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Talking Headways Podcast: The Traffic War Is Never Won

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This week we’re joined by University of Virginia Associate Professor Peter Norton, to talk about his new book "Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving." Norton discusses the false promises of automakers and technologists and the mobility solutions that are already in front of us.

For those of you who get your news through your eyes and not your ears, there’s an edited transcript below the audio player. If you want a full, unedited transcript (with some typos!), click here. If you want to listen, here you go:


Jeff Wood: I’m curious about what you think about the language generally and the choices of words, "mobility" versus "transportation" is one you bring up in the book. There are so many different ways that words have been co-opted throughout history to mean something different. Words always changed because people realize their power and then try to, take them for their own. But I’m curious what you think about those changes specifically, like "mobility"?

Peter Norton: Well, I think they're strategic. I think they’re generally smart and astute. The most successful ones are the ones that you don’t really notice. They get past you. And pretty soon you’re talking their language and that language is serving their interests. So take the term "mobility," which was a late arrival in the world of transport, you know, a generation ago, people spoke about, say urban transportation. Now we’re much more likely to speak of "urban mobility." And there’s been a sort of interesting dance going on because some of the interest in speaking about "mobility" instead of about "transport" has come from recognizing that there’s a lot of mobility that’s really valuable, but that the word transport misses.

So transport carries connotations of economic value and exchange of goods and services. And so on. In other words, of economically valuable mobility, and advocates of mobility have made the point. I think it’s an essential one, that being able to walk to the grocery store is as important as other kinds of transport, but that got excluded with the word transport. So, they said, let’s use mobility, but at the same time, the people trying to sell us expensive, high-consumption, energy-intensive transport, recognize that the word "mobility" could serve their interests as well.

So as long ago as even 60 years ago, you begin to see "mobility" supplanting "transport" in the marketing of automobiles. They started speaking of them as giving you "mobility." This really has taken off, though, only in the last 10 to 20 years, when now all the tech companies and all the automakers in the autonomous-vehicle business will all tell you they’re in the "mobility business." I personally think we should be skeptical of that claim, because if you live in a world where the only way to get around is by an expensive, energy intensive vehicle that’s also spatially inefficient and not very inclusive of all people, that’s actually debilitating to mobility. It may be impressive as "transport." I’d like to keep that distinction that the advocates of walking and cycling and public transportation and livability were making, when they really promoted the use of the word "mobility" a few decades ago; I think that’s a really important distinction. I fear that the marketing people, as they often do, are depriving us of that valuable distinction by muddling the waters.

Wood: You can’t sell a "mobility"; you can’t monetize it. That’s another kind of framework that functions for these companies. They’re trying to sell your data. They’re trying to collect your data, and they’re not actually trying to move you around necessarily. They move you, but it’s kind of the side business for some of them. There’s a distinction there, as well, which is the sales of people’s data versus the actual moving of people. There’s a separation. If it’s a mobility, that’s not monetizable or it’s not lucrative, it doesn’t count.

Norton: Right now, this was a relatively late realization for me. But when I began reading the reports from the companies, trying to attract investors from the consultancies and so on, I began to read pretty astonishing things about how the vehicle was going to become “the ultimate mobile device.” In other words, it’s going to become like a smartphone on wheels. The genius of this is that even if as a transport tool an autonomous vehicle, like a robo taxi, is not a big moneymaker because of the fact that the vehicle is so expensive and to charge a fair that anyone will pay gives you a small profit margin per fare.

The real difference they’ll recoup is by gathering data from the vehicle occupant, because the data collectors' biggest frustration with the smartphone has been that there’s two times when people aren’t generating data on their smartphone: one is when they’re sleeping. And the other is when they’re driving. Of course we know sometimes people are even generating data on their smartphone when they’re driving. And one of the huge attractions of the autonomous vehicle in the tech sector has been now, people will in effect be driving their phone and will not have to pay attention to the road. And this thing, this sort of mobile phone, will be impaneled into on the interior with screens. You can be working, playing, doing social media, whatever you want, and you will now be generating a lot of data even while you’re driving. So it’s like opening up a new market. And so you said it well, when you said, you know, it may look like transport to you and me, but to them, it’s a data-collection technique.

Wood: I go back to that comment that you can’t make money off walking. I guess you can, because then you’re measuring, if you have a smartphone in your pocket, you can measure, but that’s not a large $20,000, $50,000 vehicle that has all kinds of parts and those types of things. So it’s not as lucrative maybe to walk than it is to get in a vehicle and be whisked away and watch show tunes or whatever you want to watch on the TV inside.

Norton: It’s so important to get the distinction between what is good mobility and what is profitable to the company that says it’s selling you mobility. So, if in a given situation walking is what works best for you, that’s not how it’s going to look to the companies trying to sell you their version of [mobility]. They will try to repackage your transport decision in such a way that you’ll choose the energy intensive, expensive mobility instead of walking.

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