Q&A With Peter Norton: History Is on the Side of Vision Zero

Public safety posters like these fought against the pervasive violence of motor vehicles on public city streets in the first part of the 20th century. Images via Peter Norton

Last week, a bunch of bigwigs gathered to talk infrastructure in one of Washington’s most historic and prestigious sites, the Hay-Adams Hotel across the street from the White House. I was offered an opportunity to interview former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and a host of other VIPs. But — no offense to those guys — the person I wanted to talk to was Peter Norton, listed as the “lead scholar” of the Miller Center’s new commission to “develop innovative, bipartisan ideas on how to create and sustain middle-class jobs through infrastructure policy.”

Peter Norton. Photo: ##http://www.virginia.edu/topnews/releases2006/20060627PeterNorton.html##UVA##
Peter Norton. Photo: UVA

Norton is a professor at the University of Virginia (where the Miller Center is housed) and the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. The book is a chronicle of the battle over who and what streets were for as automobiles were proliferating at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s a conversation worth revisiting today.

We had that conversation on a shady park bench in Lafayette Square, one of Washington’s most iconic green spaces, between the Hay-Adams and the White House.

If our interview piques your interest, you can catch Norton in person at the opening reception of the upcoming Vision Zero for Cities Symposium, a national gathering organized by Transportation Alternatives in New York City next month (November 13-15), where public officials and street safety advocates will strategize about “how to achieve Vision Zero in cities around the world.”

First let me ask about the Infrastructure campaign that you’re part of here as the lead scholar —

That’s the title!

I have questions about the push for infrastructure investment from the point of view of someone who is skeptical of increasing car infrastructure. Not to start on a negative note, but a lot of the push for increased infrastructure investment is not necessarily choosy about whether that infrastructure goes toward sustainable, ethical, environmentally friendly, city-friendly infrastructure, or whether it’s highways and cars.

Right. When I was invited to this thing, that question that you’re asking was foremost in my mind. And you find yourself thinking, I could stay out of it as a way of saying I don’t really think these discussions are being held in an inclusive way that includes all kinds of ideas, including ones that haven’t been on the table before — or I could join in and see if I could work in some of those less orthodox perspectives. And I chose the latter. I had some opportunities over the last two days to work in some points of view that weren’t being represented there.

How did you do that?

And I’ll just insert that I’ve been very clear since I joined this thing that I was going to be retaining my independent perspective, and that would include reviewing the reports before they go out and making sure that I’m happy with my association with that.

About the points of view I threw in: There was discussion of congestion and the room seemed to start to fall into the consensus that the solution is, you need more gas tax revenue and that has to go into building more capacity. And I could easily tell that the capacity being imagined here was capacity for automobiles. So I suggested that you can get more capacity for automobiles without building more lanes if you build smarter roads, and this can also help create places that are more inviting to pedestrians, to cyclists. So I gave some well-known examples like New York where they’ve used existing right of ways as opportunities for innovation.

So infrastructure can mean a lot of things. Our mental model is highways. But there’s infrastructure for cycling, there’s infrastructure for pedestrians, and I’m glad to say I think this group recognizes that.

You talk a lot about mobility and access being inversely proportional. That seems like something that could come up in a conversation about congestion.

I did try to bring in the Federal Highway Administration rules that seem to begin with the assumption that the only way anybody wants to go anywhere is by driving. I want to give the administration credit, because it’s recently done things like approve bike boxes, and it’s piecemeal bringing in other assumptions into planning. But because it’s a piecemeal add-on, it still has a legacy that’s very strong of assuming that, for example, if you want a place to have high accessibility, it’s going to have low mobility.

A hundred years ago, it wasn't taken for granted that the main purpose of a street was to let automobiles go fast. Photo via Peter Norton
A hundred years ago, it wasn’t taken for granted that the main purpose of a street was to move cars. Note that in Minneapolis, 1920, people walked freely in the street, even in the presence of a traffic cop. Photo via Peter Norton

From a pedestrian’s point of view that’s nonsense. Accessibility and mobility, when you’re a pedestrian, are one and the same. The prioritization of speed is a driver’s priority. In cities, if we value speed excessively we end up transforming the city into something that’s not a city. I think we’ve suburbanized our cities in ways that make bad suburbs and bad cities.

I want to talk a little bit about the anti-automobile campaigns from the early part of the 20th century and how you see them connecting to today’s Vision Zero campaigns, or other campaigns not just for better bike lanes and better transit but a fundamental restructuring of the hierarchy of cars at the top.

