book review: grescoe’s straphanger

Taras Grescoe. Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile. Macmillan, 2012.

Straphanger cover

When the publisher of Taras Grescoe’s Straphanger asked me to review the book, I felt the usual apprehension.  Shelves are full of books that discuss transit from a journalist’s perspective.  They often get crucial things wrong, as do many journalists’ articles on the topic.  I wondered I was going to endure another four hours of watching readers being innocently misled on issues that matter.

Grescoe does a little of that, but he also shows why spectacular writing compensates for many problems of detail.  Straphanger is a tour de force of compelling journalism and “travel writing” – friendly, entertaining, funny, pointed, and (almost always) compelling.  Like any good explainer, he announces his prejudice at once:

I admit it: I ride the bus.  What’s more, I frequently find myself on subways, streetcars, light rail, metros and high-speed trains.  Though I have a driver’s license, I’ve never owned an automobile, 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 … I am a straphanger, and I intend to remain one as long as my legs will carry me to the corner bus stop.

Grescoe and I have almost all of this in common, but I felt a pang of regret at this posture.  To the mainstream, car-dependent people who most need this book’s message, Grescoe has just announced that he’s a space alien with three arms and a penchant for eating rocks.  But there’s a positive side: once you decide you’re not in danger, eccentric tourguides can be fun.  Perhaps I have a poor dataset from living in “officially weird” Portland, and before that in San Francisco, but in a culture that seems increasingly welcoming of eccentricity and difference, there may be an audience for Grescoe among the motoring set.

Because this is what Grescoe is at heart:  A great tourguide, in this case a travel writer, showing you around some fascinating cities, exploring intriguing transit systems, and introducing us to vivid and engaging characters, all while having fun and sometimes dangerous adventures.  These last are important; Grescoe has had enough traumatic and confronting experiences that he can describe straphanging as a form of endorphin-rich adventure analogous to mountain climbing or skydiving.  I look forward to the movie.

Statistics are cited lightly but to great (and usually accurate) effect.  Effective and quotable jabs are everywhere: 

“The personal automobile has, dramatically and enduringly, broadened our horizons.  In the process, however, it has completely paved them over.

Grescoe has a great eye for characters, too.  Who can fail to be charmed, for example, by this portrait of a character I hadn’t known:  Bogotà mayor Antanas Mockus, alter-ego of his successor, the aggressive and practical Enrique Peñalosa:

Working with a tiny budget and no support from district councillors, Mockus focused on … undermining cycles of violence through jester-like interventions in daily life.  He dismissed the notoriously corrupt traffic police and hired four hundred mimes to shame drivers into stopping at crosswalks.  …  Taxis drivers were encouraged to become “Gentlemen of the Crosswalks,” and every new traffic fatality was marked with a black star prominently painted on the pavement.  To discourage road rage and honking, he distributed World Cup-style penalty cards to pedestrians and motorists, a red thumb’s down to signify disapproval, a green thumbs up to express thanks for a kind act … Seeing tangible evidence of municipal progress, citizens once again began to pay their property taxes … and the once-bankrupt city’s finances began to recover.

What’s wrong with this book?  Well, if it’s travel writing, nothing; travel writing is about the adventure, and while you learn things from it, you expect to learn subjective, unquantifiable things that may be inseparable from the character of your guide.  Journalism, on the other hand, has to get its facts right, or at least state its biases.  Grescoe gets a pass on his largest biases, mostly because he’s entirely aware of them and happy to point them out.

But there are a few mistakes.  Like many commentators, Grescoe throws around meaningless or misleading data about urban densities.  Here’s a typical slip:

Thanks largely to the RER, the metropolitan area of Paris, with over 10.2 million residents, takes up no more space on the Earth’s surface than Jacksonville, Florida, a freeway-formed city with fewer than 800,000 residents.

This doesn’t seem to check out, unless some subtle and uncited definition of metro area is being used.  (Wikipedia tells me that the City of Jacksonville is 882 sq mi in area while the Paris with 10.3 million residents is 1098 sq mi.)  But even if it did, this is the classic “city limits problem.”  Jacksonville is a consolidated city-county whose “city limits” encompass vast rural area outside the city, whereas “metro Paris” is by definition a contiguous area that is entirely urbanized.  An accurate comparison with metro Paris would look only at the built-up area of Jacksonville, which is tiny compared to Paris.   The point is that any talk about metro areas or cities is prone to so many different definitions, including some really unhelpful ones, that it’s wrong to cite any urban density without footnoting to clarify exactly what you mean, and how it’s measured. Grescoe is far from alone in sliding into these quicksands.

