Why classifying (categorizing) streets is so important, with Peter Norton

Pennsylvania Ave cycle track

Sustainable Cities Collective

Earlier this year, I teamed up with Peter Norton to give a webinar about the function and design of streets in urban areas. It was sponsored by American Planning Association, so professional planners were the target audience.

Peter is a professor at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (available on Kindle!). His book describes how the motor age came to the city only after a major struggle over the purpose and function of streets. Who are streets for? Machines or people?

The webinar lasted for about 90 minutes, including a period where we fielded questions from the audience. The presentation we gave is loaded with photos, so it’s not something that can be directly translated to a podcast. But we’ve been getting so much positive feedback from it, that I wanted to share at least some of the content with you here on Urbanism Speakeasy.

Functional classification is a transportation topic that is often left for engineers to sort out, but it has a huge impact on urban planning. Anyone involved in urban planning – that’s you, citizen – should be part of the dialogue surrounding the function of public streets.

The webinar had 2 basic parts. First, Peter gave a history lesson about streets, including some key turning points in the history of infrastructure. Then I talked about learning from history to make our streets better for all users in the modern age.

My day job is to help people create transportation systems that are appropriately scaled for active human living. As you might guess from listening to Urbanism Speakeasy, my work centers around the relationship between infrastructure and livability.

So what you’re going to hear in this week’s show is a glimpse of the webinar. The American Planning Association did put a recording on their YouTube channel, but there seem to be some issues with the audio. I hope to resolve that soon and get a higher quality version online. Follow the show on Google+ for that and more.


We suffer through the results of folklore engineering.

The Federal Highway Administration promotes the use of engineering judgment. Something that is sometimes known as “radical design” in professional circles. The engineering community remains fairly rigid. Customary transportation education suggests that common sense shouldn’t interfere a sacred green book.

We have options. Streets can be designed for people and still manage to accommodate motor vehicles. Don’t be fooled into thinking your city or neighborhood has to be stuck with motor-bias design just because your parents were stuck with it.


The group that controls the assumptions gets what they want.

Engineers don’t question the sanctioned design guides. Planners are trained not to question engineers. Citizens are pressured not to question planners.

Sometimes the elite and well-educated miss fundamental truths. Sometimes it takes a child to point out the obvious problems with street design.

Lane width…number of lanes…type of street lighting…future traffic predictions…

Question everything!


The mysterious black box of engineering.

Peter Norton is an outsider. He’s allowed to ask stupid questions that insiders aren’t supposed to ask.

  • Functional classification for WHAT?
  • Functional classification for WHOM?
  • What if we had functional classification by mode instead of road?
  • Is “higher mobility” really talking about speed and access for motorists?


Connect with our guest

Peter Norton would be happy to talk with you about streets. He’s a historian, so you know he’s got plenty to share. You can reach him by email (norton at virginia.edu), or of course go straight to Amazon and buy his book!

If you want to connect with me, there are buttons at the top of the page. I’d love to hear from you on Twitter or Google+.


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