Babble Book Club: Straphanger by Taras Grescoe

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Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture
Babble Book Club: Straphanger by Taras Grescoe

After voting polls and some hard decisions, we have our newest selection of Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe.

From our Bound but not Gagged blog post:

Straphanger offers an intimate and personal tour of cities that offer alternatives to car-based living and provides support towards the shift away from automobiles in cities. Grescoe uses personal anecdotes of bicycle rides and subway commutes to inform readers of the economical and environmental impact of transportation and public transit technology on cities.

Straphanger looks like a great non-fiction read about the current focus on the shift towards car-free cities or less car dominated cities.

The book is widely available at libraries, bookstores, and online, and Harper Collins Canada even has a bit of a preview of different sections on their website.

The discussion date is still TBA, but it will most likely hang around the one month time period again to keep us all on a steady reading path. We'll let you know when the discussion date has beenn reached.

Looking forward to this read and whatever everyone has to say on the topic!

Regions: 
Caissa

Our public library has a copy so I won't have to break my moratorium on buying books.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Nice! Ya, the book is on pretty wide release, which is great. I usually check out the Halifax, Calgary, Toronto, and Vancouver libraries, and if they don't have copies of the book, then I doubt other Canadian libraries will.

There is also a copy for me here to in the good US o' A.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Also, speaking of libraries, did everyone see the article on the children's author who thinks libraries are outdated?

From the Guardian:

Libraries "have been around too long" and are "no longer relevant", according to Horrible Histories author Terry Deary, an apparently lone literary voice to believe that libraries have "had their day".

"I'm not attacking libraries, I'm attacking the concept behind libraries, which is no longer relevant," Deary told the Guardian, pointing out that the original Public Libraries Act, which gave rise to the first free public libraries in the UK, was passed in 1850. "Because it's been 150 years, we've got this idea that we've got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers. This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that," said Deary, who has received hate mail since he first aired his views in the Sunderland Echo yesterday.

This guy clearly doesn't believe in mass transit or free and accessible transit either.

Caissa

What a self-righteous right-wing entitled prig! My understanding is that libraries pay a higher fee because the books circulate.

Unionist

Sounds like the same genius who decided to sell [url=http://www.amazon.com/Steal-This-Book-Abbie-Hoffman/dp/156858217X]this book[/url].

 

lagatta

They do, and they also pay a higher price for periodicals, which can be a problem for small, underfunded libraries.

Lucien Bouchard hasn't done many progressive things - his support for la Grande bibliothèque was an exception. It is a phenomenal success, after decades of Québec being behind in terms of library availability and use.

I'll have to reserve Straphanger, as the circulating copies at the closest Montreal library branch and the Banq (Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec, popularly known as La Grande bibliothèque) are out at present.

I very rarely buy books in French or in English any more - I have eight bookcases in a one-bedroom flat. Only in languages harder to find here, or technical dictionaries and such (print or software).

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Unionist wrote:

Sounds like the same genius who decided to sell [url=http://www.amazon.com/Steal-This-Book-Abbie-Hoffman/dp/156858217X]this book[/url].

sell or write?

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

That is good to hear Lagatta about la Grande bibliothèque. This guy's rationale is so absurd and dumb. It seems the internet and real life reaction has been to call this guy an idiot and move on. Lots of author's have been like "this is ridiculous, and writers don't think like this on the most part."

Thanks for reserving the book too. Seems like there are lots of copies circulating around, I have one coming in on-transit soon. 

I'm looking forward to the comparison's among all the cities in this read and specifically what is said about Vancouver transit, as when I lived there I really was not a fan, especially since they had the examples of many cities. I'm in DC right now, and have to say I'm pretty stoked on most aspects of the transit/metro system here. It is a bit more expensive than others, just a bit, but the fares also adjust with rush hour/non-rush times, and the bus is super cheap.

Unionist

Kaitlin McNabb wrote:

Unionist wrote:

Sounds like the same genius who decided to sell [url=http://www.amazon.com/Steal-This-Book-Abbie-Hoffman/dp/156858217X]this book[/url].

sell or write?

