(Subway) Tunnels of Love: ‘Straphanger’ and ‘Human Transit’

 

A few weeks ago the nation’s public radio listeners let out a collective sigh of lament when the Tappet Brothers announced the discontinuation of Car Talk. Cars are so much of who we are that it’s no wonder that Car Talk was public radio’s highest rated show. It’s also no wonder that there’s no outcry for a “Public Transit Talk” – though two authors are trying to change that.  

Whether one assaults the sound barrier in a Veyron, caresses the biosphere in a Prius, or simply tries to get to work on time in a beater, most drivers in most American cities share one thing in common: utter indifference to alternative modes of transportation. Buses and trains, to say nothing of cyclists and pedestrians, blend in with all other mundane bits of urban infrastructure, evoking no more passion or scrutiny than do streetlights or garbage cans. 

Two new books are unlikely to convert (or even be read by) the already uninitiated. But they do illuminate nuances--and even joys--of public transit in ways that drivers may never appreciate so long as they remain pinned behind their own wheels. “Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives,” by Australia-based transit planner Jarrett Walker, presents itself as a sort of "Public Transportation for Dummies," explaining in abstract, but remarkably clear, terms the logic that governs public transit systems and the choices--some technical, some ethical--that transit planners and operators make. 

“Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile,” by travel journalist Taras Grescoe, is what you get when an enthusiastic passenger boards one of those transit systems—even the imperfect ones—and finds in them a measure of rhapsody usually reserved for hot rods and luxury saloons. It’s telling that the two books have nearly identical sub-titles, which situate public transit at the very heart of not just cities but, indeed, of what it means to be human in the modern world. 

'Human Transit'

Walker directs “Human Transit” at the typical automobile driver--who may not understand where all those buses are going, or why--and at the typical taxpayer. Of course, in most cities, this person is often one in the same. Without referring to any particular city, Walker aims to inform everyday stakeholders and would-be activists about the approaches that professional transit planners take when they decide to add a bus line or hike up fares. Walker doesn't single out urban planners, but to the extent that urban planning and public transit are becoming ever more intertwined, "Human Transit" offers land use planners a handy, readable opportunity to understand the work of their mobility-obsessed counterparts. 

Transit agencies worry a lot about routes, fares, and headways—all of which Walker discusses. But Walker emphasizes that agencies must also make some excruciating subjective choices about the type of service they offer—and to whom. Indeed, those two issues are, in large part, one in the same. 

Many transit advocates (and critics) tend to view transit through what Walker might characterize as myopic frameworks, which assume that transit systems have one goal and that all resources should be directed towards that goal. In California, the influential Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles has long lobbied, and sued, for L.A. Metro to run more buses to serve minority, transit-dependent riders. They claim that shiny new light rail lines in relatively affluent areas have implicitly led to long, circuitous, and transfer-filled commutes for poor riders. For every pampered lawyer who rides heavy rail from his apartment in Koreatown to his Bunker Hill office (or from her four-bedroom in Pleasanton to the Transamerica Pyramid), someone else is on a hellish 2-hour zigzag so they can vacuum the floors in those very same homes and offices. 

But wait, implies Walker. Though the indignation of the BRU may rumble down from a seeming moral high ground, it represents only one of many legitimate choices that transit planners can make. Indeed, planners and stakeholders alike must first decide what a transit system is for. Certainly, it can move people who have no other way to move. But it can also combat traffic. Or pollution. Or it can maximize revenue. Or it can make a city more liveable. It can even stoke development. 

Let's take the intertwined goal of reducing the twin menaces of pollution and traffic. These go away only when drivers abandon their cars. But if a transit system is focused on transit-dependent riders, then there's no net gain. So, sometimes, a transit system might have to do a little primping in order to attract the discretionary rider, whose ridership creates a net benefit. Likewise, a system could be dedicated to serving suburban commuters who travel during peak traffic hours, or it could be dedicated to serving the constant throb of a center city. 

Ultimately, Walker faults agencies and stakeholders alike for failing to discuss these fundamental values questions, the most basic of which he boils down to "ridership vs. coverage"--"coverage" meaning equity or social justice. 

Walker extends this sort of debate to all aspects of transit. Cash vs. swipe cards. Point-to-point vs. hub-and spoke. Express vs. local. Heavy rail vs. light rail vs. BRT vs. local bus. Peak service vs. off-peak service. Speed vs. frequency. (Walker cautions against making the "motorists' error:" while motorists care about speed, frequency is far more important for transit riders.) The list goes on. 

We learn that the speed of a bus line depends nearly as much on the amount of time it takes to accept and discharge passengers as it does on the speed of traffic. The overall density of a city matters not nearly as much as does the number of people living at very high densities. That's the trouble, in fact, with many cities in California: many have high average densities, but they rarely reach those Manhattan-type proportions where mass transit really works. 

Much of Walker's technical discussions aren't any more riveting than they sound. And yet, on the whole, it emerges as a surprisingly un-tedious exercise in armchair planning. Walker loves and believes in public transit, but his awareness of the costs and tradeoffs render him a shockingly neutral advocate (if such a thing is possible). On the one hand, Walker is trying to encourage stakeholders to advocate for better transit systems. But, no matter how closely you read Walker, the complexities, and ambiguities of planning for public transit might still induce mental gridlock (while actual gridlock grows all the worse). 

