Moses to LaGuardia: Bikes Have No Place on the Street

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Dave Lutz of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition has been digging through the Municipal Archives and look what he found: a 1938 memo from Robert Moses to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia about the need to create a network of dedicated bike paths in city parks. Moses’s reasoning looks odd to modern eyes, in part because he argues for bike paths as a purely recreational amenity. His rationale for bike infrastructure fails to see cycling as transportation (sound familiar?), choosing instead to segregate bike facilities from the street network.

In this section, where Moses makes a public health argument against having bikes on the street, you can see the streets-are-exclusively-for-cars mindset that famously led him to construct rights-of-way that excluded rail and even buses:

The need for taking children off of public streets where they are constantly threatened with serious injury, and are themselves a hazard to motorists is imperative, and is evidenced by the increasingly numerous letters received from parents and others interested in the welfare of the youth of the city. Every motorist is aware of the hazard created by children of the adolescent age exploring the whole width of the roadway…

Recognizing that bicycles have no place on public highways, and fully aware of the marked rise in enthusiasm and growing interest in bicycling on the part of the general public within the city limits, park executives have for some time been studying the entire park system to ascertain local unsatisfied cycling needs, and where proper facilities can be located advantageously to furnish the opportunity for bicycle riding without too long a delay and without involving large expenditures for construction.

Lutz’s sleuthing inspired another tipster, Daniel Bowman Simon, to cull together a collection of press reports from the time, including this coverage of the bike path plan in the New York Times. To Moses’s credit, when discussing the impact of the Central Park bike path on cars driving through the park, he offers a surprisingly prescient argument for a road diet:

"All of these pavements," Mr. Moses said, "are now unnecessarily wide, and reducing their width by one lane will have no material effect on the movement of traffic though the park."

  • ddartley

    I love how children are “a hazard to motorists.”

    One remaining problem is that the overwhelming majority of “parents and others interested in the welfare of the youth of the city,” STILL believe that there is a need to keep children off public streets.

    People in the livable streets movement MUST keep hammering away at getting the idea out there that streets are safer when they’re more crowded with humanity, compelling motorists to proceed with great caution. Presently, NYC streets are so almost there (teeming with pedestrians) but just not quite.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’m glad to see this post, because I believe history is important. The fact is, the automobile pushed pedestrians, bicycles, streetcars, and street vendors off the street. The pre-automobile era, when all had access to the street, could be called Era 1.

    Robert Moses was the top planning expert during the later phase of the time when this was happening. His response was to try to accomodate all those displaced elsewhere, as this article indicates. He also built lots of small parklets everywhere in the city. And LaGuardia built buildings for the street vendors.

    Let’s call the era when other places were provided for those pushed off the street Era 2.

    Beginning in the 1960s and at an accelerated pace during the fiscal crisis, those other places deteriorated, leaving children (among others) without access to the street OR recreational facilities elsewhere. Era 3.

    Era 4? A partial recovery, but faster in areas where the people are willing and able to donate money to the government — Central Park, Prospect Park.

    Era 5?

  • The Highwayman

    I propose the 9th Avenue protected bike lane be renamed “Robert Moses Keep-The-Cars-Safe-From-Bikers Protected Bike Lane.”

    What ever happened to the 58 miles of bike lane? Obviously, the plan was not quite executed.

    On behalf of Robert Moses, I endorse this animation: http://homepage.mac.com/trorb/OpenPlanningProj/iMovieTheater196.html

    But, when do we get to see congestion pricing animated?

  • christine

    Highwayman, this is deep! .

    What is really needed is “protected car lanes”. Protected from the wild savagery of buses and bikes ..

    Now that the car is an endangered animal , we need to protect it …
    History shows that the protected species always get way less space than the unprotected ones…

    we have to start acting like the unprotected species.. it’s all in our heads

    Imagine the congestion pricing debate if the proposal had been:
    Gold ezpass lanes to get there faster . The W&B team ( Weiner and Brodsky ) would be clamoring for one or two on every crossing.

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