Sell. The book is great.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Funny coincidence, was just looking at it after watching an episode of Daria (!) and I might be moving to Worcester next year.

kropotkin1951 kropotkin1951's picture

Does this book also talk about the service area covered. For instance TO has a great system in its densest areas but get out of the region covered by their subway and the service falls off to a range from mediocre to abysmal.

I have often wondered about the square kilometers covered by various systems because I think it is a factor in the service level. 

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

I'm not sure kropotkin1951, here is a quote from the Q&Q review:

We follow the author on bicycle rides and subway tours, and along the way we gain a new perspective on transportation and cities. We learn about different forms of public transit technology, how much each one costs, and their impact on growth. We learn about efforts to privatize public transit, and we learn about urban cylcling networks. And, of course, we are given a history of the emergence of the automobile, along with a sense of people’s hopes for the future and their frustrations with a life spent stuck in traffic.

I believe the cheif criticism of this book has been that although it is created to support the argument of mass transit for cities, it is actually structured more like a travelogue and follows Grescoe's experiences. He seems to go into detail with different authorities on transit, but I don't think it is as technically structured. A mix of story and fact it seems.

I haven't begun reading it yet though.

 

I hope it does go into that because that was one  of my main gripes with the Vancouver system is that the area is indeed fairly small (especially in comparison to other cities) and they seemed to have devised the worst transit map ever.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Alright! My copy just came in to the library!

Caissa

Got it out of the library on Saturday. Will start it as soon as I finish Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue.

Caissa

Started the book last night. Three interests facts in the introduction. I haven't verified them through other sources.

1) Dallas-Fort Worth covers as much area as the State of Israel.

2) All the asphalt in the US could cover the State of Georgia.

3) The first motorized vehicle fatality took place in 1899.

lagatta

Kaitlin, there are many books on public-transport oriented (also known as transit oriented) development, and technical works on fostering walkable and cyclable cities. Starting with the Danish architect and visionary planner, Jan Gehl. http://www.ecosociete.org/t161.php Pour des villes à l'échelle humaine. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Gehl Any and all of the books in the bibliography, the one I mentioned in French is Cities for People in English. Gehl architects have worked in North America and Oceania as well as throughout Europe.

This book takes a more conversational, anecdotal approach. Think it rounds out the more technical and arid town planning works.

EricD EricD's picture

Great to see this conversation happening! I really enjoyed reading Straphanger, and wrote a review for Rabble http://www.rabble.ca/books/reviews/2012/06/saving-our-cities-and-ourselv...

Here is the most critical section of my review:

While Grescoe does an admirable job of outlining the kinds of changes needed to deal with automobile dependency and the global warming crisis, his analysis is inconsistent on a crucial point. He calls Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's proposal to build two very expensive subways "spectacular wastes of taxpayer money" and heaps praise on the ‘Transit City' plan for seven much more economical surface rapid transit lines which he claims would have "turned Toronto into the Strasbourg of North America". He also emphasizes the cost-effectiveness of the TransMilenio bus rapid transit network in Bogotá Columbia, built for about 10 per cent the cost of a subway. But while in Paris, Grescoe seems to fall in love with grandiose subway megaprojects, and proposes networks of subways in sprawling automobile-dominated suburbs -- a vision in line with Mayor Ford's plan. "A Paris-style supermetro serving the suburbs is the next logical step in... cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Toronto and Boston."

Am I being too hash?

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Apologies everyone, I have been under the weather and unable to really focus on anything due to various substances and fluids, and general puffiness of my face. 

So after that grossness and overshare, I'm feeling slightly better and am going to start reading Straphanger!

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

lagatta wrote:

Kaitlin, there are many books on public-transport oriented (also known as transit oriented) development, and technical works on fostering walkable and cyclable cities. Starting with the Danish architect and visionary planner, Jan Gehl. http://www.ecosociete.org/t161.php Pour des villes à l'échelle humaine. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Gehl Any and all of the books in the bibliography, the one I mentioned in French is Cities for People in English. Gehl architects have worked in North America and Oceania as well as throughout Europe.

