Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Book Review: Straphanger by Taras Grescoe

with 9 comments

I was pleased to get an invitation to read a review copy of Straphanger by Taras Grescoe. I was even more pleased when I got it  straightaway as a download. The download I get, of course, has a limited life – but longer than the average library loan. On the other hand it does not permit me to copy and paste excerpts into a review. This is annoying because that is actually covered by the “fair use” exception in copyright law – but apparently Adobe Digital Editions do not allow for that. Not surprising really given the foofooraw over DRM in general. On the other hand the book has already been reviewed in the mainstream media (here for example is the Globe and Mail’s take on it). More importantly big chunks of it – far more than would ever get into any review – are currently getting on line in Spacing magazine’s various web presences. This does enable one to cut and paste – but much more importantly it means you can read big chunks of it too. You do subscribe to Spacing Vancouver don’t you? For example today’s extract is all about Copenhagen.

But I think, given this blog’s orientation, and the fact that this was the first bit I really paid attention to, you will want to look at what he has to say about Vancouver. It is remarkably upbeat and positive: far more than this blog has been overall – or any of us are feeling right now, thanks to the massive cut that the Mayors have delivered in the ongoing fight with the province over funding. But there are things here that made me react in a much less positive way. For instance:

The Canada Line, completed for the 2010 Winter Olympics, whisks passengers in Korean made electric trains at 50 miles an hour toward the West End. As the driverless light-rail train crosses the Fraser River, I marvel at how thickets of office and condo towers, each cluster corresponding to a SkyTrain station, have cropped up at intervals of about a mile and a half, where once there was only low-rise suburbia.

No you didn’t. What you see as you leave the airport and before you plunge into the tunnel after Marine Drive station looks nothing like that. I mean, yes Taras, you might marvel at that from the distance of your Montreal home based on what you have been told, read and even seen on some visits. But not only does it not look like that as you cross the Fraser River, much of Vancouver does not look like that. There are no “thickets of office towers” apart from around Burrard Station – and the twin towers of Metrotown where Translink is currently located (where there were supposed to be more, but they have not been built). And you will certainly not see anything like that along the Canada Line except the condos at Lansdowne and Brighouse. There’s also a few high rise buildings near Bridgeport but those are hotels and they are there because of the airport and proximity to the freeway exit. Now there will be a massive high rise at Marine Drive – but it isn’t there now to marvel at. What most of us notice is the lack of development at Broadway and Commercial – where two SkyTrain lines meet and Safeway’s car park is the most noticeable feature – one that Brent Toderian points out to visitors as an example. Nothing happened at 29th Avenue or  Nanaimo either. Joyce/Collingwood is the Vancouver exception.

Burnaby and New Westminster did get Skytrain stations, and have also concentrated development at one or two stations. (There is a long piece in the Straight on New Westminster’s transit oriented development.) Burnaby continued with dispersed office parks and low density commercial sprawl both unrelated to transit. Surrey is now making the best of the Surrey City Centre – but for much of the intervening period (between the Scott Road extension opening and a couple of years ago) also pursued sprawl at highway intersections. In that case actually with the enthusiastic support of the province, which used highway land sales to developers to help pay for intersection “improvements”.

What Translink’s recent release of its frequent transit map shows is that most of Metro Vancouver is just like most of the rest of North America. Yes we may be doing a bit better than Portland (the chapter in the book is a head to head comparison) but that is not saying much.

Part of the problem is that we have started believing our own spin. For instance, Gordon Price tells him

“The amazing thing is that, even today, highways don’t go through any part of the City of Vancouver,” pointed out Price. “They just stop as soon as they reach the city limits.”

That is just not true. Highway #1 is a freeway, and it runs through the City of Vancouver’s North East Corner. From the Second Narrows Bridge to Boundary Road, through the Cassiar Connector tunnel, that is City of Vancouver. And the freeway expansion is going to dump lots of traffic into Vancouver’s east side.

