Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Book Review: Straphanger by Taras Grescoe

Over the summer I finally put aside some time and read Taras Grescoe’s Straphanger (2012). I say finally because it sat on my shelf for about a year while I spent my reading hours with my latest science fiction obsession or fantasy rabbit hole. Straphanger is neither of those things, which is why a review of it belongs on this blog.

Straphanger (Photo from Now Toronto)

Taras Grescoe begins with a simple premise, he is a straphanger, as are millions (or perhaps billions?) of others around the world. "Straphanger" refers to those who grip the plastic, metal, polymer or cloth ties hanging from bars or ceilings of our public transit vehicles and offer a huge number of people an affordable and effective way to move around our cities and regions. Grescoe explores the intersection of urban form, transportation and quality of life by visiting fourteen cities and offering case studies on public transit. Infused through the text is the argument that well-operated, well-considered transit can have tremendous social benefits to those it serves.

Grescoe’s quest is to find which city is doing transit the most effectively, and where the future of our urban environments might be going (or where we should be pushing them). It’s a remarkable survey of how the denizens of many of the great cities live their lives. The list includes places you’d expect: New York, Tokyo, Paris, Copenhagen, and Shanghai; and places that are perhaps less likely: Moscow, Montreal, Phoenix and Los Angeles are also held up, sometimes what to do and what to avoid.

Grescoe’s best work in the book is connecting urban form to transit and the emotional, social and romantic feelings associated with urban life. I have read drier texts about cities and transportation systems, Grescoe uses evocative writing and fascinating anecdotes from travel in these cities from the people who live there to bring the reader in. Perhaps it is because I myself have lived as a commuter that I can imagine the relative peaceful modernity of Los Angeles’ system, or that I have been squeezed into a subway car in Toronto, so the busyness of Moscow or Bogata’s transit systems are objectively imaginable. Everywhere Grescoe writes about it is clear that the landscape of the city is shaped by the transit system in use. Tokyo is a product of being built on rail networks, Phoenix the private automobile, and Copenhagen, now, the bicycle.

My biggest issue with the book as a whole is that Mr. Grescoe is clearly a trainophile or railfan. He loves trains. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, because my own bias causes me to favour them over the private automobile as well. However, he does emphasize them over other forms of transit, and in particular the bus. I found this particularly irritating given the position I have taken on this blog supporting bus transit and bus rapid transit. To be fair, Grescoe is not maligning buses, merely they come second in his preference for mass transit options, which is understandable in dense urban environments. I compiled a list of references to support this bias, but I feel now it would be ridiculous to highlight them. He does offer space to critics of transit in the book, and they are treated with sincere consideration. Their arguments though are picked apart, and with the possible exception of the Bus Riders’ Union of Los Angeles, their arguments are respectfully presented.

Three of the chapters focus on Canadian cities: Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver (though it shares its chapter with Portland, Oregon). This book offered an amazing insight into Toronto’s transit history, which I had not truly delved into. Grescoe, for interest's sake, lays the blame of Toronto’s transit stasis and the election of Mayor Rob Ford on amalgamation, which has greatly hindered development in Toronto.

As much as Grescoe’s book is a love letter to transit it is also a sonnet to human-scaled cities. His thesis is that the urban fabric should support human activities and the not automobiles. He makes a compelling case with fascinating stories of normal people around the world who live in their cities off transit. Straphanger definitely feels like a book where individuals find the environment that suits them, whether that means moving to a new country, city, or simply changing neighbourhoods to find the quality of life the desire. However, it definitely holds that cities’ transit systems come from the bones of their history. No system can be applied universally, instead the existing environment must find a transit system that matches it. An enjoyable read and definitely worth checking out if these topics interest you.

I hope you have enjoyed this book review. If you would like to see more reviews in the future please let me know as I have debated making this a semi-regular feature. 

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