As with many journalists, Grescoe’s sense of what would be a good transit network is strongly governed by his emotional response to transit vehicles and technologies.  Grescoe is very enamored with rapid transit or “metro” service to the point that he sometimes misses how technologies work together for an optimal and liberating network. 

He claims, for example, that there should be circular metro lines around Los Angeles, Chicago, and Toronto.  In fact, circular or “orbital” services (regardless of technology) rely not just on network effects but also on being radial services into major secondary centers.  This is why the Chicago Circle Line made no sense: Chicago is so massively single-centered that there are few major secondary centres sufficient to anchor a metro line until you get way out into the suburbs, at which point concentrations of jobs are laid out in such transit-unfriendly ways that no one line could serve them anyway. Chicago is going the right direction by improving the speed and usefulness of its urban grid pattern of service – a mathematically ideal network form that fits well with the shape of the city.  Toronto has similar geography and issues.  As for Los Angeles, this is a place with so many “centers” that the concepts of radial vs orbital service are meaningless.  Especially here, where travel is going so many directions and downtown’s role is so small, the strong grid, not the circle, is the key to great transit. 

Grescoe is clear enough about his strongest bias:

“I don’t like buses. … Actually, I hate them.”

Despite his opening statement that “I ride the bus,” Grescoe repeatedly associates buses with losers, and with unpleasant experiences.  In correspondence with me, he wrote:  “The anti-bus bias you perceive was a concession to North American readers whose experience of buses tends to be negative.”  Again, this is understandable as travel writing, but it’s tricky as journalism and very tricky if the purpose is advocacy.  When you presume a bias on the part of your reader, with the intent of later countering it, you can’t really control whether you’ve dislodged the bias or reinforced it.  I felt the bias being reinforced; other readers may have different responses.

Again, the problem with anti-bus bias is not that I don’t share it.  The problem is that if you set transit technologies in competition with one another, the effect is to undermine the notion that technologies should work together as part of a complete network.  If you want a network that will give you access to all the riches of your city, buses are almost certain to be part of it – even if, as in inner Paris, you have the densest subway system in the world.  Hating buses – if that becomes your primary focus — means hating complete networks. 

When it comes to Bus Rapid Transit, Grescoe accepts the common North American assumption that the place to see BRT is Bogotà or Curitíba.  So he comes back from Bogotà with the near-universal reaction of North American junketers there:  The massive structuring BRT is really impressive in the numbers it carries, but hey, this is the developing world. Not only is car ownership low but it’s more authoritarian in its politics, giving mayors the power to effect massive transformation fast without much consultation.  What’s more, these massive busways are effective but really unpleasant as urban design – not something I’d want in my city.  Respecting the effectiveness and utility of the Bogotà busways, Grescoe does endorse Bus Rapid Transit in secondary corridors, but he has not seen busways done completely for a developed-world audience.

North Americans who want to experience successful Bus Rapid Transit in a developed-world context should skip South America and visit Brisbane, Australia, where a wealthy modern city moves, in part, on a complete network of beautifully designed, landscaped, and highly functional busways that flow into an underground segment right through the heart of downtown, and that are designed to provide an extremely frequent rapid-transit experience.  There are some European pieces of good busway, such as Amsterdam’s Zuidtangent.  But you have to go to Brisbane to see an uncompromised developed-world busway network, one that provides reliable operations end to end.

While Straphanger’s flirtation with anti-bus stereotypes was troubling to me, there’s a limit to how much Grescoe can be criticized for this.  This is journalism of its time, and the bus=loser stereotype is still of our time in some cities.  It’s up to each of us to decide whether to seek experiences that confirm our stereotypes or those that might contradict them, but nobody can challenge all of their stereotypes at once.   Grescoe does eagerly challenge many other destructive attitudes throughout the book, and the brilliance of a book lies in the way it brings delight and confidence to the experience of both using and advocating transit and great urbanism. I heartily recommend this fun, enlightening, and inspiring read.

13 Responses to book review: grescoe’s straphanger

  1. Beta Magellan June 11, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    Reading this review on one of the CTA’s crosstown buses to the main north-south line, I definitely agree—too often travelers think of transit in terms of individual vehicles rather than as complete suite of services.
    That said, I do have a nitpick about the Circle Line—it would have served the Illinois Medical District, which is the second-densest employment center in the city. The issues of surrounding operating flat junctions, expensive underground interchanges around existing subways, and operation as a continuous loop are enough to support improvements to buses in the area over the late (well, technically still in planning) Circle Line.