Vancouver, like Portland, opted to use federal highway money for public transport

Eh? What federal highway money? There was a small one off federal contribution to the original Skytrain. A grovelling provincial government even stuck Canada word marks on the trains as part of its campaign to get more federal contribution to the Canada Line – so named to attract the same funds. But Canada does not have a federal transit program – and its highway money comes as specific grants for favoured projects in critical ridings too. I would also balk at labelling the 99 B-Line “Bus Rapid Transit” as he does.

Vancouver’s greatest strength was the concentration of vision allowed by true regional planning. The Livable Region Strategic Plan, adopted in 1996 as a framework for making regional land use and transportation decisions, is now the game plan for the entire region.

Well that might have been true once, I must say that I disagree. The expansion of Highway #1 and the rejection of even the fig leaf of a bus across the new Port Mann Bridge means that the LRSP no longer applies. And anyway, even when he was talking to Chris de Marco at Metro, there was a new Regional Growth Strategy that has replaced the LRSP. Some of the problem is that events have moved between him writing and the book appearing. Toderian and Shiffer had both gone. But the writing was already clearly on the wall, once the province decided not just to deal with the bottle neck of the Port Mann Bridge but to widen the entire freeway through the region from Boundary Road to the eastern limit of Langley Township. The Livable Region Coalition was formed to fight that, and lost. Long before he started his researches for this volume.

There is, I am sad to report, no chapter on London. (UPDATE I can now report, after a tweet & email exchange with the author, that he offered one in his outline but the publisher was not interested.) It does get mentioned here and there – and no, I have not yet read the entire book. But given that London was the place that first built an underground railway – The Metropolitan Railway – and that most cities subsequently called their systems “Metro” as a result of that – does seem to me to be significant. What is missing is an appreciation of the role of the suburban railway. In London, the mainlines run north and west from the capital, and the Underground network developed in those sectors since the London and Northwestern and Great Western railways were much less interest in short haul commuters than the more profitable long distance “Inter City” market. To the south and east, suburban development also proceeded at the same pace but was driven by the Southern and Great Eastern railways, who had much less long distance traffic. The GE in fact was forced to run commuter trains by legislation. In order to build its City terminus at Liverpool Street it had to pull down a densely populated urban area called The Jago. If those people were to be relocated to the suburbs they had to be given fares they could afford. “Workmen’s fares” were legislated to allow the low paid manual workers on whom the wealth of the city depended to get to and from work every day, to their – much nicer, new homes in places like Walthamstow. The London County Council built huge housing estates – and operated frequent electric tram services to them. But the huge growth of London prior to the first world war was due to the efforts of what became the Southern Railway and its electric trains to places like Surbiton and Dulwich, Staines and Gravesend.

This also seems to have been ignored in the chapter on New York. That is entitled  “The Subway that Time Forgot”. But he forgets that the subway was not the only thing going on. The growth of midtown Manhattan as an employment centre that he ascribes to the subway seems to me to miss the point. Grand Central and Penn Stations were not just the terminals of the transcontinental and the Chattanooga choo-choo. They were the hubs of extensive long distance commuter networks – and still are, come to that. That made it possible for people to commute to their offices from Chatham New Jersey or New Rochelle New York.  The huge growth of the north east megalopolis that stretches from Boston to Washington began when railways offered regular fast and frequent services that people could use for a daily commute. And the farmland and small towns quickly disappeared – and all this started and was clearly evident long before the arrival of the car and Robert Moses. Though I do think he gets that right: Moses refusal to allow railway tracks on “his” bridges was indeed perverse. The Williamsburg Bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn carries the subway too.

Williamsburg Bridge

Williamsburg Bridge - my picture on flickr

The lack of track on more modern bridges is indeed bizarre. Can you imagine Sidney Harbour bridge without trains? Well yes you can, since our province has been committing the same sin. The railway bridge at New Westminster used to carry cars, and then the parallel Sidney Harbour style Patullo went up and was – as usual – built without consideration for future needs. And we seem likely to repeat the same mistake.

