Robert Moses’s Fundamental Misunderstanding

In the latest issue of the Regional Plan Association’s Spotlight on the Region newsletter, editor Alex Marshall has an outstanding essay responding to the recent burst of Robert Moses revisionism. An excerpt:  

It all comes down to capacity. Like many people of his generation, I’m convinced, Moses essentially didn’t understand the different capabilities of different modes of transportation, despite his learning and education. A freeway at top capacity can move only a few thousand vehicles per hour, and all those vehicles have to be put somewhere once they arrive where they’re going. That means many lanes of freeways and many parking lots and garages chewing up prime real estate.

By comparison, a subway or commuter train can move tens of thousands of people per hour, and they all arrive without the need to store a vehicle. This essential fact is why Manhattan can have dozens of skyscrapers, which not incidentally produce millions in salaries, profits and taxes, crammed right next to each other without any parking lots.

Moses’ vision of New York, if he had completed it, would have essentially downsized large parts of the city. At the MCNY exhibit, there’s one artist’s conception of what Soho would look like after the highway was cut through it. It essentially looked like Dallas or Houston – a broad boulevard lined with Edge City style office buildings. And whether you love or hate Dallas, it’s a far less productive city than New York, when calculated on a per square foot basis.

This is what happened to much of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, which are still recovering from the damage Moses did. The boroughs are not only less hospitable because of the worst of Moses’ freeways; they are also less productive.

  • AD

    In the NYT’s January 28 preview to the exhibitions on Moses, Robin Pogrebin in summarizing the ideas of Prof. Hilary Ballon, wrote: “And were it not for Moses’ public infrastructure and his resolve to carve out more space, she argues, New York might not have been able to recover from the blight and flight of the 1970s and ’80s and become the economic magnet it is today.”

    Absolute utter crap!

    In fact, the exact opposite is true. By providing a means for people to flee New York City (the highways), and a reason to leave (blight caused by the highways, and greatly increased traffic throughout the city, with its honking and air pollution), Moses caused the flight on the 1970s and ’80s. Thanks to renewed interest in transit, we’re only now digging out of the hole he dug.

  • Here is a comment I posted on Planetizen, in response to a comment that NY should build a statue honoring Moses:

    A Statue of Robert Moses

    I have found the perfect place for a statue of Robert Moses, to commemorate the changes he brought to New York.

    There is a circle at the west corner of Prospect Park where Ocean Parkway used to begin. It is hard to imagine what this corner was like when it was first built, but it must have been a high point in the history of New York’s urban design. Frederick Law Olmstead considered Prospect Park his greatest creation; the boulevards radiating from the corners of the park were the key to Olmstead’s planning vision for Brooklyn; and Ocean Parkway was the most completely realized of these boulevards.

    Robert Moses destroyed the stretch of Ocean Parkway nearest to Prospect Park in order to build a sunken freeway there, the Prospect Expressway. The boulevard that tied together the neighborhood was replaced by a freeway that sliced up the neighborhood. Shortly after Moses did this, the rest of Ocean Parkway was declared a landmark, so no one could do the same sort of damage to the rest of this boulevard.

    This circle must have been a popular place for pedestrians when it was first built. The intact parts of Ocean Parkway are still full of people sitting and strolling, and this circle must have been even more lively, because it connected Ocean Parkway with Prospect Park.

    Today, it is an empty circle full of weeds with a freeway passing by it. This circle is an ideal place for a statue of Robert Moses, with a plaque describing how he changed this neighborhood.

    Because there are no pedestrians here, the statue is bound to be vandalized and covered with graffiti, exactly what Robert Moses deserves for vandalizing this neighborhood.

    But if the damage that Robert Moses did to this neighborhood is ever undone – if the freeway is removed and the boulevard is restored – then the crowds of people on the boulevard will deter the graffiti artists. If Moses’ act of vandalism is ever undone, then his statue will no longer be vandalized.

