It’s officially Earth Week, and what better way to kick it off in the book lounge than with a summary of our Babble Book Club conversation on Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile. Last Friday, we had special guest Eric Doherty, a Registered Professional Planner in Vancouver, join us in the book lounge to add a little perspective and depth into the issues of transit infrastructure and city planning presented in Straphanger.

The conversation spanned the issues far beyond just the environmental aspects that are associated with public transit and car transportation, to those sometimes forgotten peripheral factors that are equally important and linked with transit infrastructure and city planning. Babble Book Club members questioned the books coverage of issues of gentrification and displacement of marginalized people, especially within Vancouver, its heavy tilt towards favouring subways and other expensive modes of transportation and its emphasis on high density urban areas as cities to aspire to, while agreeing with its attempted coverage of various modes of transportation and which cities benefit from them, his memoir and travelogue style to evoke interest in transit and his excellent analysis of transit between suburban to urban areas.

The conversation has since evolved into a discussion about Canadian transit and what type of public transit Canadian cities would benefit from, particularly the city of Vancouver and it’s surrounding areas.

Here are some highlights from the conversation that will hopefully spark your interest to read Straphanger and continue on the quest of transit-related reading and its various outlying factors, or if you’ve already read the book, further contribute to the ongoing conversation in the book lounge and let us know what you think about Canadian transit and transit issues.

Climate crises? Environmental impact? Anti-gentrification? Comprehensive transit systems? We want to know what you think!

Read on and enjoy!

EricD: Great to see this conversation happening! I really enjoyed reading Straphanger, and wrote a review for rabble.ca and 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 BogotĂĄ Columbia, built for about 10 per cent of 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: Probably not!

I read your review and 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 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.

An interesting thing 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 it adds added time to text (p.9). I don’t know if that was a 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.

Caissa: I found it a bit of a hard slog until I forced myself to finish it on a vacation day. I felt the book didn’t seem to know what it was: part travelogue, part critique and very short on prescription.

Kaitlin McNabb: I had a hard time getting into it as well. The New York section was so long.

I felt the book gained speed and purpose when it was discussing more specialized cities — as in BogotĂĄ: the BRT; Philly: growing city, etc.

He was great when critiquing transit in comparison to freeways and cars. I liked the travelogue style of it though. He’s a good writer.

Catchfire: My biggest critique of Grescoe’s book is that he treats public transit as an independent, dissociated entity that is a self-justifying good just because it is transit. His class analysis is seriously lacking, let alone labour or feminist inquiries. He gestures occasionally towards race, but even urban planning is barely addressed to the extent I think is necessary. For example, to answer the suburb-to-suburb vs non-car areas, you simply need to look at transit as part of the way we plan and imagine our cities, rather than a deterministic, teleological project that will make cities better simply by virtue of being itself.

He repeatedly refers to high-density condos and developments which pop up historically around subway stations, for example, as if their benefit is self-evident. I think Vancouverites who have read the book will have serious criticisms with the way he casually treats gentrification and development –and as much as I love taking the Canada Line to the airport — it is very difficult to say that that project fits the needs of most Vancouverites. I found his endorsement of NY’s “Seven-line extension” to be shocking — as if it doesn’t clearly serve the interests of capital before people, and is yet another iteration of the “fat cats get rich while poor stuffed in cattle trains” motif he says is finished.

I realize that his project is to make the case for public transit broadly — and I am pretty much a straphanger fanatic — but I’m disappointed with what I perceive to be gaps in his analysis. He works best when he takes on the freeway as a public/private works project and the damage it’s done to North American society in particular–because his critical guns are firing full blast — but it would be nice if he applied that to how transit has been deployed for good and ill. Because the rich don’t suddenly work in the people’s interest when they agree to build a subway.  

I should mitigate the above by voicing my appreciation of the fascinating details about transit systems abroad. As someone who frequently teaches LA novels, I found that chapter super interesting (although I think we share a number of sources!)

Lagatta: Well, the class blindness goes back to Jane Jacobs. This is why I’m so thrilled with the Parisian trams – on travel boards, one hears arch comments like “why would anyone want to go from slum to slum?” (Which is a gross stereotype about working-class suburban towns with a lot of brown and black people). These trams really improve mobility for people living in these densely populated areas, who may well be working in another suburban town rather than Paris proper.

