What Should We Learn From Moses and Jacobs?

There is probably no more beloved figure in urbanism than Jane Jacobs, who fought to preserve some of New York City’s most treasured neighborhoods and who gave urbanists some of the field’s fundamental texts. As Ed Glaeser notes in the New Republic this week, Jacobs died in 2006 "a cherished, almost saintly figure," while her principal antagonist, Robert Moses, remains popularly reviled as a villain.

3227424_t346.jpgJane Jacobs (center, in light dress) demonstrates at New York City’s old Penn Station. Photo: Metropolis

But as American cities have outgrown their infrastructure in recent decades, and as political institutions have proven unable to muster the energy necessary to construct great projects, Moses’ reputation has enjoyed something of a recovery. Increasingly, he is being actively rehabilitated in new histories and essays, of which Glaeser’s review is an example.

These efforts are interesting because they manage to earn a degree of sympathy from urbanists themselves, who have grown increasingly tired of the decades required to navigate a transit line from planning stages to operation.

There is something very attractive about an individual who can drive the stakes and get the project built — damn the politicians, and damn the NIMBYs.

But this is dangerous territory. In rehabilitating Moses and reconsidering Jacobs, it’s important to be clear about where each was right, and where each went wrong.

There are many ways to interpret the clash between Moses and Jacobs: development versus preservation, city versus suburb, design for people versus design for automobiles, power versus powerlessness, and so on. To acknowledge that the balance has swung too far in one direction in one of these conflicts does not at all suggest that the balances are similarly out of whack on others.

Take, for example, one of Glaeser’s principal intellectual standbys: that resistance to development slows the growth of housing supply, increasing housing costs. Glaeser says:

Jacobs underestimated the value of new construction—of building up.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities argues that at
least one hundred homes per acre are necessary to support exciting
stores and restaurants, but that two hundred homes per acre is a
“danger mark.” After that point of roughly six-story buildings, Jacobs
thought that neighborhoods risked sterile standardization. (The one
public housing project that Jacobs blessed, at least initially, had
only five stories.) But keeping great cities low means that far too few
people can enjoy the benefits of city life. Jacobs herself had the
strange idea that preventing new construction would keep cities
affordable, but a single course in economics would have taught her the
fallacy of that view. If booming demand collides against restricted
supply, then prices will rise.

The best way to keep cities affordable is to allow private
developers to build up and deliver space. Jacobs was right that
high-rise public housing is a problem, as street crime is much more
prevalent in high-rise, high-poverty neighborhoods. But in more
prosperous, privately managed buildings, height is not a problem. If
you love cities, as Jacobs certainly did, then presumably you should
want the master builders to make them accessible to more people.

In this, Glaeser has a point. The opportunities to live in walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods are extremely limited, and so safe, walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods tend to be quite expensive. When regulations or NIMBYs block new developments, they limit access to this already limited supply, in the process hurting the causes of affordable housing and environmental sustainability.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to understand the ferocity of urban anti-development forces without reference to the battles that hardened their views.

In Washington D.C., where I live, urbanists are routinely frustrated by neighborhood groups opposing new infill developments around Metro stations. These individuals are often outraged by the encroachment upon their neighborhoods and reluctant to listen to the arguments in favor of new walkable, transit-oriented developments around what is a very valuable piece of transit infrastructure. This is occasionally maddening.

But these neighborhood groups were often forged in the highway battles of the 1970s, when planners sought to run freeways through Washington neighborhoods to downtown. Where the highway and public housing builders were successful, neighborhoods were irreparably damaged. The stubbornness is a reaction to the insensitivity of earlier cohorts of urban planners. Had Moses and his ilk been less Moses-like, Glaeser would not find himself so frustrated by construction limits today.

It’s also worth asking whether Glaeser’s ire is best directed at urban neighborhoods, rather than suburban ones. If you love cities, and if you love the things that cities do well, perhaps you should take aim at the heavily regulated, extremely low-rise metropolitan periphery.

