Saturday, December 22, 2012

The road to hell

In a previous post I asked if you could guess the author of these quotes:
"In every city throughout the country and in the sprawling suburbs surrounding the larger cities, traffic is piling up in swollen gasoline gullies, throttling industry, commerce and business; blocking street cleaning, fire and police apparatus; endangering the lives of men and women going to work, of mothers pushing baby carriages, and of children going to and from schools and playgrounds." 
"Fully half of all traffic deaths are due to speed. Cars have become more dangerous than wars." 
"The traffic accident cost to this nation is almost beyond belief." 
"[Regarding railroad crossings at grade] It is the highway, not the railroad--the car, not the train--which creates the hazard and must be primarily responsible for its [the grade crossing] removal."
It was a little unfair, as far as I can tell these quotes do not appear anywhere online except for the last one which appears verbatim in an FHWA manual for some reason.

Surprisingly, the quotes actually come from a little self-serving memoir/screed written in 1956 by none other than Robert Moses. Yes, that one.  His book was lined up next to Caro's magnum opus in the library, and I couldn't resist picking it up in addition for a little light holiday reading.
Trans-Manhattan Expressway (source)

Almost needless to say, Moses' methods at solving these problems drastically varies from current thinking. Here's a sample:
"Parkways were designed, built and protected for pleasant, careful driving. Cross traffic has been eliminated by attractive stone-faced bridges. Wide rights-of-way have been landscaped with native trees, flowing shrubs and evergreens. They have been developed as shoe-string parks with pavements for passenger cars only. All this is a useless expenditure for the speeders, who, at the rate they travel, cannot distinguish a rosebush from a bale of hay."
Can such a hardened political operator be so naïve as to think people would cruise slowly through isolated highways "just because" there was a bunch of pretty grass at the side? To be fair, it's not just Moses who thought this way, such parkways were popular all over, particularly in Boston. Of course, designers such as Olmsted at least had the fair excuse of being dead by the time speedy motorcars were prevalent. Sadly, a whole lot of urban parkland was turned into a stinking, congested, polluted car sewer by the time people thought better.
Cross Bronx Expressway (source)

Here's another few examples of Moses-style "solutions:"
"1. More drastic regulation of speed without regard to unrealistic, theoretically designed limits and political pressure for higher limits. 
2. Stopping the senseless advertising of high-speed motors as a basis of sales. 
3. An unrelenting campaign to acquaint the public with the cause and effect of accidents and especially the terrible danger of excessive speed."
So the roads would be designed and overbuilt for speed, but arbitrarily low limits should be enforced and politically backed. We know how well that "worked" out. And he seems to have favored government intrusion into cultural matters such as advertising, as if that would somehow deter Americans from wanting overpowered engines, if it could even pass constitutional muster (which I doubt).
"We need many additional regulations and restrictions governing the use of motor cars, not only to make them safer but to facilitate their movement and increase their usefulness to the community. Tighter zoning requirements would be enormously helpful. These cannot constitutionally be made retroactive, but they can be extended and enforced on new structure and the rebuilding of old ones, so as to require offstreet loading and unloading facilities and parking spaces for a reasonable number of cars on the premises."
Well, we did get safer cars since 1956. But we also got the "tighter zoning requirements" and that has been an unmitigated disaster for cities, turning so many of them into poor simulacra of bland suburbia that people fled in masses for actual suburbia.
G.W. Carver Houses in Spanish Harlem (source)

But the real kicker is this one, where he rants against "extremists" who,
"...demand that in city centers, including residential as well as business districts, all private cars be kept out, that we cut in half the present number of taxis, that no parking, even with meter regulations, be permitted, and that we abandon all tall buildings for low horizontal structures on large garden plots. Dull, worn-out officials and irresponsible planners join in such proposals. But the process of change must be evolutionary and in charge of those whose aim is to modernize not revolutionize, to preserve values, not destroy them."
I think we can safely agree that banning private cars, and tall buildings -- in favor of large garden plots with low buildings -- is a bad idea. But, oh, the chutzpah. This from the man who brought upon New York City the horrors of the superblock, tower-in-the-park style housing project. A city which, I might add, was in no danger of losing its tall buildings or cars. And finally, that he thought of himself as evolutionary, that he was preserving rather than destroying? To address that I'll add one final quote from Robert Caro, my favorite one so far, although there is plenty more to review (italics original):
Webster Ave in Tremont,
as seen from the Cross Bronx (source)
When he [Moses] replied to protests about the hardships caused by his road-building programs, he generally replied that succeeding generations would be grateful. It was the end that counted, not the means. "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." Once, in a speech, he said:
"You can draw any kind of picture you like on a clean slate and indulge your every whim in the wilderness in laying out a New Delhi, Canberra or Brasília, but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax."
The metaphor, like most Moses metaphors, was vivid. But it was incomplete. It expressed his philosophy, but it was not philosophy but feelings that dictated Moses' actions. He didn't just feel that he had to swing a meat ax. He loved to swing it.
Some preservationist he was.


  1. "I think we can safely agree that banning private cars, and tall buildings -- in favor of large garden plots with low buildings -- is a bad idea."

    No, in fact, we can not. In our dense urban centers we SHOULD ban private cars, for those centers would be better off for it in the medium and long run. (By the way, the argument that those drivers bring much-need business dollars is a flawed argument).

    1. Pretty sure that Moses was thinking of his contemporary Victor Gruen who had the idea of banning all cars from within cities and turning them into the equivalent of what would become malls surrounded by giant parking lots.

      That did not work out well, not for cities, nor for Gruen either.

    2. banning cars is one thing, and certainly a good option in some cases, but banning tall buildings too and making the whole thing low density is something entirely different.


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