But to get back to Taras Grescoe, by concentrating on the – admittedly gripping tale – subway, he doesn’t even mention the interurbans. In our current love affair with the streetcar (the relatively slow, town centre transit) we seem to have forgotten that there was once a network of fast electric trains. The Downtown Heritage Railway uses two of the cars from that system. They went out to Steveston, but the lines also went all the way to Chilliwack – and the route through Burnaby is followed by the Expo line. Such systems criss-crossed North America. In his novel “Ragtime”, E L Doctorow has his protagonists escape attention by travelling from Chicago to New York by a series of interurbans, thus avoiding the surveillance of the main line stations by the police. Los Angeles “seventeen suburbs in search of a city” grew up because of the Big Red Cars of the Pacific Electric – and that story is told in Straphanger – and it is acknowledged as an interurban, of course. But he quickly falls back to calling them streetcars, and relies on Roger Rabbit and the great City Lines conspiracy. The point being that the interurban may have been slow when forced to share streetspace, but was very fast indeed when on its own right of way out in the country. The great benefit from the users point of view was that there was no need to transfer from the streetcar to the faster mode – in town they shared the same tracks. But because they were built just before the automobiles really got going, and were lumbered not only with legislated fares but also the costs of road maintenance, the conspiracy was really not necessary, although it was indeed real. I would like to quote more but this chapter is not one that Spacing is allowed to excerpt.

So of course I am going to recommend you read not just Spacing’s excerpts, but the whole book. It is indeed highly readable and does look well beyond North America. I was really impressed with the Paris chapter where the RER and the new interurban system both get covered well.  It does get to grips with how cities urban form is shaped by and depends upon its transportation system. Of course there are things we will find to argue about, but that is not a reason to avoid it. Quite the contrary. It is indeed highly stimulating. For as long as it lasts on my hard drive I am going to dipping into it and, should time permit, may well return to it. It is not an academic treatise but it does have both an index (another weakness of digital editions is the need to use the search function but from the front through each mention) and an extensive list of sources. Not that this blog is on that, of course.

By the way WordPress wants to mark the fact that this post is the 1900th since I started.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 25, 2012 at 2:16 pm

9 Responses

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  1. […] A more acerbic review from Stephen Rees here. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. from → Transportation, Vancouver Profile […]

  2. I was apoplectic reading SOME of Taras musing. He said that SkyTrain drastically reduced the dependency on cars (quote from memory) and that there is high density by stations etc. Did he actually ride the 2 SkyTrain lines–and Canada line– all the way around? Didn’t he notice all the single family homes, the cars along the Millenium line and down by the tracks in Richmond? Did he noticed all the stations without high rises and shops around them?
    Did he bother to notice on a map that SkyTrain and Canada line only service a small area of the city? Another guy that see a town for a few hours and knows all about it!

    In Paris he is all excited by the fact the mayor turned an expressway into a beach and made the transit system something grand (can’t remember exactly. Sorry) .The fact is the beach is temporary-for a couple of months in the summer– then is back to be an expressway the rest of the year.
    99% of the subway was built before Mayor Delanoe was elected. The last line built (line 14) opened in 1999 and was extended at both end after the Mayor was elected BUT he doesn’t sit on STIF, the Parisian region transit authority.

    He did had special lanes built-shared by bikes and taxis in some sections–and that was a gutsy thing to do as he and the technicians that planned them “forgot” to mention it to anyone, building the whole network in a month–when many Parisians were on vacation. Many of these special lanes are separated from car lanes by a curb…a neat idea.

