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Transit polemic reads better as travelogue

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Taras Grescoe looked into his rear-view mirror and saw an 18-wheeler strike a compact car from behind.

That experience might not change your own driving habits, even with new rapid transit options available in Winnipeg, but it certainly changed Grescoe's.

He quit his job as a courier in Vancouver and became a lifelong transit rider.

As a pro-transit manifesto, Straphanger is a modest failure. As urbanist books go, it's a hybrid: half-polemic, half-travelogue.

Like many authors in the genre, Grescoe, who is now based in Montreal, writes as if readers are already converts.

He's occasionally persuasive in his claim that mass transit is better for cities. But he often fails to speak to the perspective of millions of individual drivers within those cities.

For example, he has yet to settle down and have children. He writes as though the only challenge to mass transit is the point-to-point commute to work and back. But having children adds a range of new trips that are rarely as simple, plus it's a spur to move into different housing.

The book's very first anecdote drives this weakness home: Grescoe interviews consumers in transit-rich Shanghai, China, as they shop for a new car.

One family is fine with transit for point-to-point daily commutes. But they can't stand the hassle of repeated train transfers to visit their parents in a nearby suburb.

That one headache is enough to get them shopping for a car.

Straphanger's overconfidence in its argument is best seen in its glib treatment of historical references.

Grescoe cites an increase in American transit ridership during the 1940s as proof that mid-20th-century transit systems had a thriving market. But he doesn't mention the strict wartime gas rationing that drove that outcome.

Grescoe skates over middle-sized cities like Winnipeg. This is unfortunate, since the biggest wins for car-to-transit conversion can come from markets like ours.

He condemns the Ontario government for downloading transit costs to municipalities, but fails to mention that the same government got back into transit finance a few years later.

Grescoe's chapter on Toronto's urbanization mentions the word "condo" in passing exactly once; apparently, 15 years of surging central-city densification wasn't worth mentioning if it didn't fit his bleak Toronto storyline.

Yet Straphanger's strength as a tour of global urban transport systems overcomes its weaknesses as a political pamphlet.

Grescoe is already an award-winning author of such bestselling titles as Bottomfeeder (on global fisheries) and The End of Elsewhere (on global tourism).

He's a veteran travel writer for journals like National Geographic Traveler and Gourmet.

And it's that experience that makes Straphanger a decent read, even for transit skeptics.

Grescoe has a sharp eye for intriguing local details in cities like Copehagen and Bogota, Phoenix and New York. Sometimes, it's a matter of character: his interview with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa reveals a man who's used to controlling his conversations.

Sometimes, it's the unusual, like the existence of "pervert-train clubs" in Japan for subway fetishists.

If you never understood the deliberate slimness of Vancouver condo towers, Grescoe's got an answer: city planners try to protect the view of the North Shore from multiple vantage points.

Straphanger is best read as a guide to touring the world's transportation systems on a metropass -- in a good way.

 

Winnipegger Brian Kelcey is a public policy consultant with transit policy experience in two levels of government. Like Grescoe, he has never owned a car.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 21, 2012 J9

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