Back to the Grid: John Norquist on How to Fix National Transpo Policy


The news coming out of Washington last week jacked up expectations for national transportation policy to new heights. Cabinet members Ray LaHood and Shaun Donovan announced a partnership to connect transportation and housing policy, branded as the "Sustainable Communities Initiative." The second-in-command at DOT, Vice Admiral Thomas Barrett, told a New York audience that "building communities" is a top priority at his agency.

At the moment, however, the scene on the ground shows how far we have to go before the reality catches up to the rhetoric: State DOTs flush with federal stimulus cash are plowing ahead with wasteful, sprawl-inducing highway projects. Ultimately, you can’t end car dependence or create livable places without enlisting the very people building those roads — the metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), state DOTs, and other entities that shape local policy. How can the feds affect their decisions?

john_norquist.jpgThe Congress for the New Urbanism has some intriguing answers. During the stimulus debate, CNU proposed a new type of federal road funding that would help to build connected grids — the kind of streets that livable communities are made of. The proposal didn’t make it into the stimulus package before the bill got rushed out the door, but the upcoming federal transportation bill will provide another chance. CNU President John Norquist — a four-term mayor of Milwaukee who first got into politics as an anti-freeway advocate — was down in DC last Thursday to share his ideas with Congress. Streetsblog spoke to him afterward about what’s broken with national transportation policy and how to fix it. Here’s the first part of our interview.

Ben Fried: During the stimulus debate you sent a letter to James Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and among other things you said that discussion of national transportation policy often presents a "false dichotomy" between transit funding and road funding. What did you mean?

They are taking this stimulus money and using it for roads that people really don’t even want.

John Norquist: Well, maybe "false" is the wrong word for me to have used, but it’s a dichotomy that’s very limited. If the debate is about transit versus roads — and currently the battle lines are drawn at 20 percent funding for transit, 80 percent for roads — it’s a really limited debate. It leaves out the whole discussion of what kind of roads to build. So if you have a city with boulevards and avenues and no freeways, it’s going to be a lot more valuable. You look at Vancouver, they have no freeways whatsoever, and they have a fabulously intense and valuable real estate and job market. And then you look at the places that have invested all the money in the giant road segments and they tend to be degraded. It’s not roads versus transit — it’s good street networks-plus-transit versus mindless building of out-of-scale roads. I mean they’re basically putting rural roads into urbanized areas and it’s counterproductive, it reduces the value of the economy, it destroys jobs, destroys real estate value. For what, so you can drive fast at two in the morning when you’re drunk?

Freeways don’t work in rush hour; they’re slower. Like in Washington, DC, Connecticut Avenue is faster at rush hour than the Potomac Freeway. The Potomac Freeway goes down to about two to six miles an hour during the peak hour, whereas Connecticut Avenue goes down to about eight to thirteen miles an hour. So you’re really talking about the federal government investing billions and billions of dollars in stuff that reduces the value of the economy. How bad is that?

BF: So say they do implement some good metrics that get at street network connectivity…

What would that be? Let me tell you. Right now the metrics are minimums — you need at least 12 feet for a highway lane, whereas in Vancouver no lane can be bigger than three meters, which comes out to nine feet ten inches I think. Their biggest lane can be nine feet ten inches…

BF: These are federal requirements?

No, but they all feed into the same system. The feds don’t even do the requirements directly — in the federal highway program they reference the AASHTO Green Book. These are rules, they’re just not stated as rules… On the interstate system you can’t have a lane that’s less than 12 feet wide, so that actually is a rule there. You have all these metrics that make everything bigger — turning radii and ramps, the length of ramps — all these things designed to have the vehicles move faster without having to slow down when they get off the freeway, that sort of thing.

Right now the system is biased towards trying to make everything like Brasília, where all the arterial street intersections are grade-separated. It’s the most lifeless city in the world.

