Taras Grescoe, Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile (2012)
I moved from Los Angeles to Seoul a bit over six years ago, and it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say I did so because Seoul has the better subway system. It still surprises some people to hear that Los Angeles, a city globally perceived as synonymous with American "car culture," has a subway system at all. Yet the city put into service the first of its modern urban rail lines in 1990, and four or five more have opened since. Though still inadequate to the size of its territory, Los Angeles Metro Rail as a whole tends favorably to impress the visitors who ride it. Those visitors include no less a public-transit connoisseur than Taras Grescoe, whose tough-but-fair evaluation constitutes a chapter of his book Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, first published in 2012.
Back then I was still living in Los Angeles, and indeed first having my eyes opened to the urban itself. Lacking experience of adult life within a major city proper, I was intoxicated with the possibilities newly opened to me: that, for instance, of catching a subway train to Little Tokyo from my home in Koreatown whenever I pleased. The vague notion I had of buying a car once I got to "L.A." soon evaporated, and I began avidly to track the progress of not just Metro's construction but also the city's development in general, especially where it produced greater density. Even then it would have been difficult for me not to like Straphanger, which offers clear-eyed assessment of Los Angeles' urban condition as well as evocative accounts of travel and transit in about a dozen other world cities, from New York and Toronto to Copenhagen and Shanghai.
At that time, Grescoe was incomparably more worldly than me. Born and raised in Canada, he spent the early 1990s living in Paris, "the city that made me fall in love with cities. I was twenty-three, bumming around Europe on a post-university walkabout; Paris was the place where my money ran out." For my part, throughout my teens and most of my twenties I held the very concept of "bumming around Europe on a post-university walkabout" in contempt, but looking back, I suspect that what bothered me was the disappointing lack of fundamental change in those sojourns’ returnees. They’d occasionally lapse into raptures about some café or boulevard or cathedral, granted, but if they liked it so much they would have stayed there, or picked up some of the language, or at the very least not settled straight back into butt-ugly American exurbia.
To Grescoe "the streets of Paris were a revelation: unlike the slapdash North American cities I had grown up in, the entire metropolis seemed to have been designed by some immortal aesthete, following a vast, generation-spanning master plan." The idea of a city designed by an immortal aesthete appeals enormously to me today, but Grescoe seems to have exhibited these preferences early in life: at eight years old he appeared on local television in Vancouver, where his family had moved from Toronto, and "earnestly made the case for turning streets into parks." At that same age, my own imagination barely extended beyond the suburban detached home, the suburban detached school, the suburban shopping mall, the suburban office park, and so on. Streets were what grown-ups drove on to get to and from these places; if you wanted to hang out, you'd do it in the cul-de-sac.
I grew up primed, in other words, to appreciate a quote Grescoe uses as one of Straphanger's epigraphs: "A man who, beyond the age of twenty-six, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure." Despite being almost certainly apocryphal, that line is widely attributed to Margaret Thatcher; the fact that it has stuck so firmly for so long at least says something about the way people perceive her and her legacy. I found it funny when first I heard it and I still find it funny today, not least due to the po-faced reactions it reliably draws from public-transportation advocates. Just as I'd like to think I have more appreciation for buses, subways, light-rail trains and other forms of urban transport than the average person — certainly more so than most of my fellow Americans — I'd also like to think I'm not a weenie about it.
Early in Straphanger, Grescoe makes a similar disavowal: "I am not a rail fan, a juicehead, or an aficionado of doodlebugs." He adds that "rail fans are also known as 'foamers' because they tend to foam at the mouth when talk turns to bogeys and pantographs; they may or may not be 'juiceheads,' whose knowledge of vintage electric streetcars and even 'doodlebugs,' the streetcar’s gas-powered equivalent, tends to be encyclopedic." I know the type. Back in Los Angeles I had a few memorable encounters with aged, badly disheveled rail fans — juiceheads, presumably — who would indeed begin foaming at the mouth at the first mention of early 20th-century urban rail system that shaped the city, with its "Red Cars" of the Pacific Electric and "Yellow Cars" of the Los Angeles railway. Their moist, one-sided conversation seldom took long long to turn to conspiracy.
