Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile

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9780805091731: Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile

Taras Grescoe rides the rails all over the world and makes an elegant and impassioned case for the imminent end of car culture and the coming transportation revolution

"I am proud to call myself a straphanger," writes Taras Grescoe. The perception of public transportation in America is often unflattering―a squalid last resort for those with one too many drunk-driving charges, too poor to afford insurance, or too decrepit to get behind the wheel of a car. Indeed, a century of auto-centric culture and city planning has left most of the country with public transportation that is underfunded, ill maintained, and ill conceived. But as the demand for petroleum is fast outpacing the world's supply, a revolution in transportation is under way.

Grescoe explores the ascendance of the straphangers―the growing number of people who rely on public transportation to go about the business of their daily lives. On a journey that takes him around the world―from New York to Moscow, Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Bogotá, Phoenix, Portland, Vancouver, and Philadelphia―Grescoe profiles public transportation here and abroad, highlighting the people and ideas that may help undo the damage that car-centric planning has done to our cities and create convenient, affordable, and sustainable urban transportation―and better city living―for all.

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About the Author:

Taras Grescoe is the award-winning author of four books and countless articles focusing on world travel. He's written for The New York Times, The Times (London), Wired, the Chicago Tribune Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times. He currently lives in Montreal. He has never owned a car.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Any time we don't have crowding during rush hour, there'll be a receiver sitting in the mayor's chair and New York will be a ghost town. Why, they talk about the rush hour and the crash and noise. Why, listen, don't you see that's the proof of our life and vitality? Why, why, that is New York City!
--Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, 1943

1. The Subway that Time Forgot

New York, New York

Something impossibly big and powerful was moving beneath the city.

In a portable office at a construction site in Chelsea, I could already sense its presence as a low rumbling rising through the soles of my rubber boots. As I rode a steel cage fifteen stories down a circular abyss, the physical shudder became an all-encompassing roar. The elevator touched down on the floor of a high-ceilinged chamber blasted out of gray rock, where a makeshift factory was abuzz with activity. Beside me, an arc welder's torch cracked and sizzled; a crane hoisting stacks of precast concrete overhead emitted piercing beeps; a construction train juddered to a halt and shook a couple of dozen tons of broken rock onto a conveyor belt. Underneath it all, the earth-rattling roar never abated. At the chamber's north end, where the ceiling lowered into parallel tubes as smooth and round as twin shotgun barrels, the tunnel on the right thrummed like Hades' didgeridoo. It was hard to shake the feeling that a living thing had been unleashed, and was gnawing its way through the bedrock of Manhattan.

"It's up ahead, about a thousand feet!" my guide yelled into my ear. Rich Redmond, a consulting engineer for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), and the man responsible for day-to-day operations on this site, walked ahead of me into the tunnel. I squinted into the distance, but the tube darkened and narrowed at the limits of my vision. As my mind conjured visions of sandworms and minotaurs, I followed Redmond into the gloom.

We splashed through murky water that purled around the ties of a single railway track, a rivulet constantly fed by groundwater seeping through the concrete walls. Ahead of us, the end of the tunnel was plugged by a vibrating disc fitted with red and green lights. Just as moving forward was becoming physically painful--it sounded like the world's biggest wood chipper was grinding its way through a petrified forest--the roar stopped. Redmond paused and shouted back: "They must be done with the shove. If you want to see it, now would be a good time!" Quickening our pace, we came to the end of the line: a floor-to-ceiling framework of horizontal walkways and vertical ladders, draped with a cat's cradle of coiled wires and dangling tubes.

The monster at the end of the tube was a Herrenknect Double Shield tunnel-boring machine--a TBM for short. "This is the trailing gear," explained Redmond, as we clambered aboard the back end of the machine. "It's about three hundred and fifty feet long; it houses the ventilation, the pumps, the electrical systems." Custom-made for the job at a workshop in Germany, the thousand-ton TBM was so massive that it arrived in New York in three separate transatlantic shipments; reassembling it, once it had been lowered down the excavation shaft, took two and a half months. The machine's immediate goal was the cavern of a new station at Thirty-fourth Street. From there, it would veer from Eleventh Avenue, boring under Penn Station's Amtrak tunnels, before connecting to the 7-line platform at Times Square. The 7-line extension, as the project was known, would ultimately allow New Yorkers to commute to jobs at the Javits Center and elsewhere on the far West Side.

