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Taras Grescoe: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Taras Grescoe is an award-winning author of books and articles on world travel. His fifth book is Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, coming next month from Times Books.

Tell us a bit about how the idea for this book came about, and how long you spent making all the trips it took to research the different cities you profile. What was your best experience (transportation related or otherwise) while researching the book? Your worst?

For the last decade, I’ve been thinking about writing a book-length examination of how cars changed our lives, and how car-centered thinking has transformed our cities. But I didn't want to contribute another angry screed against the evil motorcar to the literature. There are so many people thinking differently about transportation, and so many amazing initiatives happening in cities around the world, that I figured I could combine a little righteous anger and a lot of hope and optimism in the same book—which is why I detail how we got into the mess of sprawl and congestion, and how a lot of committed people are finding ways to get us out of it.

As much as I loved riding funiculars, rattly old subways, and high-speed trains in Asia, Europe, and South America, the best experience was meeting people around the world who are committed to making their cities better places to live for themselves and their families—a lot of those people have become friends. The worst part: when I was looking at sprawled and congested cities like Phoenix and Moscow, being stuck in endless traffic. Hours I spend in a car always feel like hours I'll never get back.

You write that Straphanger is, "in part, the story of a bad idea: the notion that our metropolises should be shaped by the needs of cars, rather than people." How and when did this idea take hold, and can you tell us a few of the ways this bad idea has manifested itself?

Streets in North American cities belonged to the people of those cities until at least the '20s. Kids played in them, pedestrians crossed them at will, streetcars and horsecars and cable cars used them, bike-riders enjoyed them, vendors sold food from carts. They were anarchic, and alive. Though Americans accepted the new technology of the automobile, and it became ever more affordable thanks to Ford's mass production, it took a concerted effort on the part of automobile industry lobby groups to manufacture the concept of the "jaywalker" and convert city streets into speedways for cars. At first, police resisted, citizens resisted: tens of thousands of kids were slaughtered by Chevrolets and Fords, and there were giant demonstrations against "death drivers" in almost every major city in the 1920s. A great portrayal of the process in action is Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, published in 1918. (Tarkington was clearly ambivalent about the coming of the automobile to the city, but he brilliantly portrays the way that new technology unstitched so much of what old walkable cities used to be.) Later, technocrats like Robert Moses in New York City consolidated power and streamlined the process of building cities for cars, rather than people. Car culture really did its job well: now nobody finds it strange that so much precious public space—the streets of Manhattan, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto—should be occupied by two tons of privately-owned of plastic, fiberglass, and metal.

Who's doing it right? Which cities (or countries) do you see as models for best practices in developing and implementing the kinds of mass transit that work best?

Copenhagen is brilliantly combining public transport and advanced bicycle infrastructure. Tokyo has always been built around rail, but there's a huge pedestrian and bicycle culture the Japanese don't think twice about. I'm on the fence about bus rapid transit, which I think can have a pretty big impact on the quality of life (for better and for worse) in urban neighborhoods in cities like Bogotá and Curitiba.

On the flip side, are there particular places where you think particularly bad ideas still hold sway?

Any place that has bought into jitneys and so-called "free market" provision of public transport is a nightmare of congestion or pollution, whether it's busetas in Latin America, the jeepneys of Manila, or the chastniki of Moscow. And any place that allows its public agencies to be dismantled and managed by carpetbaggers in the name of ideology (the smaller cities of Britain, many of Australia's big cities) has undergone precipitous declines in service. Many cities in the south and west of the United States are challenges, because so much of their development is post-war sprawl, but most of them have historic nuclei, often built around old interurban or rail stations, that could prove promising hubs for good public transport and walkable neighorhoods. They're going to have to do something about all those life-sucking surface parking lots, though.

The book mostly concerns transit within cities and their suburbs, but you also write about inter-city train transit (and its sad state in most of North America). Can you tell us your suggestions for improving passenger rail service in Canada and the U.S.?

Amtrak and Via are forced to run their light passenger trains on tracks laid for heavy freight trains (which is why rail travelers are always being sidelined by what I've heard railroaders call "Chinese Wal-Mart Doo-dad Trains.") In Europe and Asia, passenger trains have their own dedicated tracks, which allows them to run fast and frequent. When it comes to infrastructure, our scarce money would best be spent tearing down old urban highways and building new inter-urban railways. At this point, it's just embarrassing: even Uzbekistan is building high-speed rail, and all the U.S. really has is the Acela. Coming back from Europe and Asia, it can feel like we're still riding around in stagecoaches. We'll be paying the price, in terms of lost competitivity, for decades to come.

I think I know the answer to this from reading the book, but I'll ask anyway: if you had to leave Montreal and move to a different city, which would you choose, and why?

I've spent a lot of time in 10-million person cities like Paris, London, and New York, and, as rewarding as they are, I find them a bit stressful on a day-to-day basis. My ideals are in the 4-5 million range: Barcelona, Montreal, Melbourne. I also like rowhouse urbanism, and neighborhoods that were old streetcar suburbs. That's why Philadelphia felt about right to me. Also, I like a place with some soul and history, and Philly has both. But I'm not leaving Montreal.

Describe your vision of a "perfect" urban transit system (say money's no object and you're starting from scratch). What would the downtown area look like from a traffic perspective? How would the suburbs fit into the picture?

If money’s no object—and it always is—a subway is the way to go. Preferably on the model of the Paris métro, with simple lines with lots of connections, closely spaced stations, frequent service connecting to suburban trains and inter-city high-speed trains. A subway leaves the streets free, for bicycles, pedestrians, maybe some local streetcars, buses (and, why not, funiculars and cable cars!) I like cities that are dense yet have lots of green space. A subway enables efficient movement in a dense setting, while preserving street life. If you think your city is going to be around in 50 years, or 100 years, then you might want to invest in a subway. For cities with rudimentary subway networks, feeder buses, as used in Toronto and Bogotá, are a great way to improve the reach of transit into sprawled suburbs.

How can those of us who want to see some of the ideas you put forth in reality help make them happen? What's the best way to push for change?

Day to day: reduce car use, walk and bike more, explore local transit options. (Transit thrives on the virtuous circle: the more that people pay to use it, the better service can get.) Big picture: think hard about where you're going to live and work. Think twice about picking a place that will have you driving dozens of miles to drop off kids and buy groceries, and consider passing over a job that will have you commuting to the intersection of two freeways. Jobs are already moving back to cities from the edges, because people don’t want the expense and hassle of driving to an exurban non-place.

What types of books do you like to read? What have you read recently that you enjoyed?

I read a lot of fiction. I just finished Murakami’s massive IQ84, but I enjoyed Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropolis, about the predicament of a linguist who accidentally lands in a city where everybody speaks a totally unknown language, a lot more.

Do you have an idea yet of what your next project will be?

I'm looking for something that will keep me at home. Something historical, perhaps. I have a four-month old son, so I'm trying to limit my travel. Though he seems to love the train ...

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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