Straphanger

Taras Grescoe presents a transit-oriented travelogue of ten global cities in his 2012 book Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile. While Grescoe advocates strongly for public transportation, he has intentionally chosen to visit locations where transit has stagnated and conduct interviews with people who fervently believe in the superiority of private automobility. For the transit-curious reader, this book presents a broad and detailed picture of the state of the industry in large cities in the Americas, Asia & Europe.

While the book is structured like a travel journal, each chapter has a unique lens on the role of public transportation in a modern city. Straphanger mixes the author’s personal experiences using public transit systems, local history that shaped development and transportation, and discussions with leaders in each location. The author interviewed high profile figures such as Antionio Villaraigosa, Janette Sadik-Kahn, Enrique Peñalosa,  and Jan Gehl for the book along with dozens of transit system planners and managers.

I particularly enjoyed the seamless way Grescoe connects the topic of land development to transportation. Throughout the book he describes local vernacular patterns of development such as “Trinities” of Philadelphia, “Haussmannien apartments” of Paris, and Tokyo’s shitamachi districts. Straphanger approaches the topic with more humanity than most transportation books which often have a clinical perspective on land use.

The book shines in its detailed descriptions of the transportation infrastructure in each city. The dichotomy between public and private mobility was especially stark in Moscow, which has  palatial subway stations and medieval highway conditions. His thorough explanation of Bogotá’s TransMilenio (Bus Rapid Transit) and Japan’s bullet train made me feel as though I were riding alongside him.

I would have liked if the author had included an example of a smaller city that in this book. Straphanger’s examination of transit in urban areas excludes metropolitan areas with populations under one million. Smaller urban regions and suburban cities face unique challenges in securing funding and political will to complete transit projects. Yet, examples of small cities that have overcome the odds to create useful transit systems do exist and can serve as a template.

Grescoe provides a detailed portrait of transit in the developed world and makes a strong case for continued investment in rail and bus infrastructure. For transit enthusiasts, this book is worth packing on your next journey.