In the late 1930s, as these juiceheads tell it, General Motors formed a consortium in order to buy up the streetcar networks of Los Angeles and other U.S. cities and summarily dismantle them. Pace Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the presence of quite so aggressive a conspiracy behind the "great American streetcar scandal" (which I wrote about in the Guardian a few years ago) is difficult to establish, and though Grescoe traces the lines of the story as typically told, he doesn't quite buy it. In addressing the question of why Los Angeles has taken the form it has (a matter of obsessive interest to me even now) he explains how the streetcars and their associated real-estate development schemes laid out the region in a practically ideal shape to be run through by freeways, just in time for the rise of the automobile.
This is not, safe to say, Grescoe's favorite invention. "Though I have a driver’s license, I’ve never owned an automobile," he writes, "and apart from the occasional car rental, I’ve reached my mid-forties by relying on bicycles, my feet, and public transportation for my day-to-day travel." He is, in other words, "a straphanger: somebody who, by choice or necessity, relies on public transport." I'd never heard that term prior to reading this book — then again, I'd also never heard the term slurb, an apparent combination of slum and suburb — but it hardly surprises me to see the voluntary riding of public transport branded as an identity. In the United States of America, and thus in Canada, everything gets fashioned into an identity sooner or later, almost always based on bitter opposition to something else; hence Grescoe's high status in the realm of anti-car Twitter.
I met Grescoe once, and we had, as they say, so much to discuss. This was as I expected, given our shared interests in not just cities but also language: I seem to recall his commanding French, Spanish, and Italian, and in Straphanger he mentions using Russian on the streets of Moscow. (Just now I saw in a Q&A that Saul Bellow figures among his favorite writers; it's a good thing I didn't know that before, or I would've spoken of nothing else.) His bibliography offers much to respect, not least in its sheer variety: apart from Straphanger, he's published books about Québec, tourism, culinary prohibition, seafood, and 1930s Shanghai. Yet on social media, he seems to get the most traction among circulators of memes against the automobile: diagrams of the relative road space occupied by bikes and cars, photos of gap-toothed toddlers standing oblivious beside murderously large SUVs.
These days any writer benefits from a high social-media profile, but with one comes a considerable risk of Flanderization. That process is named for The Simpsons' Ned Flanders, who entered the show as the civic-minded, churchgoing family man next door and within a few years was defined only by his ever-more-exaggerated religiosity. A significant degree of Twitter fame could send any of us into a Flanderization spiral, and I imagine Grescoe well understands that one false move could get him permanently perceived as not just a straphanger but a professional car-hater, a regrettably flimsy public role for a writer of such rich interests. By the same token, Straphanger itself is easy to take for a much simpler book than it is: readers with a mind to do so can reduce this investigation of global urban civilization in the early 21st century to a manifesto declaring "cars bad, subways good."
But is "cars bad, subways good" wrong? Even the most die-hard driver has to admit that today's vehicles lack the visceral appeal of those produced forty, fifty, sixty years ago. "As a teenager, I fetishized Detroit’s coolest rides," Grescoe admits, "and a well-preserved Citroën DS can still stop me in my tracks." I have a weakness for the Déesse myself (or maybe just a weakness for Barthes), though I doubt any automotive industry will ever again produce a car with even a fraction of its aesthetic importance. Still, as dull as its designs have become, "the automobile’s most insidious impact is on the built environment. Between cul-de-sacs and hundred-acre Wal-Mart parking lots, metropolitan areas now eat up mind-boggling amounts of land." Cars themselves, as I often argue, aren't the problem; the problem is the city's bloated disfigurement by car-related infrastructure, from walls of freeway to deserts of parking lot.
