FOR HILARY NORTON MPP 1992, transportation is about more than moving people from one location to another. It is about community, access, and democracy.
Norton has spent three decades focused on community development and transportation, working for state and City of Los Angeles elected officials, business associations, and nonprofits over the course of her career. As an undergraduate at Wellesley College, she became interested in affordable housing, transportation, and building healthy communities. She further cultivated her public policy goals at the Kennedy School, where she did her Policy Analysis Exercise on eradicating racism-based redlining in South Los Angeles. And over the course of her career, she has been driven by a desire to make California a state where affordable housing, sustainable transportation, and career-making jobs are accessible to all.
Appointed to the California Transportation Commission (CTC) by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2019, Norton was elected chair in 2020 and served for the maximum two terms. “For me and my colleagues, serving on the CTC is not a job—it’s a calling,” she says, adding that two of those colleagues are also HKS graduates: Darnell Grisby MPP 2003 and Michele Martinez HKSEE 2018.
Each year, the CTC allocates $5 billion to $7 billion, raised from gas taxes, to state transportation projects managed by the California Department of Transportation. “While often known for funding highway and bridge projects,” Norton says, “the CTC is very proud that Governor Newsom and the state legislature have funded an additional $1 billion for CTC’s highly popular active transportation projects to encourage biking, walking, and traveling in wheelchairs and strollers. CTC’s additional programs support projects to create affordable housing near transit, support more-efficient and zero-emission travel by bus or car, and improve the sustainable movement of goods. You cannot have economic empowerment without intentionally linking housing, transportation, jobs, and improved air quality.”
“I am also grateful that CTC is engaging in deep work on equity,” Norton says. “We are listening to people throughout the state about ways that transportation infrastructure has harmed and divided communities so that we can work with regional leaders, transit agencies, local nonprofits, and community members to identify remedies to those harms.”
Equity is inextricably linked to housing affordability, which Norton says is one of the biggest issues the state faces right now. A primary way in which people create wealth is by owning a home, but in California, home ownership is simply out of reach for many. “The state needs to look at how we can expand opportunities for wealth creation,” she says. “In what ways can we create better opportunities for shelter, affordable housing, wealth creation, so that people can start building more-stable lives together and enjoying the fruits of California as it becomes the world’s fourth-largest economy?”
Norton says that California’s size and overall wealth make it not only possible but incumbent on policymakers to ask: “How is the state growing? How can we make sure people travel in efficient, sustainable ways? How can we make life more affordable and equitable? How can we uplift everyone rather than see increased homelessness?”
Norton’s role at the CTC is the product of a long career working at the nexus between housing and transportation in Los Angeles. In 2008, she became the founding executive director of FAST (Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic), focusing on strategies such as express toll lanes, rapid-transit bus systems, and microbus pilot programs to reduce traffic congestion, expand access to low-income communities, and incentivize environmentally friendly transportation alternatives in Los Angeles. “We helped create new paradigms to move people better,” Norton says.
She loves her work and lives her paradigm. As the mother of two grown children, Xavier and Eva, Norton has seen how transportation has affected their ability to get to school and to jobs and is envisioning a future that should belong to everyone. She now leads the nonprofit transportation-management organization FASTLinkDTLA, which aims to reduce gridlock; create new commuter programs to link people to jobs through expanded rail service, new routes for scheduled buses, vanpools, carpools, and rideshare vehicles; and promote safe, zero-emission, and innovative alternatives to driving alone.
Norton is grateful for the ability to convene and connect people to achieve equitable community outcomes through her work at the CTC and FASTLinkDTLA. She credits her Kennedy School experience with refining her ability to “deliver an ‘elevator speech’ to summarize complex issues while finding joy in collaboration, which is crucial to reaching beyond yourself while continuously learning from others.”
“We need to rebuild a very frayed society and a very unequal economy,” Norton says. Deeper communication and collaboration, she believes, are essential to restoring the fabric of society and a well-functioning democracy. They are also her personal keys to maintaining the discipline and the “fire in the belly” that are necessary for tackling seemingly intractable problems while savoring the community outcomes and infrastructure projects that result from cocreation.
“Real collaboration, real trust, and radical transparency,” she says, are needed to confront and address past harms and create a new mobility infrastructure that improves the quality of life for everyone. Whenever she is in the midst of challenges, Norton adds with a laugh, “I remind myself that I chose this, and I would not change my career or my life to work on anything else. Public policy is a passion that the Kennedy School really stokes for life. Every day is exciting.”
Hilary Norton photographed at Los Angeles’ Union Station by Josh Edelman.