By Taras Grescoe (Times Books, 2012)

reviewed by John R. Harris

To go through finding your sea legs on Tokyo’s rail system learning where to change for anywhere and which car lets you off right at the stairs is to comprehend the vastness of the ocean. For me, that process began in 1985, and ever since I have watched in awe as Tokyo’s train system has evolved from ticket punchers, the fuming stench of platform ashtrays and platform pushers compacting drunks into non air conditioned cars … into an unparalleled masterwork of efficiency, civility and scale.

But how to explain that to someone who’s never been here, and who has heard only of pushers? What superlative do you cite? In 2002, fed up with the lack of information, I put weeks into researching a piece ACCJ Journal ran under the head, “Riding the Eighth Wonder of the World” (alas, no longer on their site). Here’s the pearl I found and have used ever since:

“By almost any measure, the Tokyo urban rail system dwarfs all others. Take passenger volume. Each year, the combined subway and commuter rail services of New York, London and Paris (total regional population 48.9 million about 1.5 times Tokyo) carry about 4.6 billion passengers. Tokyo trains do triple that (over 13 billion passengers annually)… More than 87 percent of journeys into central Tokyo are by rail, versus 31 percent for Manhattan.”

To really grasp the scope of Tokyo’s magnificence, though, what you need is a comparison with the world’s other great urban rail systems that is rich in context and detail. At long last, that’s what Canadian writer Taras Grescoe has given us in his book Straphangers.

Grescoe has an engaging narrative recipe he applies to explorations of New York, Paris and Moscow (all among the few systems that could hold a candle to Tokyo) and other fascinating cities from Bogota to Copenhagen. In about 25 pages for each city, he cooks a rich mélange of you are here actuality, artfully spiced with nicely told history, thought provoking statistics and insightful social observations.

In New York, Grescoe recounts how the subway spawned the high rise forest that defines today’s Manhattan. He traces the history from clashes between proletarian riders and plutocrat owners that made the “nickel fare” sacrosanct, through takeover by city hall and down into the financial abyss that left the subway a crime infested rat hole by the 1970s. But his account of the subway’s renaissance is so inspiring you may feel the urge to ride all the way from the Bronx to Flatbush.

In Paris, his sketch of the Métro and its culture is so vivid you can imagine yourself boarding Line 1, “Direction La Défense.” Grescoe explains how the creation of a dense route network in the city center, with closely spaced stations, influenced the evolution of an urban gem from 1898 on. And how the Paris system is poised for an expansion that recent news reports describe as “pharaonic.”

In Moscow, the ever ironic city of tsars and commissars, we meet Lazar Kagarovich, the Stalinist apparatchik mastermind of the palatial Moscow Metro, which stands with victory at Stalingrad and space travel as one of three undeniable Soviet achievements. The initial line was built in the 1930s with picks and shovels by 74,000 “volunteers.” Today, while post Soviet BMWs and Benzes sit mired in the world’s worst jams, the Stalinist miracle still gets you anywhere in 30 minutes, 78 cents U.S. for an all day ticket.

As Grescoe finally reaches Tokyo, I will admit to some trepidation, just because reading any visitor’s take on this town you risk getting hit in the face with a flock of canards like the New York Times auto writer whose book said Tokyoites wear masks because of air pollution. In that regard, I’m Grescoe’s reader from hell: a self confessed Tokyo train nerd of long standing. But I hereby testify that he aces it, weaving in 30 pages a narrative that embraces everyone from chikan to 6 year olds riding alone to the lady who nods off on your shoulder to the train driver who talks to himself while pointing at everything he sees. Along the way he neatly explains the difference between JR, the two subways and the private lines … and what we mean by “platform pizza.” It’s all in there, neatly contextualized with the recognition that: “Tokyo’s railways are the standard by which all others must be judged.”

Okay, so it’s not vegan level canard free. Tokyo is not mainly low rise because of earthquakes. The limiting factor is regulations that restrict overshadowing adjoining properties. And I have a few other niggles that a knowledgeable editor might have caught. But let’s not quibble: I’ll give the Tokyo chapter 9 out 10.

The only thing distressing about this book was imagining what Grescoe went through to get a U.S. publishing deal. I can almost hear a dumb ass New York editor insisting he make it about America and “saving our cities and ourselves from the automobile.” In a book that brilliantly explores the world’s great urban railways, nearly half the pages are about the U.S. which is like devoting half a work on global soccer to somewhere that barely plays it. So he spends way too much time in sad sack Phoenix and Philadelphia when he could have taken us to Madrid, Cairo or Delhi. We don’t even get London.

Editorial pandering to a U.S. audience is likewise evident in the rendering of all that should be meters and grams to yards and ounces; something a Montrealer like Grescoe would never do of his own volition. And you can almost hear an editor saying, “Taras, you need an inspiring spin.” So we follow him through Portland, Oregon and Philadelphia’s student ghetto scratching for scant evidence of hipsters beyond Manhattan willing to ride the train. Glossing over the pervasive issues of race and the not unfounded fear that someone else on board has a gun, he leaves us with a sense that any day now Americans are going to get on the train. Don’t believe it.

What a Canadian writer like Grescoe might usefully have done is to point out that every major city north of the border has transit ridership that dwarfs U.S. levels. And hammer home the message that having millions commute 50 miles or more a day, one person per car, is detrimental to both economic competitiveness and the environment. But the message is in there if you look. Where the average American generates 24 tons of CO2 annually, Tokyoites emit just 4.8 tons each.

But I’m just quibbling out of rank jealousy: this is an excellent book I wish I’d written. I just hope Grescoe will give a talk at the FCCJ next time he visits Tokyo.

John R. Harris, a speechwriter based on Chiba’s Pacific coast, lives largely on the avails of the auto industry. But at heart he is a train nerd who hails from Toronto, a city with transit ridership second in North America only to New York.