I like the way you put that: fundamental restructuring. I think the question that gets skipped — and skipping it has huge implications — is: What’s a street for? And if you step way back and ask that question, it turns out the assumptions we come to this with are really open to question.

Like the notion that the priority in all streets, or almost all streets, should be motor vehicles. Maybe we could have something closer to an equal sharing of the streets, or maybe we could have some streets be priority-motor vehicles and have some with other priorities. But I’m amazed at what we’ve seen in the last 10 years, especially in terms of reimagining what streets are for.

You mentioned Vision Zero; you could mention complete streets, livable streets, street reclaiming, and all these sorts of things. And they’re beautiful and inspiring, but a lot of them are working against a counter-narrative that says, you guys are all fringe groups, you’re not part of the mainstream here. And I think actually what the history of streets has to offer Vision Zero and complete streets and other movements like that is a chance to prove that actually they’re the ones with the pedigree. They’re the ones with the history. They’re the ones whose assumptions were the so-called normal assumptions of a century ago.

So yeah I think what history has to offer is a rebuttal to the official story that says, you guys are not official.

Do you see echoes of that in the Vision Zero fights today?

Oh yeah. Because when the automobile started appearing in large numbers in American streets, almost exactly 100 years ago, it was a safety crisis of incredible proportions. And the mainstream response to that was, we have to make streets safe from cars, not safe for cars.” That’s not to say you couldn’t have cars in streets —

But they shouldn’t be a danger.

They shouldn’t be a danger. And Vision Zero is a recent rediscovery of the idea that safety is not just safety for drivers. Safety is not just, how do we make speed safe, but do we sometimes need to achieve safety at a cost to speed? So, yeah, I think Vision Zero in a way has a really long history by other names. A hundred years ago it was called Safety First. Safety First was the name, essentially, for Vision Zero. And they actually did some of the same things, which was count the casualties and aim for zero.

Back then, when people were standing up against cars, it seems like they were sort of looked at as anti-progress, anti-technology — that they were sort of throwbacks. You’ve been skeptical of driverless cars; we’re certainly skeptical of driverless cars — with something like that, I feel like there’s a danger of, “Well this is the future and you’re stuck in the past.” Is there a way to be skeptical of the dangers of automobile technology without getting stuck in that?

I think what the historical example shows is, you start to win when you get control of the story. So actually the winning side, if I can put it like that, were the critics, because they were joined by the officials too. The first generation of traffic engineers was motivated in part by a wish to tame the automobile down for the sake of other street users.

But there was a very ingenious story that started being told by people who wanted more of a future for cars in cities, and that was a story that said: It’s a new age. And they called it the Motor Age. And when you say it’s a new age, that’s a way of saying, the way we’ve been doing it, and the wisdom we’ve been coming to this with, is all open to question now, because we can say it’s outdated.

And I think that’s a really powerful example of what we can do.

Because we can say, oh well, we had a day and a time when we thought, “Okay, let’s see if we can make cities places where everyone can drive wherever they want to and park when they get there.” But maybe that day is past now.

And maybe the throwback is the person who says, “We want to build cities where people can drive anywhere they want at whatever speed they want and park when they get there.” And maybe the real forward-looking thing is to say that we can’t keep burning fuel at this rate, we can’t tolerate a public health crisis that’s caused by people being sedentary all the time, we don’t want a future where children don’t walk anywhere because it’s not safe to walk anywhere.

And I think that’s a positive story — and I think it’s a technology-friendly story, because technology can help make more livable cities. Because, for example, instead of widening a highway, we can use technology to more optimally route the traffic. And if that means we don’t widen a highway, or we can divert traffic off of one street and onto another, and make the street we divert it off of more pedestrian-friendly, it’s like everybody’s winning.

So in a way it’s anti-technology to say, “Well we have traffic congestion; widen the road.” That sounds almost Stone Age in terms of its thinking.

What has the automobile lobby learned from a century ago? What do you see that they are doing now in the face of this movement toward livability? How are they responding, and are there echoes of the past in there as well?

Oh yeah. And I think it’s a complicated response. So some groups — I might mention the American Automobile Association as an example — they’re continuing in a long tradition of seeing themselves, not just as a towing service, but as advocates for people to be able to drive with limited restriction. And they continue to speak a lot about traffic congestion and say we need to rebuild the roads and so on.

But they also — and the industry too — are trying to look like people who recognize the future. General Motors has gotten involved in “urban automobiles,” very tiny ones — they have a vision of a future city where people can park because the cars will be like folding chairs that collapse. And they’re involved also in driverless car development.