  2. Daniel June 11, 2012 at 7:29 pm #

    Thanks for the review Jarrett – look forward reading this book.
    Just regarding: “But you have to go to Brisbane to see an uncompromised developed-world busway network, one that provides reliable operations end to end.” Reality is that parts of it do clog up, eg http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielbowen/6305218567/

  3. Brent Palmer June 12, 2012 at 4:13 am #

    @Daniel: Such “bus jams” are commonplace on the inner stretches of the busway system. And passengers are often stranded for up to 30 minutes, passed by full bus after full bus, on the inner stretch of the Northern Busway. That’s a failure of service planning (too many routes serving Cultural Centre for instance), rather than the infrastructure.

  4. Julian June 12, 2012 at 8:46 am #

    As I was reading this I was wondering how many comments I’d read until someone pointed out that Brisbane’s Busway suffers frequent problems. The second comment it was…
    I’ve never riden the busway, but I hear frequently that it suffers congestion and that passengers are often stranded due to overly crowded buses. Both of these symptoms could be argued to be a victim of it’s own success, i.e. buses are crowded because they’re popular, congestion is happening because they have to invest in such a high frequency that congestion is inevitable. That’s true from one perspective: but it’s equally true that it was a lack of faith that passenger numbers could be that high that made them decide on buses instead or LRT or frequent heavy rail services for some trunk routes. Which they’ll inevitably have to start implementing at some point.
    Mee’s also likes to point out that parts of the busway were built by removing rail tracks so the alignment could be used and that a lot of busway passengers were simply ex-rail passengers, and that despite the investment rail-bus transfers are very uncommon. So the “complete network” argument doesn’t really work very well in Brisbane’s sense.

  5. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org June 12, 2012 at 9:04 am #

    Julian.  The Brisbane Busway does have a constraint at Victoria Bridge and Melbourne St portal, which everyone knows must be addressed.  It also has too many peak buses assigned to it given this constraint, and the service patterns are much more complicated than I would recommend.  However, Mees's dismissals become less relevant as the busway network expands.  Brisbane's historic rail network is poorly located to meet many future needs, because it bypasses many more recently developed centres that the busway can serve more directly.  The South East Busway serves freeway-oriented centres such as Garden City (a shopping mall) and Griffith University, while the rail stations on the parallel rail line are mostly in hard-to-reach places; the rail line is really useful for much longer distances than the busway.  The Northern Busway, too, is a chain of major destinations, including universities and hospitals, while the parallel northern rail line virtually bypasses northern Brisbane, skirting its far eastern edge.  The Eastern Busway will be dramatically more direct than the S-shaped Cleveland Rail line, and thus puts public transport in the position to compete with car travel paths in a way that rail will never do.
    Of course, I object to the whole premise of Mees's complaint, which is that specific busway and rail line performance is a fact about busways and rail lines, rather than a fact about where these facilities are and how they fit into the network.  Some of Brisbane's rail lines are well-located and have a strong future as rapid transit, while some others will useful mainly for longer-distance travel at lower frequencies but have limited utility in Brisbane itself.  In other Brisbane corridors, though, the busway is much better placed to be the rapid transit product.  Both systems are part of a complete rapid transit network for the entire city.  Setting them at war with each other only conceals this fact.

  6. Zoltán June 12, 2012 at 10:00 am #

    I generally tend towards the argument that given rail is not much more expensive, all things considered, than full scale BRT, it’s not too worth challenging the idea that rail is better, all other things being equal. It’s more worth challenging the idea that in a complete network linking up the entirety of a city, buses aren’t going to have to be a big part of that for a long time to come. Buses might not be as fun as rail, but they could still be greatly improved to make the parts of the network that require buses reasonably nice to use.
    Orbital or non-CBD grid connections are where improved buses can be really useful. Particularly within a grid network, one rail line making a weird circuit of the city is unlikely to provide that many people with a more direct and therefore faster route to their destination, compared to several strong bus routes that don’t have all the characteristics of full BRT, but still have all the speed improvements that the city can manage – things like built out stops, signal priority, and large vehicles with off-board fare collections.