  • One thing we should remember was that Moses was wildly popular (except in his hilariously awful run at the Governor’s chair in 1934) and for a long time people absolutely loved the highways and parks and access to the beach and state parks. It was only until the average middle class person could afford to buy and use a car anytime they wanted that traffic started to spin out of control.

    Sometimes giving the people what they want in the short term is not good for anyone in the medium to long run. Something for those 2030 folks to keep in mind.

  • JK

    This is the best short commentary I’ve read on Robert Moses. Alex Marshall is in great form — good posts here too.

  • An undoing-Moses initiative, which we hope to bring to a head under new state leadership:

  • crzwdjk

    The sad thing is, since Moses’ time, New York has not built a single major piece of transportation infrastructure. The only things built in the region have either been in New Jersey, or built by the semi-autonomous Port Authority. This is partly a result of the bankruptcy of the city, which is at least in part due to Moses’ projects, partly a result of needing to bring the subways and railroads back to a state of good repair after years of Moses-promoted neglect, and partly as a result of the general mistrust of, and restrictions on, large projects, which were put in place to prevent another Robert Moses. Not only did he build his own destructive vision of transportation infrastructure, he also made sure that nobody would build anything else, for a long, long time.

  • AD

    Well said crzwdjk.

  • Nicolo Macchiavelli

    Regarding Jason’s lead however, it is naive or ignorant to think that vehicle storage is not an issue for mass transit equipment. The much maligned “Atlantic Yards” serves partially as just such a storage or “lay-up” yard. The many bus depots, mostly in the outer boroughs, serve a parallel role, constantly under attack from the NIMBY abutters. That mass transit basically is more efficient even in storage by a factor of 100% only proves the rule but nonetheless don’t tell anyone with a back yard up against a rail storage yard that it is not there.

  • J:Lai

    Macchiavelli – what you say is true, but the amount of storage required is less by orders of magnitude. Buses can carry approx 10x the amount of people per sq foot of road space as private cars with average number of passengers, and subways or light rail even more. Thus, the number of public transport vehicles to be stored take up vastly less space than private cars for the equivalent number of passengers.

    Regarding Robert Moses, he is probably the most destructively influential figure in NYC history. I would say that robert moses contributed to the 80’s blight of the city even more than crack cocaine.

    I may be on the fringe here, but I believe that transportation is and has been for a long time the single most important issue for NYC, far more than anything else.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I’ve been thinking about this article all afternoon. I generally agree with Marshall’s mind-reading of Moses, but in the details, I think Moses did understand the difference in capacity between roads and trains, and the relationship between capacity and density. He may not have completely grasped the concept of induced demand, which is really the key.

    What Moses really didn’t seem to understand (or maybe didn’t care about) was the effect of density on productivity and livability. He also didn’t seem to get (or didn’t care about) the proportionally larger amount of pollution (air, noise and visual) caused by roads and cars, the proportionally greater danger caused by cars, and their effect on quality of life.

    Finally, a reading of Caro’s biography suggests that Moses cared more for the middle class and their desire for “independence” than for the poor and their basic transportation needs. His modernism also seems to have blinded him to any possibility that automobiles were not the best transportation solution for a given problem.

    I think all these factors make it hard to pin dissatisfaction with Moses on any one factor.

  • AD

    Moses was a product of a brand of 20th century thinking my grad school transportation professor called "autotopia."

    They fixated on the benefits of the car while marginalizing its problems. And for a person born in 1888, these really were wonderful benefits. Enclosed, private point-to-point transportation without manuer or a mind of its own.

    And because it didn’t exist yet, they couldn’t conceive of a world totally overrun by the car. In an age of rapid technological advancement, I am sure if they thought about air pollution at all they thought it was a temporary byproduct that would solved in the future (and maybe it still will be).

    As far as not knowing about the capacities of various lines, I think they/he understood it perfectly, but wanted to decongest the city. They had memories of the miserable slums of the five points and the Lower East Side, and worked to eradicate the population density and the form of the housing that existed there, not knowing that this type of construction — the low-rise walkable rowhouse and the tenement building — would be considered charming and exciting by a future generation of people who grew up in the suburbs and found them socially stultifying.