'Straphanger'

If Walker's account is an admirably dispassionate affair directed at “clear thinking,” Grescoe's is specific, exuberant, and unapologetically biased. Grescoe is fascinated by all forms of non-automobile transportation, from Moscow's czar-worthy subway stations to each one of Copenhagen’s 560,000 bicycles. 

“Straphanger” often reads more like travel literature than like anything related to engineering or policy, and so much the better. Transit systems attract Grescoe the way the Eiffel Tower does tourists. What we get is a fascinating tour of some great world cities from what Grescoe would argue is the most crucial part of their respective infrastructures. You can't do much with the Eiffel Tower except snap a picture of it. But millions of Parisians can—and do--live, day-in and day-out, in the Paris Metro. 

Grescoe is not immune to cities’ above-ground charms, but they are almost beside the point. Though his enviable itinerary includes the likes of New York, Tokyo, Vancouver, and his hometown of Montreal, Grescoe does not dwell on them as cities per se. Rather, he sees every city as a fascinating problem, each of which can be solved—well or poorly—by transit. Grescoe of course chooses his cities wisely, seeking places where transit works well or where cities are at least trying. 

In each city, Grescoe offers a bit of history of each system. He catalogs the public officials, local stakeholders, and finance mechanisms that gave rise to them. He offers glimpses of Robert Moses, Baron Haussmann, Joseph Stalin, and Los Angeles' own Antonio Villaraigosa. Likewise, Grescoe evaluates the ways in which the systems complement (or not) its respective urban fabrics. In a thicker volume, these accounts would get tedious. But Grescoe offers a palatable mix of history, politics, engineering, and whimsy in each chapter to keep things moving. 

Indeed, public transit offers as good a point of reference for comparing cities as does anything else. Every major city has transit and, therefore, every major city can be described and evaluated based on the form and function of its transit network. In visiting cities on four continents, Grescoe discovers idiosyncrasies and delights that seem to surprise even him: 

-The world's subway systems carry 155 million passengers daily -- four times the number that fly on commercial flights.

-25% of Paris' municipal budget goes to transportation infrastructure.

-Tokyo's busiest subway station handles more passengers in three hours than New York's Penn Station does in a day.

-Some of the developed world’s worst traffic jams take place in Moscow, where only 9% of the surface area is dedicated to transportation—as opposed to 30% in most US cities.

-Phoenix has enough excess single-family homes to last it through 2050.

Amid his enthusiasm for strap hanging, Grescoe never entertains the idea that non-auto transportation could be bad for a city--regardless of the cost. For him, investment in public transit is almost always a good investment, one that greases a city's economic wheels and creates stronger communities. Indeed, Grescoe himself is the ultimate discretionary rider, and possibly the kind of person that the Bus Riders Union loves to hate: an educated, upscale resident who uses transit for amusement and righteousness. 

In his younger years, Grescoe witnessed a gruesome highway death in his rearview mirror, inspiring him never to own a car himself. “My animus against automobiles runs deep,” writes Grescoe, “but I come by it honestly.” Even if his interests coincide with those of the transit-dependent, it's unlikely that he could fully appreciate their needs and their experience of transit. It's safe to assume, for instance, that Moscow's more destitute citizens don't draw quite the same inspiration from those underground chandeliers as Grescoe does. 

Of all the cities Grescoe visits, the ones that get the lowest marks are, predictably, Phoenix and our own Los Angeles. Phoenix's lone light rail line looks like a squiggly, microscopic strand of DNA floating in the indiscernible blob of the Valley of the Sun. It's a lost cause. (By contrast, Grescoe loves Philadelphia, calling its working-class train network one of the country's best.)

Grescoe takes a more nuanced attitude towards Los Angeles. On the one hand, he praises its attempts to put a tourniquet on sprawl. For over a decade the region has been shoehorning a motley collection of light rail, bus rapid transit, subways, and transit oriented developments into what has become a dense, mature metropolis. But Grescoe stops short of true praise. He calls the Gold Line a means of procuring "the billion-dollar taco," meaning that the region has spent mucho dinero on a train only to end up in East L.A. "This is one city," writes Grescoe, "that even the most visionary planners and politicians might not be able to redeem." Did I mention that Grescoe is from Montreal?  

Grescoe concludes Straphangers with an ode to his hometown, whose Bixi system pioneered the use of bike-sharing for intra-city transportation. Of course, Bixi's success owes itself largely to the form of Montreal: largely flat, well-off, and full of charm. Indeed, Grescoe steers clear of the world's less-charming places. He never endures the crush of a Lagos or a Mumbai. Long-gentrifying Bogota is as close as he gets to the developing world. He makes a compelling argument that its Transmilenio bus rapid transit system is at least partially responsible for the city's recent prosperity. Grescoe would likely find plenty to capture his interest in some of the world's rougher spots, but, for the moment, his odd cruise around the world is at least a three-star affair. 

Whether the costs and benefits of transit outweigh those of private automobiles will be forever debated. Grescoe, at least, offers a few tantalizing reasons to tip the scales in favor of busses and trains. He also reveals that which every urban planner already knows--every city is unique, and every transportation system is unique. Grescoe goes so far as to imply that the soul and culture of a people can be found as much in its trains, buses, bikes, feet, and, yes, cars as in its economy, politics, arts, and letters. Every city must invest in its own best vision of itself. And if there's a few bucks left over for chandeliers, so much the better. 

Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives

Jarrett Walker

Island Press


Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile

Taras Grescoe

Times Books