Margaret Thatcher earned the undying enmity of the world's transit users when she said (in her sexist and condescending way), that any "man who, beyond the age of twenty-six, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure."
Following the former Prime Minister's calculus, that makes me a loser of almost two decades' standing. But I'm not afraid to admit it: I ride the bus. What's more, I frequently find myself on subways, streetcars, light rail, metros, and high-speed trains. I've never owned an automobile, and though I'm no anti-car zealot (I belong to my city's car share program, and dutifully pay to renew my license every year) I'm proud to call myself a straphanger: somebody who relies on public transit for most of his or her urban travel.
I'm not alone. Half the population of New York, Toronto, and London do not own cars, and transit is how most of the people of Asia and Africa, the world's most populous continents, travel. In North America, the Millennial generation, who now outnumber the Boomers, are fleeing the 'burbs for old city centers by the millions, and have far fewer hang-ups about fare cards and bus passes than their parents' generation. (A recent survey found that half of American teenagers would now rather have a new smartphone than a new car. Makes sense: armed with a new iPhone or Android, they can download apps that will tell them exactly when the next bus or train will get to the stop.) Last year, ridership on the New York subway surpassed 1.6 billion, the most trips since the boom years after the Second World War. Meanwhile, though the U.S. population continues to grow, vehicle miles traveled, the most reliable indicator of automobile dependency we have, have been in decline for the last seven years.
In the three years that I've spent traveling the world researching my book Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile [Henry, Holy & Company, $25.00], nothing I've found makes me believe the car has any future as a plausible form of mass transit for our cities. From Lagos to Los Angeles, we're reaching a state of crisis when it comes to gridlock and ever-thickening congestion. Whether it involves digging new subways in Shanghai, creating Bus Rapid Transit systems in Bogotá, or urban bike-sharing plans in Paris, Copenhagen and 120 other cities around the globe, far-sighted administrators have done the math: the cities that people want to visit, and live in, are the places that are finding alternatives to that old emblem of personal freedom, the private automobile.
Cars aren't going to disappear any time soon. They're pretty handy for deliveries and carrying loads, and, given the realities of residential settlement on this continent, indispensable for real-estate agents, large families, and traveling salespeople (not to mention anybody who lives in small towns or on a farm). But as gas prices creep ever upwards, and the exurbs continue to die a slow death, we're going to be relying on them less and less.
And that may be a good thing: as I've found, opting out of the spurious mobility offered by car-ownership can take you some pretty interesting places.
An American household spends $16,700 a year keeping its average of 1.9 cars running (not counting parking and tickets). Gas used to retail for less than a dollar a gallon in the 'nineties. Now it routinely hits $4.50, and, with the supply of easily available crude plateauing, and demand likely to continue increasing from developing economies, the price at the pump has nowhere to go but up. Transit users spend between a tenth and a fifth of what car-owners do on getting around. -- Taras Grescoe
Cars are space hogs. While an office worker needs, on average, 250 square feet of space, his or her car requires 400 square feet--which is why in Los Angeles, where most people commute by automobile, parking amounts to 81% of the Central Business District's land area (versus 31% in more transit reliant San Francisco). Car ownership is easier in suburbs and exurbs where more land space is set aside for free parking. But suburbs are notoriously bad places to walk--and, as poverty moves from the city to the suburbs, the "crabgrass frontier" is increasingly full of overgrown lots. Gated communities with trigger-happy security, the foreclosed "starter castle" next door turned into a Meth lab: is having free parking, a lawyer foyer, and a yard really worth the two-hour commute? -- Taras Grescoe
The environmental downsides of the petroleum-powered automobile are well known, and include carbon emissions and increasingly, dependence on dirty tar sands oil (Even electric cars aren't exempt: half of the electricity in the United States is generated by burning coal). People don't talk about the public health impacts much any more, but they're just as bad. Pollution from cars is still estimated to kill 30,000 Americans a year, and, in spite of seat belts and airbags, about 40,000 a year are killed by cars every year (around the world, 1.2 million die a year--two in the last minute you've been reading). Car ownership is also robustly coordinated with obesity, while taking transit may actually be slimming: a study of Charlotte, North Carolina light-rail riders found that after only half a year, they weighed six and a half pounds less than drivers. -- Taras Grescoe
You use your feet, a bicycle, or, for longer trips, public transit. Back in the nineteenth-century, city fathers spent a lot of time trying to work out the best way to get around growing industrial metropolises. They experimented with Elevateds (as in Brooklyn, Chicago), pneumatic subways (as in Manhattan, see Alfred Beach's 1870 system, above) and cable cars (as in San Francisco). Streetcars worked great until jalopies and flivvers got in the way (and the motor lobby got together and replaced trolleys with buses on rubber tires). For cities that can afford them, though, there was no better investment than a subway. Bus lines get moved, trolley tracks are torn up, but no major subway in the world, once built, has ever permanently stopped working. If you think your city will around a century from now, move heaven (and earth) to get one built. -- Taras Grescoe
Consider the cargo bike, the urban SUV of Denmark. These sturdy tricycles, developed in the Christiania urban commune and now made by companies like Nihola, feature two small, swiveling front wheels and deep round cargo bays, and can easily carry three young children or a week's worth of groceries. In Copenhagen (where 36 percent of all commuters get to work or school by bicycle) a quarter of families with two children or more now own a cargo bike. -- Taras Grescoe
The French city of Strasbourg has almost entirely banned cars, while making cheap and frequent streetcars the de facto mode of transit to its historic center; in Clermont-Ferrand, the hometown of Michelin, electric trams that run on rubber tires provide a quiet and low-emission alternative to the automobile. In the United States, the cities you'd expect--like Portland, Oregon, and Seattle--are making investments in new forms of transit (and, in the case of San Francisco, bringing vintage trams from Milan, Lisbon, and Melbourne back to city streets). But high-tech modern trams and light-rail are now rolling on the streets of Denver, Salt Lake City, and even that paragon of sprawl, Phoenix. We've got a long way to go before transit in North America will match the anywhere-to-anywhere mobility of the private automobile, but GPS and new information technology are already making the process a whole lot easier. And the more people that subsidize buses and trains by riding them, the better service gets--a classic virtuous circle. -- Taras Grescoe
The automobile is not an appropriate form of public transit for the city, never has been. The twentieth-century was all about shoe-horning cars into old cities (think of Robert Moses and his concrete carpet-bombing of New York City) or creating new cities inspired by the ideology of modernists (think of Frank Lloyd Wright and his Broadacre City). This resulted in such freeway-based metropolises as Atlanta, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, which currently has the worst congestion in the United States. The twenty-first century is going to be about getting cars out of our cities--and they're going to be much better places for it. -- Taras Grescoe
Correction: The article formerly incorrectly stated that Margaret Thatcher was the "late" Prime Minister. It has been corrected to "former Prime Minister."
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