This book takes a more conversational, anecdotal approach. Think it rounds out the more technical and arid town planning works.

That's really cool Lagatta thanks. 

I think that has been the cheif criticism about this book is that is does take an acedotal tone, which distances itself from potentially making a bigger impact on this transit discussion. 

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

EricD wrote:

Am I being too hash?

Probably not!

I read your review way back when (!) and I liked that it pointed out the inconsistencies of what someone likes versus wants, it seems. I think there are the obvious desirable transit systems around the world, but all come at cost of money, time and trial and error/experimentation, and what is right for that particular city.

I'm excited to read the Vancouver section for many reasons -- my well documented distaste for Vancouver transit, the unique geography of Vancouver, and the just wonderful city planning that has taken place already. 

 

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

I'm enjoying Grescoe's written voice. It's easy to ready, slightly funny, and not too overly descriptive. 

Now that I've gotten in to some of it, the anecdotal style makes sense for what he set up his purpose to be: to see if cities can be a place where people, specifically those raising families, can live and thrive.

The one thing interesting was that he states why Millenials are more willing to ride transit than their parents' generation is because of the ease of technology and that is adds added time to text (p.9). I don't know if that was an funny quip or actually true. I kind of doubt kids would take the train just so they could text more when so many seem to love to text and drive.

I think I am a part of the Millenials (it is defined as anyone born late 70s all the way to 00s), even though I feel they are a couple years younger than me, but the reason I take transit is (1) I've never owned a car, (2) I hate driving in cities, and (3) easier and less worrisome to sit on a train/bus and commute (all those are under the umbrella of supporting transit for the environment and the city). 

I know that's not a big part of the book, but I just found it funny. "want a ride home?" "No, I feel like texting for a bit." ha.

Caissa

I finished the book about a week ago. I found it a bit of a hard slog until I forced myself to finish it on a vacation.I felt the book didn't seem to know what it was: part travelogue, part critique and ver short on prescription. I voted for an I am glad I read it but I have certainly found all of the fictional selections to be more enjoyable than the non-fiction we have read.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Caissa, I think you are among a lot of people that said the book would benefit from a reshaping -- either travelogue or more research based criticism. 

I think it is definitely possible to meld the two styles as he has, but I think the way the facts were incorporated (all notes in an index) made some statements misleading or not as hard-hitting. What could have been portrayed as harder fact or statement was gleamed over with personal information.

What did you think about the transit specifics? WHAT'S YOUR FAVOURITE CITY?!

lagatta

Favourite city in terms of sustainable mobility (public transport, walkability, cyclability etc.) in Canada or anywhere in the world?

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

More so on what the book presented or did not present, but based on transit system. But also walkability, cyclability would be super cool. And anywhere in the world.

I think the set up of the book just demands that question -- city v. city! Wink

I haven't read the Vancouver chapter yet, but I actually really love the cyclability of Vancouver, and that is something I miss. DC has an awesome bike coop, but riding a bike in this city is TERRIFYING.

Caissa

I enjoyed reading about the European experience.  To my shame, I was born in Toronto, and lived there again in the early 90s.  I enjoyed reading the chapter on Toronto because it was the city I was most familiar with.

kropotkin1951 kropotkin1951's picture

So when you ask about cities are you just referring to their central cores or do you mean the whole metropolitan area?  Metro Vancouver is not Vancouver and just looking at Vancouver the city is meaningless in relation to the 75% of Metro Vancouver residents who don't live in that one relatively tiny area of our metropolis.

Caissa

The book examines Metro Vancouver if i remember correctly.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

kropotkin1951 wrote:

So when you ask about cities are you just referring to their central cores or do you mean the whole metropolitan area?  Metro Vancouver is not Vancouver and just looking at Vancouver the city is meaningless in relation to the 75% of Metro Vancouver residents who don't live in that one relatively tiny area of our metropolis.

Well I was asking about the cities represented in the book -- which ones seem like their transit systems are desirable and well thought out -- but also cities anyone has visited and liked their transit, or as mentioned by lagatta, their walkability or cyclability.

