Saturday, June 23, 2012
Straphanger: a book about urban transportation
The automobile has encouraged obesity and social isolation, destroyed public space, encouraged fossil-fuel driven foreign wars, and undone the fabric of once great cities. Those are some pretty heavy accusations, but Taras Grescoe makes the charges stick with a compelling mix of reportage, cutting humor, and historic research. But Straphanger isn't just another screed against the car. In this timely and persuasive book, Grescoe joins the ranks of the world's straphangers-the growing number of people who rely on public transportation to go about the business of their daily lives. In North America, the perception of transit is often unflattering-it is too often seen as a squalid last resort for those with one too many drunk-driving charges, too poor to afford insurance, or too decrepit to get behind the wheel of a car. Indeed, a century of auto-oriented culture and bad city planning has left most of North America with transit that is underfunded, ill maintained, and ill conceived. But as the demand for oil fast outpaces the world's supply, a revolution in transportation is under way. On a journey that takes him to New York, Moscow, Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Bogotá, Phoenix, Portland, Vancouver, and Philadelphia, Grescoe gets the inside story on the world's great transit systems, going beneath the streets to see subway tunnels being dug, boarding state-of-the-art streetcars, and hopping on high-speed trains, along the way uncovering new ideas that will help undo the damage a century of car-centric planning has done to our cities. Ultimately he envisions a future with convenient, affordable, and sustainable urban transportation-and better city living-for all.
And from Atlanticcities.com:
"This book 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," he writes.
Grescoe recently took a break from his platform hopping to give Atlantic Cities readers a view from his strap. "I've really focused on the urban experience in my travels," he says. And away we go.
What compelled you to write a whole book about urban transportation?
I've been exploring cities around the world for almost 20 years. I spend a lot time getting oriented to cities, and walking around cities, and exploring them by public transit. When you do that, you realize that cities are formed, to a certain extent — not inevitably, but often — by their transportation systems. I wanted to draw on my experience of urban exploring and put together a book that looked at which cities were coping best with congestion and sprawl, and which were using transit to escape from those things.
The book is as much about cars and cities as it is about public transit.
I see a lot of problems facing cities going down the road in terms of highways, cars, and sprawl. There's a certain point where I was thinking of writing just a black book of the automobile, which involved the negative impacts they have on cities. But it occurred to me that you can take a positive approach to cities too. Really the way out of the negative is the positive of public transit.
Photo by Erin Churchill