For I Love Transit 2012, I’m proud to present an interview with Taras Grescoe, author of the new book Straphanger !
In Straphanger, Taras takes a tour around the world’s transportation systems, exploring the growing issues of automobile dominance, and illuminating the advantages transit offers cities for the future. Since the book has come out, you may have seen him writing (or being profiled in) some great pieces championing transit in other publications: here’s the National Post , the L.A. Times , Huffington Post .
But besides being a transit advocate, Taras is also a former Vancouverite, having lived here as a kid. So of course, he was the perfect interview for I Love Transit.
Herewith, enjoy his answers! And grab Straphanger  if you have a chance—I read it a little while back, and it’s really well written and enlightening!
I Love Transit Week celebrates all the things our riders love about transit. Why do you love transit?
Transit reduces automobile traffic, which makes city streets safer, less polluted, and more convivial places to be. Since about 30 % of the population can’t drive (they’re too young, too old, or can’t operate a car for health reasons), transit provides mobility for everybody. And personally, I like to read while I ride—not recommended when you’re behind a steering wheel.
When did you get started as a rider? What kept you going?
Some of my earliest transit memories involve catching an old Brill trolley bus at 22nd Ave, and hearing old-timers talk about the streetcars that used to run up Dunbar. I’ve worked as a travel writer for the last 20 years, and in many of the world’s big cities, riding buses, trains, and subways is how people get around. I love discovering a new city by using its transit system—you meet more people that way.
You grew up here in Vancouver and came back to visit our transit system for your latest book, Straphanger . Can you talk a bit about the differences you saw? What did you think of our system today?
Vancouver is doing a lot of things right. The SkyTrain system, which runs automated trains at as little as 90-second intervals, is truly impressive, and the Canada Line, which connects downtown to Richmond and the Airport, is the envy of many cities. TransLink provides region-wide oversight over transportation, which is a real advantage for rationalizing operations and long-term planning. I wish Vancouver had a bikeshare system (like Montreal’s Bixi) with stands at major bus hubs and outside SkyTrain stations. That would encourage true multi-modal travel.
For Straphanger , you also toured a number of different systems worldwide. As a rider, which ones were your favourite? Were there any special features in the different systems that you would love to see implemented more widely?
I love riding the trains in Tokyo, a city of 36 million with well over 800 metro and train stations. You can get anywhere to anywhere there, in comfort and style, by rail transit—no need to own a car. Bogotá has created a very good bus rapid transit system, where buses load like subway cars, which serves the city very well. Copenhagen is the city that integrates everything the best: people ride bikes to subway or train stations, and use cargo bikes to carry heavy loads. It might not be a coincidence that the Danish are routinely ranked the happiest people in the world!
Your book is really about how good transit can be the cornerstone of a robust urban future. Have you seen much impact from your work yet? Are there signs that more cities are warming up to transit?
Definitely. I’ve been quite involved in discussions in Toronto and Los Angeles, two cities suffering from chronic gridlock. Both are pursuing multi-billion dollar plans to expand their rail transit systems.
You’ve recently had a son—have you introduced him to riding public transport yet?
Yes, I have! In his first seven months, Desmond has already ridden Toronto streetcars, Montreal’s metro and buses, vaporettos in Venice, Paris’s metro, and high-speed trains in Italy. I’m sure he’s going to love the SkyTrain next time he comes to Vancouver.
And last but not least: when you’re on a bus or train, where do you like to sit?
Not in the back (too bumpy, on a bus), or in the front (courtesy seat zone!) I usually end up in the middle—and these days, I almost always end up standing next to Desmond’s stroller.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
My favorite chronicle of riding Vancouver transit will always be Colin Upton’s mini-comic series, Famous Bus Rides (1986-87). Sample title: “Annoying hippie harasses the other passengers until he finds a like-minded airhead with a plan for world peace.” More info: http://www.colinupton.com/comics/minis/busrides.html