The Glory of Straphanging, Obscured in America

Commuter on the Paris Métro

Note 9/9/12 3:37 pm: After I posted this, a couple people on Twitter pointed out that the Thatcher quote may be wrongly attributed to Thatcher instead of Brian Howard. I changed my copy accordingly (see strikeouts below), but left the quote from review intact.

Two days ago PD Smith, author of the magnificent City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, published a particularly rich review of “Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves From  the Automobile,” by Taras Grescoe. Smith’s opening confirms something unfortunate about my own country even as it offers some hope we might join the wiser:  tells me something newly horrid about Maggie Thatcher:

Margaret Thatcher  once declared that “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure”. [Dobbs’ note: possibly misattributed; see note at bottom] Taras Grescoe is proud to be – in Thatcher’s estimation, at least – a failure. Although he can drive, the Canadian author, who is in his mid-40s, has never owned a car. And he is not alone. Half the population of cities such as New York, Toronto and London do not own cars. Every day some 155 million people take the underground. And although being a straphanger in North America may be, as Grescoe shows, a “depressing experience” due to underfunding and bad planning, elsewhere public transport – particularly in cities – is enjoying a renaissance. The heyday of the car has passed.

In this passionately argued and important book, Grescoe takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of world cities and their transport systems. He accuses the private car of destroying cities, turning streets into kill-zones for the vulnerable, polluting the air and burning up increasingly scarce fossil fuels. Although the scope of Straphanger is global, it clearly targets car-loving, gas-guzzling North America and the statistics he cites are truly shocking. In the US – “the most extravagantly motorised nation in the history of the world” – vehicles now outnumber drivers by five to four. Los Angeles, once hailed as an “autopia”, is now the most congested city in the US with drivers wasting 72 hours a year stuck in traffic jams – Americans now spend nine years of their lives sitting in their cars, and the pollution they produce kills 30,000 US citizens each year.

It’s not all bad. Both Smith’s review and, I take it, Grescoe’s book emphasize an encouraging move away from this idiocy. Even the U.S. is seeing a drop in its (ludicrously high) rate car ownership (5 autos to every 4 people), particularly among Americans in their twenties. More people here are using mass transit than ever; by the Brian Howard metric (mis?)attributed to Thatcher , over half the people in New York are failures, including the mayor;  streetcars “are being reintroduced in such unlikely places as Houston and Denver.”

We remain way behind,, though, and even our best systems fall short of some of the worst in Europe. The London Underground is hardly considered the best or brightest of European systems. (Forgive me, UK friends, for mashing you into Europe for convenience here.) The beloved Tube is old and crowded and loud, and hot in summer. But after using it for a year and returning to the U.S., I was dismayed at how infrequent and unreliable the service seemed in Washington and New York and the Bay Area, all supposedly among our best. I’m glad that more Americans are riding these rails but wish these systems came closer to standards set by countries with far less wealth. If Americans could enjoy for a year the convenience of  trains that go almost anywhere at almost any time, as I did in the UK (which train system, again, pales to some systems on the Continent), I think most would be loathe to turn back. (Ditto with the healthcare over there.) Yet rather than join the modern world, many of our leaders are actively killing rapid transit and high-speed rail systems, refusing funds that would speed transit in their states and create jobs as well. Would they were as wise as some of our neighbors way down south:

Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of the Colombian capital Bogotá, which revolutionised its public transport with a bus rapid transit scheme, makes a powerful point to Grescoe: “I believe a city is more civilised not when it has highways but when a child on a tricycle is able to move about everywhere with ease and safety.” In too many places multi-lane highways have sliced through the cityscape, destroying communities and creating barriers between districts. But the act of driving also fundamentally changes the way people use the city. Inside cars, people are insulated from the sights and sounds of the city and isolated from other citizens. By contrast, public transport is a democratic and a social experience. In Tokyo someone tells Grescoe: “To use public transport is to know how to cooperate with other people, how to behave in a public space.”

Public space, of course, is something the US right seems reluctant to recognize, much less invest in. Sharing public transport acknowledges what Barack Obama insisted on in his convention speech and Mitt Romney wants us to ignore: We share not just space but infrastructure, not just location but a society.  The small niceties — offering one’s seat to someone older or less fit, answering a visitor’s questions about where to eat — connect inevitably to larger issues of civility and decency, like whether Rosa Parks should have to sit in the back of the bus, or whether we should all get healthcare and education.

Perhaps the most toxic thing about the American obsession with the car — which is saying a lot — is its encouragement of the fantasy that we are completely independent individuals whose agency and fate depends only on our own decisions about where to go and how fast. Freedom and independence! What a childish fantasy. Especially when so often it leads us to sit stranded on frozen rivers of pavement, surrounded by thousands of others doing the same,  isolated and insulated from one another in our expensive little bubbles.

Image: Commuter on Paris Metro, Eric Feferberg/EPA, public domain, via Guardian

Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe – review | Books | The Guardian

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