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WHEN I WAS A KID IN DUNBAR, I made a model called “Taras Town,” which used old Monopoly hotels and houses. I measured our street and figured that you could eliminate cars from the central street by routing delivery cars down the alleys. I showed up on a local cable TV show with my little white turtleneck and showed the model, and I was like, “We can eliminate cars from Vancouver!” Since then I’ve become a travel writer, and for 17 years I’ve seen cities all over the world. For me, the formative thing was going to Paris and wandering the city-an instant introduction to urbanism.
Now that I’m a new father and I spend time pushing a stroller around Montreal, I also experience a kind of moral outrage when getting almost clipped by cars. I’m not a fanatic-I drive. I’ve just learned how cities use cars in different ways. And when you choose a transportation system, you’re making a big choice. You see this in Vancouver-the SkyTrain is creating a certain kind of city. You make these choices and you get different kinds of cities. You change the DNA. – as told to Nathan Caddell
My interest in transportation came from the very simple observation that the best cities, the cities that people want to visit, are the ones that have decided not to use automobiles as the de facto mode of public transportation. The most forward-thinking—and here I’d include Paris—are building transit that serves the suburbs. You have to extend transit into the suburbs. And you have to get the polity involved because they realize that if they’re able to take a fast, comfortable, frequently scheduled bus to a SkyTrain or a subway line, then they’ll feel like part of the city in a way they can’t if they’re mired in traffic. Otherwise you end up with a bogus culture war.
I think you’re a bit obsessed with SkyTrain technology, frankly. But it’s true there aren’t many cities where you can get from downtown to the airport in 25 to 28 minutes, for $8.75. People move to cities like that. And you’re getting incredible ridership that’s actually serving very dense areas. At Joyce and Collingwood, 50 percent of the people who live there commute by SkyTrain—that’s phenomenal. The cities where I wanted to linger, where I found the most sense of community, where I found the deepest-rooted traditions, were also the ones that had somehow excluded cars from the streets. My idea of a city is where people can walk and meet, where civility is manufactured, where we learn to live with each other, where happiness is created. And every day I see it being undermined by the cars whipping down my street, carrying people away from the city to escape.
One thing people don’t realize about Tokyo is that it’s a train-based city of 36 million people with 800 stations. Which means you really can go from anywhere to anywhere by train. Across Japan, it’s like, “Oh I have a car. But it’s spotless and has about 10,000 km on it.” They might drive to onsen in the country or to go watch the cherry blossoms fall at certain times of the year. But really, what does the heavy hauling are the trains and metros.
Transmilenio, the famous Bus Rapid Transit, was introduced in 2000. These buses are quite long, they’re articulated, they usually run at capacity during rush hour. They have one—the biarticulado—that’s enormous. When these buses arrive, they disgorge hundreds of people sometimes—as many passengers as a subway line but they’re carrying them on the street, not underground. The secret behind Bogotá accepting this system is that only 20 percent of people own cars. So a popular mayor made the case, “Why should we devote all this road space to two of every 10 people?” He won elections on this basis and managed to set up the system in only three years.
Some of the happiest commuters I’ve ever met get to work by bicycle. And the Danish, with 36 percent of people getting to work or school by bicycle in all kinds of weather, are regularly rated the happiest people in the world. The people of Copenhagen consider the bicycle—these old-fashioned granny bikes, and especially cargo bikes—as a form of mass transit. People can carry three kids in them. People leave them locked outside the train station. They’ll live in the suburbs, they’ll ride a cheap bike to their suburban train station and take the train in, and then ride their cargo bike to work. They’re status symbols, the SUVs of Denmark. Compared to cities like Copenhagen, the bike paths of North America are a sorry sight.
I call it my anti-city, my nightmare city, built completely around the needs of the automobile. It’s sort of the end of a certain kind of American dream. The government-funded freeway system, one of the biggest public-works projects in the world, was built out in 1973, but there’s still a bit being added. I spent a lot of time in the outer suburbs of Phoenix looking at the kind of urbanism that car-based cities produce. What you get is the “Ring of Death,” where every home is foreclosed, for sale. When I was there, there were 100,000 homes vacant. The scary thing is that other countries are doing this. China’s freeway system is going to beat America’s, in pure mileage, in the next 20 years. Some people love it. Some people believe it embodies freedom. I believe it fosters social isolation.
It’s a beautiful old town, with a UNESCO-protected city centre called Grand-Ile. For years it was clogged with cars. The local merchants wanted to build a subway, which drivers like because it gets transit vehicles off the street and improves circulation for cars. The city decided against it, and they invested in these high-tech trams. It’s not a big city—the population of Greater Strasbourg is about 900,000—but everywhere you go you see these trams coming into the centre of town and then going off. The day I was there, it just seemed to be a constant parade of these trams—silent and beautiful, disgorging people to celebrations in the downtown area.
Taras Grescoe’s fifth book, the critical travelogue Straphanger describes the city-crushing effects of mass automobile use and how some cities are planning their way to a brighter future