Straphanger: Making a Case for Public Transport

Our reliance upon personal automobiles may be our downfall as a society, but what does life look like after the automobile age? One straphanger makes a case for a move toward public transportation.
By Taras Grescoe
June 2012
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In “Straphanger,” Taras Grescoe sets out on a quest to discover how people around the world are building neighborhoods, lifestyles, and entire cities without the personal automobile.
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The automobile age promised freedom and self-fulfillment, but it has actually imprisoned us, impoverished us, and eroded our communities. The demand for oil is fast outpacing the world’s supply, and it is time to start imagining a world after the automobile age. Straphanger (Times Books, 2012) is the first guide to surviving, and thriving, after the automobile age. In this book, award-winning author Taras Grescoe joins the ranks of the world’s straphangers to get the inside story on the world’s great transit systems and envision the new ideas that will help undo the damage a century of car-centric planning has done to our cities. The following excerpt is from the book’s introduction, “Confessions of a Straphanger.” 

Any man of forty who still rides the métro is a loser. —Salvador Dalí 
A man who, beyond the age of twenty- six, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure. —Margaret Thatcher 

I admit it: I ride the bus.

What’s more, I frequently find myself on subways, streetcars, light rail, metros, and high- speed trains. Though I have a driver’s license, I’ve never owned an automobile, and apart from the occasional car rental, I’ve reached my mid-forties by relying on bicycles, my feet, and public transportation for my day-to-day travel. If you credit the U.K.’s late prime minister Thatcher, that makes me a failure of almost two decades’ standing. Dalí, who depended for locomotion on a fleet of chauffeur-driven Cadillacs, is kinder: according to him, I’ve only been a loser for a couple of years. Far from being ashamed of my fare card, I consider it a badge of honor: I’m a straphanger, and I intend to remain one as long as my legs will carry me to the corner bus stop.

I’m not alone. Though there are 600 million cars on the planet, and counting, there are also seven billion people, which means that for the vast majority of us getting around involves taking buses, ferryboats, commuter trains, streetcars, and subways. In other words, traveling to work, school, or the market means being a straphanger: somebody who, by choice or necessity, relies on public transport, rather than a privately owned automobile.

Half the population of New York, Toronto, and London do not own cars. Public transport is how most of the people of Asia and Africa, the world’s most populous continents, travel. Every day, subway systems carry 155 million passengers, thirty-four times the number carried by all the world’s airplanes, and the global public transport market is now valued at $428 billion annually. A century and a half after the invention of the internal combustion engine, private car ownership is still an anomaly.

And yet public transportation, in many minds, is the opposite of glamour—a squalid last resort for those with one too many impaired driving charges, too poor to afford insurance, or too decrepit to get behind the wheel of a car. In much of North America, they are right: taking mass transit is a depressing experience. 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 ride buses and subways. 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 commuting annoyances. Even though there are more teenagers in the country than ever, only ten million have a driver’s license (versus twelve million a generation ago). Baby boomers may have been raised in Leave It to Beaver suburbs, but as they retire, a significant contingent is favoring older cities and compact towns where they have the option of walking and riding bikes. Seniors, too, are more likely to use mass transit, and by 2025, there will be 64 million Americans over the age of sixty-five. Already, dwellings in older neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., 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-centered cities, making the streets better places to be, and restoring something cities sorely need: real public space.

The Shock of Rising Oil Prices

The United States is the most extravagantly motorized nation in the history of the world.(1) At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the country was home to 255 million registered vehicles, but only 196 million licensed drivers; in other words, cars and trucks now outnumber drivers by a factor of 5 to 4. The average American household owns 1.9 cars, and spends $16,700 a year keeping them running—not counting parking and tickets—more than it spends on food and health care combined.

In the summer of 2008, the price of a barrel of crude oil spiked to $147, a historic high. Since then, a gallon of gas, which could be had for under a dollar for most of the 1990s, has routinely retailed for $4.50 at some pumps. The shock waves produced by this price hike have been as dramatic as any initiated by the energy crises of 1973 and 1979. Two of the world’s largest automakers went into bankruptcy; General Motors, once the world’s largest corporation, is, after receiving $50 billion in taxpayers’ money, now part owned by the U.S. Treasury. While the causes of the late-2000s financial crisis were complex, and included financial deregulation and subprime mortgage lending, many economists believe skyrocketing gas prices provided the critical body blow to consumer confidence that deepened the crisis into a worldwide recession.

