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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.”

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

speed-demon

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.

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The “Worst Cities for Driving” Include a Lot of America’s Best Cities

Don’t you just hate going to a really lively city with a pulsing street life? Where there’s a lot going on and people can walk from one place to the next? You might if you’re trying to drive there. And once again, NerdWallet has delivered the windshield perspective on America’s cities.

Isn't Seattle such a horrible place? I mean, where would you park here? Photo: ##http://www.city-data.com/forum/city-vs-city/1409519-city-most-downtown-foot-traffic-20.html##City-Data##

Isn’t Seattle such a horrible place? I mean, where would you park here? Photo: City-Data

The pop-finance website’s new ranking of the worst cities to drive in includes, predictably, some of the country’s best cities to walk, bike, take transit, or otherwise be in.

So, your worst cities? The real hellholes for drivers? They are:

  1. New York
  2. Detroit
  3. San Francisco
  4. Chicago
  5. Washington, DC
  6. Seattle
  7. Boston
  8. Miami
  9. Honolulu
  10. Oakland

Population density counted heavily against a city in the ranking, because it makes car ownership expensive and the streets more congested — not to mention more chaotic to drive in because you’re “weaving though trolleys, cab drivers, pedestrians and cyclists,” as NerdWallet puts it.

Also factored in to a city’s rank are the cost of gas and insurance (high insurance costs landed Detroit near the top) and hours of motorist delay, measured exactly the same way the Texas Transportation Institute measures it. Oh, and NerdWallet also holds it against a city if it has seasons, with precipitation.

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Will Young Republicans Change the Narrative About Conservatives and Cities?

Republicans under 30 like cities more than Democrats over 30. Is the urban/rural divide becoming less politicized? Image by Tony Dutzik using data from ##http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/ideal-community-type/##Pew Research Center##

Republicans under 30 like cities more than Democrats over 30. Is the urban/rural divide becoming less politicized? Image by Tony Dutzik using data from Pew Research Center

Last week, the Pew Research Center came out with a massive poll on political polarization in the United States. As Angie reported here, one of the main conclusions was that there is a stark divide between liberals and conservatives when it comes to the type of community in which they want to live. Conservative Americans, by and large, prefer living in spread-out rural areas and small towns, while liberals tend to prefer cities.

None of that is too surprising. But the Pew data tell another story, too: young Americans — both Democrat and Republican — are far more likely to express a desire to live in cities than older Americans.

When asked, “If you could live anywhere in the United States that you wanted to, would you prefer a city, a suburban area, a small town or a rural area?”, 38 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they preferred to live in a city, as opposed to just 23 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds and even smaller proportions of older Americans.

The difference in preference for city living by age group is especially vivid among young Republicans. About one third of 18- to 29-year-old Republicans and Republican “leaners” expressed the desire to live in a city, as opposed to no more than 13 percent of any other Republican age group. In fact, Republicans under 30 are more likely to want to live in a city than Democrats over the age of 30.

There has, of course, been a lot of talk about the degree to which the transportation and housing preferences of the Millennial generation diverge from those of older Americans. We already know that they drive less than previous generations and have expressed a strong willingness to seek out communities with a variety of transportation options.

While there’s a limited amount that we can learn from the Pew survey about changes in trends among young people, given the lack of comparable survey data from previous years, the data do raise some intriguing possibilities.

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Trucker in Tracy Morgan Crash: Lay Off, It Was an “Accident”

Kevin Roper, the Walmart trucker who reportedly slammed into a limo bus carrying several comedians early Saturday morning, is having his say on Twitter. He wants the world to know that the crash that killed James “Uncle Jimmy Mack” McNair and critically injured Tracy Morgan and three others was an “accident.”

Roper asserts that he was not drunk or high and that he wasn’t charged at the scene because he wasn’t guilty of any crime. He referred repeatedly to his “ACCIDENT,” underlining the reason why Streetsblog and an increasing number of other publications refer to such events as “crashes” or “collisions.”

Note: The Twitter account under the handle @Kevinmoneytalks describes its user as “Trying to win more than lose! Driving trucks for a living #Walmart,” but we don’t have any independent verification that these tweets were indeed authored by the same person who was driving the truck that hit the comedians’ limo. According to news reports, the Twitter account previously included the phrase, “Move or get hit!” in the description, but that’s been removed.