And I don’t want to say that all of that is bad — some it is an appropriate response to pressure, that should tell us that constructive pressure has worked. But I do fear for the idea that the solution is to find a way to let everybody drive everywhere and park when they get there; we just have to do it in a more high-tech way. Because I think that whole notion is a flawed notion. I fear for what that means for livability, for what it means for our cities, for what it means for public heath, for what it means for climate change, and so on.

Drop by tomorrow for part two of Streetsblog’s interview with Peter Norton.

6 thoughts on Q&A With Peter Norton: History Is on the Side of Vision Zero

  1. I have read this book when it first came out. Use parts of it in developing our RTP. Its chronology of cultural attitude adaptation and the development of a science “out of thin air” continue to play out today. In demanding “complete streets” and streets for all people we are echoing the voices of people 100 years ago. Would recommend this book to those who challenge the auto-centric norms. Why? Undoing the socialization of the auto over the last 100 years will require understanding the history of it all. We need this understanding going forward so as not to create a same but different future.

  2. I think this sentence needs a little qualification:

    The prioritization of speed is a driver’s priority. In cities, if we value speed excessively we end up transforming the city into something that’s not a city. I think we’ve suburbanized our cities in ways that make bad suburbs and bad cities.

    I think prioritization of speed in cities, particularly large dense megalopolises, is extremely important, but the modes which should be prioritized are rail, buses, bikes, and pedestrians. Also to a lesser extent we should make things relatively fast for delivery vehicles. There should be no effort made to prioritize speed for private automobiles unless this can be done without impacting other modes. In most dense cities it can’t be. A lot of automobile traffic means traffic signals. Those in turn can double or triple travel times for pedestrians/cyclists. You should be able to make any trip in a city by bike or foot at an average speed close to whatever your walking/cycling speed is. Travel times by bus or train should be determined mainly by the number of stops and the vehicle performance characteristics. There should be minimal or no delays from other sources. It should be accepted that getting around by private auto in cities will be slow, circuitous, and inconvenient compared to public transit or biking or walking. Private autos have their place, but after 100 years we can safely say they have little or no place in urban transportation. They’re the wrong tool for the job. That’s really the best way to explain to those who see the movement to restrict auto use in cities as some sort of agenda. It isn’t. Would you use a sledgehammer to push in a thumb tac? We don’t need millions of people driving figurative sledgehammers putting big cracks in the urban landscape.

  3. Thanks for this interview. I loaned my copy of Fighting Traffic to someone, and it is gone. Just ordered a new copy. 🙂

  4. So you would simply change the domination based on your opinion of what’s best. And that’s the fundamental problem. There’s no principle behind it, just opinion and political power. It’s the same thing we have now, but the dominating opinion, the dominating political group changes (on the surface anyway).

    There’s nothing revolutionary about taking over the political levers and prioritizing roads based on your own opinion over the opinion of those that were displaced. It’s the same thing at the level of principle.

    As to speed. I like to walk fast, bike fast, and drive fast. But I have a different idea of fast than most people here for urban travel. Minimize time from a to b. That usually means maintaining a speed between 15 and 30mph. Maintaining meaning not needing to stop every few feet, no queuing, etc. Stopping every few feet requires moving faster when moving. If always moving the necessary velocity is lower.

    I started reading this article figuring it would be the usual nonsense, but as I am on occasion I was surprised. In this case to see that 1920 photo. The idea of shared space which leads to near constant movement because the traffic control devices are gone. The problem with it is that it doesn’t work for control freaks. People who want to prioritize their opinion of what’s best. Road use is boiled down to the most simple mutually agreed upon rules and that’s it. Spontaneous order, that is Anarchy, the control freak’s worst nightmare.

    Ultimately that’s why we are told we must pick a side. Because it doesn’t matter what side wins, just so long as one of them does. So long as people accept the principle that the political structure dictates, that’s just fine be it automobiles, buses, trains, bicycles, or pogo sticks. So long as we accept the principle behind the idea that the winners’ opinion gets shoved down our throats.

  5. My idea of fast is the same as yours-minimize the need to stop by getting rid of traffic control devices. The problem is unless we take active steps to discourage auto use in urban areas there will be too many vehicles to let us get rid of traffic control devices. If you look at that 1920 picture, note there are actually enough natural gaps in traffic for people to get across the street. Would a street like that work in midtown Manhattan at today’s traffic levels? Absolutely not because the traffic volume is too high. There would be times when people just couldn’t get across the street. Or if drivers were polite enough to actually slow or stop to let that happen occasionally, you’ll essentially be back to the stop-and-go which exists now.

