Our Disastrous Lovable Cars

They may be choking us to death but it’s so hard to give them up

So much depends on what is meant by “our cities” and “ourselves” in the subtitle of Taras Grescoe’s resounding new transit treatise, Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile. If by “our cities” Grescoe means the cities of all humanity (including black-belt carbon catastrophes such as Mumbai, Beijing and Shanghai), and if by “ourselves” he means every one of the roughly seven billion riders on the fragile little subway platform we call Earth, the prospect of salvation from the car is one long smoggy look down the highway or tracks.

If, as suspected, however, he has in mind a less onerous version of “our cities and ourselves”—say, the cities of the West and Japan—the notion of salvation becomes a little, in fact a lot, more plausible.

To save North American and European cities from the car at this point will require, as Grescoe makes clear, shrewd and expensive planning and engineering, much of which is already in progress in cities such as Copenhagen, Los Angeles and Paris.

To save, say, China, meanwhile, would require nothing less than blowing up that country’s car factories (which are puking out vehicles at the rate of more than 50,000 a day) and tearing up expressways that are being built at a pace that will soon give China more freeways than exist in the entire U.S. interstate system. To save India would require, among other things, the subversion of car manufacturer Ratan Tata’s dream to have every citizen of the country in a $2,500 Nano by 2050—which is to say by the time the icecaps are melted and the seas are at a rolling boil from the effects of global warming.

If all goes according to plan in China and on the subcontinent, today’s global fleet of 600 million cars will, in 30 years or so, be at three billion, an increase of 80 million cars a year.

Given these absurd numbers and ambitions, not to mention the vastness of the ideological banalities behind them, surely nobody has any serious hope of saving China and India from the automobile—any more than anybody had hopes of saving North America from its Chryslers and Cadillacs in 1955. The idea at the time was that we were being saved by our cars, not from them. Which is about the way China sees things today.

Grescoe makes all of this clear in the compelling early pages of his book. Then, somewhat curiously, he abandons China and India and embarks on a protracted exploration of how the cities of the West and Japan are battling and conquering—or failing to battle or conquer—what until recently was thought to be the irreducible encroachment of the car.

Canadians will be proud to be reminded that, of the western world’s great cities, the one most identifiably not in the process of saving itself from the automobile is Toronto—more so than ever in recent months as the dear old “world class” crossroads lumps along under the political conductorship of His Worship the Mayor, Rob Ford.

At heart, the book is the story of the evolution of our cities and how they have been affected by the car and by their commitment (or resistance) to public transit. It brings together straight journalistic analysis, stirring tracts of memoir and travelogue, and what is at times a rather intense polemic against the car. There is no hypocrisy in Grescoe’s point of view. He has always loathed cars, has never owned one, and is a long-time devotee of the bus and train. So he has earned the right to sound off.

Along the way, the writer makes detailed and observant visits to more than a dozen of the world’s major cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Paris, Moscow, Copenhagen, Tokyo and Bogota. He meets transit officials, rides the lines, visits old friends, delves into transit history, assesses civic tolerance for pedestrians and bicycles, explores the routes both literal and figurative by which the cities of the future will survive or surpass their automobile obsessions and move their populations around.

I liked Grescoe’s Paris visit immensely, in part because it yielded such a loving profile of the city and its past—a city, not surprisingly, in which Grescoe spent time as a younger man, teaching English. As in all literary accounts, the more intense and intricate the writer’s connection to his material, the better the writing—as witnessed in Grescoe’s reflections on his early years in the City of Light:

At the République station, intimidating gypsy camps of clochards—panhandlers—clotted the platforms with their impedimenta of mongrels and plastic bags, performing unscripted drunken operettas for passersby. At Saint-Augustin, I would strain to hear the stridulations of the crickets that lived under the tracks, kept alive through the winter by the heat generated by passing trains … As an impoverished tutor, I spent hundreds of hours staring out the windows of métro trains, catching occasional glimpses of blind tunnels and apparently abandoned platforms, wondering about the mysteries on the other side of the glass.

The next passage, a description of Grescoe’s tour of a Paris metro station abandoned since the Second World War and cluttered with remnants of the past, is one of the most tantalizing in the book.

Similarly, I was fascinated by the Tokyo chapter, with its revelations about how cars, so long a kind of god among Japanese consumers and exporters, have gradually lost their cachet among the country’s young people. Today, they rank a mere 17th (behind make-up, televisions and foreign language lessons) among Japan’s most popular products and services.

The Toronto chapter, while accurate and up to the minute—and including a note on Grescoe’s boyhood—is mechanical by comparison, as if cobbled together out of media reports.

In all, this compelling and worthy book obliges us to reassess our relationship with our cities—to think of them defined not merely by their architecture or landscape or economics but by their roads and transit systems and their capability to move their inhabitants to and from where they need to be. It comes at a time when, unlike Rob Ford, we should be thinking diligently about such things—about how best to live beyond our wearisome commitment to the internal combustion engine.

If I have a cavil it is that I would like to have seen a full chapter, or even two, on getting around in, say, Calcutta or Mumbai—or in Shanghai, where the book’s brief prologue is set and where one of the biggest and perhaps last battles for the hearts and heads of commuters is just beginning.

I might also note that what is sometimes forgotten in discussions of how appalling and disgraceful cars and car culture can be is that the reason we are in the mess we are in is not the fault of diabolical corporate pirates foisting cars upon us against our wishes. It is largely, rather, because at one time we loved cars, adored them, and in many cases still do. And why wouldn’t we? They can be so lovable. For many of us, in our youth, they were not so much machines of convenience as paramours. They were freedom; they were sex; they were speed. I perhaps condemn myself in divulging that I remember my cars of the late 1960s, when I was 19 or 20 years old, as well as I remember some of my girlfriends of that era. To this day, my 1965 Sunbeam Alpine occasionally shows up in my dreams.

My point is simple: Let us not forget. Cars could be wonderful. At the same time, let us remember what a hopeless and harrowing nightmare our romance with them has turned out to be. And will turn out to be again in parts of the globe where they are still a version of romance.