Demotorization, which for twenty years has been a fact of life in Japan, may now have come to the United States. In 2009, Americans bought ten million cars, but scrapped fourteen million; this net loss of four million vehicles was the first time the total automobile fleet has shrunk since the Second World War. (The federal Cash for Clunkers program, which paid Americans to scrap old cars for more fuel-efficient vehicles, accounted for 700,000 cars, and so played only a small role in the decrease.) Per capita vehicle miles traveled, the most reliable indicator of automobile dependence available, began to decline in mid-decade, and are now at their lowest levels since 2000. On the manufacturing side, the cradle-to-grave security of the auto sector is a thing of the past: with unemployment in Detroit near 20 percent and thousands of homes being bulldozed, parts of the onetime Motor City are returning to wilderness as beavers build dams in abandoned subdivisions minutes from downtown.

Putting money on the recovery of the automobile sector would be a sound bet were it not for the grim prospects ahead for energy production, especially when it comes to fossil fuels. Long the domain of conspiracy theorists, “peak oil”—the notion that the world is on the verge of using up half its reserves—has lately been accepted as an imminent reality by mainstream geologists, financiers, and oilmen. In 2010, the highly conservative International Energy Agency announced that output of conventional oil would peak within ten years if demand continued to grow on a business-as-usual basis.

“Even if oil demand were to remain flat,” Fatih Birol, the agency’s chief economist, conceded in 2011, “the world would need to find more than forty million barrels per day of gross new capacity—equal to four new Saudi Arabias—just to off set this decline.”

As old fields are sucked dry, oil from such unconventional sources as Alberta’s tar sands is coming on line; the extraction process, which requires enormous amounts of water and natural gas, is energy-intensive and punishing to the environment. Hydraulic fracturing, used to extract natural gas from shale deposits, is already a suspected cause of widespread contamination of groundwater across North America. The Deepwater Horizon spill, which blackened the Gulf of Mexico with 200 million gallons of oil over three months in 2010, highlighted the desperate measures already being taken to track down the planet’s last remaining reserves of oil. The simple fact is, we have already burned too many fossil fuels for the good of the planet, too quickly. Using what is left in the ground would release three trillion tons of carbon dioxide, enough to bring on the most nightmarish scenarios of global warming: the melting of ice caps and glaciers, the acidification of oceans, and the inundation of coastal cities. “Business-as-usual,” in other words, is a recipe for global disaster.

Too much of the oil now being used—the oil that may soon be gone—goes to keeping cars and trucks on the roads. Ninety percent of every barrel of oil in the world is used for transportation fuel, and American cars and trucks alone use nine million barrels of oil a day, one-tenth of the world’s daily production.(2) While the global car industry tries to rebrand itself with plug-ins and hybrids, the widespread use of electricity as an alternative fuel is problematic in its own right: half of the electricity in the United States comes from burning carbon dioxide-emitting coal, a proportion that rises yearly.

Peak oil was not responsible for the summer of 2008 price spike—the rise in demand from China, India, and other developing nations was the more immediate cause—but the high prices were an augury of things to come. Unrest in the Arab world has led to intense volatility in gas prices, and some economists predict a barrel of crude could cost $200 by mid decade, meaning $10 a gallon gas at the pumps. Any way you look at it, the prognosis for cheap energy is not good. Sooner rather than later, three-car garages in far-flung suburbs are going to become unimaginable luxuries, and car culture will undergo a radical transformation.

Even now, some modern-day Edison could be putting the final touches on a low-cost, portable cold-fusion reactor in a workshop in Kansas. But even if a zero-emission miracle sedan, running on tap water and yielding only lavender-scented exhaust, appeared in dealerships tomorrow, it would not solve the fundamental problem with cars.

The automobile was never an appropriate technology for the cities of America. As a form of mass transportation for the world, it is a disaster.

The End of Car-Culture Bliss

On September 13, 1899, a real estate dealer named Henry Bliss was alighting from a streetcar at West 74th Street and Central Park West, a block from his home, when a taxicab, swerving to avoid a truck in the right lane, ran him down, crushing his head and chest. He died of his injuries the next day. In America, the first victim of the automobile was Bliss.

You would be hard-pressed to track down the name of the latest victim: in the last minute alone, two humans somewhere on the planet have had their lives cut short by cars. Year in, year out, automobiles kill 1.2 million people around the world, and injure twenty million.(3) It is a hecatomb equivalent to a dozen fully-loaded jumbo jets crashing every day, with no survivors, yet one so routine the majority of fatalities go unreported—as though being crushed by glass and metal had become just another of death’s “natural causes.” War, in comparison, is an inefficient scourge of the human race: among people aged ten to twenty-four, the automobile long ago beat out armed conflict as the leading cause of death.