Weaving through pipes and beams, we came to the TBM's nerve center, a small booth where an operator in green coveralls sat in front of computer screens monitoring the monster's progress. "The screens show the thrust, applied pressure on the rock, and the torque of the machine," said Redmond. Guided by GPS, lasers, and radar, the operator was responsible for adjusting hydraulic levers to keep the machine's cutting-head on course.

Though it is made of metal and powered by electric motors running on 13,000 volts, the tunnel-boring machine moves like a living organism. Its rotating cutting-head resembles the circular maw of a lamprey eel, with forty-four spinning discs of alloy in the place of pointed teeth. Bracing itself against the tunnel walls with two convex grippers, the machine uses pistons to force the cutting-head forward; the crushed rocks fall into chutes behind the discs and are ferried away by a central conveyor belt. When the TBM has completed a five-foot "shove" into solid rock, the grippers are released, and, like a colossal caterpillar, the machine shifts its entire thousand-ton bulk forward by lifting and dropping its multiple feet.

Climbing a ladder, Redmond and I ducked beneath the ceiling of the tunnel, and scuttled toward the business end of the TBM. Three workers in hardhats and overalls were on their sides, grunting and cursing as they tightened the bolts on a curved, five-foot-wide segment of precast concrete; a half-dozen such segments made one complete circle of tunnel wall. On a good day, said Redmond, the machine could complete a shove in half an hour, lengthening the tunnel by 60 feet over three eight-hour shifts. On a bad day, when unexpected conditions were encountered, everything ground to a halt. As we backtracked through the trailing gear, Redmond reached into an open rail car and passed me an arrowhead-shaped piece of broken rock, flecked with glints of mica. "This is the muck train," he yelled. "Muck is vernacular for mined rock. You're holding a piece of pure Manhattan schist in your hands." The TBM makes short work of the large-grained whitish-gray rock, as it does granite, which accounts for much of the bedrock undergirding the skyscrapers of New York. In less predictable ground, however, other techniques are necessary.

"We ran into water-bearing glacial material at the very start of tunneling," said Redmond. "We had to drill holes and run tubes from the surface, fill them with liquid brine, and use a freezer plant to bring them down to thirty below zero. They basically turned the soil into a giant block of ice--which made it solid enough to mine." Once the freezer was turned off, grout was injected between the concrete walls and the rock, sealing the tunnel against seeping groundwater.

All around us were sandhogs, New York's legendary urban miners, broad-shouldered, stocky men in jeans and safety vests thoroughly begrimed with gray slurry. The sandhogs refer to the tunnel-boring machine as "the mole"--a nickname that is not entirely affectionate. For generations, the power behind the cutting-head was almost entirely human. Since laying the foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1872, the sandhogs have dug every important sewer, water, and train tunnel in the city. These storied laborers, many of them Irish, African American, and Italian, dug the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, shored up the collapsing Trinity Church, and excavated the city's subway lines, blasting with dynamite, tightening bolts with 75-pound wrenches, often clearing away muck with their bare hands. Working in pressurized tunnels when they dug beneath New York's riverbeds, they died by the dozens in cave-ins and catastrophic blowouts.

The sandhogs are still a force to be reckoned with beneath the streets of New York. An Irish flag hangs at the entrance to the excavation shaft, and before digging on the 7-line extension could begin, the city's new Roman Catholic archbishop paid a visit, tracing the sign of the cross over bowed hardhats. Automation, which began when New York's first TBM was lowered into the shaft of the Third Water Tunnel in 1970, has been both a blessing and a curse. With the coming of the "mole," the most dangerous part of the sandhogs' jobs, digging into potentially unstable ground with picks, shovels, and percussion drills, was eliminated--but so were a good number of jobs. At the turn of the last century, it took almost 8,000 men, working for two dollars a day, to excavate New York's first subway lines. Today's sandhogs are paid far more--over $100,000 a year, with benefits--but only a few dozen are needed on each eight-hour shift. The mole, the steam-powered hammer to the underground miners' John Henry, has turned out to be the biggest, toughest sandhog of them all.

Around the world, hundreds of such machines are now at work, chewing through geology in an unprecedented push to increase human mobility. In Beijing, Madrid, Delhi, and Los Angeles, TBMs are drilling beneath the feet of urbanites, in one of the most astonishing bursts of transit infrastructure building in decades. As the planet enters a new phase of urbanization, cities are looking to advanced transit systems as the way out of congestion, pollution, and economic stagnation. The mole may have taken the danger, and thus the glamour, out of tunnel digging, but it is allowing cities to build new lines on time and on budget, with no loss of human life. The fact that New York--which for decades stood alone among great cities in that its total track mileage was actually decreasing--is finally digging a new tunnel, is a sign of the times. After half a century of freeway building, the subway is back.

