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Confessions of a Straphanger

Confessions of a Straphanger
Photo: Erin Churchill

Taras Grescoe spends most of his new book, Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, guiding readers on a world tour of public transit. We travel the subway tunnels of New York, the Art Nouveau métro entrances of Paris, the rapid-bus lanes of Bogotá, the endless bike infrastructure of Copenhagen. At each stop Grescoe blends present-day observations with a brief history and some expert analysis — delivered by policy wonks and politicians alike — on the future of travel within the city.

Still there are times during this journey when one gets the sense that title and subtitle ought to switch seats. Grescoe, a Montreal-based travel writer, clearly likes him some public transportation. But not as much as he loves cities (transit's a "distant second," he writes), nor as much as he loathes sprawl. The best thing about subways, buses, and trains, Grescoe argues in his introduction, is that they shape better cities than cars and highways do, and he takes us to the congested roads of Los Angeles, Moscow, and Phoenix to prove it.

"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.

On those positive experiences, which city comes closest to perfection in terms of the way it handles transportation?

The city that blew my mind was Copenhagen. I hesitated to include it because I wasn't really thinking of the bicycle as a form of mass transit when I put together the idea for this book. When you go there you realize that 36 percent of people get to school or work everyday by bicycle. They've used extensive infrastructure to create this mass transit system. They've also got a pretty good metro system that's getting even bigger. They're building a circle line. And railways that bring you to just about everywhere in Europe. For me Copenhagen is the place that actually pulls off multi-modal transit the best.

At the other end of the spectrum, you seem to be the most bleak about Phoenix.

Well, they're trying. They bought themselves $1.4 billion worth of light rail. That's fantastic that they made the effort, but in my experience they spend most of their time rumbling past parking lots and cacti and tumbleweeds. The city's density is just too low for this to be an appropriate form of transit. I think the key is that Phoenix never really had a dense city center. It was entirely built around the automobile. You try to slap extensive transit on a city like that, it's not going to have convincing results. And you can see that in the ridership. There's only about 40,000 people using it a day, which New York's Lexington line handles every 15 minutes.

If you had to identify a single theme that runs through the successful transit systems you've visited, what would it be?

Not getting obsessed with technology. The shiniest and sexiest — the glamour of the system. Too many people want to slap a revised streetcar into an old neighborhood, or a really nice light rail into their city, when what you really need to be thinking about it is mobility. Which is why I went to Bogotá to look at the bus-rapid transit system. I have a prejudice against buses, just because I know them in North America, and they tend to be the slowest things on the road. But when you set up a bus-rapid transit system like Bogota's, with pre-payment, with dedicated lanes, which operates like a subway on the street, all of the sudden you've matched a transportation mode to urban form.

You don't exactly hide your grudge against cars and sprawl. What would you want a car-loving suburbanite to walk away from this book thinking?

I don't want to come off as an anti-sprawl, anti-car zealot. There's times in our lives when we'll all use automobiles. There are times in our lives when suburbs feel like the right choice. But what I want people to think about is the impact that automobiles have had on public space in our cities, and look at what's happening in Japan and Northern Europe, where car use has declined for a long time. I'm making the argument that among younger people in their twenties, transit is becoming less of a loser's option. It's becoming more normalized.

What will transport in the most successful cities look like in 20, 50 years?

The cities that have been working on this for a long time — like Paris, like Tokyo, like New York — never really gave up on transit. They had their ups and downs but they continued expanding networks. At this point, Tokyo, Paris, Berlin, etc., the transit matches the anywhere-to-anywhere mobility of the automobile. You really don't need a car to live and thrive in those cities.

Whenever you think about the future of oil prices heading upward — and I'm not sure electric cars are the solution given the fact that so much electricity generated comes from burning coal — I think the future is improved transit networks and more bus-rapid transit. What I want is people not to shy away from the bus. Well-timed feeder buses feeding heavy rail and light rail, which is the solution they've found in a lot of mid-sized European cities. And what I really hope for is people riding more bicycles.

You've been to lots of cities over the years. What's the first thing you do when you visit a new one?

Buy a Metro card. I figure out where to get tokens. I look at a subway map and almost always stay at a hotel on a trunk line so I can discover a city by transit. Even Los Angeles, I stayed downtown at the Biltmore. I rented a car for a little while, but I ended up discovering a whole different side of the city because I was in proximity to the Los Angeles subway, which a lot of people don't know exists.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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