Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Book Review: Straphanger

Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe
Times Books, 2012
Hardcover, 336 pages

Taras Grescoe's international tour of cities where public transportation works -- and some cities where it doesn't work -- is a very good format for exploring various ways of incorporating mass transit into urban areas in the United States. This structure, which bounces from New York to Paris to Tokyo and back to the US, reminds me of Anthony Tung's excellent book Preserving the World's Great Cities, which culls ideas from a different sort, but also aims those towards application in an American context.

Ultimately Grescoe's goal is an attempt to persuade people that public transportation is the key to the survival of American cities in the 21st century. As a fellow straphanger (actually I'd never call myself one, since I dislike labels -- straphanger, driver, pedestrian -- that displace the fact we're all mobile individuals; but I will admit our psychological make-up changes in these roles), he is preaching to the choir. Nevertheless I did learn about transit in some places that I was not familiar with (Phoenix, where most people might ask, "what public transit?"), though the majority is fairly common knowledge for people who pay attention to transportation issues, be it the Bus Rapid Transit in Colombia, bicycles and pedestrian streets in Copenhagen, or Portland's growth boundary. To separate himself from other urbanists, Grescoe takes the stance that mid-sized cities like Philadelphia are ideal for incorporating mass transit at the local and regional scales. Of course, as Grescoe's tour of a dozen cities around the world attests, each city is different, not every mid-sized US city is like Philly. Therefore one-size-fits-all solutions don't exist. This makes his tour that much more valuable: Readers can see the links between urban form and public transportation, getting a better idea of what may work where they live.

American cities are easily the most difficult canvas for incorporating public transportation, but Americans are increasingly becoming aware that dependency on oil for a sprawling urban fabric is not sustainable. Rising gas prices are just one indicator; they will not magically come down in the future to continue the "American Dream" in its current form, they will only continue to rise over time, pricing people out of suburbs and exurbs. Investment in public transportation is one of the keys to cities in 21st-century America, and Grescoe has given us plenty to consider.