A case against the automobile can be built purely on the grounds of public health. In spite of improvements in emission standards, pollution from automobiles still kills 30,000 Americans a year. Car ownership has been proven to make you fat and lazy: a survey of drivers in Atlanta found that each additional hour spent in a car per day was associated with a 6 percent increase in obesity. (In 1969, when half of American children got to school by foot or by bicycle, childhood obesity rates sat at 14 percent. Today, when 84 percent of children are driven to school, 45 percent of American kids are considered overweight or obese.) Time spent in a car is also robustly correlated with social isolation: every ten minutes spent in daily commuting cuts involvement in community affairs by 10 percent. Americans spend so much time in their cars that oncologists say drivers have significantly higher rates of skin cancer on the left side of their bodies.

But the automobile’s most insidious impact is on the built environment. Between cul-de-sacs and hundred-acre Wal-Mart parking lots, metropolitan areas now eat up mind-boggling amounts of land. The cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, for example, have merged into a single conurbation the size of the nation of Israel. A large percentage of Americans now live in what is considered sprawl—tracts of low-density, single-family homes scattered over the urban fringes with little planning oversight. The result is utter car dependency. Between shuttling kids to school, visiting the mall, and driving to work, the average house hold generates eleven separate car trips a day. And asphalt really is as bad a land-gobbler as it seems: if all the pavement in America were merged, it would create a parking lot the size of Georgia.

Even in recessionary times, the propaganda for car culture is all pervasive. Car ownership, consumers are constantly told, brings freedom: the freedom for restless rebels to flee stifling Main Street for cross-country road trips on Highway 66; the spontaneity for the city-weary to seek weekend respite in national parks; the autonomy to go south, literally, when things go south, figuratively. From the mattress-laden jalopy in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath to the Dean-driven ’49 Hudson in Kerouac’s On the Road, from the Great Red Shark in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the pimped-out Hondas of the latest from the Fast and Furious franchise, the iconic car of pop culture is a ticket to adventure. (One ad shows a young man setting his alarm for four in the morning so he can take his new Volkswagen out for a cruise. That’s about right. In most metropolitan areas, the wee hours are the only time left when roads are actually uncongested enough to enjoy.) The personal automobile has, dramatically and enduringly, broadened our horizons. In the process, however, it has completely paved them over.

How did things get this bad? In North America, decades of government policy have made the private automobile the de facto mode of public transportation. Nine out of ten American commuters get to work by car, and more than three-quarters of these car commuters drive to work alone. Thanks to congestion, the average commute in the United States is now 51 minutes a day, and 3.5 million Americans qualify as extreme commuters, spending three hours or more getting to and from work. Economists have actually managed to quantify the absurdity of this situation. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, congestion costs the American economy $115 billion every year in wasted time and fuel—or $808 per person, a figure that, in spite of recession, has increased by 50 percent in the last decade. And time spent commuting turns out to be a powerful predictor of unhappiness. A study of German drivers who commute for two hours or more has shown they would have to make 40 percent more income to be as satisfied with their lives as a non-commuter is, and couples in which one partner commutes for longer than 45 minutes are 40 percent more likely to divorce.

The automobile is not going to disappear any time soon. At once cocoon and work horse, it ingeniously reconciles two contradictory human impulses: the desire for home and security and the longing to roam and experience the world. Crucial for its load-carrying capacity in remote and rural areas, irreplaceable for many of its functions in cities, it is too useful an invention to ever completely vanish. Indeed, thanks to generations of car-centered development, living a car-free life—particularly for those raising young children—can seem like an impossible dream. Given the way most metropolitan areas are currently configured, calling for a ban on cars may seem tantamount to urging people to trade their refrigerators for iceboxes, or swap their vacuum cleaners for brooms. But car culture has hit a wall—and that may be a good thing. It is time to reconsider the dream of free-flowing freeways for all, spacious suburban living for the masses, and an SUV in every garage.

Another long-term trend is working against the automobile. Thanks largely to the ongoing industrialization of agriculture, for the first time in human history more people live in urban areas than in rural ones. Over the next thirty years, the population of the world’s cities is expected to grow by three billion. The future is urban, which could well be a boon for the planet: dense city living not only spares countryside and wilderness undue human impact, but it is also more energy efficient than dispersed suburban settlement. But if urbanization means longer traffic jams, never-ending metropolitan sprawl, higher carbon emissions, and global gridlock, we are going to have to face a simple reality.