So then you need to look at what good metrics would be. If you look at communities that are really successful and have rich, complex street grids with transit — or even without transit, but they have street grids — there’s much more efficiency in the use of pavement. You can go the direction you want to go, you don’t have to go out of the way and come back.

Look at the Embarcadero Freeway. When it was torn down, the trips actually got faster, because people were able to enter the street grid of northeastern San Francisco without having to overshoot the mark or undershoot where they want to go and then go in a direction they don’t want to go. So by removing the freeway and re-enriching the street network, it actually made traffic distribute better. Then it was a better setting, obviously, for real estate and job development, because the views of the bay were restored and streets are better.

So what are the metrics? The metrics would be intersection density, block size — you would reward intersection density. And the feds can do that, they can say that states could draw federal money and add to the density of a street network, creating more mobility that way.

And the metric we use is 150 intersections per square mile, which wouldn’t just be like Manhattan or Philadelphia. In Wausau, Wisconsin, which is the home of the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Dave Obey, we counted 158 intersections per square mile. That’s counting alleys. You look at all these places that have high intersection density and they’re very likely to be valuable settings for jobs and real estate, and they’re also very good for distributing local traffic.

Freeways don’t work in rush hour; they’re slower. Like in Washington DC, Connecticut Avenue is faster at rush hour than the Potomac Freeway.

Now if you’re talking about a transcontinental trip in a truck from California to New Jersey… we’re not saying you can’t do that kind of thing, but that right now the system is biased towards creating that — trying to make everything like Brasília, where all the arterial street intersections are grade-separated. It’s the most lifeless city in the world. There’s actually no street life. In order to go to a cool neighborhood you have to leave Brasilia and go to the shantytowns on the outside. That’s the only place that has any humanity to it.

BF: It seems like there also has to be some sort of system of incentives in place, because there’s so many MPOs that are just going to be stuck in their old habits…

Are you talking about MPOs or DOTs?

BF: Let’s say both.

I would argue in the majority of cases the MPOs just function as an arm of the DOT. There’s this myth that some of the regional planning commissions are out there trying to do what’s right. And that’s true in some cases, but in the vast majority it’s just this same mind frame that they have at the DOTs. Some DOTs are more progressive than others. My current favorite is New Jersey where they’re really exploring these ideas of funding more urban streets, like replacing the freeway in front of Trenton, along the river, and putting in a boulevard instead.

BF: So how do you get the state DOTs to embrace this?

Right now they’re encouraged not to even think about doing this stuff. Like in Wisconsin, there’s really no projects in Milwaukee, because Milwaukee is built out with streets and so forth, so all the money goes to brand new roads. Or expanding existing roads like I-94 between Milwaukee and the Illinois line, a total waste of money. They’re saying it’s $250 million to widen it, it’s probably three or four times that. Here they are, taking this stimulus money and using it all for roads that are really the kinds of things that were considered good back in the 1960s and 70s, but now are pretty much discredited. A lot of these road projects are controversial — local groups that aren’t connected to government contracts are resisting them — and all of a sudden the feds come along and fund roads that people really don’t even want. It’s pretty bad. In southeastern Wisconsin the MPO is the biggest supporter of building all these giant roads. Sometimes the smart growth movement says, "Well, we should give the MPOs more say." I’m not sure that’s a good idea.

If you need to have a stick, you have to know what you’re going to hit, or if you have a carrot, you have to know what you want to fund, that’s why you get right back to metrics. The first step is to allow federal funds to be used to bring street networks up to a standard of 150 intersections per square mile. So if you have a suburban sprawl kind of situation where the intersection density is like at 40 per square mile, if you have a project that’s going to bring that intersection density up to 150, then the state would be eligible for getting federal funding to go in and do that.

You need to have standards that engineers can respect and if you have standards that they respect, they’ll do wonderful stuff.

