Seeing the world as a straphanger

While researching his new book, Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, travel writer Taras Grescoe visited cities all over the world to deliver the story on the world's great transit systems.

On a journey that takes him to New York, Moscow, Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Bogotá, Phoenix, Portland, Vancouver, and Philadelphia, Grescoe goes beneath the streets to see subway tunnels being dug, he boards state-of-the-art streetcars and he hops on high-speed trains — along the way uncovering ideas that will help undo the damage a century of car-centric planning has done to our cities.

The book provides a history of each city's mass transit, and describes how each is meeting (or not meeting) its goal of moving people quickly, conveniently and affordably.

Active Trans volunteer contributor Jason Phillip recently had a chat with Grescoe about the book and how some lessons he learned could be applied to the Chicago region.

Jason Phillip: You've traveled the world investigating transportation systems in dozens of cities. What are you most excited about in terms of new thinking about transit and new ways of getting ourselves around—especially those ideas with practical implications for U.S. cities?

Taras Grescoe: The latest additions to major metropolitan transit systems in European cities, including London, Paris, and Madrid, include serious subway/metro systems for the suburbs—not just commuter trains taking people from home to work, but metros for the outskirts. That’s going to make those suburbs denser and more walkable.

We need to find a transit solution for the North American suburbs—metros are incredibly expensive to build and operate, so a bus rapid transit system might be a smarter way to go.

Can you talk about what makes for a successful bus rapid transit system? After your travels in Bogotá, Colombia, do you have any words of advice as BRT is introduced in Chicago?

I generally dislike the experience of riding most buses, but only because they become second-class vehicles on our roads, inevitably the slowest thing in traffic. In true bus rapid transit systems, they are often the fastest things on the road—and often much faster than cars in really crowded developing world metropolises. The best advice to a city regarding BRT is not to implement it in a half-hearted way.

Dario Hidalgo, who helped set up Bogotá’s BRT, makes the case that a BRT system that doesn’t include pre-payment, separated rights-of-way, real stations (preferably with platform doors and level boarding), strong GPS-supported dispatching, and good branding isn’t a true BRT system. If you introduce BRT with only some of these features, it’s likely to fail—and tarnish the whole idea in the eyes of the public.

Do you think international travel is necessary for people to understand the different ways that urban transit systems can operate?

It really does help to see how transportation works in different places. I think if it hadn’t been for my travels, I wouldn’t have picked up a deep understanding of the relationship between urban structure and density and the kinds of transport systems that fit best with them.

With that said, you can do a lot of travel on the Internet these days: Almost every major transit system can be seen in action on YouTube, for example, and with Google maps you can see how stations and routes fit into cities.

What do you think Americans would find most surprising about the history of urban transportation in their own country?

I think everybody who lives in North America, which is now so car dependent, has to be reminded how this continent was built by trains, and how its cities grew with rail transit. By the 1920s, virtually every town and city with a population of over 10,000 had its own streetcar system. The network of streetcars and interurbans was eventually so dense that you could hop interlinked streetcars from Waterville, Maine to Sheboygan, Wisconsin—a journey of 1,000 miles, exclusively by electric trolley.

Los Angeles, which everybody thinks is the quintessential automobile metropolis, owes its dispersed urban form to the Pacific Electric network. That’s why I think a transit and walkability revival is going to be most successful in those pre-WWII neighborhoods that were originally built for streetcars and buses (rather than the off-ramp-dependent post-war subdivisions).

What would it take to bring intercity passenger rail service in the U.S. up to par (or at least not embarrassing levels) compared with Europe? Is this is a more desirable goal than improving transit within cities?

    Taras Grescoe; photo by Erin Churchill

The two go hand-in-hand. You can’t expect people to reduce car dependency if they can’t do some intercity travel without a car—preferably by rail. I think the U.S. needs to focus its energy on seriously improving and upgrading passenger rail service and speeds between major population centers that are currently linked by plane. That means fast rail up and down the west and east coasts (and linking to Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal!) and the major cities of the Midwest.

Most people won’t consider a seven- or eight-hour train trip if they can do the same thing by plane in under two. But four or five hours is the sweet spot—because with fast rail, you travel from downtown-to-downtown, and eliminate all the hassles of plane travel.

Can you describe why reducing people's dependence on automobiles can raise their quality of life, even if they don't expect it will?

For many people, losing the use of a car can feel like a loss of independence (or even a regression to childhood!). In many parts of North America, it actually is: The logic of sprawl means that navigating much of suburbia without an automobile is a painful and frustrating experience.

But in cities that have functional public transport, and have bikeable and walkable neighborhoods, getting by without a car can actually bring about positive changes in your life. The health benefits are the obvious benefits: Every transit trip begins and ends with a walk (a study of streetcar users in Charlotte, North Carolina, found that after only half a year they weighed 6.5 pounds less than drivers).

I know that commuting by bike year-round has seriously improved my attitude during the long winter months where I live, in snowy Montreal. There is a more subtle case to be made that, while urban highways and people zipping around in cars tend to foster alienation, bike paths, sidewalks, and public transport (bus stops, subway platforms, the vehicles themselves) add to public space—the kind of space where happy, coherent communities get built.

This article was provided by volunteer contributor Jason Phillip. Phillip is a freelance editor and writer who lives in Chicago.

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