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People ride the Toronto subway on July 21, 2011. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
People ride the Toronto subway on July 21, 2011. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Why Toronto transit is tragic and what Canadians can learn from Colombia Add to ...

This is part of a series of interviews with authors nominated for a political-writing prize. Read about how walls affect those living next to them and Noah Richler on how we talk about war.

The right-wing former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher is famously said to have dismissed as “a failure” anyone who rides a bus past the age of 26.

Canadian author Taras Grescoe is also no fan of buses, but he believes strongly in public transportation. Examining how people move in more than a dozen cities – from Phoenix’s car culture to bicycle traffic jams in Copenhagen and the colourful politics of Bogota, where one mayor hired mimes to shame drivers and his successor tackled sidewalk parking – he found transit to be efficient, financially viable, environmentally sound and even civilizing.

“To use public transport is to know how to co-operate with other people, how to behave in public space,” an academic told him in Tokyo.

The resulting book, Straphanger; Saving our cities and ourselves from the automobile, is a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing . Mr. Grescoe spoke to The Globe and Mail from Montreal.

In some circles, you acknowledge, public transit has a reputation as “a squalid last resort” that carries “the stink of cabbage-scented tenements.” How can that attitude be reconciled with the bright transit future you envision in the book?

My modus operandi was to see where it was being done best. In much of South America now you have broad swathes of society riding transit. And yet in North America, the default transportation remains the private automobile. In a lot of cities, particularly in the west and the south, if you’re not driving you’re on the ‘loser cruiser.’ To get away from that preconception you look at places where it is for everybody, and it’s actually producing some pretty positive results. I saw that in so many cities around the world. The best example in Canada is Vancouver, which decided to prioritize transit over automobiles. If we’re ambitious, if we acknowledge that 80 per cent of Canadians live in metropolitan areas, we’re going to have to take our urban transportation seriously.

Your chapter on Toronto calls the situation in the city tragic, saying power has been seized by suburban interests. What can be done?

We have to recognize that the needs of the central city are different from the periphery. Given what’s going on in Toronto right now, what’s the best that we can hope for? I’m not sure there’s a way out of it short of returning to the previous status quo where places like Etobicoke don’t have so much say in the affairs of the centre-city. That’s where transit’s concentrated and that’s where decisions should be made. The centre is the economic driver of the place and needs powers of taxation and decision-making to allow better transit planning. There’s no acknowledgement of the importance of cities at the federal level. I think we need to take the cities more seriously and take the centre of cities more seriously.

You cite transportation scholar Vukan Vuchic’s statistic that U.S. highway drivers cover only 60 per cent of their cost, less than transit riders. Does that compare apples and oranges – conflating capital spending and operating expenses – or would you argue that drivers pay less than they think?

Drivers are, in a way, freeloaders because so much public money goes to subsidizing parking, free parking in particular, freeway infrastructure, bailing out automobile companies. People tend to look at transit systems and say ‘oh, they’re not making a profit.’ But people forget that the freeways were all subsidized by public money. I think that people just see highways and roads as a fact of nature, something that existed long before they showed up. They see the effort that goes into urban transit lines and think ‘oh, this is all coming out of the public purse.’ They forget that the same can be said of highways and propping up the automobile industry.

In Bogota, you talked to former mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who argues that a cyclist on a $30 bike is as important as a driver in a $30,000 car. He later says that, in a democracy where all citizens are equal, a loaded bus should have the right to 100 times more space on the road than a solo driver. What’s happened to the debate in North America that these can be considered radical notions?

In his book Fighting Traffic, Peter Norton talks about the change in mentality when cars started to dominate the streets of North American cities. Many of us grew up in suburbs completely built around cars, many spend whole lives assuming we will walk to the car, then drive to work, drive to the mall, drive to the gym. They can’t even imagine life without a car. So it comes with the force of freshness when you hear someone like Peñalosa say why shouldn’t someone on a bike have equal rights to someone in a car? There’s kind of that force majeure in North American cityscapes and people get accustomed to it. Which is why it can be as if someone’s coming from Mars when they say this kind of thing.

Given that car culture, as you just described it, are you concerned that transit may be a losing battle in North America?

All the time. You see how the cities were set up for cars and you see the status of the car and the status of public transportation and you despair. But then I go New York, which is actually building new subway miles. Portland understands transit and bicycles. Ottawa is finally moving to light rail. There’s enough hope, and that’s what the book was predicated on. It’s true that sometimes I talk to people who don’t get it. They think that their future is with fossil fuels and cars – cars are bound up with the luxury of life in North America – and those people are hard to communicate with. But there are some signs of hope. People are fed up with traffic and gridlock, and that’s something that drives interest in this topic.

Oliver Moore writes on urban transportation for The Globe and Mail.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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