I feel so fortunate for the opportunity to read this book. As a longtime fan of James Howard Kunstler's writings about suburbia and the automobile, Straphanger was a similarly inspiring text, only without some of the derisiveness that Kunstler exhibits in his writing. I live in the hometown of the MBTA, in a city cut apart by a highway and that has been struggling for decades to get a transportation extension through our town. I have owned a home here for seven years, and the planned subway station two blocks from our house isn't even close to breaking ground. Yet, I can see just how desperately it is needed. So I am a huge fan of public transportation. But I was beginning to lose faith in it, seeing only how it could be late, smelly, crowded. This book gives one hope. Some countries DO do it right. It can be done.
I was also inspired so much - as was the author - by the way he wrote about the Danish! I am newly inspired to get a bike for those journeys that are a bit to far to walk. In fact, I can't stop thinking about Copenhagen! I love this idea that elderly people are fit enough to bike around town. I bet their health care costs are very low. I'm amazed they do all this with nordic winters - to the point where I am now disappointed in myself, as a New Englander, I take my car in winter almost every time I leave the house, because I don't like walking in the cold and ice. And these people are biking in it!
A great book on public transportation and how we can live happily without the automobile. Written by a travel writer, it's also quite an interesting way to learn about other places and mindsets. As he travels the rails (underground, light, etc), he talks to other passengers and learns more about the people in each place.
on August 9, 2015
To understand how badly this book fails to achieve its objective of transit advocacy, one needs to read no further than Chapter 3. In this chapter, Grescoe claims to focus on Phoenix, even though most of the chapter is devoted to rambling prose about Frank Lloyd Wright and the author's encounter with noted anti-urbanist Joel Kotkin -- in California, not Arizona. Kotkin is often wrong, but he was right to say that Grescoe had reached his conclusions before doing his research. Grescoe admits as much when he writes that before he observed what other cities were doing right, he had to observe what one city was doing wrong.
In other words, Grescoe came to Phoenix not with an open mind, but with a predisposition to hate the city. Unfortunately, Grescoe was so blinded by his prejudice that he saw only what he wanted to see in order to confirm his negative impressions and ignored signs of success all around him. Grescoe claims he saw only a few university students when he rode the city's light rail line; however, I ride it to and from work every day, and it's crowded almost all the time. See the photo for an example. Since operations started in late 2008, light rail ridership has been approximately 50% higher than forecast, and the projected 2020 ridership level was achieved 8 years earlier than anticipated in 2012. Recognizing that success, Phoenix voters just approved a new sales tax increase that will fund significant light rail expansion.
Grescoe blatantly contradicts himself by first stating, incorrectly, that Phoenix has no historic city center. Then, a few pages later, he admits that prior to World War II, Phoenix was a compact and walkable city with an extensive streetcar network. He also claims that Phoenix's extraordinarily successful light rail line "doesn't really go anywhere." Since when does "nowhere" include two university campuses, an emerging biomedical center, symphony hall, popular theaters, a convention center, corporate headquarters, several major museums, state and federal courthouses, a busy international airport, a community college, and several of the city's most celebrated arts districts and historic neighborhoods?
Of course, defenders of Grescoe might say that this negative review is the result of hurt feelings and wounded civic pride. Not really. It's about so much more than that. The real problem is that if Grescoe approached one city with a preconceived conclusion, isn't it likely he did the same with the other cities profiled in the book? As a result, Straphanger has no credibility at all. Grescoe can't be trusted no matter which city he praises or condemns. His unconvincing arguments against Phoenix's emerging transit culture echo the same tired and thoroughly debunked cliches used unsuccessfully by opponents of the city's light rail line, and, as a result, he plays right into the hands of the anti-transit voices he opposes.
on July 1, 2015
This book is a strange, intertwined mixture of a personal quest for the best place to live on Earth and an overview of transit systems in various cities such as New York, Phoenix, Paris, Tokyo and Philadelphia.
The former is of no special interest with rather banal descriptions of the author’s childhood experiences in suburbia or of his current marital bliss.
