STRAPHANGER: A week of excerpts from Taras Grescoe’s new book

This week, Spacing presents five excerpts from Straphanger, the new book by Montreal-based author Taras Grescoe. The book examines the success stories, challenges, and future hurdles of 14 transit systems from across the world, including Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

TODAY: Shanghai, China

For first-time car buyers on the floor of the Shanghai Auto Show, the future looks bright, if not downright dazzling. Throughout the cavernous showrooms, lithe motor-show girls in shimmering nylon evening gowns and leatherette mini skirts drape themselves over aerodynamic fenders, like molten watches drizzled over branches in a Dalí landscape. On rotating platforms, surrealistic concept cars languidly pirouette: the Geely McCar, a tiny hybrid with an outsized hatchback that pops up to release a three-wheeled electric motorcycle, and the chrome-grilled Engrand GE, which features a V-8 engine, rear seat massagers, and a built-in refrigerator that, according to the brochure, “gives access to mobile joy.”

Caught in the crush, a visitor is torn between amusement and awe; it’s hard not to chuckle at cars with names like the Great Wall Wingle Pick Up, the Jiangling Landwind, or the Book of Songs. At the same time, the audacity of China’s carmakers is impressive: the Noble is a near replica of Daimler’s Smart, the Lifan 320 appears to be a clone of a Mini Cooper, and the Dongfeng Crazy Soldier looks like the love child of a Humvee and a Tonka truck. Every few minutes, cameras flash and applause ripples through the showrooms as another “delivery ceremony” is completed: a proud owner is presented with flowers, a framed photo, and a bag of gift s as he is handed the keys to his brand-new Lavida, Cowin, or Beauty Leopard.

The lust to buy is almost palpable. Fourteen million cars were sold in China last year, which means the country has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest automobile market. Over eight days, three-quarters of a million people will pass through the seventeen hangar-like halls of the Shanghai Auto Show — which has now surpassed New York’s to become the world’s largest — lining up for their chance to caress vinyl, shift gears, and slam doors, publicly dreaming of owning modernity’s ultimate consumer item: the private automobile.

The big news at this year’s auto show is that subcompacts are no longer at center stage, and major manufacturers have relegated hybrids and electrics to the sidelines as they promote old-fashioned gasoline-powered sedans. For years, the Chery QQ, a fuel-efficient, jellybean-shaped bumper car that retailed for less than $5,000, was the nation’s most popular automobile. Lately, though, the aspiring middle class has set its sights higher. China’s best-selling car is now the BYD F3, a four-door sedan that bears more than a passing resemblance to a Toyota Corolla, with a sticker price of $9,300. The popularity of the F3, which sold over a quarter of a million units in 2010, is a sign that Chinese consumers have made the Great Leap Forward from economy to midsize.

On the showroom floor, a silver F3, complete with power sunroof and dash-mounted perfume dispenser, has attracted the attention of Chen Shuli, a young mother from Shanghai’s Jing’an district, who has come to the show with her husband.

“We have a small child, and we’ve heard that the F3 is very safe and sensible,” says Chen. “We’re just looking, and we’re not really sure we can afford it. At the moment, we don’t have a car. I don’t work, but my husband has a job with an engineering company and gets there by metro, which takes about forty-five minutes. I’m not sure his commute would be any quicker by car.” The husband in question has wandered off to investigate the BYD S6, an SUV that retails for twice the price of the F3. “Mainly, though,” Chen continues, “we’d use a car to see my parents, who live in a small town in Zhejiang Province that we have to take two buses and a taxi to get to. Not many of my friends have cars yet; they get around on buses and the metro.”

For Chen Shuli and her husband, the cars on display promise a future of status, freedom, and convenience. Those who came to the auto show by car, however, drove through a present already markedly diminished by the automobile. On the city’s double-decked Inner Ring Road, a scrim of smog obscures even the taillights of the cars ahead, and the congestion has turned the Yangpu Bridge to Pudong, one of the world’s longest bridges, into a six-lane parking lot. China’s air pollution, exacerbated by coal-fired plants, is already the worst in the world: 656,000 citizens die prematurely of smog-induced lung and heart disease every year. In a grim coincidence, Shanghai Daily reports that the week of the auto show has brought the city’s “worst air quality to date.” In this car-choked metropolis of 23 million, the air people breathe has officially become a health hazard.