Consider this: The Bronx is home to about 1.4 million people who live on 42 square miles — a remarkably dense area by American standards. Next door in Westchester County, about 950,000 people live on 433 square miles — dense for America but much less dense than the Bronx.

In 2004, the Bronx permitted the construction of nearly 5,000 new housing units to Westchester’s 1,800. The following year, the numbers were again 5,000 for the Bronx, and only 1,300 for Westchester.

Tiny, dense Bronx County seems to be doing a much better job accommodating new housing units, regulations and all. And this is no outlier. Queens packs more people onto less land than neighboring Nassau County, and suffers from New York’s burdensome zoning regulations, and yet Queens managed to approve far more housing in recent years than Nassau County.

Glaeser could use some perspective. New York City packs more than 8 million people into 300 square miles, while the New York metropolitan area has 19 million people spread across over 6,000 square miles. If you doubled the density of the metro area outside the city, you’d make room for an additional 11 million people, while still keeping the metro population density below the level of the least dense New York City borough.

In other words, supply restrictions bind most in the suburbs. Were the suburbs developed on the scale Jacobs favored — think about those five-story buildings — the New York metro area might easily contain three times the housing units it currently has. That’s a lot of downward pressure on prices.

Glaeser also goes astray in confusing the importance of building infrastructure with the importance of building a certain kind of infrastructure. He says:

Jacobs was right that cities are built for people, but they are also
built around transportation systems. New York was America’s premier
harbor, and the city grew up around the port. The meandering streets of
lower Manhattan were laid down in a pedestrian age. Washington Square
was urban sprawl in the age of the omnibus. The Upper East Side and
Upper West Side were built up in the age of rail, when my
great-grandfather would take the long elevated train ride downtown from
Washington Heights. It was inevitable that cars would also require
urban change. Either older cities would have to adapt, or the
population would move entirely to the new car-based cities of the

When Henry Ford made the car affordable, millions of Americans
understandably wanted to drive. After all, the average commute by car
in the United States is twenty-four minutes, whereas the average
commute by public transit is forty-eight minutes. The automobile
certainly created great challenges for every older city that was built
at highway-less higher densities. No matter what Jacobs thought, there
simply was not a car-less option for New York. For the city to continue
growing and changing and leading the world, it needed to be retrofitted
for the automobile. And that enormous task was given to Moses. Perhaps
he did too much for the car. I am certainly on Jacobs’s side on the
Lomex issue, and cannot possibly approve of the destruction of Tremont;
but New York’s fall would have been far more precipitous if it had
ignored the automobile altogether.

It is hard today to accept the allegation that Moses was responsible
for New York’s demise. The troubles that New York experienced in the
1970s were hardly unusual. Except for Los Angeles, every one of the ten
largest American cities in 1950 lost at least 10 percent of its
population over the next thirty years. New York is exceptional not in
its decline but in its resilience, and perhaps Moses deserves some
credit for that. New York and Los Angeles are the only two of those ten
big mid-century cities that have gained population over the past sixty

For a New Yorker, Glaeser has an odd sense of the attractive qualities of his home city. The people aren’t there for the highway bridges. New York City in particular — and Manhattan specifically — are the least auto-friendly parts of the entire country, Moses or no. And yet, as Glaeser admits, they continue to grow. Maybe Moses saved New York, or maybe he risked its future unnecessarily by threatening to destroy the density that makes it so vibrant.

And meanwhile, we have counterexamples. London opted not to build any motorways through the heart of the city, and yet it has managed to remain one of only a handful of global financial and cultural capitals.

Glaeser fails to entertain the obvious hypothetical: What might have happened to New York if Moses had focused instead on transit and rail construction, rather than accommodation of the automobile?

robert_moses.jpgRobert Moses. Photo: Cup of Cha

Glaeser might respond that this would have been silly, that the automobile was a superior technology which had to be adopted. When there are a few automobiles in the city, yes, the car is superior. But a car isn’t like an iPod. If everyone in New York carries around an iPod, things can go on pretty much as they did before, only everyone has a better piece of technology. But if everyone in New York drives a car, then the result is a catastrophic traffic jam.