The latter is quite enlightening and covers for each of a wide range of urban transit systems historical aspects, a diagnostic and a prognostic. The bibliography shows that significant research was made by the author who took the pains of personally visiting each city. The approach is by no means rigorous however and much contents appears based on impressions and interviews with specific stakeholders. Descriptions and analyses are certainly not exhaustive and for instance nothing is said of the extensive development of bus lanes in Paris over the last 15 years as a complement to the metro.
The writing style is overly dramatic with the chapter on New York City beginning for instance on the blasting site for a new subway line. The first sentence reads: « Something impossibly big and powerful was moving beneath the city. »! Strangely, no maps are provided and the reader must resort to Internet to adequately spatialize what is described in each city covered.
Though it does provide interesting vignettes on what goes on in terms of transit in many locations, this work presents too many quirks to be recommended.
Taras Grescoe introduces Strap Hanger with two thoughts - Salvador Dali's opinion that anyone over forty who still rides the Metro is a loser and Margaret Thatcher's belief that anyone over twenty-six who rides the bus is a failure.
It's hard to argue, especially with Thatcher, at least when it comes to America. Riding the bus is something that no one does in most of this country unless they can't afford a car or are prohibited by law or by infirmity, from driving a car. Even Grescoe admits he hates riding the bus. Every year, when the insurance bill and registration renewal bills come, I calculate if we can dump the car completely. Take the bus? Rent a Zipcar? Bicycle? Walk? Every year, we pay the renewals and keep the car. It's just too inconvenient to do without, if you have a choice.
But Grescoe envisions cities that make it too inconvenient to have a car, so convenient to take mass transit, that having a car is an unthinkable hassle.
It's not impossible - many cities have done it, and not just socialist European cities and ultra modern Asian metropolises. New York counts as a success story. Hardly any Manhattanites bother with a car for trips within Manhattan. But there are failures as well. Grescoe doesn't dwell on them, but does point up one spectacular failure - Phoenix - as a cautionary example. Phoenix fails in so many ways, as Andrew Ross shows in his book, Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City.
Strap Hanger looks at mass transit city by city, rather than by type of transit. Grescoe is not so much a champion for particular mass transit systems, as he is for creating communities that work. The mass transit systems should grow from the community, not the other way around. If it doesn't fit, people won't use it, as is the case with Phoenix's light rail.
Strap Hanger is not what I would call a fun read, but it's important and it does include some interesting tidbits among the crunchy ideas. For instance, Grescoe gets a tour of the mysterious City Hall Station in New York, closed in 1945 and now a ghost stop, eerily majestic with its Gaudi-esque design.
Only a decade ago, Taras Grescoe was writing books like The Devil's Picnic: Travels Through the Underworld of Food and Drink and The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists. He's gone from writing about hiking the Pilgrim's Trail backwards and where to find absinthe to authoring earnest books about important topics such as how to eat ethically and not destroy the planet with fossil fuels. As much as I admire his progress to more mature subjects, I do miss the irreverent, irresponsible Taras.
"Straphanger" by Taras Grescoe is an exceptionally well-written book that explores how we might revive our cities by breaking our addiction to the automoble through greater investments in public transportation. Mr. Grescoe, who has happily never owned a car, visits eleven cities around the world to assess their transit systems first-hand. Sharing his personal experiences including interactions with civil engineers, community activists, politicians, fellow passengers and others, Mr. Grescoe delivers a highly engaging, informative and fascinating book.
As a successful travel writer, Mr. Grescoe has a keen eye of observation, sharing details about what he sees and experiences around him. Whether he is contemplating a smog-shrouded California vista, enjoying a gypsy-klezmer band in the streets of Portald, or sandwiched into immobility on a Japanese commuter train, Mr. Grescoe has a knack for vividly rendering the scene for us. Providing plenty of context about the places he visits, Mr. Grescoe helps us understand how various transportation choices have been made by diverse communities, for better or worse.