Obviously greater Paris is very far from perfect — the riots breaking out after teens who are usually African (north or west) or other non-pur-porc origins are killed by police, and that take on a more general fed-upness attest to that — but there has been some response to people’s needs.

I’m not really interested in the Interstate except as a negative, but it is important to look at disastrous development as well — disastrous development in cities also includes much of the postwar Urban Renewal that destroyed so many established popular neighbourhoods — in terms not only of architecture, but of human relations, networks for work and support and everything that makes up a life (the horror following Katrina is a far more recent example). Not just in large cities but smaller ones, such as Ybor City in Florida, where Spanish, Italian and Cuban cigar workers with anarchist and socialist backgrounds formed not only trade unions but a host of co-operative societies: a library, clinic, building societies etc. All their built heritage was destroyed by HUD, and of course the remaining veterans of these movements were displaced.

It is ironic that he seems to celebrate Vancouver development, while he also seems very fond of MontrĂ©al, which has to a large extent maintained its “vernacular” endless streets of triplexes.

Kaitlin McNabb: Catchfire, I agree with the points your making — especially the Vancouver ones.

But as much as we, the Babble Book Club readers, wanted more analysis and critique on certain areas, I’m wondering if that analysis was sacrificed so the book could reach a larger audience — specifically the non-transit minded readers.

It makes me think of Paved with Good Intentions, which was so steeped in facts, analysis, criticisms that it was alienating to audiences that weren’t completely submersed in the issues.

With this book, it felt more like a love letter to transit and why you should give it a try. I think it was also largely marketed towards an American audience.

So did the book suffer a bit from Grescoe’s actual vision because the publishers wanted to make it more reader friendly? Or did Grescoe not consider the aforementioned areas. Based on Grescoe’s twitter and other commentary, he seems aware of what we’re all saying. I think some of the answers might just go back potentially to what he was allowed to say and what would serve his theses of “raising kids in the city” the best.

Lagatta: Not that I’m opposed to a love letter to public transport; as a dedicated car-hater, any cursory study will show that walkability and cyclability also depend on a proper public transport infrastructure, to travel farther, for those who can’t really walk (or adaptations for disabilities) or cycle. Amsterdam’s mobility depends as much on his many tram lines as on the famous bicycles, as does Strasbourg’s.

But we can’t see this in isolation from class relations. In many cities, these also involve race relations — and, well, racism. I’d of course also look at mobility from a woman’s viewpoint, especially in terms of perceived safety.

Kaitlin McNabb: Grescoe makes a hat tip to a few of those, but really refrains from diving in — I’m wondering where his limitations stem from. I wouldn’t mind seeing a Straphanger 2 of sorts for people who are engaged in the transit situation and would like a further analysis or more solution-based description as opposed to convincing us transit is great.

Catchfire: I think it’s fair to say that Grescoe wasn’t writing a deep critique of transit and its more of a “love letter”–but that doesn’t stop him from making political statements about eliminating jobs through automized systems, encouraging certain privatization measures, and dismissing the concerns of low-income groups (like his glib dismissal of the LA bus riders union). So yes, he wanted to reach a wide audience, but that doesn’t need to come at the expense of grounding it in solid progressive politics.

Kaitlin McNabb: Yes, his flagrant hate of buses and ingrained love of subways is kind of annoying. He makes statements that bus service shouldn’t be sacrificed for subway costs and lines, but lthat’s it.

Eric and I were chatting before the final conversation that subways/metro aren’t necessarily the best option for Canada. We’re big geographically, but small population wise.

Subways are expensive and take forever, and might not be the right choice. The bus systems, BRTs, he highlighted in Bogota seem like a good match for some larger Canadian cities. Edmonton has an LRT and a ton of buses in the downtown.

Lagatta: Well, a prime example of wanting mĂ©tros/subways where unwarranted by ridership is none other than Rob Ford, who wants to eliminate trams as they “block traffic” when they should get dedicated lanes.

I’m not opposed to bus or trolley transport, but it is for ridership levels lower than trams. MontrĂ©al needs at least a couple more tramlines parallel to the Orange line (a U), which is utterly saturated from about Jean-Talon into the city centre, since the extension to the huge northern suburban city of Laval. The extension proved very popular, and is a great success, but it requires something beyond bus lines to take up the increased passenger flow.