If we don’t start imagining a future with fewer cars, there might not be much of a future left to imagine.

Mass Transit: Tracks and Taillights

My animus against automobiles runs deep, but I come by it honestly. When I was a boy, my parents moved to the Pacific Northwest, and something about the way cars bombed up our street, wrecking games of street hockey and kick-the-can, must have awakened in me an embryonic ambition toward city planning. After pacing out our block I built a kraft-paper model, with Monopoly hotels standing in for the houses, that showed how our street could be closed to automobiles and the back lanes used for deliveries and local traffic. I brought the model to a local television station, where I earnestly made the case for turning streets into parks—an eight-year-old urbanist with a white turtleneck, a Prince Valiant haircut, and some strong opinions about traffic calming.

Later, downwardly mobile in my early twenties, I got a job working as a delivery driver for a dental lab. The work was hardly glamorous: I punched in, spent my days circling for parking and riding elevators in office blocks with dripping bags of false teeth, and punched out. Forty hours a week, I watched the world from behind glass, getting angry at shiftless pedestrians and unpredictable cyclists, a Travis Bickle in the making. At the end of the workday, I would unlock my bicycle and become a quick-flip hypocrite, cursing cars and their exhaust all the way home. In six months of driving I was rear-ended twice; my shoulders ached, my belly spread, and the unspent adrenaline from day-to-day near misses turned my blood prematurely bilious.

Heading back to the lab near the end of one shift, I glanced in my rearview mirror and saw the compact car behind me come to a complete stop, the victim of a blow-out or a stall. We were on a long, visibility-reducing curve on a stretch of downtown expressway, and I instantly knew the driver was in trouble. I briefly caught a flash of panicked face, and then saw his body go flying through the window as he was rear-ended by the 18-wheeler behind him. I never saw the aftermath—everybody knows you don’t stop on a shoulderless freeway—but I will never forget the look of utter shock on his face in what were surely the last seconds of his life. After punching out that day, I put in my notice.

Cars, I decided then, would not be a major part of my life. It was not just the drudgery of driving for a living. It just felt wrong, as though every hour I spent cocooned in plastic, fiberglass, and metal was an hour I had failed to spend living. My subsequent career as a traveling writer has only confirmed my intuition: planes, sure, as a means to an end; trains and boats, always; but cars—only as a last resort, when there really is no other choice. The places that meant the most to me were almost always the ones I got to on foot.

Don’t get me wrong—my experience as a delivery driver was no formative trauma; it did not scar me deeply enough to make me a rabid autophobe. I live in the real world, which means I dutifully renew my license, and rent cars when I need to. As a teenager, I fetishized Detroit’s coolest rides, and a well-preserved Citroën DS can still stop me in my tracks. But for me, the seductive ease of mobility without effort, available at zero dollars down and $299 a month, is the beginning of a spiral through selfishness, road rage, and anomie, one whose ultimate goal is the mall and the gated community. If you really want to be free in this world, I have come to believe, then whatever you do, don’t buy a car.

In the last few years, a tectonic shift has been occurring in the North American landscape. In Florida, Nevada, Arizona, and California, the fallout from the subprime mortgage fiasco has left boomburgs, “drive-till-you-qualify” subdivisions, and edge cities, most built on the assumption that fossil fuels would always be cheap, in a state of crisis. As newspapers filled with stories of ranch-style homes being turned into meth labs and scavengers stripping abandoned “starter castles” of pipes and copper wire, demographers announced, in a turnaround that would have been unthinkable a generation ago, that the suburban poor now outnumber the urban poor. Lately, the reviled “inner” city is starting to look like a good place to live. Factories and their pollution have fled old urban centers for the interstates, and though traffic still plagues city streets, urban smog has diminished over the last two decades thanks to ever more stringent automobile emission standards. The average life expectancy in New York City is now actually one and a half years longer than in the nation as a whole.

“For too long, federal policy has actually encouraged sprawl and congestion and pollution, rather than quality public transportation and smart, sustainable development,” President Barack Obama announced at an urban affairs summit in 2009. Under his administration, federal policy began to shift some public resources to cities, with a strong emphasis on improving transit. From Los Angeles to New York, miles of new subway tracks are being laid, and rail transit is again becoming symbolic of progress and municipal achievement. Streetcars, long vanished from the American streetscape, are cropping up in such unlikely places as Houston, Denver, and Salt Lake City.

