Saturday, July 13, 2013

Straphanger by Taras Grescoe

A straphanger is a person who hangs on to the strap while riding a train or a bus or, more generally, a person who commutes to work by public transportation. Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile is a thought-provoking look at public transportation in a number of cities around the world. Author Taras Grescoe begins his Introduction with the Salvador Dali quote “Any man of forty who still rides the metro is a loser” but proudly boasts that although in his mid-forties he has never owned a car.

Grescoe is a passionate advocate for public transportation. He discusses the good and the bad, what works and what doesn’t, in a dozen cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Paris, Copenhagen, Moscow, Tokyo, and Bogota. Grescoe divides his book into chapters based on his travels to the various cities. He includes snippets of history covering how the U.S. came to be so dependent on automobiles.

He makes a fascinating visit to the old City Hall station in New York, a magnificent “ghost” station that opened in 1904 but is no longer used because the platform is too sharply curved. The location, a kind of time capsule to a more elegant time period, is a closely guarded New York City secret.

In his chapter on Los Angeles, a city notoriously difficult to travel by foot, Grescoe talks about the time author Ray Bradbury was stopped by a police officer for walking down the street. Bradbury was so horrified by the experience he turned it into a 1951 short story called “The Pedestrian.” In Bogota, Grescoe quotes the man behind their popular bus system: “We wanted to make people look down on the values of the criminals in our society….For us, the neighborhood hero was not the mafioso with the big motorcycle and the flashy clothes, but the young man who played sports and read books and rode around on an old bike.” (p. 218)

Grescoe holds up Phoenix as a bad example of how freeways and dependence on the automobile have helped turn the city into a ghost town. He points to Copenhagen, on the other hand, as his idea of a model city. Not only is the public transportation there clean, safe, and fast, Copenhagen is a city that encourages bike riding. I was amazed to read that in the winter, the bike paths are cleared of snow before the streets.

Reading Straphanger made me think about the public transportation options in Galesburg, and the Galesburg Public Library book discussion groups had two lively discussions on the subject. If you are interested in urban sprawl and the future of transportation, or if you enjoy visiting other cities vicariously, I recommend Straphanger. It can be found in the nonfiction section at 388.4 GRE.

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