Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Book Review: Straphanger

Taras Grescoe,  Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile (New York: Holt, 2012), 323 pp.

Taras Grescoe proudly declares himself a straphanger, someone “who, by choice or necessity, relies on public transport, rather than a privately owned automobile.”  His book of the same name is a fascinating tour of public transit systems throughout the world that demonstrates how efficient, safe, and beneficial such systems can be.  As something of an occasional “straphanger” myself, I was interested in his insights and curious to see if his observations about public transportation were similar to my own.

One of Grescoe’s main points is that cities with good public transit systems are better at moving people efficiently.  He also discovers that the quality of life is improved because public space has not been sacrificed the automobile.  In Paris, he marvels at how easy it is to get around on the Metro, in Portland he discovers how the city’s modern streetcar system enriches downtown, and in Copenhagen, where 55 percent of people make daily trips on a bicycle, he discovers how economical, practical, and healthy it is to get around the city on two wheels.  In a society in which automobile advertising bombards us with the (false) message that cars = freedom, it is refreshing to see the way good public transportation can be liberating.

He also concludes that the best transit networks worldwide are municipally owned, rather than privatized.  Successful transit systems are run as integrated systems, coordinated so that, for example, bus feeder lines and rail connections are timed so that commuters can move from bus to rail and back again with as little delay as possible.  This is most likely to happen when “public agencies with regional scope and unified planning oversight” run public transport. (294)

The journey to transit-oriented cities demonstrates how a well-designed public transportation system not only frees people from environmentally destructive dependence on the automobile (and its evil twin, sprawl), it can revitalize cities, making neighborhoods people-centered, not car-centered.  In cities around the world, in places as diverse as Montreal, New York, and Bogota, Grescoe writes:

There is a revolution going on in the way people travel.  It is rewriting the DNA of formerly car-centered cities, making the streets better places to be, and restoring something cities sorely need: real public space. (9)

According to Grescoe, this revolution is pushing back 70 years of auto-centered urban planning and development.  The 20th century city, with its no-man’s land of freeways, arterial highways, and parking lots was exemplified by the work of men like New York transportation commissioner Robert Moses, whose post-World War II vision for an automobile city displaced 320,000 people from their New York neighborhoods to make room for expressways that flooded the city with cars and deprived the city’s subway system of operating funds.  Grescoe then highlights the emerging triumph of his nemesis, Jane Jacobs, whose book The Death and Life of American Cities (1961) became a bible for a new generation of urban visionaries.  Jacobs and other activists, Grescoe argues, “had the courage to oppose what people like Robert Moses spent their careers trying to impose: cities built for cars, not people.” (44)

Suburbs can be designed around people and transit, too.  For example, in the suburb of Vauban, outside of Freiburg, Germany, residents live virtually car-free, using streetcars, trains, busses, and bikes to get where they need to go.  Most striking, in contrast to American suburbs, is the amount of space children have to play outdoors in Vauban.  Grescoe observes the beneficial way suburban space opens up when it isn’t monopolized by the car:

Vauban, I realized, is what a suburb looks like when you remove all the land-gobbling driveways, garages, lanes, and cu-de-sacs.  It is also the answer to all those who claim owning a car is essential when you start raising a family. . . .  Vauban may be the closest thing to what suburbia was meant to be before it was overrun by cars: a paradise of unsupervised free play by children. (p. 136)

In the United States it is doubtful that our suburbs will go car-free any time soon, but Grescoe finds that those US cities that have retained some of their pre-World War II urban form, such as Portland, OR and Philadelphia, have blossomed in this dawn of the post-automobile era, creating public space and making it easier to get around without a car.

All this may seem overly optimistic, and, to be sure, Grescoe acknowledges the powerful lure of the car culture and the stranglehold our car-centered infrastructure has on our transportation choices, but he convincingly argues there are realistic, achievable alternatives to car-centered development.  We could expand light rail service and set aside dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit (BRT), making it convenient for more Americans to use transit.  Relatively small but significant changes in our streetscape would make our cities and suburbs more walkable and bikeable, providing people with more space and practical alternatives to the car.

At the same time, he notes that a successful transition to public transit can only happen if we subsidize transit (which, in many US cities must be self-supporting) rather than the automobile, as we currently do (by reducing the subsidization of roadways and parking, for example).

Nowhere is this shift to transit going to be more crucial or necessary than L.A., in some ways the poster child for the car culture.  The average driver in Los Angeles now spends an average of 72 hours a year sitting in traffic jams (up from 44 hours a year in 1982), and if the region continues to depend on the car, its air quality and traffic are only going to get worse as greater L.A.’s population increases by an expected 6.3 million residents in the next 30 years.  “Short of triple-decking the freeways . . . [L.A.’s] best hope lies in transit.” (61)  Fortunately, Grescoe sees exciting things happening with L.A.’s light rail expansion, and, I’d add, the emergence of its nascent urban bike culture.  Work still needs to be done to further expand rail, bus, and BRT lines in LA, but Grescoe reminds us that Southern California once had the best streetcar system in the world, and it has tremendous potential revive mass transit.

My own (admittedly limited) observations about transit in the US cities I’ve visited over the past 7-8 years, and my (more extensive) experience with transit in LA lead me to believe that Grescoe is correct in his contention that transit-oriented cities are preferable to those dominated by the automobile.  To an American who grew up using a car to go places, making the switch to public transit requires a shift in the way you travel.  It requires more preparation at first and requires you to adjust to the bus or train schedule, especially if it does not run as frequently as it should.  But, by and large, riding the bus or train is not an unpleasant experience and riding transit liberates you from the hassles and expense of driving and parking.  In fact, in many ways I feel freer on the bus than I do in a car, where I’m saddled with 2,500 lbs of steel to schlep around.  On the days I commute to work on the bus, I always arrive more refreshed than I do when I drive, and, while the commute takes longer on the bus, I’m able to check email, read, and work on the bus, so it’s not wasted time.  My main complaint with transit in LA is that the buses don’t run frequently enough, and that there aren’t more rapid buses with dedicated bus lanes on the freeways for commuters, and that there isn’t a more extensive light rail system.  That, however, is a political problem, not a problem with transit per se.

Grescoe makes a powerful case that urban transportation in the 21st century will be measured by its ability to develop transit systems, not by the proliferation of automobiles and concrete wastelands designed for cars.  In the last analysis, Grescoe argues, we in the 21st century must embrace rail transit as an efficient, green, and humane alternative to the 20th century automobile system.  “Tracks,” he concludes, “stitch places together; freeways tear them apart.” (296)

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  1. Pingback: Bikes and Transit in San Diego « Boyonabike!

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