If all goes well, Redmond explained to me as we rode back to the surface, the work would be completed some time late in 2013. According to its critics, the 7-line extension, which will add exactly one stop to the existing network, is a "subway to nowhere"--a waste of precious resources in recessionary times. It was intended to serve a stadium for the 2012 Summer Olympics, but when New York lost the bid to London, plans for a second stop for Hell's Kitchen--a neighborhood sorely in need of another stop--were dropped. The line will terminate at the largest undeveloped patch of real estate in Manhattan: the Hudson Yards, twenty-six acres of switches and marshaling tracks the MTA sold to Related Companies and Goldman Sachs in 2009 for a cool billion dollars. The developers plan to turn it into a $15 billion enclave of office towers, apartment buildings, a hotel, parks, and retail businesses. According to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it is such long-term investments in infrastructure that will transform areas full of promise into "neighborhoods full of residents, park-goers, office workers and shoppers." Critics call it a boondoggle--one that will mostly profit the mayor's developer friends. The price tag for extending New York's subway network by just one mile in the early years of the twenty-first century? Just over two billion dollars.

The project, by any calculus, is ridiculously expensive. Thanks to the tunnel-boring machine, the actual excavation work is not a big provider of employment for the city. But laying new subway track--even a controversial project like the 7-line extension--may be the smartest investment New York has made in its own future in decades.

Take the "T" Train

Were it not for the subway, New York as it is today would not exist. At a crucial time in the city's history, the engineers of this ingenious subterranean railroad cleared the streets of impossible congestion and decanted the population of the teeming, insalubrious tenements of the Lower East Side to the farthest corners of the boroughs. Because it was able to move so many people so quickly, the subway became the ultimate urban density amplifier, allowing the apartment buildings and office towers of Manhattan to be built side-by-side, and turning a 26-square-mile island of gneiss, marble, and schist into one of the world's greatest metropolises, where millions could live and trade services, goods, and ideas swiftly and efficiently.

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.

"What is amazing," Theroux concluded, "is that back in 1904 a group of businessmen solved New York's transport problems for centuries to come. What an engineering marvel they eventually created in this underground railway! And how amazed they would be to see what it has become, how foul-seeming to the public mind." It was as though Theroux had stumbled upon a rusty musée mécanique in the jungle, kept running, barely, by the local tribespeople.

Something had to change, and it did. Shortly after Theroux's visit, the Transit Authority declared war on graffiti, hauling in cars nightly and scrubbing them clean of the day's accumulated Wildstyle tags. (Spray paint is now a thing of the past: the modern vandal has resorted to etching the windows with acid.) Antique and defective trains were replaced by Canadian-made cars that now average 690,000 miles between breakdowns--one hundred times the '80s norm. In the last thirty years, $75 billion has been poured into the system.

Not that grit has entirely disappeared. Among the subways of the world, New York's is a utilitarian system. With a few exceptions, the stations are shallow: on the avenues, trains can be heard clattering through the sidewalk grates, raging uptown and down only a few yards beneath the feet of pedestrians. "There's the smelly essence of New York down there," intoned Manhattan's pop-poet laureate Lou Reed in the days of subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz, and the underground has retained its velvety stench of soot and sweat, mixed with the roasted nut odor of dust from overheated brake shoes settling on the puddles of rainwater between the tracks. On the concourses, freckled black with the chewing gum of the ages, pillars cut off sightlines, the ceilings seem to be only inches overhead, and the dry heat and jaundiced light enfold you, forcing you into a new, almost theatrical relationship with the city.

For anybody who grew up with stories of a system going to hell beneath a crumbling metropolis, it is remarkable just how well the New York subway works. Most trains are air-conditioned, and on the Grand Central platforms, giant overhead air-cooling units create an oasis that, on hot days, actually tempts you to linger underground. (I've spent a couple of Julys in New York. That people here rode the subways for most of the twentieth century without air-conditioning is a testament to their fortitude. That Parisians and Londoners are still asked to do without it should be considered cruel and unusual punishment.) These days, almost everybody takes the train; depending on the traffic, it can be faster than hailing a cab. Even billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg sometimes rides the express to City Hall on the Lexington Avenue line--perhaps as often as twice a week.1 Subway ridership, which bottomed out in 1977 at a billion rides a year, is once again approaching the record highs of the pos...

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