Straphanger: Saving our cities and ourselves from the automobile

by Taras Grescoe (Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2012), ISBN 978-9-8050-9173-1, hardback $25

(Author note: This article will also appear in “Teachers Clearinghouse Newsletter for Science and Society”, and in Northwest Arkansas newspapers.

After a century of car-oriented planning and of rising oil prices that portend the end of cheap energy, Taras Grescoe chronicles a global revolution in transportation. Journeying to many cities, Grescoe gets the story on the world’s transit systems and presents an extended argument for expanding such systems.

He focuses on rail, whether subways, light rail, or streetcars, devoting occasional attention to bicycles, sidewalks, and buses, and mindful of the omnipresent automobile. His twelve chapters, one city per chapter, provide a panorama of worldwide transit and its human impacts.

The lessons are many. At an auto show in Shanghai, China, consumers’ lust for cars is palpable. The country has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest automobile market. Yet on Shanghai’s double-decked Inner Ring Road, congestion turns the highway into a six-lane parking lot. Drivers in Beijing were stuck for ten days in a jam that stretched 60 miles. China’s air pollution, fed by gasoline engines and coal-burning power plants, is the worst in the world and kills 656,000 citizens prematurely every year. But Shanghai citizens now have a choice: brave the traffic, or ride the Metro. China is investing in new subway systems with thousands of miles of track, and in fast rail that already connects cities with 5,000 miles of track. Only 15 years after opening, Shanghai’s Metro counts eleven lines and 261 miles of track, making it the world’s largest subway system. It’s the fastest way to get around town.

Grescoe, in his mid-forties, has never owned a car. His preface notes, “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. ...By diminishing public space, the automobile has made once great cities terrible places to live.” However, “This book also tells the story of some very good ideas. ...The movement goes under a variety of names: transit-oriented development, smart growth, new urbanism. ...By investing in development that includes well-conceived transit, we can create more sustainable and, crucially, more civil communities.”

He asks whether New York City really needs so much subway. His answer: Definitely. The lines are always full, and standing-room-only at rush hour. Thanks to transit, the city was on its way a century ago to becoming a remarkably good place to live. But then, “like a slow-motion tsunami,” the coming of masses of automobiles reshaped the city. By 1932, New York was choking on traffic. But the worst was yet to come: It was architect and “master builder” Robert Moses who made the metropolis safe for the car and, in the process, nearly destroyed the city’s quality of life. Today, the promise of North American cities as good places to live is finally being revived, because many people have the courage to oppose what Robert Moses and others tried to impose: Cities built for cars, rather than people. Today in New York even Mayor Bloomberg, to his immense credit, takes the subway to work daily.

Los Angeles is “one city that even the most visionary planners and politicians might not be able to redeem.” The trouble is, Angelenos have never really wanted it to be a city. Today it’s a random distribution of car-oriented suburbs. Los Angeles was a battlefront during the 1920-1950 destruction of America’s streetcars by the automobile industry. Because General Motors, Firestone Tires, Standard Oil, and Mack Truck bought up and eventually scrapped streetcar systems in 45 cities in order to make way for buses built by GM and Mack Truck--buses that were later sold to make way for the automobile--America’s cities have for decades been car-dominated. In L.A., the outcome is that the city is built along a thousand miles of urban freeways that function as ersatz city streets.

The Phoenix chapter is sub-titled “The Highway to Hell.” Phoenix is “a nightmare, the antithesis of any city I could imagine living in. ...A centerless city.” In every city, Grescoe dialogues with leaders and planners. His dialogue with Phoenix planner Joel Kotkin, “probably America’s best-known apologist for sprawl,” points up the differences between conventional fossil-fueled optimism regarding the future of freeways and far-flung suburbs, versus the new urbanism that thrives on higher densities, walking communities, and transit. Grescoe notes Phoenix’s new light-rail system, running on 20 miles of track to the suburb of Mesa. But the city is so sprawled that 20 miles of rail cannot begin to reach the people, so the system is little used. Away from the freeways, one discovers how the subprime crisis has wracked Phoenix. The Metrocenter, for example, was once Arizona’s biggest mall but is now a crime-ridden shell of vacant big-box stores. Entire outer subdivisions seem empty. Everything is for sale. Phoenix “could well be the West’s next ghost town.”

Moving to foreign shores, Grescoe glowingly describes the Paris Metro that, by preserving the city’s historic integrity, saved the city. The hero of Copenhagen is the bicycle, “the most decentralized, affordable, and efficient mode of mass transit ever invented.” 55 percent of the central city’s residents get to work or school by bicycle, and the number is rising. In greater Copenhagen, population 1.8 million, there are more bike-to-work commuters than there are in the entire United States. Copenhagen has waged “a quiet war on cars.” As a result, “When sociologists undertake international surveys of life satisfaction, the Danes consistently come out on top.”

Moscow is crushed by its congested highways, but partly redeemed by fast, cheap, comfortable subways. Tokyo’s trains, whose organizational efficiency is a wonder to behold, keep the city working smoothly. Bogota, Colombia, was declining and headed for tough crime-ridden city streets until a succession of two forward-looking mayors tamed the violence and introduced regulated, modern, “bus rapid transit.” BRT, with passenger loading that’s similar to subway stations, originated in Curitiba, Brazil, in 1972, and is copied worldwide.

Back in North America, Grescoe studies Portland, Vancouver, Philadelphia, and Montreal--cities that offer hopeful examples for this urbanizing world. The Philadelphia story is the most surprising and most hopeful of the four. Philadelphia is “one city whose center has held,” thanks to its well-frequented transit and its rail connections to the east coast Amtrak system. Philly was slowly declining for decades but has been on the upswing, partly due to its long history of rail-centered growth. Transit-proximate households in the United States devote only 9 percent of their income to transportation, compared to 25 percent for car-dependent households. This translates to an enormous economic advantage for people living near transit, an advantage that is maximized in Philadelphia’s extensive and dense low-rise residential areas close to the central city. It’s worth noting that 35 percent of Americans don’t have automobile access, because they are too young, old, infirm, or poor to drive. Thus, Philly is in an excellent position to profit from the urban renaissance that Grescoe foresees. “It bodes well for the future that the public in Philadelphia never lost the habit of using public transport.”

Grescoe waxes philosophical about transportation’s future. “As the era of cheap fossil fuels that kicked the North American metropolis into a manic state of overdrive comes to an end, the ideology of growth for growth’s sake has also reached its limits. When it comes to houses and cities, bigger is not better. Bigger is more McMansions; bigger is subdivisions so sprawled people never get to know their neighbors; bigger is ever longer, ever more soul-sucking commutes. Bigger is stupider.”

It’s a reasoned, beautifully written, entertaining, and instructive read.

Art Hobson
Physics, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.