Thursday, January 24, 2013

Induced demand in the 1930s

Let's take another look through the many-faceted opus, The Power Broker.

Anytime someone makes the excuse that "we need to widen the roads and build more parking lots to accommodate all the cars using it" just remind them that building more infrastructure for cars causes more traffic. This effect was noticed as early as the 1930s. Robert Caro vividly describes the effect of the earliest fully-grade-separated highways on New York:

Grand Central Parkway on a nice day (source)
The Grand Central, Interborough, and Laurelton parkways opened early in the summer of 1936 [...] One editorial opined that the new parkways would, by relieving the traffic load on the Southern and Northern State parkways, solve the problem of access to Moses' Long Island parks "for generations." 
The new parkways solved the problem for about three weeks. "It wasn't more than three weeks after they opened that I decided to go out to Jones Beach on a Sunday," Paul Windels recalls. "I got on the Interborough and by God it was as jammed as the Southern State ever was." Moses announced that he had the solution: build forty-five miles of new parkways [...] 
Some city planners noticed that the traffic pattern on Long Island had fallen into a set pattern: every time a new parkway was built, it quickly became jammed with traffic, but the load on the old parkways was not significantly relieved. If this had been the pattern for the first hundred miles of parkways, they wondered, might it not be the pattern for the next forty-five as well? [p. 515]
But when they suggested improved mass transit ideas that groups such as the Regional Plan Association had been proposing, they were ignored.

The approach to one span of the Triborough (aka RFK) Bridge (source)
The Triborough Bridge opened on July 11, 1936. [...]
On August 17, 1936, a little more than a month after the Triborough Bridge opened, Long Island's parkways were the scene of what some observers called the greatest traffic tie-up in the history of the metropolitan area. 
Referring to it as a "cross-country traffic jam," the Herald Tribune was forced to conclude that the bridge had, at least indirectly, caused it. [...]
Despite the heavy volume on the Triborough Bridge, Othmar Ammann [the chief engineer] said, "the relief of the traffic load on the Queensborough Bridge has not been as great as expected." But the Times editors evidently did not consider this fact particularly noteworthy. [...]
Traffic between Long Island and New York had, before Triborough's opening, flooded the twenty-two lanes available on the four old bridges; suddenly the traffic between Long Island and New York had become so heavy that it was also flooding eight new lanes, the new lanes of the Triborough Bridge---and it was hardly any lighter than before on the old bridges. [p. 518]
Again, Moses called for more parkways and what would become the Long Island Expressway. And again, the press went along with it.
The Wantagh State Parkway Extension was opened on December 17, 1938, three months ahead of schedule. [...] 
[It] did not receive its first real test of traffic-easing capacity until the first warm weekend morning of 1939. On that morning, it was jammed bumper to bumper for more than three miles. Traffic experts could not understand where those cars had come from. The other Long Island parkways, after all, were just as jammed as ever. [p. 517]
Having observed the problems, the RPA attempted to get provisions for a railroad link included on the proposed Bronx-Whitestone bridge. Moses refused to consider it.

The Bronx-Whitestone Bridge (source)
During 1940, the first full year of operation, 6,317,489 vehicles passed through the Bronx-Whitestone's toll booths, cramming its four lanes to capacity and causing massive tie-ups on it. Traffic on the Triborough was reduced by 122,519 vehicles. Traffic on the other four East River bridges was reduced not at all. In fact, it rose slightly. Somehow the new bridge had generated, in a single year, more than 6,000,000 new on-and-off-Island motor trips. [...]
Shortly after the bridge opened, Moses completed the road linking the bridge with Westchester County, the Hutchinson River Parkway. Soon, that was jammed too. [p.519]
At this point the book turns to the Gowanus Parkway, an elevated highway which ripped through the thriving Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park, and destroyed the heart of it on Third Avenue. It replaced the elevated train line of Third Avenue which was supposed to be taken down in favor of the newly constructed Fourth Avenue subway. Instead it was replaced by a massive concrete elevated highway and the four lane avenue beneath was widened into a 10-lane road to carry the trucks which Moses would not allow on his "parkway."



