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.

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

  1. Speed seems to be an evil around Streetsblog in general but that ignores the fact the goods and services cost less if they can be delivered in less time. It also ignores the fact that time is worth something to nearly everyone, so time saved traveling translates into real money.

    Somehow we’ve managed grade separation for cars without the extremes you mention. Note that I said “major roads”, not everywhere. In practice this might mean a 1 mile square grid of viaducts in major urban areas. In NYC that would be perhaps 750 miles of viaducts at most. You can drastically reduce that number by leveraging existing grade separated infrastructure and taking advantage of places where you can run at grade level without intersecting cross streets (i.e. along parks railways, cemetaries, bodies of water). Major roads tend to be places where drivers want to go fast enough that shared space won’t work. They also tend to be places with lots of traffic signals. Traffic signals and stop signs don’t work for bikes. I’ll grant your point that separation does indeed make stopping and queuing a lot more complex but my point is bikes are not cars. There’s a very limited number of times any cyclist can physically start and stop. We’ve allowed bikes on roads since the 1920s with the stipulation they obey the same set of rules as motor traffic. This worked fine back when car speeds were relatively slow, and traffic lights or stop signs were seldom used. Now thanks to community boards and legislators advocating traffic lights or stop signs as “traffic calming devices”, instead of their intended use, legal use of streets by cyclists often requires more stopping than is comfortable, or even possible. The resulting slow average speeds tend to reduce the utility of biking over what it could be. For example, on some streets in NYC you’re lucky to average 6 mph on a bike. Repeatedly stopping and encountering other typical urban obstacles makes cycling more stressful. The more stressful, slow, or energy intensive you make cycling, the fewer people will use it for transportation.

    Being that you’re someone who likes to bike much faster than the Streetsblog “8 mph on a heavy upright bike” I would think you might appreciate my reasoning.

  2. “Relatively unskilled” doesn’t mean “unskilled”. I’ll grant that some types of customer service require skilled professionals. I’ve worked with such people representing electronic parts suppliers, for example. My point is the bean counters attempted (with laughably bad results) to turn a job requiring at least a modicum of cultural literacy/social skills into an unskilled job which is done with a “cheat sheet”. I’ve known some people in my field (electrical engineering) who had legendary failures when they tried to outsource something more skilled like engineering.

    You’ve probably already seen these, but they’re worth watching again:

  3. Huh? Every member of the House of Commons was democratically elected. The problem addressed by the Reform Act was that the Industrial Revolution caused population movements that resulted in electoral ridings being of unequal population. Sometimes the imbalances were quite extreme, such as in the exploding populations of new industrial cities like Manchester.

    But even in the most grossly under-represented new industrial cities the people still got to vote for members of parliament, unlike Washington, DC today.

    Women in the UK were granted the vote in 1918 and in the USA in 1920. And, of course, the Jim Crow laws preventing black people from voting were only overthrown with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    As a practical matter, people like Thomas Jefferson derived not only wealth but sexual gratification from the institution of slavery. A powerful motive to stand up for US independence to thwart the abolitionist movement in parliament.

  4. That’s the price for a typical new sedan, not what people pay. Also,

    1) You buy a new car every five years.
    2) Even though you know you will sell the car, you buy the extended warranty.
    3) You accept the dealer’s trade-in price (which is very low generally).
    4) Even though you know you are going to sell it to the dealer for no money, you go ahead and put on a new set of tires right before doing so.
    5) You buy insurance with really low deductibles.
    6) Because on average you have a 2.5 year old car, your annual car tax and your insurance are very high (in most states, the taxes are based on the value of the car).
    7) And you finance the car @ non-deductible 6% interest. It should be noted that most car loans are 3-5 years. So if you kept a car after it was paid off… this cost would go away.

  5. PS: Asbestos use ended many years ago.

    So did lead paint, but it’s still present in older housing units. That’s why you brought up lead and why Kevin brought up asbestos.

  6. Talk to people who lived through the Great Revolution of the 1920s, and they’ll tell you Mao was a huge improvement on the Dowager Empress Cixi

    Huh? Why would they make a comparison between Cixi and Mao? There were at least three heads of state between Cixi and Mao. Cixi died in 1908, and her adopted son was the last emperor of China, and then after that, Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek.

    Mao deposed Chiang Kai Shek, not Emperess Cixi.

  7. There would be a benefit to driverless cars if they could be programmed to observe the speed limit. There would have to be some sort of GIS telling the car what the speed limit is on each street it drives on.

    Then we could lower speed limits drastically. For example, we could lower the speed limit to 12 mph on bicycle priority streets, so bicycles can really share the road with cars rather than being forced to keep to the right.