There already is an express bus along avenue du Parc, through the downtown core, and up CĂŽte-des-Neiges (Parc and CDN are major, basically north-southish arteries on either side of our so-called mountain).

Lagatta: Also, It should be remembered that there are reasons other than snobbery that make tramlines superior to bus lines, where they are economically feasible.

Trams have a much smoother ride — as Grescoe stated about the first ones built when they were still pulled by horses — if a commute is fairly long, this is important because you can read or perhaps even work during your commute, unlike on buses (bump, bump). I’ve never seen any buses as universally accessible as the modern trams in Amsterdam and some other European cities — very low floor, some have assistance for people in wheelchairs to board, sound and visual signals to accommodate both visually and hearing-impaired users. Great for parents pushing strollers and prams as well, and people carrying items.

Another positive for trams (which might at first glance seem a negative) is that they are less flexible than bus lines. A positive because, like métros, but not to the same extent, they are structuring, and favour the emergence of denser construction along their routes.

However, the lesser flexibility does require at least a few tramlines, allowing for deviation in the event of a hold up or of maintenance work (I’ve observed this a lot in Amsterdam).

Catchfire: Don’t get me wrong, Lagatta. I love tramlines. But in the incident in the book I was referring to, the woman of colour representing the bus-rider union was explaining the social context and historical record of transit in LA and he dismissed her position as short-sighted, even though she was quite clear that divesting of busses would disproportionately hurt workers of colour.

Kaitlin McNabb: The thing that sucks about buses is that they are subject to the same congestion that cars are. I can’t remember if he makes the point about LA, but I know he makes it somewhere, that for buses to work for the people they need to be given right of way and their own lanes.

In LA buses don’t seem to be the answer because of congestion, but I think they just need to be restructured for priority. 

EricD: The point about a networks with parallel transit lines allowing for detours is very important. No transit line is 100% reliable, so a grid of good quality transit lines is inherently more resilient than one that relies on a few trunk lines. This is one of the points in favour of less expensive surface rapid transit lines, you can afford to build multiple lines forming a resilient network.

In defense of bus rapid transit, it can provide quite high capacity rapid transit but with more drivers. Trolley bus drivers are a great example of green jobs. (That said, light rail does generally provide a smoother ride)

Lagatta: Catchfire, yes, of course eliminating buses anywhere without putting in better alternatives at the same fare will disproportionally harm poorer people. This is true even in cases like Mexico City with its beautiful underground system, as well as Cairo. I don’t know if this is still the case in these huge cities, but when I read about them, the mĂ©tros were twice the fare of the bus or other above-ground systems, which means a kind of social apartheid.

We have been waging a campaign here for a “social fare”; a much lower fare for poor people — starting with people on welfare or Employment Insurance, but also encompassing low-wage or precarious workers. We currently have a senior fare (which starts at 65 — I’d like to see it cut to 60) and student fares that extend as far as full-time university students up to age 25. There is nothing for low-income people under 65, including mature students over 25. I wrote an article about this campaign for my tenants’ association paper a few years ago.

Kaitlin McNabb: Catchfire’s comment “the rich don’t suddenly work in the people’s interest when they agree to build a subway” is pertinent, especially because Vancouver seems to be a major example of that.

EricD: Very true.

And I think it is quite interesting that freeway builders also tend to like subways. One of the main reasons for building subways rather than surface rapid transit is to get transit out of the way of the private automobile. Certain powerful developers want to sell high-end condos along the Broadway corridor in Vancouver, therefore they want a subway rather than a much more cost effective surface light rail or bus rapid transit line. Basically, the subway is largely about preserving space for the 1%’s Range Rovers.

PS – I don’t think trolley buses and bus rapid transit gets enough serious consideration in Canada.

Catchfire: I should add that Grescoe’s statement that Vancouver doesn’t invest/waste money in freeways. The multimillion dollar Port Mann bridge is a poster child for encouraging congestion and car use (with ice bombs as a bonus gift) and the same week Mayor Robertson announced the B-line subway, the BC Libs started to muse about replacing the Massey tunnel. Just to name a few.

