How Walking and Biking Add Value to Your Community & Change the System: An Interview with John Norquist

Mina Keyes
Jul 9, 2012
Dec 14, 2017
CNU's John Norquist

Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place keynote speaker John Norquist, who currently serves as the President and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, spoke with us recently about the role and responsibility of decision makers in promoting walking and biking, what urbanists need to learn, and what CNU’s 2012 Transportation Summit—immediately preceding Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place on September 9-10 in Long Beach—means for the conference this year. Before joining CNU, John served as the Mayor of Milwaukee, WI, from 1988-2004; in 1998, John was named one of Governing magazine’s Public Officials of the Year.  

How does biking and walking contribute to, and fit into a great street?

You can’t have a prosperous neighborhood where people can engage in social interaction and converse if they have to drive everywhere. If you can accommodate biking and walking, you’re much more likely to have social interaction, social equity, and a high performing real estate market -- it all comes together. If you have a walkable environment, people that aren’t wealthy and those who are actually end up in the same proximity. They interact, and it strengthens the culture, the economy, and the outcomes that you get.

Can you tell us some of what was happening when you were Mayor of Milwaukee?

The Functional Classification System - which impacts how streets are designed and managed in the US - needs to be entirely reevaluated. In certain rural contexts, it makes sense, but applying it to an urban context doesn't. For example, Greenwich Village streets in NYC are probably rated an F (lowest) based on their levels of congestion. But those streets are congested with people who want to be there! They’re buying stuff, and creating jobs, and creating art. And that's what gave rise to the CNU/ITE jointly-produced Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach. It's a recommended practice that illustrates how to implement mixed-use streets.

Some environmentalists blame the road lobby for selfishly seeking financial gain by supporting highway expenditures and opposing money for bicycle and transit infrastructure. Actually, all contractors have to be a little selfish, or they would go out of business. What the road lobby needs to realize is that can make money by building lots of streets, alleys and sidewalks. Did you know there are more miles of streets in metropolitan Chicagoland than the whole interstate system? The idea that somehow the road building industry should be appalled by being asked to design streets to include cyclists is strange. There’s a lot of pavement to be laid for buses and bike lanes. Pavement is okay as long as it adds value to the community where it’s placed. That’s what the road builders need to learn.

As mayor, John pushed for the removal of Milwaukee's Park East freeway spur, which is now being re-developed as a mixed-use neighborhood / Photo: Paul Hohmann via Flickr


How can we help the development and real estate sectors recognize the return on investing in more walkable, bikeable places?

Mixed-use walkable communities are performing much better in the real estate market right now than communities that are auto-centric. The return on value per acre is much higher in walkable urban environments. We have a lot of land in the United States, but land that’s convenient to where the people are is a limited commodity. For developers, it’s a natural fit for them to be able to have more intense development in urban real estate. If everyone’s relying on cars, you have to accommodate all those vehicles by using up land with parking facilities, and surface lots that are not only expensive, but ugly. Developers have a lot of reasons to embrace a more walkable development pattern but it’s hard for them because many government policies obstruct them.

The Functional Classification System that is still the core of the AASHTO Green Book and DOTs all over the country encourages oversized roads and auto-centricity. Then there are Federal policies including those issued by the Federal Housing Administration that are pushing separate use zoning through their mortgage and capital programs that assign high risk to buildings that include both housing and retail. [Editor's Note:  John notes that HUD is aware of this issue and is trying to make changes.] That really undermines the ability of developers to produce the kind of urban walkable environment that people increasingly want. What can be done on a small scale to shift that? Make a case to local officials that neighborhoods with both housing and amenities such as retail create a stronger tax base for local governments. Compact, well-connected neighborhoods with sidewalks are great for bicyclists, and even those who don't ride bikes benefit from stronger communities.

At Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place we are aiming to broaden how people think about biking and walking by bringing together architects, urbanists, and people in transportation. Can you talk about the collaboration between these disciplines and what you hope for the future?

Whether you’re an architect, engineer or designer, you should aim for the triple bottom line where you have environmental, economic, and social benefits. Block sizes and intersection density, these are some of the issues that have a profound effect on these benefits. If you have a well-connected grid of streets, you’ve created an environment where somebody who needs a job has a much better chance of connecting socially and economically.

But when you have a disconnected, auto-centric grid like the one they’ve created in Detroit over the last 60 years…you can see the outcome. The city’s transit system is almost nonexistent.  If you look at the poorest neighborhoods in NYC, in the Bronx, because of a fabulously well-connected city grid and transit system, someone living there can be at Wall Street, the district with the highest job density per acre in North America, in just 35 minutes for a $2.25 transit fare. The money’s in the middle instead of being dispersed out in enclaves, and that gives people chances. This type of street grid and transit also fosters walking and biking.

What do you think New Urbanists need to learn?

They need to embrace and appreciate bicycling more and more. Bicycling is an important catalyst to move communities toward an urbanism that is ecologically sound and economically productive. The bicyclists are the ones who often bring pressure for change in transportation. Those interested in cities need to appreciate them more as bicycling is very compatible with everything that is urban. We ought to promote it even more than we already do.

Can you tell us a little bit about the plans for CNU’s 2012 Transportation Summit this year?

We have some of the most forward thinking transportation experts who are really serious about challenging the norm in transportation. We’re not interested in talking about this stuff forever; we want to change the system now. The goal is to fundamentally change transportation so that it becomes about adding value instead of just moving vehicles.

I think the Summit being held at the same venue as PWPB:PP will lead to a really effective cross-fertilization that leads to a higher level of achievement. Our goals are to change the functional classification system, which is too focused on creating capacity for motor vehicles. Any road built in a city should accommodate walking and biking. Period. We all need to raise our expectations, and demand more. We need to push, and we can win!  No more car right-of-ways in cities that don’t have accommodations for bicyclists and walkers!



Pro Walk/Pro Bike®: Pro Place is North America’s premier walking and bicycling conference, which occurs biannually. The next conference will occur September 8-11th, 2014 in Pittsburgh, PA.  Join more than 1,000 planners, engineers, elected officials, health professionals, and advocates to gain the insights of national experts in the field, learn about practical solutions to getting bike and pedestrian infrastructure built, and meet peers from across the country.

Mina Keyes
Mina Keyes
Related Articles & Resources
No items found.