Streetsblog Interview: Hillary Norton
8:04 AM PDT on April 17, 2009
Earlier, I had a chance to sit down with Hilary Norton, the executive director of the non-profit organization Fixing Angelenos Stuck in
Traffic. F.A.S.T. was formed to take the recommendations of last year’s much-publicized RAND report on reducing congestion. The interesting thing about the F.A.S.T.’s model for building a transportation constituency is that it is building it’s base one community at a time by having Norton present to Neighborhood Councils, community groups, Homeowner’s groups, civic and transit advocacy groups who are interested in learning more about “best practice” short-term transit solutions.
Norton began working in Los Angeles in 1991 as an intern in the office of Tom Bradley and since then has worked for a collection of L.A. political figures including Richard Alarcon and Mark Ridley-Thomas before moving to the private sector and then to F.A.S.T.
Streetsblog: Last year, there was a report released by the RAND Corporation and one of the results of this report was the formation of F.A.S.T. Could you describe the report a little bit and what role F.A.S.T. is going to play in bringing the report’s suggestions to the public.
HN: Over a year before Measure R was placed on the ballot, Jim Thomas, who has been a developer, philanthropist and resident in Los Angeles for 40 years, recognized that his beloved city was never going to be a great city if it continued to be crippled by traffic.
So, being a smart business person he understood that in order to bring about real change, we have to think about what can be done in the near-term -- the next 3-5 years. He asked RAND to look at examples from around the globe at what near-term changes can be implemented that would bring permanent improvement to traffic. The RAND report looks at what can be done quickly and inexpensively, for millions of dollars not billions, and yet have a lasting effect on reducing L.A. traffic. These solutions work alongside the long-term solutions proposed by Measure R.
Streetsblog: While we talk a lot about “fixing traffic” a lot of what’s in the RAND report and a lot of what you talk about when you go into communities are alternative transportation
fixes. Just so that Streetsblog readers don’t think you’re all about cars, since I know you’re not, what do you see as the role of transit, bikes, walking and alternative transportation in L.A.’s future?
HN: Thanks for highlighting the fact that we are not only about moving cars. The RAND report correctly points out that reducing the number of car trips by a very small amount, two to three percent, can improve through traffic by 10-15%. The report isn’t just about making sure the streets can function best for cars. It is also about helping people ask themselves if they really need to use a car for every trip that they now take.
People should look at taking buses and shuttles, car pooling, ride sharing. Improving the regional bike network is also a key part of the plan.
Every time you are taking up that spot of road as a single driver, you’re making traffic worse in a ratio that people are actually surprised about. Go back to the 1984 Olympics, people found out traffic was amazingly reduced, yet there was only about 5% less traffic on the road.
We should really be looking at getting people out of cars, and making better choices. Better choices for people’s health by increasing the amount we walk or ride bikes from place to place. These better choices have broad positive social effects and also help those who must use their cars with less traffic to negotiate.
Streetsblog: Now that we know what the report is. What is your job to do with it?
HN: The RAND Report essentially outlines solutions that can be implemented right away. The goal of F.A.S.T is to not have the report sit on the shelf, instead have it be a real call to action. The good news is that many of the ideas in the study are not new, but in fact just need that last bit of impetus and public awareness and support to be implemented.
For example, consider the expansion of the bike network. We know that a plan is supposed to be released this year, but very few people really know the plan is in the works. With F.A.S.T, our goal is to educate neighborhood councils and other civic groups throughout the county, making people aware that in many cases solutions are already being worked on, that the recommendations being considered are doable, and that what is needed is an extra push or showing of public support to make the recommendations a reality.
That’s the most exciting part of going out to Neighborhood Councils, business groups, rotary clubs, is bringing to them the message that we’re all on the road to making good ideas happen. We’re not starting from scratch, but that F.A.S.T. is part of bringing ideas and proposal that are already underway to reality, but need additional input and consensus.
One of the things I like about F.A.S.T. is our focus on outreach to the grassroots, to people who are already volunteering their time in some way but don’t think that there is a workable solution to traffic. What I’ve found is that there are so many groups and individuals who are interested in picking up the ball and helping us advocate for workable, near term traffic solutions. I think the conventional wisdom is that as a community we are rather cynical, that people wouldn’t participate because they’ll be asked to do all the work. But, what we’ve been able to demonstrate is that there is a broader community of interests who want to change our approach to transportation and are ready to help.