Catchfire: I also found Grescoe’s take on suburbia to be pretty simplistic and a bit outdated. I prefer to live in the city too, but while he takes great pains to point out the socio-economic factors that led to the formation of the suburbs in the first place — and even mentions that now white professionals are returning to the cities while families and workers of colour have to flee out of necessity — but he doesn’t turn this into a critique of urbanism or looking at the imaginative ways suburbia is being transformed across America. His conclusion is just: density good, sprawl bad. Not a lot of imagination there.

Lagatta: Well, personally I agree with him about that, but I don’t necessarily mean Vancouver highrise density, or the even higher crap going up in Toronto. You can’t get rid of cars in a low-density setting, unless people are ready to espouse very low-tech life indeed!

Kaitlin McNabb: Yes. 

I was very frustrated at the section on Vancouver, and how he would make the large statements about gentrification, and then the next sentence breeze over them and state how awesome the SkyTrain is. He did make this statement though:

“The various stakeholders in the process don’t always see eye to eye. Metro Vancouver, for example, favoured making the Evergreen Line a surface light-rail line similar to Portland’s MAX, but the province opted for a more expensive SkyTrain. ‘the local municipalities are saying, we didn’t agree to this train, and now you’re asking us to cough up four hundred million to build it. Dort of like, we asked for the Volkswagen and you went for the Ferrari and you’re making us pay for it.'”

And at one point he notes that though people apparently aspire to Vancouverism, the process is not actually sustainable or affordable. 

So, the inconsistencies with presentation beg the questions: where do we think the book fails and where do we think it succeeds?

EricD: One of the big successes of this book is contrasting life in freeway/automobile dominated urban areas to walkable transit accessible areas. A fundamental choice we have to make is where to invest our public funds.

One failure is the lack of coverage of the present freeway revolts in Canada, particularly the $3 billion Turcot Interchange project in Grescoe’s home city, Montreal.

Kaitlin McNabb: I thought the incorporation of the freeways/interstates as well as time spent in cars/health-related issues was a very strong point.

Given that the book was a little American focused, I guess it’s not surprising that the Montreal revolts were left out. He did give a bit of mention about the Portland revolts and Toronto too… I believe.

EricD: Lagatta, can you comment on the big transportation controversies in Montreal now? I am interested in what this book tells us about the plans to spend over $10 billion re-building and expanding the freeway network, and what is missing. There are obviously some big class and race implications to this plan.

Lagatta: Indeed — he doesn’t discuss either Turcot in southwestern MontrĂ©al or the proposed Notre-Dame “boulevard” in southeastern MontrĂ©al, which looks like a reprise of the DĂ©carie expressway disaster that destroyed entire working-class immigrant neighbourhoods in NDG and CDN.

Or the lack of funding that meant the Blue line (which runs roughly east-west through central-northern Mtl) has never reached the highly populated districts of Saint-LĂ©onard, Ville d’Anjou or MontrĂ©al-Nord (where riots broke out a few years back after a police “bavure” killed and injured local youths of colour, in an isolated working-class immigrant neighbourhood). While these grew out of villages that are as much as 200 years old, perhaps more, most of their growth was postwar. Still, they are mostly multifamily housing, and the density is certainly high enough for a public transport mode with a carrying capacity greater than buses.

The part of Montréal he describes is well served by the métro (though it is a few blocks away in either direction) and frequent bus lines, and is easily cyclable into the city centre.

Kaitlin McNabb: I thought an interesting point came out of the Copenhagen, Denmark section that people bike and transit there not because of a green initiative or health concerns, but because it is the easiest, fastest way to travel. Grescoe remarks the this kind of eco-initiative health-related promotion is unsustainable and ineffective.

It seems kind of negative, but I don’t think promoting transit around environmental effects and health really works. Or it works, but only for a short amount of time.

Do you guys agree? Disagree?

EricD: I have to disagree on this one, given the present climate crisis. It took big sections of NY being submerged, but the climate crisis is now a very potent issue with the potential to put thousands into the streets participating in direct action. We face a dichotomy, a fossil fueled future characterized by urban freeway expansion and a low-carbon future characterized by electric public transit.

Freeway construction is a great target for pro-transit climate related direct action because it takes place in urban areas. (I participated in a 13 day freeway construction site occupation in North Delta [Metro Vancouver] — we didnt stop the direct target South Fraser Perimer Road but stopped the North Fraser Perimeter Road.)