    They thought the city was a dirty, noisy, factory-filled and polluted: An obsolete product of an earlier economic era, and through planned shrinkage we could all live in much smaller utopias, in harmony (ironically) with nature.

  • crzwdjk

    “They thought the city was a dirty, noisy, factory-filled and polluted”
    Not to mention covered in manure. Cars are, on the whole, an improvement in terms of urban pollution. Imagine what the city would be like if all the cars were replaced by horses. The streets would be covered with a nice thick layer of manure, and the smell… Even for all the destructiveness of cars, it’s still better than walking around ankle-deep in excrement.

  • “Imagine what the city would be like if all the cars were replaced by horses.”
    It good that cars replaced horse-drawn vehicles; but the total number of vehicles also soared, because cars also replaced pedestrian and transit trips.

    I have two pictures of Lexington Ave. and 116th St.

    In the first, taken in about 1910, there are wide sidewalks, lots of people walking, and exactly one vehicle, a horse-drawn wagon being used for street maintenance. It looks very quiet and peaceful.

    In the second, taken in the 1970s, the sidewalks have been narrowed, and the widened streets are filled with cars. It looks congested and frantic.

  • P

    To be fair, 116th Street would have been like the country side compared to, say, the Lower East Side. I have to imagine a photograph there would have a vastly different impact.

  • ABG

    According to this, East Harlem was almost as overcrowded as the LES. ‘In the mid-1920’s, the district had the distinction “of having the most populated block in the city. . . . Five thousand human beings in one city street . . . .”’:

    However, it mentions that 116th Street was fancier, known as “Doctors’ Row.”

    So with the first picture you’re playing old Yiddish or Neapolitan songs in the background, and with the 70s picture it’s Tito Puente?

  • P

    My mistake.

  • ABG

    It’s an easy one to make; I didn’t know anything about the history of East Harlem’s settlement until I found that page last night.

  • David Chesler

    They had memories of the miserable slums of the five points and the Lower East Side, and worked to eradicate the population density and the form of the housing that existed there, not knowing that this type of construction — the low-rise walkable rowhouse and the tenement building — would be considered charming and exciting by a future generation of people who grew up in the suburbs and found them socially stultifying.

    I haven’t followed the latest trends. Are suburbanites now living 10 to an apartment with a shared kitchen and minimal plumbing?

    You were on track for a while. Moses was trying to get rid of some nasty conditions. His primary failure, IMNSHO, was thinking that central planning could do a better job than letting people improve themselves, and along with that underestimating the strengths of those old poor (and ethnically segregated) neighborhoods.

    Seriously, are there any old cities that had those slums that didn’t get urbanly renewed in the postwar period that are better off for it?

  • Fran Taylor

    Living near one freeway ramp in San Francisco and working near another may be cruel and unusual punishment, but it also provides frequent opportunities for observation. One phenomenon always puzzled me. Bay Bridge onramps and the streets leading up to them could be utterly gridlocked, nothing moving through several light changes, while traffic a few blocks away, though still heavy at rush hour, would flow. Traffic that was completely balled up during a Critical Mass ride would have started moving again a short time later when the Mass passed again or individual riders peeled off and doubled back. How could this be? Shouldn’t the mighty multilane freeway have the advantage over cramped multiuse city streets?

    The explanation came from an unexpected source. Ivor van Heerden is the deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center and author of The Storm, What Went Wrong During Hurricane Katrina—The Inside Story From One Louisiana Scientist, a damning account of the levee failures in New Orleans. He happened to be giving a lecture to coincide with the book release last spring when I was volunteering in New Orleans with the Common Ground Collective, and my partner and I went.