    Taras was all excited by Singapore transit system with glass walls between the tracks and the platforms (he doesn’t explain that but this why the cars and the platforms have AC).
    He visited Tokyo as he mention that he rode (did he actually?) the old fashioned Arakawa tram line (they do have bilingual electronic signs inside) so how come he didn’t mention the automated Yurikamome that, like all automated light rail transit in Japan and France, has glass walls between tracks and platforms?

    When in Paris did he noticed, by the way, that line 14 is automated and has glass walls and that on line 1 and 13 they were retrofitting stations with partial walls in order to make the trains automatic? The fully automated line 1 opened in November last year. Works is still going on on Line 13.

    He also bitch about Park and Ride lots in Portland, complaining this doesn’t reduce dependency on cars…it does so, as they are used by people living in very suburban areas with few buses that, instead of driving cars all the way to downtown or another suburb, park their car in a P & R near their home then take the MAX.

    In Bordeaux, where the opening of a Tramways (LRT) system meant the closure of many car lanes downtown–in addition of all the pedestrian streets that opened in 1976–the suburban P&R lots have allowed suburbanites living too far from the tram lines to go downtown very cheaply: a 3 euros fee allow one to park the car in a secure lot from the time they park to the end of the tram service or all day long if necessary. With the receipt the car driver and all his/her passengers each get one return ticket, also good all day long if needed.

    I too finds strange that London wasn’t featured.. and that when he was in Tokyo he didn’t bothered to mention the interaction of subways and suburban commuter trains (they share tracks), nor the fact that transit in Japan is pretty much done by a bunch of private companies that have managed to work together so that one smart card does it all. And their fares don’t go up very often (but then it seems at times that trains and subways are a carrot to bring people to the huge department stores, hotels, amusement complex etc. these private rail companies own) in and around major stations.
    He might have found easier to have a look at Osaka as it as the second most busy transit system in Japan and has, like Tokyo, a loop line, subways, automated LRT and old fashioned trams, monorails, lots of commuter trains etc. both metropolis have lots of buses too, of course.

    Red frog

    April 26, 2012 at 11:05 pm

  3. Thanks Stephen for this post.

    Red Frog, I appreciate your experience with European and Japanese cities and rely on them for insight about real on-the-ground experience. If only Taras Grescoe contacted people like you and Stephen (for his Canadian and British insights) in the cities he writes about.

    Grescoe seems to be a journalist with multiple interests, from food to transit. Straphanger seemed to be banged off on his travelling laptop, then proofed on the couch back at home in order to meet a deadline. Though I admire his pro-transit bias, I would have appreciated a more thorough analysis of his subject cities in the excerpts I read in the Globe and Mail and in reviews, like Stephen’s who fills some gaps and asks important questions, and a better understanding of the technology and functionality of transit systems, such as the lower operating costs automated passenger rail has with enhanced long-range service performance, and the role of various levels of transit service (e.g. regional vs. local). It was obvious he was away from Vancouver for a long time, though he did kinda nailed the place in a generalistic way.

    I didn’t have a hard time with his criticism of park-n-ride lots. I, too, am familiar with them in Calgary and find them hideous and destructive from a humanist orientation. Improving transit is about improving urbanism as well as maintaining ridership levels, and the human experience of emerging from an LRT station into a parking lot or above-ground parkade is far, far different than emerging into a finely-crafted urban plaza that performs as the heart of a village or town. Yes, park-n-rides are important functionally, but why the hell does dead storage space for cars have to dominate the station environment, when in fact villages should be built there? Ideally, transit will stimulate car-free development at the rail stations and along the feeder bus routes, or at least help to lower suburban car dependence over time, and also help urbanize the suburbs. It is profoundly disturbing to me to see a quarter-century of LRT in Calgary (and other sprawling cities) without even a dent in the increasing auto-addiction levels beyond the inner city. When subdivisions become transit-oriented villages and towns, then parkades can disappear. Transit should be used as an instrument to deliberately achieve that goal.