The difficult question, then, is not whether to make some accommodations for the automobile but how to do so. And it’s not at all clear that Moses’ approach was the right one, or indeed, even a very good one.

We have good evidence that Glaeser, and Moses, are wrong. To cite just one example, a 2006 paper by Nathaniel Baum-Snow reads (emphasis mine):

Between 1950 and 1990, the aggregate population of central cities in
the United States declined by 17 percent despite population growth of
72 percent in metropolitan areas as a whole. This paper assesses the
extent to which the construction of new limited access highways has
contributed to central city population decline. Using planned portions
of the interstate highway system as a source of exogenous variation,
empirical estimates indicate that one new highway passing through a
central city reduces its population by about 18 percent
. Estimates
imply that aggregate central city population would have grown by about
8 percent had the interstate highway system not been built.

What New Yorkers were after wasn’t the car, specifically; it was the promise of mobility offered by the car. But the job of city planners is to understand how to improve mobility across the entire city and region.

Given the density of New York, the space occupied by automobiles and parking structures, and the sheer cost of land in the city, construction of expensive, low capacity roadways seems like a poor decision.

Ed Glaeser is right when he says: "Successful cities need both the human interactions of Jane Jacobs and the enabling infrastructure of Robert Moses." But he seems unable to grasp that successful cities need city-oriented infrastructure, which actively facilitates those human interactions.

Most of the people who work in New York don’t get there by driving, on Moses’ highways or any other streets. They take transit, and many others can bike or walk thanks to the density that transit facilitates.

Moses didn’t just get the means wrong, he also messed up the ends. And if present and future master builders don’t learn better than he — and Glaeser — how infrastructure serves a city, they’ll likely end up as loathed as Moses himself.

  • Patrick

    Right on. What’s gotten in to Glaeser lately? Keep on kickin’ ass, Ryan.

  • vnm

    Two points.

    1) The Bronx housing boom is benefiting enormously from the concerted effort (money and policy incentives) on the part of the public sector affordable housing apparatus. The great New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the great New York City Housing Development Corporation, the great New York State Housing Finance Agency, and others public and private housing organizations are rebuilding the lots that burned in the 1970s and 1980s at the same scale as what existed before the crisis period. In the area lumped together under the term “South Bronx” in the 1970s-1980s, i.e., south of Fordham Road from the Bronx River to the Harlem River, I have never observed any significant, well-organized nimbyism to the kind of developments these agencies finance, which is to say, big apartment buildings restricted to low-income and in some cases moderate-income households. I am not sure whether Westchester County has similar conditions favorable to development, but generally the phrase “low-income housing” sends shivers up the spines of suburban officials.

    2) Speaking of Jacobs and Moses, everyone who is not yet reading Wrestling With Moses” by Anthony Flint, published a month ago, needs to start now. It is nothing short of tremendous.

  • JK

    Very nice essay with one misstep, Avent writes “The job of city planners is to understand how to improve mobility across the entire city and region.” No, it’s the job of planners to improve access to desirable destinations. The opportunity cost of dense, pedestrian and transit oriented cities is less mobility as measured by how far and how fast one can travel. The benefit of those cities is that destinations are much closer and the urban environment more varied and interesting.

  • garyg

    Ryan Avent,

    We have good evidence that Glaeser, and Moses, are wrong. To cite just one example, a 2006 paper by Nathaniel Baum-Snow reads:

    We have good evidence that Nathaniel Baum-Snow’s conclusion in that paper is false and that Glaeser and Moses are right. See Highway Penetration of Central Cities:
    Not a Major Cause of Suburbanization
    . Quote:

    Our look at Western Europe confirms that suburbanization is the norm, in line with our simple dynamics of growth discussion. Suburbanization abroad occurred without the highway penetration story that Baum-Snow elaborates. There are, then, strong reasons to doubt the conclusion that highway penetration of central cities was a major cause of suburbanization in the United States.