The sad thing is, Roper is right about one thing: Without the media spotlight brought on by the involvement of celebrities, he probably would have gotten “a few traffic tickets.” As he said, he wasn’t immediately charged with anything. That’s how the justice system views these crashes: unavoidable acts of god, the unfortunate collateral damage of the “freedom” afforded by car culture.

No matter whether Roper was drunk, high, or tired, he failed to notice that traffic had slowed down and slammed his tractor-trailer into another vehicle, and that act caused loss of life. Operating any vehicle — especially one as massive as a tractor-trailer — requires serious attention and concentration.

Although in one tweet he says, “i wish it was me and i can’t express how horrible i feel,” all his subsequent tweets are defensive and exculpatory. After all, killing someone in traffic is just an “accident.”

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What If You Behaved Like an Obnoxious Road Hog at the Supermarket?

This PSA, produced by the Norwegian government, does a brilliant job reminding people that the way you act behind the wheel affects everyone around you. Wouldn’t it be nice if people observed the same decorum driving a car on city streets as they do pushing a cart in the grocery store aisles?

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Suburbs Are Out, Cities Are In — Now What?

American public policy massively subsidizes a way of life that appeals to a shrinking number of Americans. Photo: @fineplanner/Twitter

Today’s Times devotes two pieces to the “suburbs are out, cities are in” phenomenon that has taken root in much of the country over the past few decades — the great inversion, urbanologist Alan Ehrenhalt has dubbed this reversal of the suburbanization wave that swept through the U.S. in the last century. Though both pieces will pretty much be old hat to Streetsblog readers, they’re interesting nonetheless, both as signposts and for what they leave out.

Suburbs Try to Prevent Exodus as Young Adults Move to Cities and Stay,” by Times Westchester beat reporter Joseph Berger, has some startling figures on the dwindling population of young adults in iconic Northeast suburbs. Between 2000 and 2011, Berger reports, Rye had a 63 percent drop in 25- to 34-year-olds, and 16 percent fewer 35- to 44-year-olds. Outside Washington, DC, the number of 25- to 34-year-olds fell 34 percent in Chevy Chase, 19 percent in Bethesda, and 27 percent in Potomac. The same pattern holds in suburbs ringing Chicago and Boston.

Although Berger noted last month, in his trenchant article about the toll squeeze facing the new Tappan Zee Bridge, that “young Americans are not as enamored of the automobile as their parents’ generation, and are less likely to have drivers’ licenses or own a car,” his piece today largely skirts the car issue. What ails the suburbs, he suggests, are expensive housing, insufficient diversity, a lack of well-paying jobs, and not enough urban “pizzazz.” All true, as is the observation by one of his sources, Christopher Niedt at Hofstra’s National Center for Suburban Studies, that “younger adults are becoming more drawn to denser, more compact urban environments that offer a number of amenities within walking distance of where they live.” Yet the article makes no mention of the high cost to own and operate an auto (or two) in car-dependent suburbs, the boredom of driving in a landscape of strip malls, the time lost to traffic jams.

Berger cites efforts under way in Long Beach — my home town, in Nassau County — to attract young people by “refreshing its downtown near the train station” and adding “apartments, job-rich office buildings, restaurants and attractions” like the replacement boardwalk built after Hurricane Sandy. And indeed, Long Beach’s rectangular street grid, small lot sizes, and main street shopping give it a creditable Walk Score of 64, which doubtless helps residents live affordably with 25 percent fewer cars per household than the county average (1.41 vs. 1.90, according to my calculations based on the Selected Housing Characteristics dataset in the 2012 American Community Survey).

Nevertheless, when it comes to the contest for young people’s allegiance between revived central cities and their suburbs, there are deeper forces at play than even livable streets and freedom from the auto monkey. Here’s how a recent article in Tech Crunch about the Bay Area’s housing crisis put it:

San Francisco’s younger workers derive their job security not from any single employer but instead from a large network of weak ties that lasts from one company to the next. The density of cities favors this job-hopping behavior more than the relative isolation of suburbia.

In short, as lifetime employment at the suburban office park disappears, urban connectivity isn’t just an amenity, it’s a necessity.