In many ways, we are entering a golden age of urban transportation: sophisticated soft ware and GPS allow for better dispatching of buses and trains, higher ridership is funding service improvements, rechargeable fare cards allow effortless transfers, and smartphones are empowering commuters with up-to-the-minute scheduling information. And as people drive less, demand for transit is growing: in 2010, transit ridership in the United States hit a fifty-four-year high of 10.2 billion annual rides. For people like me who believe there should be alternatives to a life centered on the private automobile, all this is excellent news.

This book is, in part, the story of a bad idea: the notion that our metropolises should be shaped by the needs of cars, rather than people. A slow-motion exodus from cities began when old, coherent neighborhoods were divided and degraded by on-ramps and overpasses, and highways were cut into the living tissue of the metropolis. By diminishing public space, the automobile has made once great cities terrible places to live.

This book also tells the story of some very good ideas. Around the world, energetic and idealistic people are working hard to reclaim neighborhoods once left for dead. The movement goes under a variety of names: transit-oriented development, smart growth, new urbanism. In the wrong mouths, these are just buzzwords; in the wrong hands, they can serve as the justification for boondoggles as bad as any hastily thrown-up boomburg. But the advocates of livable cities and walkable small towns may be on to something—by investing in development that includes well-conceived transit, we can create more sustainable and, crucially, more civil communities.

A caveat for readers: I am not a rail fan, a juicehead, or an aficionado of doodlebugs. (Rail fans are also known as “foamers” because they tend to foam at the mouth when talk turns to bogeys and pantographs; they may or may not be “juiceheads,” whose knowledge of vintage electric streetcars and even “doodlebugs,” the streetcar’s gas-powered equivalent, tends to be encyclopedic.) While I love the gritty allure of a great metropolitan subway, and consider a rail trip one of life’s great pleasures, my interest in transportation technology runs a distant second to my love of cities. Simply put, I like subways, buses, and trains because I believe they make better places than cars and freeways.

There’s something else, too. Over the last twenty years, I’ve gotten to know a lot of cities. I spent the early ’90s in Paris and, in my travels, many months living in the great metropolises of Europe, Asia, and the Americas. While I’ve watched friends and family opt for the suburbs or the country, I’ve never lost faith in the old city centers. Even though I’ve seen how rents could be high, pollution bad, break-ins frequent, and traffic horrific, the rewards of urban living have always seemed worth the aggravations. And things are clearly getting better. In only a few years, I’ve seen how intelligent urbanism, transportation policy, and changing demographics could transform cities whose quality of life had been merely tolerable into genuinely great places to live.

When I discovered Montreal, which seemed to have much of what I was looking for in a city, and met Erin, a woman who made me want to stay put, my perspective really started to change. Recently, Erin and I got married and bought a home together. Even more recently, Erin told me she was pregnant. When I began mapping out this journey, parenthood was just an idea. Now that I’m going to become a father, the questions I’ve been asking myself about the future of cities seem a lot less abstract. I find myself wanting to know whether Erin and I have made the right choice; whether my parents’ generation was right to give up on the increasingly traffic-clogged, smog-choked, and often crime-ridden cities of the twentieth century; or whether, with a little imagination and will, we can remake them into places where people will want to live, thrive, and raise families in the twenty-first.

To answer the question, I know, I’m going to have to see what people around the world are doing to make their cities better places to live. It’s only a hunch, but I figure I’ll find the kinds of places I’m looking for by following tracks and sidewalks, rather than taillights and freeways.

(1) Transportation scholars use the term “motorization” to describe a nation’s level of vehicle ownership. Mass motorization is said to occur when there are 400 vehicles per 1,000 population. The United States achieved mass motorization in 1958; China, which currently has 123 vehicles per thousand, will achieve it in 2050. 

(2) Though airplanes are significant guzzlers of oil, there are far fewer vehicles in the sky than on the ground. It is estimated that aviation accounts for 3 percent of green house gas emissions. Automobiles alone—not including trucks or motorcycles—are responsible for 10 percent; after electricity generation, cars are the single leading manmade cause of global warming. 

(3) In spite of airbags and seatbelts, automobile accidents still claim over 40,000 lives a year in the United States, and cost the economy $433 billion annually. 

Excerpted from Straphanger: Saving Our Cities from Ourselves and the Automobile, published by Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2012 by Taras Grescoe. All rights reserved. 


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