"While I love the gritty allure of a great metropolitan subway, and consider a rail trip one of life’s great pleasures, my interest in transportation technology runs a distant second to my love of cities," Grescoe writes. "I like subways, buses, and trains because I believe they make better places than cars and freeways." He marshals a variety of figures to support this argument: that "if all the pavement in America were merged, it would create a parking lot the size of Georgia," or, worse, that "year in, year out, automobiles kill 1.2 million people around the world." Yet the difference between urban environments built or reconfigured to accommodate cars and genuine cities is best understood through not argument but experience; most of those young Americans returning from their Eurail rumspringa sense but can't quite articulate what accounts for the difference between where they went and where they're from.
Grescoe can articulate it, and he does it best within the framework of his own direct perceptions and experiences of a city. He hardly ignores the technical, environmental, and economic cases to be made for building densely around mass transit rather than sprawlingly for the automobile, but for me, numbers add precious little persuasiveness to these arguments. This is especially true of carbon-emission figures, off of which my eyes reflexively slide. It surprises my less urbanism-inclined friends (and indeed, some of my more urbanism-inclined ones) to hear than that I'm not an environmentalist; my preference for cities is wholly aesthetic, and though living in them probably does improve my own health and that of the planet, I would do it even if it made both of them worse. So, I suspect, would Mikael Colville-Andersen, an outspoken advocate of building extensive, direct, protected urban cycling networks, an endeavor branded as "Copenhagenization.”
"When they survey Copenhageners, only three percent say they’re doing it to save the planet, and only one in five say they do it because its good exercise." Colville-Andersen tells Grescoe. "The vast majority ride because it's quick and easy." Smoking, drinking, and resolutely non-helmet-wearing, he argues that "when you think style over speed, cycling is going to be safe." This mindset surely owes something to the trigger of his early online fame: his posting a photo of a skirted and booted young woman boots waiting on her bike at a crosswalk. This inspired a blog, Copenhagen Cycle Chic, featuring "photos of Danes cycling in all kinds of weather: blond beauties wearing cotton dresses and high heels, or wrapped in heavy knit scarves; picturesquely wrinkled men nattily attired in fedoras, tweed jackets and wingtips; and teenagers in tight jeans and Converse sneakers, all of them balanced on heavy, high-handlebar bikes."
I can confirm that such people are everyday sights in Copenhagen, having traveled there myself to record a season of my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. Colville-Andersen was one of my own interviewees too, and I asked him whether, in a city most of whose residents get around by bicycle, "cyclist" can be an identity. "We say the word cyclist here, but I'm not a cyclist," he said. "I'm just a guy who rode my bike down to the café to meet you. I went to the supermarket on foot today, so I was a pedestrian, I suppose. You don't announce at a dinner party, 'Well, I'm a bus passenger, actually." This might have been my first taste of the blessed relief of identity that prevails outside America. (Meanwhile in Los Angeles, I followed up, bus-riding or even walking could still be hoisted up as a flag of allegiance.)
We have other interviewees in common: architect Jan Gehl, the living embodiment of Copenhagen urbanism; Portland urban historian Carl Abbott; Vancouver planner Gordon Price. Possessed of a stronger journalistic instinct than mine (as most writers are), Grescoe also includes a few voices of the opposition. The most prominent is Joel Kotkin, a onetime urbanist who has in recent years become one of that community's contrarian hate figures. "High density is predominantly attractive to the very wealthy, to the young, and to people without kids," he tells Grescoe amid the bad vibes of his San Fernando Valley home. "The chattering class is dominated by people who fantasize about living in the inner city. But you are hard-pressed, outside of the extremely wealthy and the sophistos" — a term coined, startlingly, in A Clockwork Orange — "to find people who want to live in dense places with kids."
