuring out how and why they work (or don't). After a short prologue in Shanghai, Grescoe starts his global commute in New York, where the subway system maintains a tetchy coexistence with street-level planning that's historically favored cars over pedestrians. Subsequent cities each provide a slightly different perspective on transportation: Phoenix gives us a primer on the difficulties of low-density sprawl; Copenhagen is a model of bike-friendly infrastructure; Bogotá's rapid bus system proves how quickly a mass transit network can be rolled out from scratch.
The case-study format makes for a brisk pace, and avoids the pitfalls of a one-size-fits-all approach to transportation. While Grescoe lavishes criticism on the hubristic, car-centric schemes of planners past (Robert Moses, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright all take turns as the butt of his disapproval), he also avoids aligning himself with any one ideology, advocating a sort of design relativism informed by the diversity of the book's subjects.
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(reviewed June 16, 2012, by Kevin Canfield)
Toronto commuters have, of late, lost all their mirth, laid low by the urban transit blues. With exquisite timing, along comes Straphanger
, Montreal writer Taras Grescoe's exploration of a variety of world transit systems, from Paris to Portland, Manhattan to Moscow. Treating us to a first-person account of what works — and what doesn't — Grescoe delivers the goods on transit with intelligence and wit.
Most obviously, suburbs have failed. Crazy as it sounds, North American suburbanites average eleven separate car trips per day. It's not the price of oil. It's the car, a form of mass transportation that Grescoe flatly calls "a disaster." On September 13, 1899, a New Yorker named Bliss became America's first recorded traffic fatality. Studies now show that the longer the commute, the higher the divorce rate. Bliss remains in the crosshairs.
Yet public transit — as unsatisfying as it can be — suits social media users down to the ground, says Grescoe, allowing time for "serious texting." Public transit is the future, while the "sprawlagists" of yore, like the "narcissistic, arrogant" architect Frank Lloyd Wright, got it wrong. "Car-dependent suburbs are going down — fast." (That would be you, Phoenix.)
Apart from Phoenix and its "slumburbs," Grescoe is rarely testy. He tries for fairness even when portraying master builder Robert Moses of New York, destroyer of neighbourhoods, pioneer of gridlock. Ultimately halted in his highway-building by what he called "a bunch of mothers," (prominent among them Jane Jacobs) Moses' car-centred mandate remains one to avoid.
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(reviewed June 16, 2012, by Kevin Canfield)
The product of an enormous amount of reporting, Taras Grescoe's "Straphanger" is a persuasive
and urgent book. The author, a Montreal resident, believes that commuters are happier and healthier when
they have access to reliable public transportation, and to bolster his case, he takes the measure of subways,
bus lines and bike-share programs from New York City to Paris to Tokyo. Midway through the book, for
instance, he arrives in Moscow, and it's there, amid a subway system adorned with antiquated public art
celebrating the Soviet era, that he makes what might be the book's most important observation.
"Muscovites don't favor their Stalinist Metro because it is filled with hammers and sickles and
other symbols of a discredited ideology," he writes. "They ride it because it is fast, cheap, and gets them
where they want to go with comfort and dignity. In this, Moscow's straphangers show that transportation
can no longer be about left and right; it has to be about what works -- and, on an increasingly urbanized
planet, what is sustainable."
Grescoe uses the various cities he visits to make particular points about the advantages of public
transportation. His stop in Los Angeles, a city famous for its freeways, includes an alarming discourse
on the dangers of the pollution caused by all those cars, and in his Moscow chapter he cites a report that
says "riding transit is still ten times safer, per passenger mile, than traveling by car anywhere in the world."
His New York City chapter, meanwhile, focuses on the city's recent embrace of expanded space for
pedestrians and bicyclists, and the construction of the 2nd Avenue subway line, which should eventually
reduce traffic, pollution and overuse of the nearby Lexington Avenue line.
