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.

| June 2012

  • Straphanger-Cover
    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.
  • Long-Traffic-Jam
    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.

  • Straphanger-Cover
  • Long-Traffic-Jam

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.

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