Below the Gowanus Expressway (formerly Parkway) (source)

The construction of the Gowanus Parkway, laying a concrete slab on top of lively, bustling Third Avenue, buried the avenue in shadow, and when the parkway was completed, the avenue was cast forever in darkness and gloom, and its bustle and life were forever gone. [...] Stores, restaurants and theaters had brought people to Third Avenue. Now half the stores, restaurants and theaters were gone.
The El had brought people through Third Avenue on their way to and from its stations. The parkway did not. Moreover, although the El had been a huge, gloomy structure, it was, as Cathy Wylde puts it, "one that people from the neighborhood relate to; they traveled on it, they were familiar with it." [...] "The highway was something different," Miss Wylde says. "It was noise, dirt, accidents, not lighted, a garbage dump, drag races along it in the night, wild kids, something totally negative. It was a tremendous psychological barrier. In a way you could say the people feared the highway." [...] Once the avenue had been a place for people; Robert Moses had made it into a place for cars. And as the avenue's roadway became more crowded, its sidewalks began to empty. [p. 523]
No sooner would Moses open the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel at one end of the Gowanus Parkway and the Belt Parkway at the other than the Gowanus would be jammed solid with traffic. At rush hours, the traffic trying to get up onto it would be backed up solid, spilling off the ramps and back into the neighborhood for blocks. [p. 525]



Merging into the Henry Hudson Parkway from the George Washington Bridge (source)


But quite possibly the largest project of this time period was the so-called West Side Improvement: the Henry Hudson bridge at the northernmost tip of Manhattan and the parkway connecting to the West Side Elevated Highway at 72nd Street. Moses claimed it only cost $24 million at the time, a figure wildly out of line with reality. Robert Caro estimates that the true cost was between $180 and $218 million in 1937, which would probably fall somewhere between $3,000 and $4,000 million in 2012 dollars. Besides the highway he did create a linear park, although much of it was blocked from the riverside by the highway. And the park suddenly vanishes when it reaches the part of Manhattan with the highest minority population at the time (Moses' racism is a whole topic unto itself). But we are on the topic of induced demand, so what happened with the West Side Improvement? No surprise to us:
Motorists pulling up to pay their tolls found themselves at the end of lines that seemed little, if any, shorter than the lines had been at the old Broadway bridge, whose congestion New York had considered intolerable. And there was another puzzling fact. Although the new bridge had been built to relieve the congestion on the old bridge, congestion on the old bridge had not been noticeably relieved. The lines of cars waiting to cross it were, in fact, almost as long as ever. [...]
The rush-hour jams were just as bad as the rush-hour jams had been on Riverside Drive before the West Side Improvement was built; reporters escorted over the West Side Improvement before it opened had found it reduced the time required for the nine-mile trip from sixty-eight minutes to twenty-six; now one of those reporters made the trip over the West Side Improvement at two rush hours---admittedly very bad ones---and found that on one trip it took fifty-eight minutes, on the other seventy-three. And looking at the situation that way, the total effect on traffic congestion of the West Side Improvement had been to move the congestion one block west---and yet there was still congestion on Riverside Drive, congestion that had been eased only slightly by the construction of a parallel route. [p. 563]

The Zakim Bridge leading into the Central Artery/Tunnel

Did we learn our lesson from this exercise in wasteful spending for little benefit and heavy cost to quality of life? Of course not. The Big Dig cost $15 billion before interest, and this is what the Boston Globe had to say about induced demand when they did some investigation:
Ultimately, many motorists going to and from the suburbs at peak rush hours are spending more time stuck in traffic, not less. The phenomenon is a result of a surge in drivers crowding onto highways - an ironic byproduct of the Big Dig's success in clearing away downtown traffic jams.

The Greenway boulevard atop the Central Artery/Tunnel

But hey, at least downtown's not covered by the Green Monster anymore, right? That's got to be worth something. Not $15 billion though. And not for a highway which should not have been built in the first place. The correct answer would have been to take it down and---at a fraction of the cost---replace it with a more appropriate boulevard having its congestion managed through pricing. Well, now the money's been spent, and in fact, we got the worst of both options: the above-ground boulevard stinks up the Greenway and the tunnel funnels cars into new chokepoints around the city. Oops.