Kaitlin McNabb: But doesn’t the overlooked planning principles highlight this fact?

People will only really stop driving cars downtown if there is no parking or parking is super expensive. 

Lagatta: Kaitlin, to a large extent I agree with Grescoe about how to promote utilitarian cycling, though of course he took these ideas from urban planner Jan Gehl and associates in Copenhagen, and perhaps the popular Copenhagenize and Copenhagen Cycle Chic blogs.

Cycling has to be the best alternative for people to keep doing it on days like today! (it is snowing today in Montréal, and the weather in Copenhagen is just as terrible right now, if you look at the Copenhagen cycling blogs). Do remember that Scandinavian cities plough their cycle paths though!

However, environmental and safety issues played a very big role in reviving the bicycle, which was losing ground to cars in the postwar period, from about the 1960s (remember that due to war devastation, this started a bit later there than in North America, as they had to clear rubble before rebuilding). There was a very large and concerted campaign in the Netherlands, “stop the child murders,” against the upswing in road deaths in those years, especially among children.

Here in MontrĂ©al, some of us (yep, including myself, if I do say so) mobilized in Le Monde Ă  bicyclette for reasons of environmental, safety and urban convictions, and well, because we liked to ride our bicycles, as in the Queen song… And we did win bicycle paths and other infrastructure, though not nearly as much as we would have liked to achieve.

Kaitlin McNabb: People will ride their bikes on bike lanes when they are draw through places they want to go not around them adding 15-20mins to the time.

I transit because I love it, and also because I hate driving. But for example, today was raining so hard, and the metro is a 15 walk away, I drove my husband or else his suit and shoes would have been soaked.

Lagatta: Eric, I agree that Sandy, as it hit one of the most important centres in the capitalist world, has been a tipping point.

Unlike Katrina, which hit picturesque but deprived New Orleans, and was mainly an opportunity for “disaster capitalism”, as Naomi Klein put it.

Freeways outside MontrĂ©al are causing huge problems, as no matter how walking and cycling-friendly we make our central city, it is ringed with cancerous car-centric sprawl. Local media are discussing the growth in the number of cars in Greater MontrĂ©al being twice the growth in population — almost all of this is from the “Third Crown” of bedroom communities farther out than the older large suburbs such as Laval and Longueuil, north and south of our island.

EricD: The 1% had their beach homes wiped out. That has to be more important that anything that happens to the rif raff. But whatever it takes, I am not complaining.

Kaitlin McNabb: I’m not saying the environmental benefits of transit aren’t important, especially for the climate crises, but I’m saying that changing people has to incorporate many different factors. We aren’t gonna get people in Port Moody, BC to take transit if it is an hour and half walk down a mountain to the West Coast express that only run twice a day and is super expensive. It needs to be more developed and interconnected. [that story was brought to you by experience]

But let’s talk Climate stuff. Eric, you talked in your review that the book falls a little short discussing the bigger picture, which is climate crises. What specifically would you have wanted to see addressed?

What are the issues, what needs to be done, what can be done. 

EricD: To deal with the climate crisis, we need to put most of the transit on the surface. The cost of underground and elevated transit is too high to quickly build the rapid transit networks we need. That said, I would rather see money spent on subways than freeways — the transit vs freeway expansion dichotomy is key. Different forms of transit are important issues, but secondary points.

Derrick: Eric, the book opens with a quote from Margaret Thatcher about how anyone over 26 still riding the bus is a loser. But from what I’ve read the cultural peer pressure and aspirational pathologies of our society weren’t explored in much depth in the book — though he does hold out some hope that young people wanting hands free to text would boost transit riderships. Do you know of examples of educational campaigns, or cultural efforts, to serious tackle this ‘car culture’ in North America, and the various ways young people have these toxic ‘values’ driven into them. (pun unintentional)

EricD: I think that the most successful efforts to tackle car culture have been the U-pass systems at colleges and universities. But very little research has been done on what factors are most important to ‘peak car.’ All we really know is that Big Auto & Big Oil have lost the grip they used to have on our brains and egos. The only group that still loves cars (in the rich world) is men over 45.

Derrick: Good point about U-pass initiatives.

Eric, I hope you’re right about car culture and young people.  

Babble Book Club is open to all rabble.ca members and meets monthly in the babble book lounge to select and discuss various books and authors.

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