• Peter Norton
    Peter Norton

I heard Peter Norton on NPR narrating the history of streets and how, over the century, they went from serving pedestrians, stores, and children at play to today’s autodromes that have pushed pedestrians and retailers to the brink of extinction. Despite a strong movement toward complete streets, a stiff backlash is coming from motorists, subject of the NPR story, “Motorists to Urban Planners: Stay In Your Lane.”

Given our interest here at Vision 2020 in promoting walkable communities and public transportation, I called Norton to see if he would give us some advice from the point of view of a historian. Norton is assistant professor in the history of technology at the University of Virginia. He is the author of “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City” (MIT Press, 2008) and “Street Rivals: Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street” (Technology and Culture, 2007), which won the Usher Prize of the Society for the History of Technology.

I started by asking Norton what should proponents of new urban-style development, complete streets, and walkable communities learn from history that they may be ignoring. He told me that the biggest barriers to change are psychological.

“Today we assume that streets are for cars. This assumption is a barrier to thinking of them as for anything else.” He made this point because urbanists often believe the environment will change behavior. That if a city provides the infrastructure for bikes, pedestrians, and buses, people will start to cycle, walk, and use public transportation. But unused bike lanes, lonely sidewalks, and empty buses attest to opposite in many instances, as poignantly described by the NPR report—a source of irritation for motorists forced into fewer lanes at rush hour.

Norton says it will require a marketing campaign to encourage a psychological shift, similar to those marketing campaigns that successfully blunted smoking and littering. “There was a time when smoking was ‘normal,’ in the sense that it was an almost expected practice in certain places, especially for men. Infrastructure in the form of ashtrays, cigarette vending machines, and so on reflected and reinforced this version of normal. As it became known that smoking posed a health risk, the first reaction was to remove this infrastructure. But during the 1970s and ’80s, smoking rates did not fall in response to the disappearance of ashtrays and vending machines. By the same token, bicycle lanes, inviting sidewalks, and so on won’t be sufficient to change Americans’ minds about what streets are for.”

Norton said you can see how deep-seated the belief in streets are for cars while watching pedestrians, who instinctively defer. “Pedestrians typically yield their right of way at marked crosswalks because the message of the law and of the infrastructure at a marked crosswalk (‘this is for pedestrians like you’) is insufficient to overcome the deeper psychological message (‘streets are for cars’), which itself was the product of a protracted and tumultuous effort about 85 to 100 years ago to redefine streets as places for cars.”

To take a lesson from history, Norton points out that just 100 years ago, the situation was the exact opposite, and automobile interests understood the challenge perhaps more clearly than urbanists do today. “In the 1920s, people interested in a future for cars in cities figured out that their biggest obstacle was the unconscious assumption that streets are for everyone—not just for cars. As early as 1927, E.B. Lefferts, head of the Automobile Club of Southern California, explained that, ‘We have recognized that in controlling traffic, we must take into consideration the study of human psychology, rather than approach not solely as an engineering problem.’ More recent history has lessons as well. In the 1950s and 1960s, city planners introduced modern civic centers to attract pedestrians to urban cores. But they were typically empty—infrastructure alone was insufficient. Or, more recently, in the 1990s, after the Berlin Wall had finally come down, Germans spoke of the persistent ‘wall in their heads,’ which psychologically perpetuated the wall long after it came down. Advocates of complete streets and walkability need to learn from this history,” Norton said.

In response to critics of smart growth and urbanization, many in today’s new urban movement say the backlash does not matter, given market forces now strongly favor compact development. This view, held by our own Christopher Leinberger, chair of Vision 2020’s Sustainable Communities focus area, does not square with historical facts, says Norton. It may be a trend, but it’s not strong enough to last on its own as the economy slowly expands. “House buyers’ unconscious assumptions reinforce established development patterns. For example, you’re successful if you own a detached house with private yards, a driveway, and a garage—but less successful if you own no car and live in an attractive rowhouse near a park. These assumptions are linked with others, such as those that make traffic engineers design roads for private motor vehicle capacity above all else, and that lead zoning boards to treat density as a kind of blight rather than as spatial efficiency.”

Lastly, I asked Norton if Americans will eventually embrace public transportation—especially the bus. Here again, he explained, psychology imposes stiff barriers.

“There are too many to list—and readers will already know many of them—but one of the less noticed is the tendency in American public discourse to treat funding for buses as charity rather than as a more efficient investment alternative to road capacity. Even bus advocates participate in this. Perhaps the best way to serve communities whose members must ride buses (such as the carless poor and some disabled people) is to treat buses as transport for everyone. This would broaden their constituencies of support and remove the stigma that associates bus riding with social failure. It will take infrastructure change as well. When a bus re-enters traffic from a bus stop, it yields to moving cars. It makes so much sense within the perspective we’ve grown up in that we don’t stop and think about what that means. It means that people driving cars have a stronger claim to the street than people riding buses. What if drivers had to yield to the bus the moment it signaled that it was returning to traffic? Such a small change would speed bus travel, making it more attractive to riders. And of course even better accommodation is possible (and common in other countries), such as bus-only lanes and “bus rapid transit.” But innovations like these must overcome the barrier of psychological assumptions—above all, that through some sort of almost natural law like gravity, streets are for cars. History is useful in this effort, because it shows that just 90 years ago, streets were not just for cars. By showing how perceptions of streets changed then, we can show advocates of complete streets how to change them now.”