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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 3 page 11


Busman's holiday

Saving our cities and ourselves from the automobile

by Taras Grescoe
ISBN 978-1-55468-624-7

reviewed by
Giff T. Rollins

Taras Grescoe calls himself, proudly, a “straphanger”, which to him means someone who takes public transport instead of a car. Also, he cycles and walks. In this book, which is a sort of advocacy travelog, he visits about a dozen notable cities, mainly in North America which presumably is his target market, to check out how well they are supporting non-car travel. Or not.

Along the way he provides background on interstate highways, suburban sprawl, and other pertinent matters.

Grescoe abhors the private automobile, and who can blame him? Cars spelled finito to his street hockey idyll when he was a kid up in Van, and that was just a microcosm of the desecration they inflicted on every city. Cars devour an enormous amount of space, they cause many deaths and injuries, and they are a big culprit in global warming.

There seems to be a pattern in North America where a budding golden age of transit in the early 20th century was crushed by the onrush of the automobile, and thereafter it was highways that got all the funding. Recently many cities have nurtured a transit revival, which Grescoe feels happy and vindicated about, but sometimes he strikes a negative chord because he’s thinking what if we’re too late to save the planet.

Let me tell you about Los Angeles, which is one of the places Grescoe came to see. L.A. used to have a fantastic streetcar network, as Bob Hoskins said in Roger Rabbit. There were 1,000 miles of track, the most in the world. But it all got dismantled in the Great Streetcar Conspiracy in the 1940s when GM and its partners in crime furtively bought up streetcar systems in dozens of cities then scrapped them.

After that, L.A. built a thousand miles of freeways and went on to become the Mecca of gridlock.

For many years the Angelinos shot down any new transit proposals but — give credit where credit is due — they finally realized they were choking to death from the smog, so in 1990 they built a shiny new electric rail line running down to Long Beach, and since then there have been new lines every few years including a subway up to North Hollywood. In 2008 voters actually approved a tax hike to support expansion thru to 2040. I say L.A. will be a transit powerhouse again some day.