    Lots has been written about the necessity of building a lot more transit in our cities and linking it very intimately with development given the huge energy and environmental challenges ahead, but very few publications on transit pass on to describing the next steps to address the actual challenges on the ground of doing so. What are the design and cost parameters of re-engineering our cities? What models can we use that go beyond the theroetical? Peter Calthorpe is an American urban designer who has measured success in this field with actual projects, and he’s often on the road promoting “urban design” as a viable multi-disciplinary profession and TODs with his actually-built transit boulevards, and can cite transit tech, demand, population increases, economic and social benefits, etc. This is precisely what we need. If only his architectural component was a little less bland.

    We also need a handbook for politicians and bureaucrats on this stuff.


    May 1, 2012 at 1:09 pm

  4. Park and Ride lots

    The policy that I used to enunciate when I was paid to was that Translink did not provide them as we wanted people to take the bus to get to the train. Which is fine as far as it goes but when there is (as more recent evidence provided by Translink itself on the paucity of frequent bus service outside of the City of Vancouver) inadequate bus service, then I think it is self defeating.

    One thing I had to tell people, who usually did not use transit but were keen that others should, was that the one large park and ride lot we did have – at Scott Road – was mostly used by people who lived close by. The idea that people drove from Langley to the SkyTrain and then bought a three zone ticket to downtown was not exactly commonplace. Many people parking at Scott Road could have walked or ridden the bus but chose not to. The lack of human orientation around Scott Road owes much more to the sort of place that Surrey is and was (maybe not so much will be) than the presence of the Translink lot.

    I do use the Bridgeport parkade. It is very reasonably priced – and gives me the travel flexibility that otherwise I would not have. Two bus routes pass my door – both run together, so frequency is not what might be assumed. And neither is reliable – even with access to the “Where’s my bus” feature. It does seem to me that when there are facilities that have parking that is not used on the same schedule as transit – as in this case is the Casino – then pnr makes sense. It makes much less sense at the church lot at the corner of No 3 Road and Steveston Highway which is labelled “park and ride” but nobody does. And the Sexsmith Park and Ride is still open, long after most of its bus service vanished, but is free and still gets used.

    In general, there is far too much space devoted to parking cars. But to get that reduced we need better alternatives. Frequent transit is essential – and until we have governments that understand that simple idea, we will be stuck with what we have.

    Stephen Rees

    May 1, 2012 at 1:30 pm

  5. To be fair, I’m pretty sure that one can see the towers at some of the Expo Line stations including Metrotown from the Canada Line Bridge. I expect that is what he was referring to.


    May 1, 2012 at 6:42 pm

  6. What would modern transit be—and shopping and many other things –without smart cards..
    Please read the news in the link..then think about Roland Moreno for 1 minute.

    Red frog

    May 1, 2012 at 10:07 pm

  7. You know that Taras Grescoe grew up in Vancouver, son of the writers Paul and Audrey Grescoe (Vancouver, Bowen Island etc.)
    Now whether he did visit or consult Vancouver is another matter.
    Brief bio at
    and combined Audry and Paul at:

    Bill Lee

    May 3, 2012 at 1:19 pm

  8. Taras Grescoe is giving a talk next week in the Vancouver Public Library’s subterranean Alice McKay Room. on Monday May 7th 2012
    Straphanger author Taras Grescoe will be reading from his book and conversing with another noted author about urbanism, Charles Montgomery. 7 p.m. to 8:30 at the downtown branch of the Vancouver Public Library.”

    Bill Lee

    May 4, 2012 at 12:34 pm

  9. While I found myself nodding my head far more often than shaking it while reading this post and its comments, it wasn’t until Stephen’s response re parking, that I found the greatest agreement. Parking policy, habits, entitlements and negligence hides far more of our opportunity than we give it credit for. Search that blog for “parking” to see many more. Parking reform holds a key solution to urban congestion.

    Bern Grush

    July 8, 2012 at 7:02 pm

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