New book looks at opportunity presented as U.S. car-centric culture falters

The Takeaway

The United States has long had a car-based culture. They are status symbols as much as they are a means of transportation.

Highways divide and unite the country, from the smallest towns to the grandest cities, and our popular culture is loaded with references to them. But with fewer young people buying cars than ever, an American automobile industry in transition and rising fuel prices, this car culture is facing something of a crisis.

In his new book “Straphanger: Saving Our Cities from Ourselves and From the Automobile,” Taras Grescoe takes this unique opportunity in time to look at public transportation throughout the world, and to consider how trains, subways and buses could be better integrated into the daily lives of Americans.

Grescoe, a Toronto-native, says living in America’s urban core really isn’t a panacea for being car-less. In Asia, however, cities like Tokyo have such large and elaborate mass transit systems that residents can get from anywhere to anywhere, “often in comfort,” he added.

“You can mimic the anywhere to anywhere mobility of an automobile that exists in a lot of American cities because of the freeway network,” he said.

A lot of European and Asian cities have that with public transportation — or are working on it. In Paris, for example, the city is working on a €30 billion “super metro” to run around the Paris suburbs. It’s to be fully automated and run around the clock.

It’s expected to bring “complete mobility” to the suburbs.

“This is where a lot of the cities in the industrialized words. But even cities like Bogota, in Colombia, have built Bus Rapid Transit systems that are like subways on the street, with fast loading on the platform,” Grescoe said.

Unlike those great international cities, it’s hard to find an American city that measures up. In fact, New York City, perhaps America’s most successful city for mass transit, actually shrunk its transit routes through most of the 20th century. That’s finally beginning to change, though, with new lines being dug to serve the 1.6 billion passengers who ride New York public transit every year.

He also cited Los Angeles as an American city that’s making progress in expanding public transportation.

“They gave themselves a half-cent sales tax in a time of recession to expand their existing subway system, to build more light rail,” he said.

Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City have also invested in light rai in recent years.

“People are doing the math. They realize that cars are in retreat. This is the first time the … national automobile fleet is actually shrinking,” he said.

The U.S. economy loses more than $100 billion each year in wasted time and gas from motorists sitting in traffic. That’s negatively impacting our lives and raising the price of goods that have to be transported on the same roads, Grescoe said.

“If we don’t start engineering our way out of what we built, which is transportation systems built around freeways, and start building the kinds of intelligent transportation they’ve been building in Europe and Asia over the last few decades, then we’re in trouble,” he said.

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