  7. david vartanoff June 12, 2012 at 11:49 am #

    About Chicago. Actually some of the Circle Line should have been built. The money wasted on the “block 37” fiasco would have paid for perhaps rebuilding the north end of the Paulina Connector to make better connections to/from the Medical Center. Beyond that Chicago needs west of the river rapid transit for the growing office buildings there. A Clinton subway connected on the north to the main right where the State St subway ramps are, and extending south to exchange w/ the Orange line then head east to McCormick place would give multiple connectivity. Transfer from Metra Electic to west of the river for example.

  8. Nathanael June 12, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    “Chicago is so massively single-centered that there are few major secondary centres sufficient to anchor a metro line until you get way out into the suburbs,”
    Off the top of my head, Golden Mile north of the Loop, U of Chicago quite a long ways to the South of the Loop
    Yes, the planned Circle Line didn’t hit either, but they sure do exist.

  9. Nathanael June 12, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    Zoltan wrote: “I generally tend towards the argument that given rail is not much more expensive, all things considered, than full scale BRT, it’s not too worth challenging the idea that rail is better, all other things being equal. It’s more worth challenging the idea that in a complete network linking up the entirety of a city, buses aren’t going to have to be a big part of that for a long time to come. Buses might not be as fun as rail, but they could still be greatly improved to make the parts of the network that require buses reasonably nice to use.”
    Zoltan is correct. We know rail is better, it’s not that much more expensive (comparable busways are always more expensive than rail… they only come out cheaper if they use preexisting roads), so why fight the idea that rail is better? Just say “Look, we can’t get rail everywhere (yet), but we can have Better Buses.”
    Better Bus was the bus campaigning slogan promoted by Light Rail Now, and they were right. Maybe you don’t have enough people to support rail in your town, or maybe you just can’t get the capital cost together yet; you can still have Better Bus.
    “BRT” == “it suffers congestion and that passengers are often stranded due to overly crowded buses” and “parts of the busway were built by removing rail tracks so the alignment could be used”. Just lay some tracks already; railways have far, far more opportunity for expansion.
    Buses are great if you expect that your road will get depaved and revert to gravel, though.

  10. 23skidoo June 12, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

    Ottawa has a BRT system: http://www.octranspo1.com/map-new/maps_transitway/?lang=en
    Outside of downtown (which is its big weakness), it has segregated roads and real stations.

  11. Eric June 13, 2012 at 2:30 am #

    Such “bus jams” are commonplace on the inner stretches of the busway system. And passengers are often stranded for up to 30 minutes, passed by full bus after full bus, on the inner stretch of the Northern Busway. That’s a failure of service planning (too many routes serving Cultural Centre for instance), rather than the infrastructure.
    If the buses are full, then the problem is not that too many routes go to one place, but that the system is over capacity. That means that the bus system should be replaced by rail, because rail allows for several vehicles to be connected together, vastly increasing capacity. Busways are a great system for places with moderate ridership, like small cities or most cities in the US. But in this case, ridership has clearly grown beyond the capabilities of busways.

  12. Scott June 13, 2012 at 11:45 am #

    A thought about metro circle lines, considering particularly the one I’m most familiar with, Moscow’s Koltsevaya. Moscow as a very old capital city and so both quite centralized and non grid based. It seems to me the Koltsevaya essentially functions as a grid equivalent – albeit closer to the current centre than not – in what is otherwise pretty much a radial system (*). It does connect all the major heavy-rail stations, if those count as regional centres, but its main benefit seems to be touching every other line and thus allowing people to move from one to the other without going even further into the centre and possibly having to then make multiple connections.
    (*) I’ve been interested to see some of the radial lines being connected together near their current tips, either directly or through “light metro” lines – both of which can be seen now on the south end of this map: http://engl.mosmetro.ru/flash/scheme01.html
    It doesn’t seem this could be called either a “grid” or a “circle” since it would take multiple connections to go for example from the outer orange to outer light green lines without riding all the way into the far side of the central city. There is also a system of trolley buses that run between individual lines, though again it would not necessarily take you more than one or two lines without transfer.

  13. Nathanael June 24, 2012 at 1:34 pm #

    Eric, if you don’t need the capacity of rail, you don’t need the capacity of full-fledged busways either.
    Maybe you need painted bus lanes. Those are good things which have a place. But if you don’t need the capacity of rail, you don’t need the heavy concrete grade-separated busway either.
    Scott: Moscow has one heck of a network design in its Metro. It’s not grid based but it achieves massive connectivity, with a combination of “spoke and circle” structure and a clever set of criss-crosses of the radial lines both in the center of town and further out.
    It’s less obvious how to make a highly connected network without a grid, but Moscow proves that you can do it fairly efficiently.

Leave a Reply