More rigorous-sounding is the analysis offered by Cascades Policy Institute president John Charles, "well known in the Pacific Northwest for his op-eds attacking regional planning policies and in support of more freeway building." His solutions to Portland's supposed crises, most of them to do with parking and traffic, amount to the standard libertarian jumble of private jitneys and toll roads animated by the pipe dream of non-subsidized transportation. (As is repeatedly pointed out in Straphanger, the amount of tax money plowed into the freeways each and every year makes the cost of every American urban rail system put together look like that of a Lionel set.) Grescoe clearly resents libertarianism as such; my objection is less to the ideology than to its representatives’ coming off like curmudgeonly middle-aged dorks. (Having attended a few Libertarian Party meetings in high school, I can confirm the accuracy of this representation.)
Then again, I sometimes wonder whether everybody involved in the American debate of urbanists versus anti-urbanists isn't a dork: not just the Joel Kotkins and John Charleses of the world, with their repetitive talk of backyards and invisible hands, but also my own generation's resettlers of the central city, ostentatiously "car-free" men in their thirties who frequent the farmer's market and refer to their girlfriend as their "partner." What troubles me most about all this is the apparent absence of Eros; I find myself thinking back to my Notebook on Cities and Culture conversation with Concrete Reveries author Mark Kingwell, who lamented the un-erotic quality of Toronto, a city nonetheless widely admired on the urban-planning level. But when Grescoe returns to the Canadian capital, his birthplace, he writes a chapter motivated by this question: "How did a city that used to work so well end up so broken?"
The answer, as anyone who read Shawn Micallef's Frontier City will suspect, has to do with Rob Ford. That rough-hewn anti-straphanger was still alive and presiding over City Hall when Grescoe wrote that "central casting couldn’t have come up with a more perfect car-bound suburbanite: the brush-cut, rubicund Ford, on the obese side of overweight, hails from the suburb of Etobicoke and is egregiously Caucasian in a city where 'visible minorities' are within a couple of percentage points of becoming the majority." Despite stubbornly opposing the construction of bike lanes and the expansion of Toronto's streetcar system (miraculously spared the fate that befell its U.S. equivalents), he did at least advocate subway-building, albeit only a small amount of it in a remote part of the city. By all local accounts, the public transportation as a whole came out of the Ford mayoralty worse for wear.
However frustrating the shortcomings of the TTC, as Torontonians call it, it still trumps most public transit systems south of the border. Since Straphanger's publication a decade ago, Los Angeles has opened just one rail line and extended another (and continued to surround most stations with parking lots, a practice Grescoe decries). Despite its urbane reputation, San Francisco has fared even worse. Staying in one of its southern suburbs last year, my girlfriend and I thought we'd go downtown in the evening. But the train station across from our hotel offered service, bizarrely, on weekends only. We decided to catch a bus instead, which would require us to top up our payment cards. That can only be done at one particular drugstore chain, and while there was a location nearby, its shrugging clerk told us that they'd long ago "lost the part" they needed to do it.
At such times, for all the talk of 21st-century urban renaissance, the U.S. city feels hopeless. Grescoe experiences his own episodes of despair while straphanging, or attempting to, in places like Phoenix. The Arizonan metropolis is "my nightmare, the antithesis of any city I could imagine living in"; its fledgling light-rail system qualifies it for inclusion his book, though it turns out to be an unsurprising case study in "the fatal flaw that afflicts transit lines in many Sun Belt cities: too often, they run along underused corridors, chosen by officials because there will be little local opposition, rather than because they serve areas that are actually dense enough to support transit." The antithesis to the antithesis would be Paris, the stations of whose venerable Métropolitain "are so seamlessly woven into the fabric of Paris that it can sometimes seem as if the system evolved simultaneously with the metropolis."
Yet "transit was retrofitted into this historic city with infinite care and trouble, and it was only through constant maintenance and investment that it has continued to function and evolve." This gives the lie to all the old insistences that Los Angeles couldn't have a subway because the city was "already built" — as if that wasn't true of nineteenth-century London, birthplace of the underground railway, or of New York when its own digging began in 1900. By Grescoe's lights, the New York City Subway remains the greatest transit system in the United States, despite the failures of maintenance that let it fall into shambles by the mid-1970s. My dad once told me of a trip to the New York of that era, in whose crumbling, infernal subway stations he kept seeing posters for John Boorman's Zardoz with their tagline "I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE, AND IT DOESN'T WORK."