    Today, most drivers exceed the speed limit. No one would obey a 12 mph limit, so it is illegal to set the limit so low in most states.

    If there were a significant number of driverless cars that obeyed the speed limit, then the cars with drivers would also obey the speed limit, at least on roads with just one traffic lane in each direction where they can’t pass. The driverless cars would act as traffic calming devices that prevent other cars from going faster than the speed limit.

  8. There’s absolutely no need for 12 mph speed limits, or really any speed limits beyond those dictated by road geometry, weather conditions, or mechanical limitations, with driverless cars. You could happily, safely have driverless cars going 60 mph at times on urban streets with no safety issues. You can have them go 100 to 125 mph nearly all the time on limited access highways. The reason we have speed limits is due to human reaction times, as well as limits on human ability to detect other vehicles. Consider with driverless cars, the vehicles not only drive themselves, but can perhaps use other means besides visual to detect other vehicles. In short, they can “see” cyclists or pedestrians long before a human driver would, and then automatically adjust their speed to pass in a safe manner. When there are no cyclists or pedestrians, the vehicle could go a lot faster.

    The big problem with your idea here, besides the fact that it’s largely unnecessary with driverless cars, is that it would slow everything down to 12 mph. 12 mph is ridiculously slow, even on a bike. 20 mph is about the lowest we should ever set speed limits on regular streets. 20 mph is a good compromise of reasonable travel speed and safety. It also happens to be about as fast as most people will be going on a bike. With some mix of human and driverless cars you could have the driverless cars calm traffic. Once all cars were driverless, the need for an explicit numerical speed limit vanishes as the cars would automatically slow or stop as needed when encountering vulnerable users. The need for traffic controls would vanish as well. When the vehicles detect a pedestrian or cyclist approaching on a cross street, they slow or stop as needed to give that person safe passage. The cyclist or pedestrian can just remain in motion at whatever speed they want.

  9. I doubt it has anything to do with the shortened work week. If you only have a need for, say, 1 million man-hours of labor per week what difference does it make if you have 25,000 people working 40 hours or 50,000 people working 20 hours? Either way the work which needs to be done is getting done. At least in the latter scenario twice as many people have some source of income.

    France’s problems largely stem from laws which make layoffs difficult. Perhaps with shortened work weeks there will be enough work to go around. You won’t need to layoff people, nor would you be keeping people on the payroll doing nothing.

    Incidentally, there’s nothing sacrosanct or wonderful about a 5 day, 40 hour work week. Frankly, I feel people would be better off on many levels working about half that many hours, and only working two or three days instead of five. There’s a point past which productivity starts to decline. Those extra hours Americans spend at work don’t result in more productivity. They just result in burnout. After about 35 hours per week productivity starts to decline:

    I could also argue that typically in most workplaces, even those with 35 hour work weeks, at least 10 hours a week is relatively unproductive (i.e. checking personal emails, meetings, spending time chatting with coworkers). In essence then you could probably make do with 20 to 25 hour work weeks with no loss of productivity.

  10. You could happily, safely have driverless cars going 60 mph at times on urban streets with no safety issues

    By happily you mean everyone within a half mile will now be within a half mile of a highway so they’ll need to close their windows and stay inside or be subjected to the unbearable drone of speeding cars all the time? No thanks.

    Where do you get the idea that politics will give anyone priority over cars, driverless or otherwise? A few years after driverless cars are introduced all those pesky laws that let pedestrians cross at every block will get overturned, as all the rich people in the driverless cars will get tired of having to stop every couple blocks to let the pedestrian with the ROW cross the street.

  11. If we have sensible size, very aerodynamic cars then there are no noise issues at 60 mph. That’s what we should have in cities anyway, not 3-ton SUVs which are noisy even at 30 mph. Driverless or not, those monstrosities should be banned from cities altogether.

    Politics isn’t what would give pedestrians or cyclists priority over driverless cars. Fear of lawsuits will. Seriously, we’re going to program driverless cars to run down pedestrians if we decide the pedestrians shouldn’t get priority? That’s the only way I can think of to not give them priority. Do you have any idea what a legal nightmare such scenario would be? Besides, with the existing system of human driven cars in cities, the rich and everyone else driving already stop every few blocks to let people cross due to traffic signals. The nice thing with driverless cars is they’ll only need to stop if someone is actually crossing. Most likely then they’ll be stopping less than they do now, not more.

  12. I’m so disappointed Peter would use fear of cars as a reason not to ride his bike to work. I hear this from far too many people. Nothing is going to change unless we get out and clog the streets with our bikes!

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