Straphanger: Saving our cities and ourselves from the automobile

Straphanger: Saving our cities and ourselves from the automobile

By Taras Grescoe
HarperCollins, November 30, 2011, $31.99 is a reader-supported site — we count on donations from people like you. Please become a member to help us continue our work.

Taras Grescoe is a writer who loves cities, and the transit systems that help create great urban spaces. And he does a great job of blending in some key lessons about transportation planning into an entertaining and very personal travelogue.

Before taking the reader on a journey to 14 cities around the world, Grescoe focuses on where the 90 per cent of oil used for transportation fuel now comes from, expensive and carbon intensive unconventional sources including the tar sands. The focus of the book is how pleasant it can be to live in cities with great transit, but the subtext is that continued automobile dependence is increasing unaffordable for ordinary people and “a recipe for global disaster” due to global warming and ocean acidification. As Grescoe puts it, “If we don’t start imagining a future with fewer cars, there might not be much of a future.”

Grescoe mainly focuses on inspiring examples of vibrant and livable cities and how the transit, walking and cycling infrastructure works for people on a day-to-day basis. He also draws on his personal experience as a delivery driver, and his travels to automobile dominated cities including Phoenix Arizona, to convincingly puncture the idea that there is much to love about the automobile in big cities.

Grescoe’s travel narratives effectively illustrate important but often overlooked transportation planning principles, such as the importance of parking policy. In the chapter on Los Angeles he draws on parking guru Donald Shoup to explain how the combination of high density of office jobs combined with a high density of parking creates “pedestrian repelling dead zones.” He also points that while Portland, Oregon has a high density and very walkable downtown core and an enviable light rail network, most residents of the award-winning and supposedly transit-oriented Orenco Station don’t make the bleak walk through the massive park-and-ride that surrounds the light rail station. They drive instead.

The history woven into each chapter is a big part of what makes Straphanger useful for anyone who cares about the livability of their city and the future of our planet. From the early efforts to reduce the number of pedestrians killed by drivers to the present-day Toronto, Grescoe shows how great transit cities are the result of ordinary people winning battles with the automobile industry and freeway builders. The heroes in this tale include the families who in 1969 staged a picnic protest on the banks of the Willamette River as part of the successful campaign to get a riverfront park, instead of a riverfront freeway, in Downtown Portland.

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.”

The real challenge in tackling the climate crisis is to dramatically reduce carbon emissions over the next decade, and the Paris supermetro megaproject won’t be completed until 2025 at the earliest even in the unlikely event that the 21 billion euros ($27 billion Canadian) can be found at this time of economic chaos and volatile oil prices. In the conclusion, Grescoe makes up his mind and advocates for a much more practical vision of converting commuter rail lines to all-day multi-purpose transit with frequent service and establishing networks of bus rapid transit lines where there are no existing tracks.

Straphanger includes some interesting observations on the corrosive effect of the powerful being able to avoid both traffic congestion and their fellow citizens who walk, ride bicycles and take transit. In Moscow, he observes that since the days of the tsars the present day (including during the Soviet era) the one per cent have used bells and sirens to clear the 99 per cent out of the way of their carriages and limousines.

“It should come as no surprise that in authoritarian regimes the lucky few award themselves priority of movement. But in democracies, privileged mobility for the rich — whether it’s in the form of Lexus lanes on California freeways, or helipads on the roofs of Brazilian penthouses — is corrosive of all professed ideals of egalitarianism.”

Grescoe’s asserts that the physical separation of Moscow politicians from the everyday reality of the 99 per cent, leads to more spending on infrastructure for the automobile. “Separated from the places they govern by panes of glass, the thoughts of the chauffeur-driven naturally turn to ways to improve their own mobility — which usually involves building more parking lots and increasing road capacity.”

Overall, Straphanger is a great read and a valuable contribution to efforts to avoid catastrophic global warming. My biggest disappointment, however, is the almost non-existent coverage of the present freeway revolt in Grescoe’s home city — Montreal. The government of Quebec plans to spend $3 billion or more to rebuild Turcot Interchange “a massive spaghetti bowl of crumbling concrete” and then spend tens of billions more to ensure that Montreal is “cross-hatched with hideous elevated expressways” for decades to come. Hopefully Grescoe is saving the rest of this story for his next book.Eric Doherty

Eric Doherty is a Vancouver-based transportation planner and writer. He is a co-author of the CCPA/Wilderness Committee report Transportation Transformation. Find him on Twitter: Eric_Doherty