In America, the car has long been associated with freedom: the open road, the ability to come and go as you please. Getting a driver’s license is one of the hallmarks of teenage life, a chance to legally drink from the frothy cup of adult pleasures.
Travel writer Taras Grescoe has a less starry-eyed view. In Straphanger, he paints cars as a force of destruction. The lifestyle created by cars—freeways, parking lots and suburbs—has eaten up land and stripped our continent of its character, turning towns and cities into glorified driveways. Cars destroy the environment and lives (each year, worldwide, they kill 1.2 million people), while cutting us off from human interaction by “pav[ing] over so much of what was authentic and vital in our cities.”
Life independent of cars exists, and in Straphanger Grescoe travels the world to prove it. He rides subways in New York, Tokyo and Paris. He hops on Bogotá’s famed bus rapid transit system TransMilenio, a key part of the city’s revitalization, and survives a testy crowd on a Philadelphia bus. These colorful anecdotes amuse us and, more importantly, show us that a city that invests in mass transit also invests in itself. Paris’ urban integrity, the one that inspires dreamers worldwide, would have been destroyed had it not been for its métro. Now that bicycles are the main mode of transportation in Copenhagen, street life thrives. Bike lanes, Grescoe notes, provide a way to grasp the city’s layout that’s absent in New York or London. Plus, you don’t have to go the gym.
The statistical and historical nuggets Grescoe unearths lend credence to his grievances against cars. After World War II, public policy favoring the car-friendly suburbs made buying homes there a no-brainer, while America’s freeway program frequently targeted urban ethnic enclaves for development, destroying long-established communities and erecting highways in their place. And Phoenix, a city built around freeways and suburbs, is in free-fall after the real estate market crash.
These aren’t the musings of a rail snob or some desk-bound pundit. With Straphanger, Grescoe has fashioned a cogent, spirited call-to-arms that is also a practical, insightful handbook for change. By not blindly worshipping one of the icons of individuality, we may save generations from serious trouble.