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Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile

by Taras Grescoe

With his talent for description and rhythmic prose, it is easy to appreciate the accolades Taras Grescoe has garnered in recent years. Grescoe is the author of four previous books, including Bottomfeeder, a bestseller and winner of the Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction. His latest is a manifesto for car-free cities written as a travelogue. Starting with Shanghai and ending in his home city of Montreal, Grescoe takes us on a journey through systems of urban transportation around the world.

The primary purpose of the book is to persuade us to support the shift away from automobiles in cities, but this is not presented as a clearly structured argument. Instead, we are immersed in the look and feel of the locales, replete with elegant and evocative imagery, florid descriptions, and personal anecdotes. Recounting an interview with a transportation researcher in Tokyo, Grescoe does more than merely inform us of the speaker’s profession: “Sakamoto is a compact, precise man in his early forties, who speaks rapid-fire English with a slight midwestern accent picked up from his two years of studying at the University of Cincinnati.”

We follow the author on bicycle rides and subway tours, and along the way we gain a new perspective on transportation and cities. We learn about different forms of public transit technology, how much each one costs, and their impact on growth. We learn about efforts to privatize public transit, and we learn about urban cylcling networks. And, of course, we are given a history of the emergence of the automobile, along with a sense of people’s hopes for the future and their frustrations with a life spent stuck in traffic.

As a travelogue, this book is a richly written journey through the roadways and subways of several magnificent cities. But if the reader is not particularly interested in descriptions of airports, subway stations, and civil servants, this voyage of discovery might prove less than captivating. Grescoe’s journey is often personal – he tells us about his friends and how they live, his family, and himself. It is this highly personal aspect that renders the book ultimately less than satisfying. As a polemic disguised as a travelogue, it doesn’t hold up, because the line of argument is so thoroughly buried in all the anecdotes.


Reviewer: Robert Meynell

Publisher: HarperCollins Canada


Price: $31.99

Page Count: 320 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-1-55468-624-7

Released: April

Issue Date: 2012-6

Categories: Politics & Current Affairs