You would also support the maintenance and improvement — reconstruction — of existing grids that are 150 intersections per square mile. At first it would have to run parallel to the existing system. You’re not going to knock out the AASHTO Green Book, but you have this as an alternative. Just having it as an alternative, without even having sticks, I think would open it up for a lot of places. I think a lot of the midwestern and eastern states would start doing projects… like right now in Syracuse, New York they’re contemplating tearing down Highway 81. It runs right through the middle of Syracuse, and the DOT is sort of grudgingly going along with a study to look at it. But they’re probably thinking they’re not going to get federal funding if they put in some low-scale roads, you know, streets and boulevards. Well let’s get rid of that thought, let’s say if they put in a street network and it helps distribute traffic and it handles the needs of the community in the region, then they don’t have to build a grade-separated road, they don’t have to build a giant arterial. They can build a system of roads, enrich the street grid and allow Syracuse to solve its problem that way.

If the feds say, "That’s okay, that’s good, that’s just as good as the other method," that would be a big step forward. I don’t know that we can get it to say, “You must do this the more urban way.” I think that would be a little bit harder to do and I don’t even know that it’s necessary. Especially young traffic engineers that are just coming in to the field, I think they’re kind of eager to look at some different models. And if you look at ITE now, which is a very traditional group, the Institute of Transportation Engineers, they’re really getting more and more excited about the idea of networks.

Even the ones that aren’t on the program yet, they’re still interested and they kind of want to know what everything is about. So that’s where the metrics come in, then they respect it. Look at the 1920s, if you were a civil engineer and you’re going to Purdue, you’re going to learn the two rod street — two rods from the center lane to the building line, 50 feet of pavement with eight foot sidewalks. Add it up, it’s two rods in each direction, four rods altogether. That’s what you find all over America and particularly in the midwest. Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Mattoon, Illinois. Frankfurt, Kentucky. You’re going to find these exact same streets. And it’s a great street for retail, for a downtown main street. It is Main Street — and the engineers did that, they were trained to do it, they obeyed orders and they did it. If they go to traffic engineering school now they’re going to learn minimum 72-foot arterials, three moving lanes in each direction with a turn lane, and then they blow out the sides with 100-foot setbacks — you can widen the street later, you know — and big parking lots.

That’s what they’re taught, that’s all they’re taught. They’re not taught the other model, because the regulations don’t even mention the other model for the most part. You need to have standards that engineers can respect and if you have standards that they respect, they’ll do wonderful stuff. They’ll create Market Street in San Francisco – new! — if they had a standard that said it was okay to do that.


Stay tuned for the second part of our interview with John Norquist, in which we discuss the problem with "shovel-ready" projects, what it takes to win a freeway teardown fight, and how to build your way out of congestion.

  • Great interview

  • I wonder what research is behind his “intersections per square mile” metric?

    After stumbling on the Death Star for non-car projects a while ago (i.e. the Institute for Transportation Engineers web-site), I was kind of shocked at how powerful this group of tradesmen were in America.

    They don’t order hits, but the principles they use to design our rights-of-way have some profoundly negative impacts on things that most humans desire: community, peace and quiet, good air quality, convenient local commerce.

    I have a feeling that the money made in the 20th century spurring on the oil-fueled consumer/car culture has a lot to do with the direction that transportation engineering went. It’s like, prior to Beethoven breaking free from the patronage system, composers were obligated to make music to suit the tastes of their sponsors, and not necessarily their fellow man.



More Money Won’t Fix U.S. Infrastructure If We Don’t Change How It’s Spent

“America’s infrastructure is slowly falling apart” went the headline of a recent Vice Magazine story that epitomizes a certain line of thinking about how to fix the nation’s “infrastructure crisis.” The post showed a series of structurally deficient bridges and traffic-clogged interchanges intended to jolt readers into thinking we need to spend more on infrastructure. The idea […]

The Best Complete Streets Policies of 2013

A growing number places are adopting policies to create safe space on the streets no matter how you get around. This year 80 new complete streets policies were passed by municipalities, states, counties, and planning agencies around the United States looking to make walking and biking safer. That brings the total number of such policies […]