Back in New York State, Governor Cuomo is attempting to force through a new Tappan Zee bridge that---like the Bronx-Whitestone---lacks bus lanes or railroad provisions. He even compared himself to Robert Moses at one point. The opposition is stronger this time, but it's an open question who will prevail.

Part of the Bowker Overpass

Much of the 1950s automobile infrastructure in Metro Boston is decaying and coming to end-of-life. It could easily cost hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars to repair deteriorating tunnels and bridges. With the issue of transportation funding in the air, the fact shouldn't be lost that it is not worthwhile to restore these facilities to their 1950 state. We should not be held hostage to "traffic projections" when history so clearly shows that traffic is induced by the existence of these facilities in the first place. The roads have to be fixed in some way, as in many cases they are beyond repair. We could save a whole lot of money by choosing more appropriate, scaled-down designs which integrate with the city and improve quality of life for residents as well as visitors.

As for The Power Broker, there's tons more great material to sort through, I had to pare down quite a lot of excellent prose to keep the length of this post from becoming overwhelming. So I recommend checking it out yourself. Most of the quotes are from the first chapters of Part V, The Love of Power.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Back to the future: building homes for people, not cars

Image from presentation (source): top-left is a map of parking asphalt vs parks in the vicinity

A developer has proposed an interesting concept for an apartment on 37 North Beacon Street in Allston. The land area is approximately 18,000 square feet and is currently a used car lot and a single family home. His two main stated goals are to provide 18,000 square feet of greenery, and to avoid adding to the traffic congestion in the nearby Union Square. The first will be achieved with an array of courtyards, patio and rooftop gardens. The second will be achieved by not building parking spaces and by attracting car-free tenants.

Although Allston desperately needs more housing units for the growing population, with witheringly low vacancy rates and deteriorating housing stock, there has been some resistance to growth due to concern over traffic congestion and free on-street parking availability. Some of the more influential residents believe that every newcomer will bring more traffic and more competition for parking to the area, and these residents are willing to sacrifice the good of the neighborhood to protect themselves from that perceived menace. They have encoded their fear into a zoning code which requires 2 parking spaces to be built per habitable unit. However, the numbers do not support their case.

As we can see, Allston is one of the major car-free living areas of Boston. The American Community Survey results indicate that approximately 50% of the residents of this area do not have access to a car. In addition, traffic counts have actually declined in the vicinity of this project. This particular section of Allston/Brighton is due for some major changes in the near future: the New Brighton Landing project is already under way. The nearby Guest Street planning corridor was established to consider the future of the currently light industrial zone. The New Brighton Landing at Everett Street commuter rail station is going to be built. It's going to look much different, not too long from now.

In light of those facts, it's positively unfair to the 50% of Allston residents who live without a car to drag them down with zoning strangleholds that prevent the growth of much-needed housing units in the area.

So let's take a look at the plan for 37 North Beacon Street: 44 units, a few retail spaces at ground floor, a public courtyard and garden, and a basement storage area with room for bicycles and a few car-sharing spaces. The developer has pledged to manage the apartment building and to seek car-free tenants. I honestly don't think he'll have trouble finding any such folks, as that market is quite ripe in Allston. The location is pretty good too: 5 minutes walk from a Stop'n'Shop, 5 minutes from the new commuter rail station, 2 minutes from the key bus routes 57 and 66, 2 minutes from the thriving Union Square commercial district, and the Hubway station already in operation there.

I think the concept being proposed is very intriguing and I hope discussion improves it. I noticed several of the long-time residents warming to it, as they began to understand it. It's become clear that we need more residential units in the area, but it's also understandable that more traffic congestion is not desired. If this idea works out, it could become a model for future development which provides local vitality without the cost of increased congestion. It's a return to some of the ideas behind the housing stock which was constructed pre-Depression: a focus on the needs of people instead of the needs of cars.

More info: Floor plans.