  • Boris


    Actually, Nathaniel Baum-Snow being wrong doesn’t make Glaeser and Moses right. Moses’s strategy for accommodating the automobile was still wrong. And in Europe, for example, the strategy for accommodating the automobile was right. It doesn’t matter if suburbs exist; what matters is whether they suck life out of cities by demanding that cities adjust to the suburbs’ demand of auto-centric transportation planning.

    There is also the question of whether it’s appropriate to apply the US definition of “urban area” or “central city” to European cities, since it’s quite plausible that European suburbs have city-like density, which makes the central city vs. suburb distinction irrelevant. A family migrating from a flat in London to a flat in Greenwich is very different from a family migrating from an apartment in a 10-story building in New York to a single family home in Greenwich, CT.

  • I agree, Boris. I think the point is that the lack of progress towards creating new “urban infrastructure” during the period of exceptional global growth beginning around 1900 was the key reason why our cities became more suburban in character — not that highways penetrating the city had any major impact themselves.

    In other words, even if Moses’s Greenwich Village and Midtown highways had been built, New York as a whole probably wouldn’t have looked that much different. It would have become a primarily-suburban metro area with a dense historic core either way. Midtown might be a little denser, or it might be a little less dense, but the number of residents and corporations would probably be the same.

    But on the other hand, if Moses had been able to spearhead numerous new subway and rail lines throughout Westchester and New Jersey, we might have ended up with a more transit-friendly region, like Tokyo.

    I think that’s why you need a combination of Jacobs and Moses – without their combined skill sets, you’re left up a creek.

    BTW I agree that “suburbanization” has been just as rapid, if not more rapid, in and around European capital cities (which have no highways penetrating their cores) as it has been in the U.S., though in some cases it’s true that development patterns have been more energy-efficient and dense in Europe. However, this is probably due primarily to development and land use policies, not just the slightly larger amount of investment in transit and lower affordability of private cars in Europe.

    Overall, suburbanization has been inevitable throughout the world because of the desirability and affordability of land outside the center, and the better transportation options there. Suburbanization has been more rapid over the past 10 years than any other period of history. Unfortunately for many city lovers and environmentalists, most predict that this trend will continue for many decades to come.

    To make the most of this inevitable situation, we need both Jacobs and Moses to come to our rescue. Who will step up to the plate?

  • Noah Kazis

    I think that the more sophisticated argument for Moses isn’t that he made New York friendly for the car; as Ryan said, he didn’t, relatively. It’s much more plausible, however, that Moses did what was necessary to keep New York over a certain threshold of auto-accessibility. It’s not hard to imagine that without the truly massive infrastructure Moses created New York would have been so uniquely unfriendly to cars (and more importantly, trucks) that it truly would have suffered. No other city would have been even close to that “threshold.”

  • garyg

    Overall, suburbanization has been inevitable throughout the world because of the desirability and affordability of land outside the center, and the better transportation options there. Suburbanization has been more rapid over the past 10 years than any other period of history. Unfortunately for many city lovers and environmentalists, most predict that this trend will continue for many decades to come.

    Yes. The “better transportation options,” of course, are private automobiles. Buses and trains running fixed routes on fixed schedules will never be able to compete effectively against cars on speed, comfort, convenience and flexibility. Once a democratic society becomes rich enough for mass ownership of private automobiles, suburbanization and sprawl seem to be the inevitable result, unless they’re precluded by geographic barriers.

  • Ryan, Streetsblog. We would like to cross-publish this fine piece on World Streets – http://www.worldstreets.org. With of course all the usual citations, credits. Might that be possible? Eric Britton, editor@worldstreets.org

    And if that works, we would need a pic plus a few lines of background that will allow our readers to understand where this is coming from.

