Book Reviews

Book Review: Straphanger.


In this extremely well researched book full of important and revealing information about major cities all over the world, and their public transportations systems, you will learn a great deal about city planning.

Taras Grescoe is a lifelong public transportation user and believer in well-planned systems that not only facilitate transportation, but also help reduce pollution.

Logically, the citizens of big inner cities that are now hopelessly congested by millions of cars will have to consider using public transportation, or bicycles, to avoid both sky-high gasoline prices and pollution.

The citizens of Copenhagen, with help from farsighted city planners, have done so quite successfully.

The author the reader around the world – starting with Shanghai, then New York City, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Paris, Copenhagen, Moscow, Tokyo, Bogotá, Portland, Vancouver, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Montreal. In each city, he interviews city transportation planning officers, riders of the subway, or buses or streetcars, assesses their efficacy, and comments as to how planners succeeded or failed to achieve their objectives.

He is a travel writer with a keen eye of observation, sharing details about what he sees and experiences.

Only a few decades ago, no one in North America or even in industrialized western European countries worried much about gas prices, or pollution, or traffic congestions. While Middle Eastern countries have been extracting, with help from western conglomerates, huge amounts of oil and charging affordable prices, the accumulated wealth was encouraging, with government help, the public to buy more and more luxurious cars. Cities started to spread to suburbs, and the well to do was led to believe that only the poor use public transportation.

Of course, governments extracted huge amount of cash by taxing gas, manufacturers got rich by producing more and more luxurious cars, insurance companies hit the jackpot by convincing authorities that all automobiles must be insured, and repair shops had enough orders to employ millions.

Only a few cities were lucky enough to have elected officials who were farsighted enough to plan for efficient public transportation.

Moscow actually enjoys an excellent subway system. It was because of Stalin’s insistence on the building of subways, not so much to save the environment, but to brag abut socialism.

The people in charge of building the system had no clue about public transportation (one was a shoemaker promoted to management by virtue of being a communist) and had very little knowledge about subway cars. Officials in charge pretended they were prepared to buy subway cars from Siemens in Germany, but first requested a sample. Then Russian workers took the sample apart to see how the car was built , after which it was returned to the manufacturer with the excuse that they lacked funds to buy such cars. This book consists of an amalgam of journalistic feature writing, travel writing, history writing and persuasive arguments for public transportation.

The smooth, accessible narrative style compels the reader to turn page after page, eager to discover yet another tidbit of transportation information.

It is entertaining, illuminating, thought provoking and persuasive.

All city officials all over the world and city planners, bus-, street car- and subway car manufacturers should read this persuasive book and think about where and how public transportation should evolve to make cities more habitable, and less polluted.

Highly recommended.

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