The Virtues of Public Transportation, From a Proud Straphanger

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The United States has long been a car culture. They are status symbols as much as they are a means of transport; highways divide and unite the country, from the smallest towns to the grandest cities, and our popular culture is loaded with references to them. But with fewer young people buying cars than ever, an American automobile industry in decline, and rising fuel prices, this culture is facing something of a crisis.

In his new book "Straphanger: Saving Our Cities from Ourselves and From the Automobile," Taras Grescoe takes this as a unique opportunity to look at public transportation throughout the world, and to consider how trains, subways, and buses can be better integrated into our daily lives.

Here's an excerpt from the first chapter of "Straphanger":

Given how badly it was neglected in the twentieth century, it's a miracle that New York's subway survived into the twenty-first at all. In the mid-1950s, when the underfunded system's rolling stock was already forty years old, the city adopted an official policy of deferred maintenance, kicking off a long decline that tracked the city's sagging fortunes. The nadir came in the early '80s, as motors fell from brackets and trains burst into flames with depressing regularity. In one of the worst accidents, an antique signal failed, causing a Manhattan-bound local to slam into the back of a train waiting in a Brooklyn tunnel, killing the motorman and injuring 135 riders. When author Paul Theroux spent a week riding the rails in 1981, he discovered a Dickensian underworld of loopers (car-hopping purse-snatchers), skells (vagrants), shoeflies (undercover transit cops), and lushworkers (drunk-rolling pickpockets), where transit workers were burned alive in token booths for kicks.