I, too, have seen the future, and it's Tokyo — or it would at least be the future of Los Angeles, as I wrote not long ago, if development there were to proceed in an ideal fashion. "Tokyo’s railways are the standard by which all others must be judged," writes Grescoe. "Simply put, there is no better place on the planet to be a straphanger." But there are no straphangers in Tokyo: its trains and buses are so clean and efficient that nearly everyone rides them, meaning that nobody uses them as vehicles of self-definition. (Japan's fanatically train-obsessed densha otaku are another story.) To Americans, "there is something fatally dingy about the catchphrase 'transit-oriented development,'" which "carries the stink of cabbage-scented tenements in the overcrowded slums of some nineteenth-century industrial city." In Tokyo, "the real challenge is to find any development that is not transit-oriented."
Faced with the infrastructural superiority of the Japanese city, Westerners tend to reach for the same coping mechanism: an attribution of rigorous joylessness and even psychopathology to Japanese society. Grescoe himself points to crushing commutes (the Tozai line "averages 199 percent capacity in the morning rush hour"), suicides on the tracks (as well as of humiliated drivers), and even the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack. Ultimately he regards Tokyo's model as un-exportable, given that it's "the only major metropolis where private corporations can profitably run rail transit without government subsidies" thanks to conglomerate ownership and high residential density. In it Grescoe sees not Los Angeles' future but its alternate reality, as though that city had "chosen trains over freeways, and Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric had not only continued operating its network of interurban Red Cars into the twenty-first century but also laid out most of the subdivisions in Southern California."
Like much urbanist writing, Straphanger can feel like a sermon to the choir; readers most in need of a book subtitled Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile are the least likely to open it. Grescoe's core cause, of cities and the good life as lived in them, is best advanced by discussions of something more hedonic than development and infrastructure per se. "Traveling by shinkansen is a lot more fun than flying," he writes of Japan's bullet trains. "Young women, lavender aprons over pink shirts, their hair in buns, wheel carts of whisky, o-bento lunch boxes, and cold coffee drinks down the aisles, bowing to passengers as they enter and leave each car." The Old World offers similar pleasures: on Spain's AVE, "even as we topped out near 215 miles per hour the Rioja in the stemless glass on the tray table in front of me barely rippled."
Despite its frequent pickpocketing and persistent stench (a mixture of "cleaning fluid, brake dust, and stagnant water, overlaid by the occasional whiff of Chanel and stale tobacco"), Grescoe "would rather ride the Métro than any other subway system in the world, and that's not just because the streets of Paris happen to be above it." But those streets do raise the question of "who needs a baronial foyer and a home theater, after all, when you've got the Louvre and the cinemas of the Left Bank practically in your backyard." All around a friend's modest apartment are "café terraces to linger on, bookstores to browse," and "hundreds of bistros offering affordable prix fixe meals." Such sheer proximity of pleasures is difficult to explain to those who haven't lived it — not stayed amid it for a few weeks or months, but lived it — in Paris or another world capital.
Seoul has certainly instilled in me an appreciation of having all of life's necessities within a ten-minute walk of home. And that's not even considering the subway system here, which in my experience ranks alongside Tokyo's as the finest in the world. (Both of them manage to maintain clean restrooms in all their stations, which to my mind constitutes a rebuke to Western civilization in itself.) In fact, I did most of this last re-reading of Straphanger while riding the Seoul Metro. Grescoe didn't come here during the book's research, and every time one of my trains emerged from its tunnel to cross the Han River, I wanted him to experience it. That moment only impresses me more with time, but it doesn’t inspire most Seoulites even to look up from their phones. Perhaps it takes a public-transit connoisseur — a straphanger — truly to appreciate it.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His current projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.