Peter Norton: We Can Learn From the Movement to Enshrine Car Dependence

It used to be normal to play in the streets. We're just one revolution away from being able to do that again. Photo via Peter Norton

It used to be normal to play in the streets. Photo via Peter Norton

Yesterday, we published part one of my interview with Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. We talked about whether the push for infrastructure investment is always code for increasing car capacity, and how the Vision Zero campaign bears the legacy of 100-year-old movements to make streets safe for everyone.

Norton will be speaking on November 13 at the opening reception of Transportation Alternatives’ national Vision Zero for Cities Symposium in New York City.

Below is the audio of our conversation, which went on long after this written transcript. Feel free to take a listen, and forgive the background noise — we were talking in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, one of DC’s most iconic urban green spaces.

Here is a transcript of part two of the interview, lightly edited for length and clarity.

We keep calling [the current movement for Vision Zero and livable streets] a “fundamental restructuring,” and I’m curious whether you think that’s accurate. What you’re talking about at the beginning of the last century, which you wrote about in “Fighting Traffic,” was a much more fundamental questioning — because it was new — of the role of cars on streets and in cities. And I’m wondering if you think what’s happening now really gets to those questions or whether it’s just, “Oh, can we just have a little space; we just want some accommodation; we want the buses to be a little better, we want a little bike lane”?

Such an interesting question, because I think that dilemma that we’re in right now in 2014, between fundamental rethinking and just fixes here and fixes there, is the same dilemma that advocates of the automobile found themselves in, especially in the early- to mid-1920s. At first a lot of them said, “We need to take the street as it is and do some fine tuning, things like optimize the traffic signal timings–“

The same solutions we’re looking at!

Exactly! The first synchronized traffic lights for motor vehicles were timed in Chicago in 1926, and at the meeting I was just in, they were still talking about getting the timing right.

Then there were others who began to say, “Stop talking about just retooling the streets to make cars fit in them better; we need to actually re-concieve this.” There was an editorial in Engineering News Record in 1920 — Engineering News Record then and now is the journal of the civil engineers — and the editorial said, “We need a fundamental re-conception of what a city street is for.”

That’s a headline that I would write today!

Yes, exactly. You’re just saying it’s a different re-conception. And to me, in a funny way, it’s kind of an inspiring line, because they’re saying, “We can redefine things.” And they did.

They were very smart about it, and they were very imaginative about it. They got out of just engineering diagrams and reports and started to tell stories about what freedom of mobility means, telling stories about what the future could be, telling stories about sunshine and green space and open areas, and how the car could deliver all those things.

It’s still hard to get to those things without a car.

Yeah! And I personally, just as one person, think there are plenty of good uses for cars. I think where we went wrong wasn’t in having cars; where we went wrong was in rebuilding the world so that’s all you would need to get around.

Sometimes I ask my students, what’s the best paper fastener — a paper clip, a stapler, or a binder clip? And they look at me like that’s the weirdest question in the world, because each one has its place. And my point is, you can’t say what’s the best mode of transportation. It’s just a question of, what’s the tool you need for the job? So I think the inspiring thing about the revolution that made the automobile the predominant thing is that it tells us how you tell stories in ways that capture people’s imaginations.

Probably the most amazing story ever told in order to change mental models about cities was the Futurama exhibit at the [1939] New York World’s Fair, General Motors’ huge thing. It was just brilliant, because it presented a utopian future delivered by cars. And what I love about Streetsblog and Streetfilms is that you all are presenting a vision that’s also inspiring, that says, “Getting around without a car can actually be, first of all, possible and in other ways very attractive.”

Posters like this one, from 1920, advocated a Vision Zero of sorts -- but sought to get there by controlling kids, not cars. Image via Peter Norton

Posters like this one, from 1920, advocated a Vision Zero of sorts — but sought to get there by controlling kids, not cars. Image via Peter Norton

One thing I think we struggle with a little bit is: What comes first in this re-envisioning of streets and cities? Do you feel that there needs to be the campaign first to slow everything down; we need to recalibrate the speed limits; we need to do traffic calming — or do we just we start using the streets as if that’s what they’re for — as if they’re for play, as if they’re for bikes, as if they’re for children? Which comes first, or can you do both at the same time? Is it too dangerous?

