Getting there fast, safely and green: Grescoe looks at mass transit - or the lack thereof - in big cities around the world.
The product of an enormous amount of reporting, Taras Grescoe's "Straphanger" is a persuasive and urgent book. The author, a Montreal resident, believes that commuters are happier and healthier when they have access to reliable public transportation, and to bolster his case, he takes the measure of subways, bus lines and bike-share programs from New York City to Paris to Tokyo. Midway through the book, for instance, he arrives in Moscow, and it's there, amid a subway system adorned with antiquated public art celebrating the Soviet era, that he makes what might be the book's most important observation.
"Muscovites don't favor their Stalinist Metro because it is filled with hammers and sickles and other symbols of a discredited ideology," he writes. "They ride it because it is fast, cheap, and gets them where they want to go with comfort and dignity. In this, Moscow's straphangers show that transportation can no longer be about left and right; it has to be about what works -- and, on an increasingly urbanized planet, what is sustainable."
Grescoe uses the various cities he visits to make particular points about the advantages of public transportation. His stop in Los Angeles, a city famous for its freeways, includes an alarming discourse on the dangers of the pollution caused by all those cars, and in his Moscow chapter he cites a report that says "riding transit is still ten times safer, per passenger mile, than traveling by car anywhere in the world." His New York City chapter, meanwhile, focuses on the city's recent embrace of expanded space for pedestrians and bicyclists, and the construction of the 2nd Avenue subway line, which should eventually reduce traffic, pollution and overuse of the nearby Lexington Avenue line.
All of which probably means very little to the millions of Americans who don't have access to public transportation on a regular basis. But the problem of daily commuting is only one component of Grescoe's book. The other focus of "Straphanger" is the nation's relative lack of high-speed rail lines that might provide travelers with an efficient, eco-friendly alternative to time-consuming car trips or costly flights.
"In the 1950s," Grescoe writes, "the trip from Chicago to Minneapolis on the Olympian Hiawathan took only four and a half hours (today, on Amtrak's Empire Builder, it takes more than eight)." Methodically, Grescoe explains how this happened. For instance: "The last American railcar builder went out of business in 2008, and the citizens of the nation that invented the electric trolley, the sleeping car, and the pantograph now ride on Spanish-made Talgos, French-made HHP-8s and hand-me-down Japanese light-rail cars."
As "Straphanger" was set to arrive in stores, gas was selling for $4 a gallon in many places -- and, according to estimates cited by Grescoe, it might go much higher. His book couldn't have landed at a more opportune time.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and book critic in New York.