Update: From what I've heard so far, looks like the BRA and other unknown forces are attempting to force the construction of 35 parking spaces on-site. Probably in lieu of the bicycling parking.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Green Line to get real-time tracking in 2015

Slide from presentation

I'm surprised this hasn't shown up elsewhere yet, but at the Green Line public information meeting on Thursday, the presentation included a promise to install the necessary AVI and GPS tracking hardware to offer the same real-time tracking capabilities of the other lines on the Green Line as well, by 2015.

I haven't had much time the last couple days so I will have to see if I can follow up on this with any further information. I also have other notes from the meeting that I'll have to get back to later.

Update. The slides from the meeting. Upcoming improvements listed:

  • Government center modernization
  • Green Line extension
  • Green Line tracking


Update. The meeting began with a presentation from the T, the slides of which I will try to upload once I get a chance to scan it in from the printout I received. Amusingly enough, the presentation slides were being projected from a laptop which broke down halfway through, and we had to continue without it.

  • Commissioner Timlin was present as well as a representative from the Town of Brookline and they both said they were looking at integrating traffic signal priority.
  • The new plan for transportation could include $750 million for a replacement fleet of Green Line cars and upgrades to the power infrastructure, equipment which dates back to the 1940s and is currently insufficient to run more 3-car trains.
  • They have to stagger the arrivals of 3-car trains in the Central Subway to prevent overloads.
  • Proof-of-payment stalled because of problems with deployment of fare equipment to all the stations.
  • The reason that the T instituted the front door-only policy was explicitly due to anecdotal complaints of fare evasion, not actual data.
  • The scheduling department has run simulations of station elimination to determine changes in travel time for riders coming from the station and those coming from further up the line, they may revisit it again.
  • One participant suggested an extension of the Heath Street "E" branch from its current terminus another half-mile down to Hyde Square, a thriving neighborhood that was formerly on the Arborway route.
  • They are unable to run more routes to Lechmere because there aren't enough trains (approximately 155 in working order).
  • The remaining underground stations which need to be retrofitted for accessibility are Government Center, Hynes Convention Center, Symphony and Boylston. Only Government Center is programmed.
  • The installation of a crossover at Park Street to make the second track usable for through-service is now no longer being considered due to cost.
  • A representative from Longwood Medical Area noted that of their 45,000 employees approximately 44% use the T and the "D" branch is becoming problematically overcrowded.
  • A suggestion: Needham ought to be a branch of the "D" line. Also, the new developments near Riverside station are cut-off from decent pedestrian access to the station.
  • The current state of accessibility on the Green Line is unacceptable. Brookline Hills is listed as "accessible" but it is not. Oftentimes operators don't know how to use the lifts and they complain of "rust" which isn't the case. It seems to take a minimum of 20 minutes to use the lift when it does work. Better answers are needed.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Car-free residents by census tract

I was looking at some census data out of curiosity today and decided to plot the percentage of car-free residents by census tract in and around the Boston metro area. The data come from the 2007-2011 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.


The highest rates of car-free living occur about where you'd expect: North End, Beacon Hill, Chinatown, Fenway, Allston/Brighton and Mission Hill. There's also a pretty decent rate scattered across Roxbury and Dorchester. I was a bit surprised at how high the rates were in some outlying areas though. For example, around Malden Center there's a tract where 35% people claim to have no car available. Several Lowell tracts exceed 40%. One corridor that sticks out to me is Commonwealth Avenue through Brighton, which has consistently high rates of car-free residents, and can clearly be seen traced out in darker colors. This, despite the fact that the "B" branch has probably the worst quality T service of the rapid transit lines.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Understanding bus RPI

The MBTA quietly added a feature to their website called "Bus RPI" which you can also access from a link at the bottom of the homepage. These "Route Performance Indicators" are essentially the same data as the Biennial Service Plan but should be updated more frequently. The current RPIs only include a subset of the information about each route that the Service Plan did, but hopefully that will be changed in the future. The intention of this release is to be more open about the service planning and scheduling process that goes on at the T.

Route Number, Route Description: these are fairly self-explanatory, I hope.

