Robert Moses: Master Builder of New York and Infrastructure Dynamo

I have recently read Robert Caro’s 1974 biography of Robert Moses: The Power Broker – Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.  It is a massive book, at 1,162 pages, as readers of Caro’s four volume biography of Lyndon Johnson might expect.  But Caro writes clearly and well, and the book is full of fascinating detail and commentary.   He must be unique in his ability to inject high drama into accounts of the building of bridges and expressways.

While the book was published over 40 years ago, and Robert Moses died in 1981 at the age of 92, there are important lessons for the present day in Caro’s account of Moses’ long career in public service in New York City and State.

By way of brief background, Robert Moses was born in 1888, the second son of a well-to-do Jewish family in New Haven, Connecticut.  The family moved to New York City in 1897 and Moses lived in fairly opulent circumstances in Manhattan.  He attended Yale University, where he experienced discrimination because of his Jewish background, and did post-graduate studies at Oxford University.  He subsequently spent his entire life in public service, holding various positions (none of them elected) in which he effectively controlled the building and administration of parks, parkways, expressways, bridges, tunnels and public housing in New York City and State over a period of 40 years, until the early 60s.  He was phenomenally intelligent and energetic, a true dynamo, and contributed more than any other person to the development of the infrastructure of New York City.  He was, however, a complex character who rode roughshod over other people’s opinions and would brook no opposition to his plans.  He manoeuvred himself into a virtually impregnable position, partly by writing the state legislation which created his various public roles, and he manipulated successive Mayors and Governors of New York City and State to get his way.  He had no qualms about forcing people out of existing housing to make way for a new road or, indeed, new housing, at a time when there was no suitable alternative accommodation for them.  He also planned his roads and parks in a way that favoured private motorists – for example, the bridges he designed for his many ‘parkways’ were not high enough to accommodate buses that could have taken less well-off New York residents to visit the parks Moses created.  He also favoured roads and bridges over public transport – he refused to provide funds for public transport when there was a choice, and he also refused to build transit lanes into his expressways and parkways that could have accommodated subway and light rail lines.  Investment in public transport for New York City was dramatically shortchanged as a result.

Caro’s book relates the story of Robert Moses in great detail, contrasting the man’s remarkable achievements with his lust for power and elemental need to dominate colleagues, politicians and the public.  It is in many ways a tragic story, as by the time Moses left public life in the early 60s, his devotion to building infrastructure for motor cars had ceased to be fashionable and he had become an object of scorn to many.

Along the way, Caro pens ‘mini-biographies’ of many other people, including Moses’ parents and grandmother, his brother Paul Moses, New York Governors Al Smith, FDR and Herbert Lehman, and New York City Mayors Fiorello La Guardia, Robert Wagner and John Lindsay.  It is partly the quality of these mini-biographies, which would be familiar to readers of Caro’s Johnson biographies, that make the book so fascinating to read.

What lessons can we learn from the story of Robert Moses?

Robert Moses was well known, and prided himself, for “Getting Things Done”.  According to Caro, he used whatever means were necessary to achieve his ends, including the trashing of his opponents’ reputations and starting work on projects while legal challenges were proceeding, to create faits accomplis.  He tailored cost estimates to secure initial funding, and then went back to legislators for more money when he found that the cost of finishing the project was greater than anticipated.  He monopolised the control of federal funding for transport infrastructure and would refuse to release funds for any project that was not in complete accordance with his wishes.  If something could not be built exactly as he wished it to be, he refused to allow it to be built at all.  Nonetheless, he completed an enormous number of vast projects during his lifetime, including the Triborough Bridge, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Jones Beach, Lincoln Center, Shea Stadium and the United Nations Headquarters.  He even found time to run the New York World’s Fair of 1964/65.

Now, by contrast, it is extremely difficult to get infrastructure projects under way –  not just in the US, but also in the UK and other countries.  Of course building costs have increased and funds are always scarce.  But planning rules and political concerns make it far more complex and time consuming now than it was in Moses’ time to plan and implement large projects.

For example, it is taking 10 years to build Crossrail in London, while the central portions of the Piccadilly and Northern underground lines in central London were built in just five years, between 1902 and 1906, largely by the American entrepreneur Charles Yerkes – Yerkes was another larger than life character who inspired the writer Theodore Dreiser to write a three volume fictionalised account of his life.  We are now being told that if HS2, the planned high speed rail line between London and the north of the UK goes ahead, it will take 10 years to complete it to Birmingham, and a further 10 years to Leeds.  In the housing sphere, it will take 20 to 30 years to create the garden cities now being proposed as a solution to our housing shortage.

The planning requirements that now bedevil infrastructure projects have been imposed at least partly because of the abuses that took place during the Moses era, when the legitimate concerns of existing residents and future users of public transport were ignored, but can we do nothing to streamline the process today?   Could we not also do more to encourage dynamic individuals like Robert Moses and Charles Yerkes to realise their visions, instead of throttling them through bureaucratic processes?

Michael Ingle

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Categories: Economics, London, Transport

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