Straphanger by Taras Grescoe

Straphanger by Taras Grescoe

About the Book

The perception of public transportation in North America is often unflattering. A century of auto-centric culture and city planning has left most of the continent with systems that are underfunded, ill maintained, and ill conceived. But as the demand for oil outpaces the world’s supply, a revolution in transportation is under way. Taras Grescoe explores the ascendance of straphangers – the growing number of people who rely on public transportation. On a whistle-stop tour of world cities – New York, Moscow, Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Bogotá, Phoenix, Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal – he highlights the good, the bad, and the people fighting to create convenient, affordable, and sustainable urban transportation for all.

Author Q&A with Taras Grescoe

Can you describe the genesis of Straphanger? What brought you to the subject?

For the last decade, I’ve been thinking about writing a book-length examination of how cars changed our lives, and how car-centered thinking has transformed our cities. But I didn’t want to contribute another angry screed against the evil motorcar to the literature. There are so many people thinking differently about transportation, and so many amazing initiatives happening in cities around the world, that I figured I could combine a little righteous anger and a lot of hope and optimism in the same book—which is why I detail how we got into the mess of sprawl and congestion, and how a lot of committed people are finding ways to get us out of it.

How long did it take to write? What were the major challenges?

It took three years from conception to delivery of the manuscript. The major challenge, as usual, was being away from home for long periods of time. Fortunately, the timing of Straphanger worked out rather well, as I finished the manuscript when my wife Erin was pregnant with our son, so I didn’t have to be away for much of the pregnancy or any of the wonderful early months of Desmond’s life.

Were there any books in particular that influenced you in your approach?

When I was younger, there was one book that made me want to write, convinced me of the urgency of writing, and taught me more about the rhythm of writing than any other book. That was Michael Herr’s Dispatches. I picked it up used, for 20 francs or so, in a bookstore on the Left Bank when I was living in Paris in my poverty-stricken twenties. (Probably bought it, debauched slacker that I was, because of the blurb from William S. Burroughs on the cover.) I read it on the métro on the way back to Belleville, and, enraptured by the prose, missed a stop or two. Reading Herr, who was a war correspondent for Esquire in Vietnam, was like being buttonholed by a hipster Ancient Mariner. The way he used language, the way he managed to catch his breath and convey the most intense experience of his life in an onrush of language alternately languorous and staccato, made me want to survive my adventures and come back to tell my tales to whoever would listen. (I hoped I would never be as wounded as Herr sounded, however.) I’m also a big fan of the reportage of Ryszard Kapuscinski, the literary peregrinations of Bruce Chatwin, and the over-the-top prose of stylists like Herbert Asbury and Joseph Mitchell.

Tell us a little about how the book title was chosen.

“Straphanger” is an old term for a user of public transport, still widely used in London and New York. The implication is that you’re forced to stand and hold on to a strap—whether it’s on a Hong Kong ferry, a London Underground train, or a Paris métro car. I’m trying to re-appropriate the term, which can have negative connotations, and make the case that being a straphanger is preferable to being a car commuter—a profligate consumer of the world’s resources. Straphanger deals with the insanity of what we're doing to our cities—and ourselves—by relying on cars as our main mode of public transportation. Starting with congestion, pollution, and obesity, but not forgetting sprawl, social isolation, and the erosion of public space. Ultimately, Straphanger’s subject is the city, and in a journey that took me from Tokyo to Bogotá, with stops in Moscow, Phoenix, Vancouver, and Copenhagen, I boarded high-speed trains and sparking streetcars, and talked to cargo-bike commuters, subway engineers, idealistic mayors, and disillusioned trolley campaigners. It was all in the service of imagining a better future for the cities we live in.

What are you working on now?
It's still in gestation, and at this stage, the embryo is very fragile indeed. I can tell you that it will involve far less travelling than usual—for each of my last three books, I circled the globe. Makes a fellow dizzy after a while.

About the Author

Taras Grescoe was born in Toronto and currently lives in Montreal. Straphanger was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and won the QWF Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-fiction. His previous book, Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, won the Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize in 2008. Grescoe’s work has appeared in a variety of major publications, including The New York Times and National Geographic Traveler.

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