Route Type: divided up into Local, Key, Community, Commuter, Express or NA. The main importance of this field pertains to the goals that each type is expected to meet. There is also a difference in "average fare paid per passenger" for the different types. Under pre-FY2013 budgeting, the average fares are as follows:

  • Local, Community and Key routes: $0.76
  • Commuter routes: $2.15
  • Express routes: $3.08

Average fare is computed by dividing the total revenue for all routes under that type by the number of riders of that type. It is smaller than a single ride cost because of numerous discounts, including senior, student and monthly passes. CTPS projections of the impacts of last year's fare increase seem to indicate that the new average fares will be approximately 23-24% higher, e.g. at $0.94 for local routes, but we won't know for sure until more data is released. Note that SL1, SL2 service counts as Rapid Transit for average fare purposes ($1.39) but SL4, SL5 receive the local bus average fare per passenger.

Net Cost per Passenger: This number is calculated by taking the difference between operating cost and revenue and dividing by ridership, for each route. However, revenue for each route is computed by taking the average fare for the route type and multiplying it by ridership, so it is not actually revenue that is specific to that particular route. In other words, Net Cost per Passenger is really operating cost per passenger minus average fare.

A common confusion with this metric is that it represents an amount that each additional passenger costs the T. That's not what this means. Take the popular route 1 bus which has a net cost per passenger of $0.63. If I decide to wander down to Mass Ave and hop on the bus, it does not cost the T an extra sixty-three cents. Instead, the T has invested approximately $18,500 dollars on a typical weekday to operate the full schedule of route 1 service. There are normally about 13,300 riders on a typical weekday, giving the net cost of (18,500 / 13,300) - 0.76 = $0.6309. Now add my trip to that total, and you end up with (18,500 / 13,301) - 0.76 = $0.6308, an ever so slight reduction in net cost per passenger. Bus service is a fixed cost, the net cost per passenger is the fixed amount distributed over all the users of the service, that's all.

The astute may notice that some routes have negative net cost per passenger. For example, the SL5 is ($0.03). This is a good thing, but once again, for the same reason, it shouldn't be treated as if each additional rider is profiting the T by three cents. It should also be noted that there are additional costs besides operating costs, which are computed by a formula which only factors in revenue hours and revenue miles.

The net cost per passenger metric is best used as a comparison between MBTA bus routes to see which ones are efficiently and effectively serving customers.

Service Delivery Policy Standards: A set of requirements for frequency, span, crowding, and cost which are more fully outlined in the Service Delivery Policy. Basically: is the service decently usable, and is it not costing us too much?

Ridership Info: This includes both daily (weekday) ridership, as up-to-date as currently available (seems to be 2010) and average rides per trip. The ridership numbers are not from the farebox, so they should reflect real ridership including people who show their passes and don't interact with the automatic fare collection machinery. The average rides per trip is simply ridership divided by number of (one-way) trips, which is intriguing, but the numbers currently shown are actually junk due to an error in formatting. Hopefully that will be remedied in the next RPI release.

Thanks to the MBTA's scheduling team for getting this data out, hopefully it will be expanded in the near future. I'm also looking forward to the next edition of the Blue Book.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Lead poisoning in Boston

I first noticed some reports of the plausible link (related paper) between lead exposure and crime rates a while ago, but Mother Jones recently ran a well-written article by Kevin Drum that everyone should read, summing up the case so far. We've known for a long time that lead is toxic and harmful to mental health, particularly in children, but it's only within the past few decades that we've come to understand that there is no safe level of exposure at all. This link may be one of the most significant public health and safety discoveries of the past fifty years, and it's a shame that it has received so little attention in the past. Hopefully that will change now.

Massachusetts has been a pioneer in lead abatement. I was curious to see how it was effective in Boston. The only report available that I could find with detailed information seems to be from September 2002, but it has some interesting data about elevated blood lead levels in children, from 1991 through 2001:


I took the data and put it into a chart format as well:


It's pretty easy to see that there's been a massive improvement in just those ten years. However, Dorchester and, for most years, Mattapan had the highest incidence of elevated blood lead levels. I don't know why this was the case. Lead exposure in the 20th century seems to have originated first from the use of lead in housing materials (such as paint), and then later from leaded gasoline used in cars. Dorchester and Mattapan have their fair share of older homes, but so does most of Boston. The Southeast Expressway was constructed in the 1950s, just in time for the gasoline-lead epidemic, and is adjacent to Dorchester and Mattapan. But the North End and Charlestown are also adjacent to large highways, yet they see some of the lowest levels of blood lead in the city. They are also both built environments that date back to colonial times.

