As the title implies, Caro’s biography of Robert Moses is a study in power. Part of Moses’ genius, however, was that while wielding great power he pretended to be outside of or above politics. This review discusses how Moses prioritized certain segments of society in his projects, the means by which he accomplished his goals, and the long-term effects of his development projects.
One way to summarize Robert Moses’ design aesthetic would be “to make the right thing the easy thing.” For instance, when he learned that mothers of young children often had to cut their visits to Central Park short in order to go elsewhere and change diapers, he added changing stations in the park. In the 1930’s when he was on a swimming pool construction binge, convincing swimmers to wash their feet before entering the pool proved to be difficult. Moses solved this problem by adding “tactful depressions” (in the words of Architectural Forum) between locker rooms and pools that were too wide to be jumped over, causing swimmers’ feet to be passively cleaned (p. 513).
In many ways Moses’ choices can be seen as privileging the middle class, perhaps due to his own upper-middle class background. This tendency manifested itself most obviously in his preference for building highways rather than public transportation (p. 753). In some cases he directly undercut even the possibility of mass transit, by ensuring that the bridges on his parkways were too short for buses to pass through. Projects to add community amenities such as swimming pools and parks were also much more likely to be constructed in suburban or middle class areas than in poor or minority neighborhoods; of the 255 playgrounds whose construction he oversaw in the 1930’s, only one was built in Harlem (p. 510).
How did Moses manage to ignore “the shouts of the people” (p. 753) for so long? One key to his success was that he centralized “all those forces in the city that in theory have little to do with the decision-making process… but in reality have everything to do with it.” By serving in appointed rather than elected positions he outlasted generations of politicians. His relationship with elected officials also bordered on hostile: he exercised intense secrecy in his own affairs (getting the records of his organizations treated as those of a private corporation by law) while maintaining dossiers on all the public figures he encountered.
Some of his most clever moves, though, were far more mundane, such as extending his power as chairman of the Long Island State Park Commission to include “parkways and boulevards” (which allowed him to start building highways) as well as land underwater (p. 175). This association with parks also afforded him great public relations power. “As long as you’re on the side of the parks, you’re on the side of the angels. You can’t lose,” he said (p. 218).
Moses also had an eye for what James C. Scott calls “legibility.” Early in his career he applied the first quantitative grading system to New York’s civil service employees, challenging the incumbent patronage of Tammany Hall and earning a reputation for fighting corruption (the irony would not become apparent for several decades. This penchant for quantification later exhibited itself in the use of statistics and data visualizations to bolster his arguments. Maps were another tool he used frequently, both to direct those who reported to him and to foster public excitement for his projeccts.
If there was one tool that Moses’ opponents borrowed directly from him, it may have been the use of data and maps. When housewife Lillain Edelstein learned that the plans for the Cross-Bronx Expressway included the bulldozing of her neighborhood she pushed to have an alternate route considered, two blocks away where it would be less disruptive. She had maps made and took them to all of New York’s daily newspapers, eventually getting them printed by the Post and the World-Telegram.
Later advocates would put together more accurate statisics on the number of persons displaced by Moses’ projects than he himself ever cared to: between 1945 and 1952 it is estimated that public works projects (largely overseen by Moses) displaced 170,000 people, and at least 37 percent of them nonwhite (in a time when the 1950 census counted only 12 percent of New Yorkers as nonwhite; p. 968). If Raymond Moley is correct that only an autocrat can achieve public works on the scale of Egypt or Rome, Robert Moses was willing to be that autocrat (p. 847). Moses preferred building over the past rather than preserving it, even when preservation was the more straightforward, cheaper option such as with the fort at Battery Park (p. 680).
What are the long-term lessons to come out of Moses’ projects and their opponents? Perhaps the most instructive example is what happens when city planners prioritize automobile traffic over mass transit. This fosters a low density environment. When a commuter uses mass transit, they want to be able to walk from the last stop to their home, and preferably shops and schools as well. When the same commuter uses highways and is already in their car, they are willing to travel further to these final destinations. This results in the use of larger plots of land (for both homes and businesses) and communities that are more spread-out.
Why do some pople and businesses not relocate to the suburbs? A car-centric city has a self-reinforcing component. Automobile-owning families (especially in the mid-20th century but today as well) tend to be relatively well off. Poorer residents are unable to move out of the central city because it would require them to purchase a car. Moses also closed many of these new routes to commerical traffic, keeping employment in the city center. (As an employer you may have other reasons for staying centrally located, such as minimizing the distance to talented workers.) This leads in turn to the need for parking and the construction of parking garages–temporary storage just for vehicles during the large portion of the day for which they are not in use.
Did all of this road construction alleviate traffic? No, because new road construction does not change how many people come into the city but how they get there. New Yorkers assumed that increased commute times in the 1950’s were due to the influx of population, but the number of commuters into the city was growing much slower than the overall population (an increase from 301,000 in 1930 to 357,000 in 1950, or 19 percent while the overall population of the New York area grew by 50 percent in the same time). The real difference was in how commuters got to the city: rail usage declined from 263,000 riders to 239,000 while auto usage grew from 38,050 to 118,400 drivers over the same period (p. 916-17).
Additional road capacity does not ease traffic due to a phenomenon known as “traffic generation.” When the Bronx-Whitestone bridge opened, traffic on other bridges over the East River actually increased, resulting in an addition 6 million cross-river automobile trips in 1940. As Caro summarizes, “the more highways that were built to alleviate congestion, the more automobiles would pour onto them and congest them and thus force the building of more highways” (p. 897). The only solution to this spiral is mass transit, but Moses would just as soon tear down existing transit facilities when they got in the way of new roads (p. 897).
Throughout Caro’s account there is a distinct lack of markets as signal-gathering tools. As Lewis Mumford described in 1946, “we don’t know whether we want people where the highways are going.” Without this demand-side information, Moses built roads when and where he wanted to, resulting in the waste of hundreds of millions of public dollars.
Robert Moses undoubtedly accomplished a great deal during his four-decade long career. Much of that his opponents wish had remained undone. As Caro summarizes, “the building of a public work shapes a city perhaps more permanently than any other action of government” (p. 753) and Moses no doubt had a permanent impact on New York. His model was repeated throughout other American cities as well, reinforcing the model of an automobile-centric society for generations to come. It is possible that new technologies such as ride sharing and self-driving cars may have second-order effects that disrupt this status quo, but for now it looks like we are stuck with low-density cities and long commutes for the foreseeable future.
- “The Train that Saved Denver” (article on Denver’s light rail system)
- Econtalk interview with Richard Epstein on property rights and zoning
- Reconcilable Differences episode 22 on driving behavior and the Long Island park system
- Market Urbanism blog
- The Rent is Too Damn High by Matt Yglesias
- The Gated City by Ryan Avent
- Stratechery post on self-driving cars, trunk vs. branch driving, and statistics on contemporary American driving
- Placemakers episode on Jane Jacobs and her protests against Moses
- Road to Now interview with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on the growth of Denver and bridging the urban-rural divide