    The only solution is to get rid of the least space efficient type of traffic in dense urban areas-namely private autos and taxis. Now this still doesn’t necessarily preclude not having traffic levels which are too high for uncontrolled intersections but it makes it a lot more likely. Moreover, suppose eventually you get, say, too many bikes. Bikes are fairly light, so it’s relatively cost effective to put the bikes on an unobtrusive viaduct so they stay in motion. That in turn reduces traffic levels down below back to where you wouldn’t need to install traffic controls.

    If on the other hand, you have too many large motor vehicles, what are your solutions if you want “1920” surface streets? In theory you could put them above or below the streets but that’s extremely costly. It also won’t necessarily help much because eventually all these motor vehicles will need to leave the highway to reach their final destination. Nor would it help with air pollution (another issue when you have large numbers of motor vehicles in a small space). And then where do you park all these vehicles? That uses up a huge amount of street space to benefit a really small number of users. Really, there are no viable solutions here to allow large numbers of autos in urban areas and still have streets with no traffic controls. It only worked in 1920 because auto ownership, particularly in urban areas, was relatively rare. We really didn’t see very high levels of urban auto ownership until after WWII. Remember also, even in 1920, traffic levels were starting to get high enough in places to necessitate traffic cops, and eventually traffic signals.

    I love the concept of uncontrolled roads. I also realize the concept totally breaks down when traffic exceeds a certain level. Indeed, that fact is true even with pedestrian traffic. I’ve been in “pedlock” in places like Rockefeller Center around the holidays, although this could have been alleviated if the decision were made to close the adjacent streets to motor traffic so pedestrians could use them. The bottom line though is space constraints force us to make a decision as to which types of traffic get priority in urban areas. I would love that it wasn’t so, but it is. I suppose we could eventually redesign our cities with multiple levels to get around this issue. Right now the money doesn’t exist for that. Neither does the political will. Also, there is the weird opposition of many livable streets advocates to any type of grade-separated infrastructure, even when it’s the best solution.

    I absolutely agree here control freaks are the reason uncontrolled streets aren’t used more often, even in places which have low enough traffic levels for them to work. Indeed, you hear opposition whenever it’s suggested deactivating traffic signals in places like Central Park at times when cars aren’t allowed in the park. I’ve also heard nonsense about replacing the flashing yellow “yield-to-peds” lights which exist on some bike lanes running adjacent to parks with regular traffic lights “to get bikes used to stopping”. That’s not about safety, but about control. If we both want uncontrolled streets, a good first step might be to ensure that traffic signals don’t continue to be used in places where they’re really not needed. It would also be nice to start having unneeded traffic signals removed to gradually get motorists used to the concept of uncontrolled intersections.

    Finally, I should note that although conventional private autos are absolutely the wrong tool for the job in urban areas, there’s not necessarily anything fundamentally precluding the use of “motorized” vehicles. Think e-bikes and e-velomobiles. Both take up no more space than their human-powered counterparts. Both offer the same door-to-door convenience. Neither pollutes. Human-sized motorized vehicles can have a big place in our future cities. They’re perfectly compatible with uncontrolled streets. Once they leave the city center they can potentially move at much higher speeds than their human-powered counterparts. Indeed, a 750 watt e-velomobile could easily move at 60 or 70 mph if suitable infrastructure existed for it.

  6. It’s already been done with modern motor vehicles and modern traffic levels.
    This video shows it done at an intersection where one road was 12,000 vehicles a day:

    There’s another video out there somewhere which shows an area entirely congested and backed up with all sorts of traffic control devices. Once they were removed and the roads modified appropriately the congestion vanished.

    Most of the thick traffic, the congestion, as we know it today, is due to two related problems. Traffic control devices and a lack of swift acceleration that destroys throughput. The third is a subset of these two, people who don’t pay attention to their surroundings. Vehicles build up in the system. Keep them moving and congestion drops. Force people to pay attention to what they are doing. The system as it is today builds better idiots. The solution to every problem is to dumb things down so people are attracted to more distraction.

    “I should note that although conventional private autos are absolutely the wrong tool for the job in urban areas,”

    That’s your opinion, it’s not a fact. I don’t want to get mired into a argument of the merits of private automobiles, it’s all opinions. But free people should choose as they see fit. The problem is that people want to legislate their opinions and force them upon others through the political process. Someone who does so for mopeds or chainsaw engine bicycles or pogo sticks or buses or anything else is no better than those who do so for automobiles. Hence the political battle to reserve spaces. Let the government legislate buses as the primary movers and the result will probably be as or more miserable than the present. The problem isn’t the mode, it’s the principle that political power decides.

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