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Ford CEO: More Cars in Cities “Not Going to Work”

It’s the last thing you would expect to hear at the Detroit Auto Show from the CEO of Ford Motor Company. But last week, Ford’s Alan Mulally showed some ambivalence about the role of cars in major cities.

At the Detroit Auto Show, Ford CEO Alan Mulally said he didn't think more cars could solve mobility problems in big cities. Image: ##http://www.topnews.in/files/Alan-Mulally.jpg## Top News##

At the Detroit Auto Show, Ford CEO Alan Mulally said he doesn’t think more cars can solve mobility problems in big cities. Image: Top News

“I think the most important thing is to look at the way the world is and where the world is going and to develop a plan,” Mulally said, according to the Financial Times. “We’re going to see more and more larger cities. Personal mobility is going to be of really ever-increasing importance to livable lifestyles in big cities.”

Mulally said Ford has been trying to adapt to changing consumer preferences since the Great Recession. Americans have been trading giant SUVs for smaller cars. Young people have been purchasing fewer cars altogether, a phenomenon Mulally said might be reversed by cheaper cars.

But he also said he wasn’t sure what role Ford would play in the future of transportation in big cities. According to the Financial Times, Mulally said that adding more cars in urban environments is “not going to work” and that he was interested in developments in “personal mobility” and “quality of life.” Then he seemed to indicate Ford is interested in getting into transit, car sharing, or other models that don’t align with private car ownership.

“Maybe [our focus] will be on components; maybe it’ll be on pieces of the equipment,” Mulally said. “I don’t know.”

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The American Cities With the Most Growth in Car-Free Households

car-free_households

Source data: University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute

Have we reached peak car in America? Research from the University of Michigan suggests the answer is “yes.”

The highest rate of vehicle ownership in America occurred in 2007, when the average household owned 2.07 vehicles, according to research by Michael Sivak for the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute [PDF]. Recently, the average number of cars per household dipped below 2 — at the end of 2012, it was 1.98.

That’s in part because a growing number of American households — especially in big cities — don’t own a car at all anymore. In 2012 — the latest year in which data was available — 9.2 percent of American households lacked a motor vehicle. That’s compared to 8.7 percent in 2007, according to Sivak’s review of Census data.

The share of car-free households varies considerably among the 30 largest American cities, from 56.5 percent in New York to 5.8 percent in San Jose. But between 2007 and 2012, the proportion of car-free households grew in 21 of those 30 cities. The change was especially pronounced in cities where a lot of people were already getting by without cars. The 13 cities with the highest proportion of car-free households in 2007 all saw an increase between then and 2012, reports Sivak.

Not all cities are seeing an increase in car-free households. Denver, Dallas, El Paso, Austin, San Antonio and Columbus all bucked the trend, registering slight increases. Dallas registered no change.

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How Windshield Perspective Shapes the Way We See the World

Via Shane Phillips at Planetizen: A new study published in the Transportation Research Record confirms that windshield perspective is all-too real. Observing the world from behind the wheel, it turns out, has a powerful influence on our judgments about places and even people.

Drivers are exposed to less information about the places they travel through than walkers and bikers. Image: ##http://foodtruckroadtrip.blogspot.com/2012/09/day-3-effort-pa-and-day-4-nyc-and.html## Food Truck Road Trip##

Driving cuts people off from information about their surroundings, unlike walking and biking. Image: Food Truck Road Trip

Researchers found that people driving a car tend to view unfamiliar, less-affluent neighborhoods more negatively than people who were walking, biking or taking transit. In affluent neighborhoods, the inverse effect took hold, and drivers had a more positive view of the surrounding area than other people did.

The study found drivers, pedestrians, transit riders, and cyclists even perceived the same event — two children fighting over a piece of paper — differently, reports Eric Horowitz in the Pacific Standard:

The researchers found that participants who saw the video from the perspective of a car rated the actors higher on negative characteristics (threatening, unpleasant) than participants in the other three conditions. Participants who saw the video from the perspective of the pedestrian rated the actors higher on positive characteristics (considerate, well-educated) than those in the car condition.

The research team, from the University of Surrey, also found that, compared to people who aren’t driving, motorists tend to have more negative attitudes toward young people.

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