So, when I said Vancouver, I meant Vancouver the city, specifically East Vancouver where I lived and biking around was super easy, even getting out to West Van with things like the bike routes (moasic specifically) and the seawall commutes. I also walked a lot, and the transit is decent, though I have large issues with it.

I also lived in Port Moody in the greater Vancouver area (actually an hour away) and cyclability is non-existent because the city is contained on a mountain. People who like mountain biking love it, but to bike around for pleasure a lot of people drive their bikes down to Rocky Point and cike around, or your go down the mountain at warp speed ( which is terrifying) and then inch back up it (which is awful). The walking is the same and since it is a really small town, there is one somewhat strip mall with a grocery store, but everything else is in Coquitlam. And there is one tiny bus that is awful.

kropotkin1951 kropotkin1951's picture

Thanks I thought you were talking about the city not the Metro area so that is why I asked for clarification.  Then I must say I prefer Burnaby to Vancouver. 

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

kropotkin1951 wrote:

Thanks I thought you were talking about the city not the Metro area so that is why I asked for clarification.  Then I must say I prefer Burnaby to Vancouver. 

Burnaby really, how come? And what area of Burnaby?

kropotkin1951 kropotkin1951's picture

It has the most parks of anywhere in the region and a very good and ever improving network of bike trails. Burnaby Lake park and Deer Lake are some of my favourite areas.  It could use more buses but that can be said of all the cities I have lived in. The Burnaby Heights area is a great walk around area with the Eilen Dailly Pool and the seniors centre and library and Confederation park with the Model Steam railway next door.  Also I think I like that most of our neighbourhoods are very mixed culturally, ethnically and economically more so than many other parts of the Metro region.

I also like Saskatoon a lot for Canadian cities but it has one big problem and that is the wind chill factor. Otherwise I might have stayed there after graduating from U of S. 

Caissa

So what's our next book?

I just finished an interesting quick read , one sentence long.

http://www.quillandquire.com/reviews/review.cfm?review_id=7650

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Ok Ok Ok I get the message. I need to get my hands on this book -- it hasn't been available at nearby librairies, though. I'll grab a copy this weekend.

That one-sentence novella looks interesting, Caissa. Still no bites on Sein und Zeit?

Unionist

Catchfire wrote:

That one-sentence novella looks interesting, Caissa. 

I prefer period pieces myself.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Let's move the selections talk over to the selections thread for further discussion BUT we were thinking it could be fuuuun to do a Earth related read for earth week in April.

I can hear the groans, but still we can get interesting and flexible with it!

Caissa

Groan!!!!!!

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

kropotkin1951 wrote:

It has the most parks of anywhere in the region and a very good and ever improving network of bike trails. Burnaby Lake park and Deer Lake are some of my favourite areas.  It could use more buses but that can be said of all the cities I have lived in. The Burnaby Heights area is a great walk around area with the Eilen Dailly Pool and the seniors centre and library and Confederation park with the Model Steam railway next door.  Also I think I like that most of our neighbourhoods are very mixed culturally, ethnically and economically more so than many other parts of the Metro region.

That was one thing I appreciated about living in East Van (and Vancouver in general) is that even though it is a urban, metropolitan area, there was lots and lots of green space and public space. Port Moody's the same, but different in that it has one store.

I'm living in Washington, DC at the moment, and that is something that is prominent here as well. There is tons of green/public space due to the high volume of monuments and memorials. There are large areas dedicated to pedestrian areas as well.

It's a nice mix to live in a very large city (especially large to my Canadian standards) and have efficient metros and buses, and also have the city designed for walking. The sidewalks are huge unlike somewhere else I know...

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Caissa wrote:

Groan!!!!!!

I know, I know. But I'm seeing if there is anything out there (which there is, we just have to find it!) that has the undertones of something earth-week related.

I mean, it is certainly arguable that Straphanger is earth-related. And even more so, we can make the argument that People Park incorporated a lot of those themes as well, including the idea of gentrification, which I think can be linked into earth week related issues.