That’s a tough question, and it’s certainly possible to do these things in a way that annoys people and makes people think that those who want to offer alternatives are cranky, or think they’re better than everybody else.

Like Critical Mass.

Yeah. They can certainly have that effect. I think some of the success stories of recent years show good alternatives, like in New York when they redefined what Times Square is for. That was actually a very controversial proposal, but the way they made it work was they said, “You know what, let’s just try it. We’ll make it totally temporary. We’re just going to have lawn chairs out there. We’re not rebuilding anything. And if you don’t like it, we’ll just take all the lawn chairs out and it’ll be just like it was.” And a lot of the people who said this is a stupid idea ended up loving it.

Making it a temporary experiment, and calling it that — and not telling people who drive that they’re the enemy, but saying to them, “You know what, if you want to drive, drive, but why don’t you try this and let us know what you think about it?”

To get back to driverless cars — and I’m sorry I’m all over the map — you wrote an article saying driverless cars risk answering the wrong question. But what is the right question? And is anybody asking the right question — consumers or auto industry groups?

Boy, I really deserve that question. Because that was my whole point, and I kind of cheated by avoiding that.

So it wasn’t just that I didn’t see it.

No, in fact you’re not the only one that’s asked me that: “Oh yeah, if that’s not the right question, then what is?” A question I’d like to ask is, first of all, step away from the questions we’ve inherited, like “how can we drive with less congestion delay,” and make it a more fundamental question, like “what kind of city do we want,” or “what kind of public spaces do we want.” And that’s a much more general question and the advantage of asking it is that it could start us down a path that leads in a very different direction.

So I guess if I was pressed I’d say, “What kind of city do you want?” And if somebody said back to me, “Well, we’re talking about transportation, not cities,” I would say, “Cities are actually a transportation solution.” And a city says one way to get to where you need to go is either to live near it in the first place, instead of say having a half-hour drive, or to put people close enough together that they can share things efficiently, like buses, like streetcars. And that means that cities can be places, if we want them to be, where people can share modes of transportation, can bicycle, can walk. And the public health benefits, the emotional well-being benefits, the fuel-efficiency benefits, among many others — we really ought to be considering that.

And my problem with autonomous vehicles is they seem to be saying, “The question about how we get around is closed. We get around in cars. So now what we have to do is figure out how to use cars in ways that are more spatially efficient and more fuel-efficient.”

And I say, maybe that question isn’t settled and shouldn’t be settled.

So, I accept the question that you posed. Driverless cars do solve a lot of social problems that we get from cars: some safety problems, some emissions issues, road space, all the things you mentioned. Is there a utility for driverless cars in a world that still embraces — and increasingly embraces — other modes?

This reminds me a little bit of medicine. I think a lot of people would agree we resort to pharmaceuticals too much. But I think most people would agree there’s still a legitimate place for pharmaceuticals. I think cars are kind of like that.

And maybe driverless cars can make us not think we have to expand the number of lanes on our highways every few years, maybe they can help us get more efficient use out of the existing road capacity, and maybe they can help us share cars more efficiently because when the car got us to our destination, maybe we won’t need to park it, it can go get someone else. And I think all those things would be wonderful. And that would be like figuring out, “When do you really need a pharmaceutical, and when do you really just need to change your diet and get some exercise?”

The danger is once we have a pharmaceutical that takes care of something that we could take care of with a lifestyle change it’s not like we’ve just fixed a medical problem, we’ve also encouraged ourselves not to make the lifestyle change. Right?

Same with driverless cars. What if they give us any excuse to not make the lifestyle changes that we probably need to be making for a lot of reasons. And that’s sort of my fear. And I actually feel like the push for driverless cars is a little bit like the push for pharmaceuticals that isn’t just, “Pharmaceuticals have certain medical benefits.” It’s, “There’s nothing in the human condition that we can’t make better with a pharmaceutical.” That’s the message you get. And I fear that that’s what the driverless car rhetoric is like.