    In the middle of a blistering account of the incompetence of the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, the White House, and so on, van Heerden asserted that some levee failure was largely the fault of Mister Go. The New Orleanians filling the auditorium nodded knowingly, while the two dumb-ass San Franciscans stared at each other and asked, “Mister WHO?” Mister Go is the local nickname for the Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet (MR-GO), a channel dug in 1965 to connect the Intercoastal Waterway that flows through New Orleans with the Gulf of Mexico, lopping off 40 twisty miles down the lower Mississippi. It’s known in the Crescent City as an expensive, environmentally disastrous boondoggle.

    The argument van Heerden made, complete with maps and diagrams of storm surge heights and wind directions, showed how the high water driven by Katrina was concentrated at the eastern end of Mister Go and its force amplified by the narrow, deep channel that sent the water rushing west toward the city, with devastating impact on the levees. Meanwhile, miles of wetlands and barrier islands that in the past had absorbed and dispersed such storm surges had been destroyed by oil and gas exploration and development. Their beneficial effect was gone.

    Suddenly, it hit me. Storm surge equals heavy traffic, Mister Go equals freeway, wetlands equals city streets. The analogy is a bit far-fetched, but it’s stood up to subsequent observation. Concentrating traffic on freeways doesn’t remove it from city streets; it just amplifies the impact in certain locations. Communities near freeway ramps know the argument that freeways help reduce traffic is garbage. Cars don’t drop onto freeways from helicopters. They clog up the ramps and spread the mess back from there.

  • New Yorkers of a
    certain age still remember protesting the 1964 opening of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, because Moses would not complete the designed bicycle and pedestrian paths across the Narrows. We, at the AYH Bike Committee, learned in 1963 that Moses told Othmar Ammann to remove the paths, so that the bad publicity from possible suicides would not impact his TBTA bond ratings. Removing the paths did not stop suicides, people just drive up, usually during rush hours, dump the car, block traffic and then jump. One poor fellow made it up there in a taxi.

    Moses 1963 decision was just the final act of his conversion from a young Jedi Knight performing wondrous feats in the urban realm in the 1920s and 30s, even if quite a bit warped at the edges, into the Darth Vader of Urban
    Planning. One can date Moses’ descent into the Dark Side of the Force at Word War II. The last great non-motorized project Moses completed was the bicycle-pedestrian network along the Belt Parkway greenways through Brooklyn and Queens, which opened June 1941.

    Moses’ first act following the war was to demolish the bike-ped pathways from the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge in 1946, to squeeze on more cars. Everything Moses did after WW II put the car first, people second.

    Robert Caro’s The Power Broker came out in 1974, followed by StarWars in 1977. Coincidence?

    If one looks at Moses from this Darth Vader perspective, one can see both his power and greatness, as well as the warped perspective of his creations that have circumscribed New York for the past 80 years.

  • Mitch

    Re 6: This is partly a result of the bankruptcy of the city, which is at least in part due to Moses’ projects,…

    Not really. The city was already bankrupt by the time Moses took charge of the Parks Department and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA). One major source of his power was his skill at building major public projects without spending the city’s money. Tolls and revenue bonds from TBTA to build auto-oriented transportation projects, and piles of New Deal money paid for parks and housing during the Thirties. A lot of his popularity (which lasted into the Fifties) was based on the role he played getting New York back on its feet.

    Unfortunately, his independence from taxpayer money implied independence from voters and elected officials. He could do what he wanted, in many cases, and a lot of what he wanted to do was not really in the City’s interests.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Mitch, I think Crzwdjk was referring to the 70s bankruptcy, not an earlier one. It’s true that one of the things that made Moses attractive to elected officials was his ability to get things built through bonds and tolls, without a lot of money spent upfront. But that toll money didn’t come from nowhere.

    I guess the question is, what would have happened if the city hadn’t had Moses in charge of the TBTA, and hadn’t floated all those bonds to build the bridges and “bridge approaches” (a.k.a. the BQE, GCP, LIE, Van Wyck, etc.) and then had to pay interest on them. Would people have spent all that toll money on subway tokens and LIRR tickets instead, perhaps funding some capital construction or at least people to clean graffiti? What if they didn’t run out and buy cars to drive over those bridges? Wouldn’t they have had more money to spend on other things, helping to grow our city’s economy instead of Detroit’s?