I was unable to locate any more specific data on soil or other environmental sources of lead in Boston. There is a state website to find out specific buildings' inspection status, but that seems to be it, at least on public websites. A major flaw with the above data is that it only counts 10 mcg/dL as "elevated" but more recent guidelines suggest 5 mcg/dL as the threshold, and others suggest that any amount is too much. So it's quite possible the picture changes when you add the children who are at-risk with 5 or less mcg/dL of blood lead. Another flaw is the arbitrary choice of (BRA-determined) "neighborhood" as the geographical unit. For example, Dorchester is a very large neighborhood. Even when split (by the BRA) into "north" and "south", it is still a vast and diverse place with a large potential variance in lead levels between areas.

While reading the various articles about lead I kept thinking about a few paragraphs that stood out in the recent Boston Globe series on the area known as Bowdoin-Geneva:
In Bowdoin-Geneva, a 68-block swath of Dorchester set between the rivers of traffic on Columbia Road and Dorchester Avenue, spring brings the usual signs of renewal. But it also brings something more sinister. It is a prelude to summer, which plays out year after year in this neighborhood against a backdrop of danger and a soundtrack of gunfire. 
It is a problem that seems to simply never go away. The rate of shootings here over the last 25 years is four times what it is in the city as a whole — averaging 24 a year in the last decade.
[...] 
No one seems to know exactly why. The drugs that spawned deadly territory fights two decades ago are no longer the primary fuel. Poverty, assumed by many to be a progenitor of violence, is much less severe than it was a generation ago and less prevalent than in some other Boston neighborhoods.
And there is this not-very-well-known fact: Gangs were in Bowdoin-Geneva long before the neighborhood became what it is today — at least as far back as the 1950s, when bands of white kids claimed street corners, wore identifying colors, and assigned themselves names.
They most often fought with their fists then, not with guns. But, as though a legacy handed to succeeding generations, gangs have remained even as the income, race, and social makeup of the neighborhood have changed. Bowdoin-Geneva now is an intricate architecture of alliances and loyalties based on little more than streets where boys and young men live. Slights real and perceived trigger violence between them.
This behavioral description seems to be a tell-tale sign of lead poisoning, especially with its persistence across multiple generations and the socio-economic changes in the neighborhood. From the Washington Post article:
In 2002, Herbert Needleman, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh, compared lead levels of 194 adolescents arrested in Pittsburgh with lead levels of 146 high school adolescents: The arrested youths had lead levels that were four times higher. 
"Impulsivity means you ignore the consequences of what you do," said Needleman, one of the country's foremost experts on lead poisoning, explaining why Nevin's theory is plausible. Lead decreases the ability to tell yourself, "If I do this, I will go to jail."
Then I found this 2007 Boston Globe article:
According to statistics from the city, the number of new lead poisoning cases declined from 1,300 in 2000 to 460 last year. The cases are mostly found in pockets of Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Hyde Park. The highest concentration appears to be in neighborhoods in Dorchester's Bowdoin-Geneva Street area.
In my unscientific opinion, lead poisoning is the prime suspect behind the troubles in this neighborhood. I would be interested to see the data that the city has apparently collected, and whether anyone is pursuing this topic more rigorously.
As the days lengthen and temperatures rise, the city too is looking to Bowdoin-Geneva. It has tried fitfully since the 1970s to find a cure for the troubles here. Now, after a spate of murders last year, the city is trying again, with a vow that this time it will make a lasting impact.
If they want to fulfill that vow, instead of just repeating it every year, then I would recommend a heavy investment in lead abatement---much more than already exists---for this neighborhood. It will take money as well as time, and will probably not feel as satisfying as hiring more police officers. But all the available evidence seems to say that it will work, and more than pay for itself as an investment in the next generation.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The decline and fall of an idealist

As I mentioned before the holidays, I stumbled across The Power Broker in the library and was intrigued enough to pick it up after paging through it. It is an intimidatingly long book, but I discovered that Robert Caro is a master of assembling the historical details into a smoothly flowing narrative, with developing characters and a plot. Each chapter has a theme, often drawn directly from a quote or description contained within the text. The book is not simply a biography of Robert Moses, but also features extensive information about the other New York politicos of the time, including Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt as well as numerous less prominent figures. The backgrounds of Tammany Hall, the system of patronage, and the various "Good Government" movements opposed to that patronage, are also covered.

