Saving our cities from cars

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First aired on The Current (24/4/12)


Cars are ruining cities. That's the premise of Taras Grescoe's new book, Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile. And if North America doesn't aggressively change its transit course, cities like Phoenix, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Toronto could be in big trouble.

Grescoe travelled to cities around the world -- including New York, Moscow, Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Bogotá and Philadelphia -- to see how they are dealing with transit issues. A self-proclaimed "straphanger" -- that is, someone who relies on public transportation to get around -- 45-year-old Grescoe has never owned a car. "I rely on transit for the day-to-day travel in the city I live in, Montreal, and I ride a bike and I walk," he explained to The Current guest host Anthony Germain in a recent interview. "I put that filter on and visited 12 cities around the world...that process allowed me to see some interesting things."

Not only did Grescoe see "corners of cities" he believed he'd never encounter in a car, he sees public transit as a way to embrace and encourage public space. "The places I went where public transit was functioning tended to have piazzas, public squares, people were meeting in the streets," he explained. "There's something about public transit that reminds us all we're in society together." On the other hand, cities built around car use "lead us to gated communities, shopping malls, that kind of thing."


Cars and commuting are not only isolating, they are expensive. According to Grescoe, traffic congestion costs the American economy $115 billion every year. Wasted gas and lost time add up. The United States isn't alone in this problem. In the Greater Toronto Area, one of the worst places in North America for car congestion, $6 billion a year is lost. "We've hit a wall," Grescoe said. "It's having a huge hit not only on the environment, but it's also having a huge hit on human happiness." Commuting is also making us angrier. For example, Torontonians, on average, spend 80 minutes a day commuting "and the stress and anger that causes is enormous."

Grescoe sees only one solution: invest in transit. That's what the most advanced cities in the world -- cities like Copenhagen and Paris -- are doing. Shanghai is aggressively expanding its subway system, building more than 400 kilometres of track in the past decade. Copenhagen has become a leader in bicycle culture. Paris is investing billions of dollars in a "Super Metro" and when it's done in 10 years, it will be the most advanced public transit system in the world. Despite the current state of the European economy, Grescoe is confident that as long as these cities keep putting public transit first, they will recover. "These places are going to be competitive in the future." Even Los Angeles is investing in public transit. The city that was long the car capital of North America recently instituted a tax -- approved by the public -- designed to fund the expansion of the L.A. transit system.

It's time, Grescoe argues, for other North American cities to follow suit. He sees Vancouver's SkyTrain as a bright light for Canada, which is bringing billions of dollars to the local economy. Toronto, on the other hand, has moved backwards on its transit file. Grescoe sees Canada's largest city in an "embarrassing quagmire" as the mayor, Rob Ford, is compromising public transit -- cancelling a project Grescoe saw as one of the most forward-thinking and sophisticated plans in the world -- in an effort to end the "war on the car." According to Grescoe, "That nothing has been done on this is a blot on [Toronto] and on this country's name. People should be embarrassed about it."

Transit is the key to the future, Grescoe argues. Transit is good for the economy, good for public health and good for the environment."It's the only hope."