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09 February 2013

Book Review : Straphanger

Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the AutomobileStraphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A combination of a manifesto against the automobile and an ode to trains.  With a coda grudgingly giving credit where credit is due to the bus.

One thesis is a worn one;  we're running out of oil to power our personal automobiles and even if we go electric, most electricity comes from coal.  So it's lose lose.

But Grescoe approaches his ode not from an environmental standpoint, but from a social standpoint.  And a community structure standpoint.  And a health standpoint.  The automobile has isolated us.  Dallas-Fort Worth is as large as Israel.  People have skin cancer on the left side of their bodies more often than the do on the right.  We're fat.

We are like this by choice;  we have chosen the freeway over the light rail. We have endowed personal ownership of a car as a symbolic representation of liberty, freedom and prosperity.  We've paved everything in sight and called it progress.  We have laws that require a minimum number parking spaces per development that guarantees that transit won't have a chance.  Developers operate with a formula that people won't walk more than 600 feet to get to a parked car and build with that in mind.

But if it's hard to drive, people take transit and transit improves and more people take transit and transit keeps improving.  But if you make it hard to drive, you are ousted from office.  So how do we invoke change?

Grescoe looks at 12 cities all over the world; paragons of transit and paragons of the car.

And the history is interesting.  The first suburbs were built within easy distance of the city and connected by commuter trains.  But then the car came hiccuping off the assembly line and made the possibilities endless.

Then in the 1950s, Eisenhower built up our concrete infrastructure, not to help us go on Kerouac-esque odysseys of discovery but to make sure we could get the military where we might need them in case of an invasion and evacuate our cities in case of nuclear war.  No invasion, no nuclear war and lots of highway infrastructure = suburban sprawl and big box stores.

And that's the American way.  Public transit is for poor people.  Public transit is communist.  Socialist.  I am an American.  I work hard.  I buy my own car.  I pay my own way.  Somehow I forget how much public money is used to keep the roads upon which I'm exerting my libertarian independence in useable form.

Public transit is also dangerous.  A target for terrorists.  A killer.  Of course, in Japan, you are more likely to die from your pajamas catching fire than you are in a train crash.

I live in Kansas City.  A city completely enamored with the automobile.  Though my neighborhood is an early suburb, built with trolley and streetcar access to downtown, all of those tracks are gone.  One is now a well-loved jogging path.  A MAX bus runs on the street next to the jogging path but there is no rail.  And those who advocate rail are immediately labeled as crackpot sociopaths.

But Kansas City doesn't have gridlock.  So there's no reason to change.  So we won't change.

In Bogota (my favorite chapter of the book) the mayor championed public good over private interest.  He restructured Bogota to "show that a cyclist on a thirty-dollar bike was equally as important as a citizen in a thirty-thousand dollar car.  We were saying, 'You, with your big cars and fancy jewels, we think you are stupid, we think you are animals.  What we respect is music and sports and libraries.  For us, the neighborhood hero was the young man who played sports and read books and rode around on an old bike.'"

And it worked.  For the most part.  Until he was ousted from office.  But he plans to run again and continue molding the trend.

I wish we had a visionary like that in Kansas City.  I don't take transit.  I could take a bus.  But it's so much easier to get in my car and drive.  So I do.  And until transit becomes more than an indicator of poverty or hipster moral superiority, nothing will change.

"Every time you choose to drive you are, in a tiny way, opting out of, and thus diminishing, the public realm.  And that, finally, is the problem with suburbs and freeways.  In order to gain spurious freedom, which is in fact just increased mobility, millions of people turn their backs on civility--not just politeness, but also the process of civilization building, in which cities play such a crucial role.  Sprawl may end in cul-de-sacs and foreclosures, but it begins every time you slam a car door on the world."

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