  • Peter Smith

    Moses’s strategy for accommodating the automobile was still wrong. And in Europe, for example, the strategy for accommodating the automobile was right.

    I’d argue that any strategy for accommodating the automobile was wrong, by definition. Automobiles should not have ever been tolerated anywhere, especially near dense populations. And, of course, we should not tolerate them now just because they exist in such great numbers — we should treat automobiles like we treated smallpox — aim for complete eradication.

    The idea that New York City would have somehow suffered due to a lack of cars or car infrastructure seems pretty zany to me, but I’m no transportation historian/economist/whatever. It just seems to me that if you substitute modes of transportation/culture/etc. that are fundamentally compatible with human life (walking, biking, trains, subways, ferries, etc.) to replace those that are fundamentally incompatible with human life (automobiles) — you get a boon in quality of life and productivity with a natural ‘exponential multiplying effect’ (healthier, happier, more productive people, diversity, year-over-year, etc.) that would more than make up for any positive effects that could be generated by auto motorization. Not to mention, you probably stay a lot closer to ‘sustainable’ than you ever could with automobiles. This is the direction I see New York City going right now, and other cities to a lesser extent/less quickly.

    All the talk of Moses seems to be aimed at getting us to say, “Yes – some of what Moses did was good.” And that will allow city-wreckers to build support for the notion that ‘we need some Jacobs _and_ some Moses to be successful’. And while that might be technically true on some academic level, it’s not worth conceding that Moses was anything other than a criminal who, in a just world, would have died behind bars for his many crimes against humanity. Sure, I love the fact that he hated driving. I’m sure he was a lovely person on an individual level who loved his family, took care of his kids, never beat the dog, etc. But even if all this were true, does that mean I’d have to admit that ‘we need a little bit of Moses, too’ when we’re talking about how our cities and towns should be built? Heck no.

    p.s. I wonder if the Pittsburgh Steelers have valet bicycle parking? http://bike-pgh.org/

  • latron


    You claim that “Highway Penetration of Central Cities: Not a Major Cause of Suburbanization” provides “good evidence” that Nathaniel Baum-Snow’s conclusions are flawed. However, a close read of the study shows it has considerable shortcomings of its own. First, European cities tend to be supremely well-served by rail networks, and these can be the means to core-city population loss without the brutal effects of highway insertion. Second, even if some European cities don’t have “rays” that Baum-Snow centers on, center-to-suburb highways are plentiful — for example, in Paris limited-access roads were built along large sections of the Seine, routed under preexisting bridges. On a final note, look at the other publications of one of the study’s authors, Wendell Cox. They include such stellar works as “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life” and “The Wal-Mart Revolution.”

    Whatever questions might be raised about Nathaniel Baum-Snow’s analysis, he at least doesn’t come at his subject with readymade conclusions.

  • garyg


    I think you missed the point. Cox et al’s basic argument is that suburbanization would have most likely have happened even without the highways. Highways didn’t cause the suburbanization of American cities; they are simply the dominant type of link between suburbs and central cities in the U.S. In Europe, as you say, rail links are more common. But rampant suburbanization is a feature of both continents.

  • Benjamin Hemric

    I just saw a link to this thread on the “Discovering Urbanism” website and would like to mention that about a week or two ago I wrote an extensive mini-review of Glaeser’s review of “Wrestling With Moses” (which I read earlier this summer) which was posted on the “City Comforts” website.

    I hope those who are interested in the topic (urbanism, Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, etc.) will visit that thread, which is dated September 5, 2009 and entitled, “Edward Glaesner on Jacobs and Moses.” Although in the past I’ve agreed with Glaesner on a number of issues, I believe this particular essay of his contains a number of very substantial errors (e.g., on urban density, on Jacobs’ criticisms of Moses, etc.) which I discuss in my review.

    Here’s a link:


    If the link doesn’t work, the “City Comforts” website and blog can easily be found by entering “City Comforts” into a search engine.


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