For example, Mr. Grescoe shares that Los Angeles ironically first became a sprawl city thanks to its early 20th century electric car system only to later become gridlocked by cars; but is now redeveloping its transit system to breathe new life into aging urban districts such as downtown Hollywood and to better serve its growing working-class population. Similarly, Moscow, New York and Paris are cited as examples of cities that had developed world-class transit systems but were later compromised by a preference for the automobile; however, lately these cities have renewed their commitments to mass transit. Elsewhere, Mr. Grescoe finds that in Copenhagen, bicycles have improved fitness levels while creating a more liveable city; Japan has concentrated development along its rail lines, reducing car ownership and nurturing more peaceful neighborhoods; Bogota has reduced pollution and street congestion with its relatively low-cost, innovative bus services; and so on. The author effectively uses these case studies to persuade us that quality of life improves when people have access to afforable transportation solutions.
On the other hand, Mr. Grescoe cites the metropolitan area of Phoenix, Arizona as an example of the limitations of automobile dependency. Mr. Grescoe describes how thousands of foreclosed homes sit empty, turning significant parts of the suburban landscape into latter-day western ghost towns. In this case, Mr. Grescoe sees the failings of influential 20th century Americans such as Frank Lloyd Wright whose elitist thinking led to a myopic embrace of detached, automobile-centric subdivisions as substitutes for real community. Fortunately, Mr. Grescoe finds hope in a new generation of Americans who are settling in places like downtown Philadelphia and Montreal precisely for their cultural diversity and access to the kind of public transportation systems that can enable them to spend less time and money on commuting; and more on living in inclusive and democratic spaces.
I highly recommend this timely, eye-opening and insightful book to everyone.
on April 17, 2012
An amalgam of journalistic feature writing, travel writing, history writing, and persuasive writing, STRAPHANGER is a State of the Mass Transit Union speech worth heeding. Author Taras Grescoe takes readers to 13 cities -- Shanghai, New York City, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Paris, Copenhagen, Moscow, Tokyo, Bogota, Portland (OR), Vancouver, Philadelphia, and Montreal. Here he provides a history of each city's mass transit, where they stand now in their progress (or lack thereof) of moving people quickly, conveniently, and relatively cheaply, where they hope to go in the future, and what (and who) are the obstacles.
To achieve this, Grescoe meets key personalities of the mass transit scene in each city, interviews them, and weaves their words into the chapters. He rides buses, subways, bicycles, bullet trains, and electric trams, describes the experience, and gives us a feel for what it would be like to live in each of these cities today (consider it a scouting report if any of them are on your radar as possible places to move to). He builds a passionate, yet reasonable and realistic, argument against the automobile. He identifies freeways as the nooses that strangle cities, destroy neighborhoods, undercut attempts to resuscitate urban life. He celebrates the renaissance of city living, the fact that the post-Baby Boomer generation is migrating back to urban centers and questioning the "American Dream" known as the "suburb."
In fact, even those approaching retirement with a gated community in the suburbs in mind as a final home might reconsider after reading STRAPHANGERS. There's a certain appeal, a certain charm, to thriving, safe neighborhoods in a city that include easy access to trustworthy, clean, and safe public transportation, with all one's shopping needs within miles of your home. If this sounds unrealistic, Grescoe's description of cities like Tokyo, Copenhagen, and many others not mentioned in chapter headings (Strasbourg, for instance) proves that a "Brave New World" for mass transit is not some pipe dream. In fact, it is a reality in many places -- right here in 2012. Leaders in these progressive cities understand that the long-term approach of financing mass transit is worth every penny, that revenues poured into highways are lost monies which only add to our traffic, pollution, and health woes.
As you might expect, there are good guys and bad guys in this picture -- and many in between. Read STRAPHANGER, and you'll find out where you stand in this picture. Grescoe writes as well as he rides. As a fiction reader, I was pleasantly surprised with my commute through these pages. Hopefully, you will be, too.
on December 20, 2012
So this book is made for me - an exploration of mass transit around the world and what makes it work so well in some places while failing in others. I have lived with good transit and loved it and currently live with basically no transit, which drives me crazy. I liked the variety of places Grescoe visited and his ideas about what makes a system work and why some systems accomplish so little. Also, he and some of his interviewees had good ideas about how to make new systems successful and how to improve systems that aren't so good. They do admit, though, that some of these systems can't be saved. well worth reading.