All of which probably means very little to the millions of Americans who don't have access to
public transportation on a regular basis. But the problem of daily commuting is only one component of
Grescoe's book. The other focus of "Straphanger" is the nation's relative lack of high-speed rail lines that
might provide travelers with an efficient, eco-friendly alternative to time-consuming car trips or costly
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(reviewed in June, 2012 issue, by Charles Montgomery)
When he was a boy growing up in 1970s Vancouver, Taras Grescoe got tired of the cars that raced
up and down his street, disturbing games of street hockey and kick the can. So he took it upon himself to
redesign the place. Creating a cardboard model, with Monopoly hotels standing in for houses, he showed
how much more fun the neighbourhood would be if automobiles were banished to the back alleys.
The ability to change the quality of human life by changing the shape of our cities has long
been the purview of an elite club of architects, urban planners and road engineers. But ever since Jane
Jacobs and her legion of frustrated mothers began blocking the construction of freeways in mid-century
Manhattan, ordinary people have come to realize that we all have standing to join the debate on urban
Now an award-winning author, Grescoe has already staked a claim in the debates on illicit
substances (The Devil's Picnic)
and the decimation of the Earth's oceans (Bottomfeeder
, winner of The Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize in 2008). With the ambitious Straphanger
, Grescoe establishes himself
as a member of that emerging army of city thinkers whose claim to the title of urbanist is based as much
on their own experience of cities as on formal scholarship. Equal parts travelogue, polemic and urban
operating manual, the book follows Grescoe's search for the kind of place he imagined as a child.
Through his journeys, Grescoe concludes that a city's DNA can be read not in its architecture but
in its systems of transportation. For most of the last century, cities have been planned almost exclusively
around the private automobile, which remains Grescoe's bête noire
. As he drives the jammed freeways of Los Angeles and the numbingly disconnected byways of sprawling Phoenix, he lays out just how unhealthy
and vulnerable to energy price shocks auto-only cities have become.
Grescoe is certainly not the first to sound the alarm about suburban dispersal. No serious student
of urbanism denies that North American sprawl is the most polluting, expensive, land-gobbling, energy-
intensive living arrangement ever adopted en masse. With climatologists issuing ever more dire forecasts of
climate change and energy forecasters predicting that oil will never be cheap again, cities desperately need
to alter course.
Just as cities have been ravaged by private automobiles, Grescoe insists they can be repaired by
systems of shared mobility. Grescoe embodies the "straphanger" of the book's title, a public transit voyager
cruising by subway in Moscow and Tokyo, on light rail in Portland, bus in Los Angeles, streetcar in
Toronto and trolley in Philadelphia. The adventure is infused with history (including the scrapping of North
American streetcar networks in the 1930s by a consortium led by General Motors) and spiced with urbanist
geekery (fun fact: most developers assume people will walk no farther than 180 metres to a parked car) and
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GLOBE AND MAIL
(reviewed on April 20, 2012, by Ken McGoogan)
Why North America Sucks at Mass Transit
A few years back, while travelling around Amsterdam, I was struck by the speed and efficiency of the light-rail transit system. Next streetcar: 1 minute 30 seconds. And there it was.
In Singapore, the city that air conditioning built, I marvelled at the way subway-car doors lined up precisely with station-platform doors, the whole system designed to keep coolness constant everywhere.
In Switzerland, I shook my head in disbelief when I discovered that a cross-country commuter train could make front-page headlines by arriving two hours late.
Out of such experiences, writer Taras Grescoe built Straphanger. He had the smarts to apply himself systematically, leaving his Montreal home to test public transit in New York, Copenhagen, Paris,
Los Angeles, Bogota, Moscow, Tokyo and several other cities.
To this extensive legwork, Grescoe added context, theory and a series of interviews with key players. The end result is a marvellous investigation of urban transit whose thrust is neatly summarized in its subtitle: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile…
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(reviewed on April 27, 2012, by Shawn Micallef)
The hottest global topic these days might be cities. Magazines such as The Atlantic and Monocle have started city-focused online publications and the so-called cities agenda is getting almost as much
attention as the economic crisis. Cities are much more fun to think about, of course, as books such as Taras Grescoe's Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves From the Automobile prove.