F.A.S.T is building support for implementing traffic and transportation solutions. We are getting individuals to sign up and we are growing our database of interested residents. And, by building our database of support and creating strength in numbers, we’re going to be able to remind our elected officials that the silent majority spend a lot of time thinking about how bad traffic really is and want to get around more easily. In the most basic sense, it’s about advocating to elected official that people want to get their quality of life back.
It has been exciting to take a very common sense report and breathe life into it. In this age of technology, F.A.S.T. is able to communicate good solutions to communities so that they are able to go to DOT’s or the county or Metro and say “I like that idea.” What I’ve found is that people want to see where things are working and what solutions can work, especially in a time when they feel cynical about the ability to solve complex community challenges. That’s why reaching consensus is really becoming priceless. I am excited and energized that F.A.S.T. is able to help build consensus around some great common sense solutions to traffic.
Streetsblog: And you’ve been using the Internet, and particularly your website, to help get the message out.
HN: Absolutely. www.Fastla.org is our website. FASTLA.org shows not only what the RAND report is, but gives people a real place to comment on traffic solutions, look at how we can improve our traffic, and highlight good ideas that are being proposed throughout the County. We’ve also designed the site to poll people, to get a better sense of the types of solutions Angelenos support or think are good ideas. It also allows us to test ideas before they’re put out on the street.
We see the website as a modern town hall meeting place, where people can come, day or night, on their own time to give input on what we all can do to make L.A. County’s traffic situation better. Perhaps most importantly, we work have these people become members of FAST so that we can get our information directly to those members regarding the latest good ideas.
Even though traffic is costing the region $9 billion a year in commerce, it’s not a day-to-day topic of conversation. Luckily you have Streetsblog, luckily you have other websites, including F.A.S.T’s, that make sure that the topic never leaves the consciousness of Angelenos and provide meaningful status reports that there are things that can be done to improve traffic in the county for
Streetsblog: That covers the basics of F.A.S.T. You’ve been telling me a lot about what’s going on Eagle Rock as it relates to bicycling, walking and everything else.
HN: I’m a 17-year resident of Eagle Rock. I love living there and raising my family on the eastside. We are looking at some great transportation alternative in Eagle Rock, ideas that, who knows, may spur other common sense solutions to traffic.
The stretch of Colorado Boulevard near Eagle Rock is one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the county. The community has had some real challenges because people will speed
down Colorado Boulevard, through a very small town, very family oriented community. There used to be a Streetcar that ran down Colorado Boulevard. As a community, we are trying to revisit that experience by working with Caltrans to take one traffic lane out and have that be for bikes and buses. That will ensure cars obey the speed limits while encouraging residents to choose available alternatives to cars with a dedicated lane for bikes and transit.
What we want to accomplish in Eagle Rock is for people to be able to enjoy the east side of Los Angeles for what it is, and that’s a beautiful community. And part of that would be for people to commute from Eagle Rock to Downtown on L.A. on bike everyday of the week.
Streetsblog: My last question when I do these is always, “if you could change one thing about transportation in L.A., what would it be?” Care to take a shot?
HN: I think it would be that we could all take a good look at “the last mile problem.” We actually have a very good transit system, but we have a “last mile problem” that is a barrier to people taking subways everyday or riding the bus everyday. They just can’t make that last mile work for them.
I think it would be very interesting to look at ways the different user groups make this work. Biking, walking, car sharing, bike sharing, shuttles, buses…what can we do to get people to walk out of their house and respond to that last mile and not be afraid of it. How can we use the things we’ve all invest a little better?
That’s what we want to do at fastla.org. In some communities, such as Hollywood, it’s figuring out how to get the buses to go up hills so we can get more people to use the Hollywood and Highland
stop. Going back up that hill at night, especially if you’re elderly, is a real challenge. Or shuttles from the MacArthur Park Station so that people can ride the subway with their children and take them to and from school day and night. These solutions would really increase subway ridership.
So, I would want to use our technology to collectively solve the “last mile” problem to get people to take mass transportation a couple of times a week. That would fix a lot of our traffic problems as quickly as anything.
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