on April 4, 2013
Part travel book (the author is a travel writer), part policy statement, part call to arms, Straphanger makes a passionate case for making cities more accessible to transit, expanding transit opportunities and why that's good for you, the environment andd the future. I have a few issues for which it didn't get a five star rating; first, it has a great deal on bicycles, and while that's fine, I thought the book would be primarily on mass transit. Second, the author mixes anecdotes and data well, but needs a bit more in the way of data, but that's just me. He seems to run out of steam after awhile, without considering the strides made through waterborne transit, which has been promoted heavily in places like NYC, and continues to grow. Hey, any book where they make Joel Kotkin look like the fool he is is ok by me. I'd recommend this book for the layman, but there are plenty of good nuggets for the professional.
A strap hanger is a person who relies on public transportation to get from one place to another. A strap hanger is also a person who does not own a car. These two traits apply to me. I am a proud strap hanger. Taras Grescoe is a proud strap hanger from Montreal. His articles have appeared in National Geographic magazine and The New York Times. It took Grescoe three years to research and write this book. It is well researched and very entertaining.
The premise of this book is that people should become less dependent on driving cars. He provides solid evidence that relying on public transit instead of driving is cheaper, faster and safer for the environment. Grescoe also believes that using public transportation promotes social interaction. I have made the majority of my friends on the bus, so I am in agreement with him. I learned some shocking trivia about driving. I learned that Arizona leads the country in property crime. I also learned that in Moscow 100 people die in car accidents every day. These are the kind of facts that make me happy that I do not drive a car.
I love reading books about places I have never been to. Taras Grescoe takes readers around the world in this book. He travels to Bogota, Moscow, Tokyo, Copenhagen. He also travels to various cities in the United States and North America. The purpose of his travels is to study the transportation trends and transportation quality of these cities. All of these destinations are so exotic and exciting to me. I learned some interesting facts about transportation trends. There is a bus system called the Biarticulado in Bogota, Colombia. This bus is as long as a Boeing 737 airplane. The maximum capacity of this bus is 270 people. This is amazing to me. I have heard of a bus as large as this. The Shinkansen is the bullet train in Tokyo. The top speed of this train is 227 miles per hour. The thought of travelling this fast makes want to hop on an airplane to Tokyo and ride this train for myself. I learned that people in Copenhagen get around by riding bicycles. Copenhagen seems like a such a beautiful place. I would not mind bicycling through it if I could. I learned that Vancouver ls known for emitting the least amount of carbon in the environment than any city in North America. I would love to visit such an emvironmentally clean city. Straphanger is one of the best books I have ever read. It combines two things that are exciting to me. They are travelling to different places and using different modes of transportation.
on March 18, 2012
Taras Grescoe doesn't own a car, and never has. He relies on public transportation wherever he goes. He is also an engaging travel writer and one who is able to make his case without pomposity or point-scoring or polemics.
In Straphanger, Grescoe tours the world, stopping only in cities with good public transportation systems (with the exception of Phoenix, which barely has one but helps him make a point). We ride the rails and buses with him in each city and listen as he recounts how each city ended up with the transportation system it has.
Luckily, most of the world's more interesting urban areas rely on good public transit, so we travel to interesting places with him.
Along the way he makes his case against the dominance of the auto. Suburbs clearly are not sustainable forever in the age of declining fossil fuels. And we can't assume that electric cars or hydrogen fuel or some other quick fix will arrive in time to save us. Grescoe doesn't get all pious about how dull the suburbs are compared to the cities he prefers. That's not the point. There are lots of good reasons to live in single family houses that have yards. We just can't afford to drive cars to and from them forever. Grescoe is fair-minded enough to give a couple of anti-transit pro-car activists plenty of space to make their case.
He also talks about the mutual influence of transportation and city layout, including the original streetcar suburbs, and makes some points I had not heard before.
So I do recommend this book, even if you are familiar with the basics of public transportation and even if you've seen many of the cities he takes us to. It's entertaining, noncombative, and informative. A refreshing set of qualities in a book that is, at least partly, about public policy.