The title is deliberately provocative; we live in an age when politicians can get elected by saying they're going to stop the war on the car. Yet as Grescoe points out in his opening chapter, the war is not
being fought most vigorously by anti-car fanatics, but rather, by elements of car culture itself, namely increasing fuel prices and unrelenting traffic jams — something that new roads, no matter how numerous,
will never alleviate.
It is clear Grescoe loves cities, and transit is simply a means to an end — in his chapter on Copenhagen he wishes he were European if only so he "could move like a European: comfortably, cheaply and quickly." Seeing transportation as just a utility is important, as transit fans often lead campaigns for more, and they can be as passionate about the technology as other guys (and they usually are guys) are
about their late model BMW 7-series cars. When it's about the technology — like the current light rail vs. subways debate in Toronto, the former a term that doesn't mean much to people who just want to get to where they're going fast — much of the population will quickly feel alienated from something that could
make their lives better.
Grescoe also stays away from condemning people who drive cars, another mistake pro-transit folks sometimes make…
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(reviewed on February 15, 2012)
A unique look at mass transit in 13 major cities.
In his latest, Grescoe (Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood
, 2008, etc.), who "has never owned a car," chronicles his global travels as he discusses the evolution and function of mass transit in a wide variety of international cities: his hometown of Montreal, Shanghai, New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Paris, Copenhagen, Moscow, Tokyo, Bogotá, Portland, Vancouver and Philadelphia. In each, the author examines the car-vs.–mass transit debate, discussing how culture and history affect the conversation. "Though I grew up with romantic tales of gasoline-fueled escape," writes the author, "I'm fine with a slower, more rooted life." Grescoe explores the major problems, mainly inefficiency and overcrowding, faced by each city's mass-transit experiment. The book is rife with bits of interesting trivia, and it almost reads like a travelogue as the author revels in the wonders of his diverse destinations. With a smooth, accessible narrative style, Grescoe inserts himself into the story enough to create a narrative thread but not so much that the book becomes about him. Each chapter is packed with important information, so some readers may find it more appealing to read the book in pieces in order to process the larger implications for each city. "[A]round the world, there is a revolution going on in the way people travel," writes the author. "It rewrites the DNA of formerly car-centered cities, making the streets better places to be, and restoring something cities sorely need: real public space." A captivating, convincing case for car-free—or at least car-reduced—cities.
Times, $25 (336p) ISBN 978-0-8050-9173-1
Getting there might be half the fun, but it's also a point of serious consideration in the latest from journalist Grescoe (Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood). Chronicling his voyage around the world to research different transit systems, Grescoe covers cities from Paris to Portland, Ore., examining the ways our means of transport affects how we function as a community. His exploration of the different aspects of train travel abroad—as compared to the U.S.—suggests how transportation tension can be quelled through better service. His illustrations of the benefits of bike travel in Copenhagen and Montreal show how bike riding merges health and environmental perks with emotional benefits. The crucial point is enunciated by a University of Tokyo professor of urban transport: "The kind of lifestyle you want to have in the future depends on your values, your way, your decisions; whether you are willing to pay more money to support public transport." While the book raises intriguing points about public transportation reform, it proves one-sided in its argument, and a contrary reader can't help pondering the difficulty of implementing automobile alternatives on a large scale. However, Grescoe presents a strong and timely argument for moving metropolitan motorists away from their cars.
(Pre-reviewed October 21, 2011)
With the rising cost and dwindling supply of petroleum, it's time to face facts, America: our car culture is doomed, and more of us will become straphangers—that is, users of public transportation. Such transportation is woefully underfunded and has a bad rap as a noisy, dirty means of conveyance limited to the not-so-rich. But it's the most efficient, world-smart way to go (trust me, I use it daily), and Grescoe is here to sing its praises. The author of highly regarded books like Bottomfeeder
, Grescoe surveyed public transportation worldwide—from New York and Moscow, to Paris and Copenhagen, to Tokyo and Phoenix—to show what really works. And he puts his money where his feet are—he's never owned a car. Don't overlook this book, even if you're far from buses or subways; they're the future.