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Saving our cities and ourselves from the automobile 

An excerpt from Taras Grescoe’s Straphanger.

click to enlarge Taras Grescoe will be speaking about public transit at the University of King’s College on Thursday, August 6. Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile is available now from HarperCollins. - HARPERCOLLINS PUBLISHERS LTD.
  • Taras Grescoe will be speaking about public transit at the University of King’s College on Thursday, August 6.
    Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile is available now from HarperCollins.
  • HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Anybody who has waited far too long on a street corner for the privilege of boarding a lurching, overcrowded bus, or wrestled luggage onto subways and shuttles to get to a big city airport, knows that transit on this continent tends to be underfunded, ill-maintained and ill-planned. Given the opportunity, who wouldn't drive? Hopping in a car almost always gets you to your destination more quickly.

It doesn't have to be like this. Done right, public transport can be faster, more comfortable, and cheaper than the private automobile. In Shanghai, German-made magnetic levitation trains skim over elevated tracks at 266 miles an hour, whisking people to the airport at a third of the speed of sound. In provincial French towns, electric-powered streetcars run silently on rubber tires, sliding through narrow streets along a single guide rail set into cobblestones. From Spain to Sweden, wi-fi–equipped high-speed trains seamlessly connect with highly ramified metro networks, allowing commuters to work on laptops as they prepare for same-day meetings in once-distant capital cities.

In Latin America, China and India, working people board fast-loading buses that move like subway trains along dedicated busways, leaving the sedans and SUVs of the rich mired in dawn-to-dusk traffic jams. And some cities have transformed their streets into cycle-path freeways, making giant strides in public health and safety and the sheer livability of their neighborhoods—in the process turning the workaday bicycle into a viable form of mass transit.

If you credit the demographers, this transit trend has legs. The Millennials, who reached adulthood around the turn of the century and now outnumber baby boomers, tend to favor cities over suburbs, and are far more willing than their parents to take transit. Part of the reason is their ease with iPads, MP3 players, Kindles and smartphones: You can get some serious texting done when you're not driving, and earbuds offer effective insulation from all but the most extreme annoyances. Even though there are more teenagers in the United States than ever, less than a third have a driver's license (versus half, a generation ago), and half say they would rather own a smartphone than a car. Baby boomers may have been raised in the suburbs, but as they retire, a significant contingent is favoring older cities and compact towns where they can walk and ride bikes. Seniors, too, are more likely to use transit, and by 2025, there will be 64 million Americans over the age of 65. Already, dwellings in older neighborhoods in DC, Atlanta and Denver, especially those near light-rail or subway stations, are commanding enormous price premiums over suburban homes. The experience of European and Asian cities shows that if you make buses, subways and trains convenient, comfortable, fast and safe, a surprisingly large percentage of citizens will opt to ride rather than drive.

For those who prefer their lives bubble-wrapped in gated communities, sports utility vehicles and security-patrolled malls, public transport will probably always seem seedy, dangerous and inconvenient. But around the world, there is a revolution going on in the way people travel. It is rewriting the DNA of formerly car-centred cities, making the streets better places to be and restoring something cities sorely need: Real public space.

© 2012 by Taras Grescoe.  Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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