    I’m also trying to imagine someone worse than postwar Moses in charge of this stuff. It’s hard to imagine anyone in power being politically able to avoid building expressways even if they wanted to, but they probably wouldn’t have been as good at getting it done as Moses was. We might have ended up with a full-length LIE and Bruckner (say), but only a half-built BQE and Cross-Bronx, and no Sheridan, Clearview or Van Wyck.

  • The issue not discussed is his influence on generations of traffic engineers that replicated his work in cities big & small all over this country. Many cities have Moses to blame for how their neighborhoods were carved up by highways, for city streets widened for more and more cars. Everyone wanted to be like NYC.

  • Adam Zure

    Robert Moses was a savior for New York. Had he not come to power, I doubt that much of what he built would have come to fruition. The Triborough Bridge would likely still consist of just thirteen naked concrete pylons, as it was abandoned during the Walker administration.

    Also, there wouldn’t be any parkways or expressways across the city. The Cross Bronx would never have been built if not for Moses strong arming tactics to ‘get it done’. Imagine what transportation gridlock would _really_ be like with I-95 ending at the George Washington Bridge and not picking up again until the Connecticut border.

    Pedestrian and bicycle access at other bridges is somewhat in doubt nowadays following 9/11. One cannot walk across any of the other Staten Island toll bridges (Goethals, Outerbridge, Bayonne). Moses was right to block the walkways on the Verrazano Narrows — that bridge is far too long and remote for the average person to traverse.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    And the scenario you described would be a bad thing how, exactly, Adam?

  • David Chesler

    The George Washington Bridge predates I-95.
    I-95 could well have crossed the Hudson north of the City, like at I-287.
    Even if I-95 was to go through the South Bronx, could it have been done less with less disruption to existing neighborhoods?

    What does it matter if the “average” person wouldn’t use a bridge — there are plenty of above-average people in New York. The bridges between Staten Island and New Jersey are a lot shorter, there is no reason for them not to have roadways for human-powered. At least one of the Whitestone and Throggs Neck Bridges ought to have one as well. (Of course if the Cross Bronx hadn’t destroyed the South Bronx, I would have been a lot more willing to use the Triborough or the Harlem River crossings, not that that would have helped me get from the Bronx to Nassau County or even Flushing.)

    Not sure what 9/11 has to do with it. A lot of perfectly good access to a lot of places has been restricted using 9/11 as an excuse, but most of that isn’t necessary.

  • Scott Mercer

    “Imagine what the city would be like if all the cars were replaced by horses.”

    No, imagine what the city would be like if all the cars were replaced by streetcars.

    No manure problem there, folks. They have ZERO emisssions and are 100% electric. Even if you take into account coal burning power plants to produce the electricity that runs then (which is only the case sometimes) streetcars are still 95% more efficient than private automobiles.

    Yes, there is a storage problem, but multi-story car houses (including underground levels) could be built to minimize footprints.

    If New York had only streetcars and no subway system, you’d have no mass transit at all today, other than buses. That’s what happened in Los Angeles, home of the largest streetcar/interurban system in the world.

  • Adam Zure thinks the Verrazano is a Bridge Way Too Far for bicycle and pedestrian use. Each of the points in his comment are in error. Here are the correct facts:
    All of the NYC managed East River bridges have fully open bicycle and pedestrian paths. These paths provided critical emergency evacuation routes during 9/11 and the 2003 blackout for millions of New Yorkers. All the MTA Bridges & Tunnels (TBTA) bridges with walkways are fully open (only VNB, BW and TN are without paths). The Port Authority George Washington path is open, but PORT “budget constraints” on security funding close the path between midnight and 6 AM. Bomb laden trucks are, however, free to use the bridge at any hours.