We don't have to read a "how-to urban garden" if no one is interested, but we can read something where the themes are there and discuss them in relation to earth week! Huh! Laughing

 

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Catchfire wrote:

Ok Ok Ok I get the message. I need to get my hands on this book -- it hasn't been available at nearby librairies, though. I'll grab a copy this weekend.

There is a large sample of the book on Harper Collins website here so you don't have to spend your dollar bills.

Also, my reading has dropped off because I was sick and doing taxes (two sets, blugh!) and then an old friend came to visit. So apologies for all of a sudden stopping reading.

I definitely get the criticisms about how it does not seem to be research-oriented or detail specific; however, I, so far, have liked his melding of details and his anecdotes. The section on New York alone is really, really interesting. The history of the transit up to its conception now, and also the hidden elements of the system. And I like that though he seems biased, obviously, he states he is, he still is critical of the systems. 

Pretty interesting so far, however, if I was needing some stone cold facts for a paper of something, I don't know if this would be the best bet. I guess it depends how you go in to the read.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Oh and Caissa and everyone, we're just finishing up a few last details for the final discussion date of this book, and it will probably be around the end of March or beginning of April, as per our usual times lines. So a week/week and a half/two weeks, probably.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Friday reading night for sure!

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

We're nearing the end for sure, and I have yet to finish, surprise.

I'm actually enjoying the read quite a bit, but find it very dense, and therefore hard to make big dents in. I'm not sure if it is amount of words on the huge pages, style of writing, or my speed, but the rate that I am able to move through this book is at times, very frustrating.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Also, LA seems like the worst.

I was unaware thought that they had a rail line of any sort. I watched a documentary about city bike riders and there is a growing bike culture in LA. Every rider was nearly escaping death.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

Are there any Calgarians reading?

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

regarding the parallels to Phoenix and the claims of suburbanism.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

I'm currently in suburban Edmonton visiting a friend and I had the most frustrating pedestrian experience of my young life yesterday. There is a big box complex about a five minute drive away from his home, and since the wee spark wasn't cooperating napwise, I decided to walk over for some wine pushing the stroller while the boy slept. I could see the complex after walking to the end of his street. It looked about 1-2 kms away. But there was no way to walk to it. After more than an hour of walking, and keeping a 2km orbit from the complex, I found myself on the other side of it but no closer. Plus the sidewalks were covered with ice every time we passed a house who decided not to shovel snow that week. When they weren't flooded (up to 10 inches in some places!) with snow melt. Not the most enjoyable with a stroller. Anyway, at that point I decided to check Google maps for bus schedules, and the best option it gave me was 45 mins with a transfer! And I could see the bloody building!

I had been in cities ambivalent to pedestrians before, but this place is downright hostile. Eventually I managed to get there after 90 mins, coming in from the opposite side of the complex. Then I called someone to come pick me and the wee lad up. He did enjoy the walk, which made one of us.

The wine was good though.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

That sounds awesome, and I totally would have cracked that wine open on the way home.

My partner is in Worceter MA and is sounds the exact same, except that also encompasses the downtown too. He can see complexes he wants to go to, see them, but he can't reach them because of highways or lack of sidewalks or drop offs. Strange.

I like the points the Grescoe is making between the distinctions of 'interconnected' and 'developed' transit: some great cities have wonderful downtown transit that is interconnected with buses, trains, bikes, but lack anything to Suburbs, and then some small European towns have amazing transit both within the city and to the main downtown. The point being, what is important to transit needs and where do we want it to go?

For the development of NA transit, is it more important to bring in people from the suburbs or create efficient transits downtown first?

I would argue, Vancouver is taking the former route, which seems to be the less popular one according to the book.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

I finally landed a copy of the book, so I'm kind of glad this discussion has been going on for so long. I've been kind of cherrypicking cities from the book and am reading the Pac-NW chapter right now.

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

I'm finally finished (also glad it's been going for so long)! Compiling my thoughts, but spoil alert, they are on the positive side.

And thanks to our lovely editor Derrick, BBC has finally (almost, dot t's cross i's) a discussion date with a transit enthusiast for the end of the week! The official details to come so soon you won't even be able to handle it.

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