Only twenty-five years ago, automobile traffic in Shanghai was limited to chauffeur-driven Hongqi limousines for Communist Party officials. Such was China’s isolation that, during the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards floated a proposal to make red stoplights signify “Go.” Today, there are two million cars on the streets of Shanghai. To ease congestion, a high price has been set on car registration, and bicycles have been banned from main streets. Backups in China can make even Los Angeles traffic look positively bucolic: in 2010, drivers northwest of Beijing were stuck for ten days in a jam that stretched 60 miles across two provinces. To increase mobility, China has built a 33,000-mile system of expressways in the last twenty years. Already larger than the network that connects the European Union, it will be more extensive than the United States’ freeway system by 2035. By then, carbon dioxide emissions from China’s transport sector will easily be the highest in the world.

China is compressing a century of Western automotive history into a few years, but it is not alone. In India, automaker Ratan Tata has launched the Nano, a 5-foot-wide micro-car with a top speed of 60 miles per hour, whose $2,500 sticker price puts it within reach of India’s burgeoning middle class, currently 300 million strong. Tata says he believes every Indian should own his own car, but in such cities as Bangalore and Hyderabad, the addition of hundreds of thousands of low-cost cars has already created a state of near permanent gridlock. At this rate, the global automobile fleet is expected to increase from its present high of 600 million to almost three billion by mid-century. Many, if not most, of these new cars are going to be Chinese-or Indian-made. China’s Geely recently bought Volvo; Tata purchased Jaguar and Land Rover; and the maker of the F3, Shenzhen-based BYD — one of whose main shareholders is the legendary investor Warren Buffett — has set the goal of becoming the world’s largest car manufacturer by the middle of the next decade.


When it comes to escaping the throngs at the auto show, a visitor has a choice: hail a taxi and brave Shanghai’s murderous traffic, or ride the metro. For even as China embarks on history’s most ambitious bout of highway building, it is also making a huge investment in urban mass transit and intercity rail. In Chongqinq, Hangzhou, and Chengdu — the names are little known in the West, but each is a metropolis more populous than Chicago — brand-new subways with thousands of miles of tracks are nearing completion. China’s major cities are already connected by 5,000 miles of tracks for high-speed trains — among them “The Harmony,” which averages 220 miles per hour between Guangzhou and Wuhan — a network the government plans to triple by 2015. Only fifteen years after opening its first station, Shanghai’s metro already counts eleven lines and 261 miles of track, making it the largest subway system in the world.

The BYD F3 or the metro: when it comes to building its future, China is planning for both the private automobile and public transport. Yet the fate of the planet may depend on which option future leaders in the developing world embrace. If they draw their inspiration from Western cities built around cars, freeways, and sprawl, the prognosis is not good. If they look to places that bet on public transport, trains, and walkable neighborhoods, there may still be hope.

For today, at least, Chen Shuli and her husband have made the practical choice. After their afternoon at the auto show, they walk the few hundred yards to the metro station, pass through the turnstiles, and wait on the platform, watching ads for maternity wear and iced coffee on overhead screens as the seconds count down to the next train. A single ride costs the equivalent of 45 cents, and trains come every minute and a half. The train is crowded, it’s true, and there is the usual scrum of elbows and knees as people jockey for a seat, but the Bombardier-made trains are clean, well lit, and air-conditioned. The couple find some floor space in the middle of the car, grab the straps hanging from an overhead railing, and in less than half an hour, they’re back in their apartment in Jing’an.

Cars may be good for daydreams, but they may not be the best way to get around the rapidly growing cities of the future. In twenty-first-century Shanghai, the metro is definitely the fastest way to get home.

Excerpt taken from Straphanger © 2012 by Taras Grescoe.  Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

photos by Marianna Asti and Mach Einfach

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