Saturday, November 3, 2012

Straphanger: Saving Cities and Our Ourselves from the Automobile, by Taras Grescoe.

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

In this innovative book travel writer and environmentalist Taras Grescoe grapples with good and bad public transport systems the world over. Straphanger’s basic thesis is that the freedom of the roads can only lead to increasing traffic congestion. The answer is to make public transport options appealing, convenient, affordable and efficient. Straphanger doesn’t solve this problem outright, but its mixture of reportage and research shows what might be possible.

Taras Grescoe’s personal experience as a car driver came early, when he worked as a delivery driver for a dental lab in his early twenties. It was not a happy experience. ‘In six months of driving I was rear-ended twice, my shoulders ached, my belly spread, and unspent adrenaline from day-to-day near misses turned my blood prematurely bilious.’

It should be no surprise that Grescoe, a travel writer and environmentalist, reached his mid-forties without having ever personally owned a car. His lifelong preference has been for public transport, or failing that, walking or cycling. He rather defiantly quotes Margaret Thatcher at the beginning of Straphanger (the title refers to the straps you hang onto when when using public transport), who opined that ‘A man who, beyond the age of twenty-six, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure.’

Straphanger is not really a fiery polemic against the use of the car. Grescoe gently argues that the car’s widespread success may well be its ultimate downfall. It’s not so much high-energy prices that will put the car out of action, as peak oil advocates like to suggest, but rather the simple fact of road congestion. Cities built around the sole use of cars are grinding to a stop. The freedom of the roads has ultimately come to mean being imprisoned in traffic. The average car speeds for a lot of cities are ridiculously slow.

Congestion is not only frustrating, but it also costs national economies billions of dollars in lost productivity. Australia loses about 13 billion a year due to traffic congestion. It won’t surprise that surveys of motorists find them to be unhappy and unhealthy. Ditching the car improves mental and physical health outcomes.

To consider this problem and its possible solutions, Grescoe travelled the globe and visited the worst car cities and the best public transport cities. Along the way the reader is entertained with a lot of public transport histories, from the building of the Paris Metro to that cyclists’ heaven on earth, Copenhagen. Phoenix, Arizona is described as a hell on earth, built entirely around car usage. California is not much better, but is looking to improve matters. Russia, by rushing to embrace notions of Western freedom by going car mad, has built itself into road gridlock. Japan, of course, is the ultimate in public transport, an incredibly complex system that runs like clockwork. Bogota, in Colombia, is an interesting example, where a successful bus transit system has been created, although there are grumblings about needed improvements. Other success stories are Portland, Oregan and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The basic recipe for success, if you want to move people off the roads and into public transport, bicycle paths and foot paths is pretty simple and elementary. Car travel has to be made unappealing and expensive, and public options need to be attractive and convenient.

This is a non-adversarial book on a contested and sometimes controversial subject. Grescoe, who writes in a silky smooth, urbane prose, has basically brought his travel writing skills to bear on a subject close to his heart. Straphanger is not a book that looks out for a fight with motorists, but one that eagerly seeks out workable solutions to modern transport problems. It would make excellent reading for politicians interested in this policy area.

Let me end with a favourite quote. After two weeks spent driving around the roads of Phoenix and Los Angeles, an exasperated Grescoe couldn’t wait to get out of the car:

“Every time you choose to drive you are, in a tiny way, opting out of, and thus diminishing, the public realm. And that, finally, is the problem with suburbs and freeways. In order to gain a spurious freedom, which is in fact just increased mobility, millions of people turn their back on civility – not just politeness, but also the process of civilisation building, in which cities play such a crucial role. Sprawl may end in a cul-de-sacs and foreclosures, but it begins every time you slam a car door on the world.”

Straphanger: Saving Cities and Our Ourselves from the Automobile, by Taras Grescoe. ISBN: 9780805091731  RRP: $43.00