Saturday, July 7, 2012

‘Straphanger: Making a Case for Public Transport’

Cover art: Straphanger
Cover image: Straphanger by Taras Grescoe
To my list of must-read books, add Straphanger by Taras Grescoe (Times Books, 2012). An excerpt from the book’s introduction is published at

Grescoe, like me, is a straphanger,” defined as “somebody who, by choice or necessity, relies on public transport, rather than a privately owned automobile.”

According to Grescoe, for the vast majority of the earth’s population, getting around involves taking buses, ferryboats, commuter trains, streetcars and subways:
“Half the population of New York, Toronto, and London do not own cars. Public transport is how most of the people of Asia and Africa, the world’s most populous continents, travel. Every day, subway systems carry 155 million passengers, thirty-four times the number carried by all the world’s airplanes, and the global public transport market is now valued at $428 billion annually. A century and a half after the invention of the internal combustion engine, private car ownership is still an anomaly.”
“And yet public transportation, in many minds, is the opposite of glamour — a squalid last resort for those with one too many impaired driving charges, too poor to afford insurance, or too decrepit to get behind the wheel of a car. In much of North America, they are right: taking mass transit is a depressing experience. Anybody who has waited far too long on a street corner for the privilege of boarding a lurching, overcrowded bus, or wrestled luggage onto subways and shuttles to get to a big city airport, knows that transit on this continent tends to be underfunded, ill-maintained, and ill-planned. Given the opportunity, who wouldn’t drive? Hopping in a car almost always gets you to your destination more quickly.”
Grescoe argues that it doesn’t have to be like this: 
“Done right, public transport can be faster, more comfortable, and cheaper than the private automobile. In Shanghai, German-made magnetic levitation trains skim over elevated tracks at 266 miles an hour, whisking people to the airport at a third of the speed of sound. In provincial French towns, electric-powered streetcars run silently on rubber tires, sliding through narrow streets along a single guide rail set into cobblestones. From Spain to Sweden, Wi-Fi equipped high-speed trains seamlessly connect with highly ramified metro networks, allowing commuters to work on laptops as they prepare for same-day meetings in once distant capital cities. In Latin America, China, and India, working people board fast-loading buses that move like subway trains along dedicated busways, leaving the sedans and SUVs of the rich mired in dawn-to-dusk traffic jams. And some cities have transformed their streets into cycle-path freeways, making giant strides in public health and safety and the sheer livability of their neighborhoods — in the process turning the workaday bicycle into a viable form of mass transit.”
Bus rider's pass in hand-made brocade ID pouch on laniard
Hand-made brocade ID pouch
on lanyard holds my bus rider’s pass
As someone who abandoned automobile use in favor of public transit, I appreciate the optimism with which Grescoe approaches his subject. Rising gas prices made auto commuting unaffordable and, at the same time, I wanted to reduce my impact on the environment.

One of the best investments my family makes each month is my Lake Transit rider’s pass.

According to Grescoe, a revolution is going on in the way people travel: “It is rewriting the DNA of formerly car-centered cities, making the streets better places to be, and restoring something cities sorely need: real public space.”

I am proud to be a part of that revolution.

Read the excerpt from Grescoe’s book at

Straphanger can be found through the combined catalog system of our Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma County libraries. Copies are shelved at the Lakeport and Petaluma libraries (388.4 GRESCOE).

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