    Access to the 3 Staten Island Port Authority bridges is mixed. The Bayonne Arch has a fully open pathway. The Gothels has paths that have been closed for extensive bridge maintenance for several years. One Gothels path is scheduled to reopen to non-motorized travel this year, possibly this spring. The Outerbridge, unfortunately, lost its paths in 1964 to widening of the narrow approach ramps. At that time, there had been a Tottenvile-Perth Amboy ferry so there was little demand for using the path. That ferry closed in 1964 parallel with the opening of the VNB, but now there was no alternate bridge path.

    As to the VNB, Zure writes “that bridge is far too long and remote for the average person to traverse.” The VNB once had the longest mainspan in the world, and is still a world class bridge. But for walking and biking, it is the overall sidewalk to sidewalk length that matters, and the VNB is only 10,000 feet or less than 2 miles end to end. To a non walker, this may sound like way too far, but for comparison, the Brooklyn Bridge Promenade is over 1 ½ miles long. The heavily used George Washington main span is just 700 feet shorter, and also just under 2 miles as well. Not mentioned by Zure, but typically included in the list of no-no’s, are: too windy; too steep; too much exhaust. With proper railings, no-one is going to be blown off. Over half a million bicyclists have crossed the VNB in all weather conditions, and wind was annoying but hardly a show stopper. The bridge has a 4 percent grade, only ¼ percent steeper than the Brooklyn Bridge, and well within handicapped grade limits.

    Remote is in the eye of the beholder, or is it lost behind the couch cushions? The VNB connects Bay Ridge Brooklyn, well liked but not known for rural charms, with the eastern shore of Staten Island, a mixed residential, waterfront park, historic fort, and link to the ferry location. Obviously, Zune has not noticed the thousands of walkers, runners and cyclists using Moses 1941 Shore Parkway paths, who come from all over Brooklyn, not just Bay Ridge, for the grand open view. The VNB paths would be have a direct off road connection from the waterfront to the bridge paths. How many of these thousands of recreation users would add the two miles of a VNB promenade to their runs and walks and rides?

    PORT traffic surveys show that 10 percent of the VNB car traffic has only an 8 mile door to door trip. This is well within bicycle range. How many drivers are ready to stop putting miles on their cars, stop paying tolls and get some exercise to ride less than 8 miles? The VNB has a world class view – just the same as the Golden Gate Bridge.

    The Golden Gate is out at the far tip of San Francisco, yet nearly every tourist to SFO makes the pilgrimage to walk on the bridge. We have the same goldmine tourist trap in the VNB. Anything that adds to a tourist’s stay in NYC adds revenue from hotels, restaurants and more. A walk across the VNB, tied to lunch in Bay Ridge and a Staten Island Ferry ride will add half a day to their stays.

    Finally, during the 2003 Blackout, thousands of SI residents were able to walk out of Manhattan on the bridges, trying to walk home, only to be stopped dead at the VNB. There was no path, there was not enough buses and the bridge police were not prepared to open a lane for people to walk across. NYC had an emergency evacuation crises here on a smaller scale than New Orleans, and like NO, failed to meet emergency needs.

    Mayor Bloomberg has stated that he does not consider the terrorism risk from to bridges from pedestrians or bicycles to be serious, certainly not in comparison to a truck that can be freely driven up on any of these bridges. The new MTA Director, Lee Sander, has expressed interest in reopening the VNB path completion.

    We need to complete the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge by installing the bicycle pedestrian paths it was designed for.

    Detailed information on the history and design options for the VNB paths can be found at:

    The web site of Neighborhood Open Space Coalition – at:

    There is a link there to the full NYC Dept of City Planning Report,
    which has been posted to the Transportation Alternatives web site:

    DCP Summary Report:

    NYC DCP – Amman and Whitney Task 5 technical report:

    Finally, a link to my 1976 Harvard VNB Study:
    A Bicycle Path For the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge:
    A Demand & Feasibility Study:

  • I have to agree that there a lot of insightful comments here.

  • Equally as sad is that because of the neglect during Michael Bloomberg’s administrations, NYC has returned to much of the same subway performance deterioration that plagued it for so many years prior to the US Senate intervention in the 1980s. And Bloomberg was a consumer of the service.


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