I'm only midway through Part IV, and I can only touch on a tiny fraction of the material so far in this space. Let's begin after the description of Moses' childhood and education at Yale and Oxford, when the year is 1913, and Caro starts part II with the chapter "Burning":
It must have seemed like a great time to be young and a reformer in New York. In all American history, in fact, it would have been hard to find a better time. The young idealist entered public service in the very year in which there came to crest a movement---Progressivism---that was based [...] on an idealistic belief in man's capacity to better himself through the democratic process. 
[...] 
In searching for the causes of these problems [sweatshops, child labor, poverty of the slums], Progressives settled on the most easily identifiable---the giant corporations and corrupt political bosses who they felt had stolen mythical America away from its people. To exorcise these demons---to force a return to the political democracy and economic individualism that Americans were fond of believing had once existed in their country---they advocated reforms equally simplistic, so simplistic, in fact, that they proved primarily that the old American impulse to do good was still intact. And they were reforms that a young man who wanted to do good, a young man like Bob Moses, could advocate with all his heart.
In just a few lines, Caro mocks the sentimentality and naïvety of American political movements but also praises them and sets the stage for Moses as a newly minted Ph.D. in the field of Civil Service reform.

Moses managed to obtain a position at the Bureau of Municipal Research's new Training School for Public Service through---ominously---nepotism but was too impatient and managed to get himself moved into the Bureau itself shortly. But that too was not enough. The Bureau had made its name by sniffing out graft in construction contracts, and the man appointed to conduct the investigation was John Purroy Mitchel. He successfully ran for mayor in November 1913 and appointed a Civil Service Commission to reform the system. And Moses was placed in charge of this commission, and he began work on proposal based on the British Civil Service he had studied at Oxford, a system of "open competition" and promotion based upon examinations and merit.
Each job could be scientifically analyzed to show its "functions" and "responsibilities." Each function and responsibility---and there were dozens of them for most jobs---could be given a precise mathematical weight corresponding to its importance in the over-all job.
[...]
It was the proposal of a fanatic. John Calvin specifying permissible arrangements for women's hair in sixteenth-century Geneva was not more thorough than Bob Moses enumerating the "functions" and "responsibilities" of New York's civil servants. No aspect of conduct on the job was too small to be graded. Even personality must be reduced to number.
Of course the system would mean the downgrading or elimination of tens of thousands of jobs held by Tammany Hall loyalists. And they rallied at public meetings. Moses even ventured to speak, believing in his system so confidently, but quickly became a figure of derision. Men plead for exemptions, and were granted them by Tammany judges. And in the end, John "Red Mike" Hylan used the system as a campaign issue against Mayor Mitchel in 1917, and won decisively.
The net result of his work was nothing. [...] Convinced he was right, he had refused to soil the white suit of idealism with compromise. He had really believed that if his system was right---scientific, logical, fair---and if it got a hearing, the system would be adopted. In free and open encounter would not Truth prevail? And he had gotten the hearing. But Moses had failed in his calculations to give certain factors due weight. He had not sufficiently taken into account greed. He had not sufficiently taken into account self-interest. And, most of all, he had not sufficiently taken into account the need for power.
He was out of work when he received a job offer from Belle Moskowitz, the reform-minded yet canny political adviser to Governor-elect Al Smith. She had helped Smith win the election and had secured his undying loyalty. To him, most reformers were wild-eyed, impractical "crackpots" but Belle was a different breed. Although Smith was a creature of Tammany, he was interested in real, practical reform and had the eloquence and standing within the machine to be effective. Moskowitz knew this when she signed up to help Smith, and when she hired Moses to be her chief of staff, she began to teach him the same sort of practical politics that had served the new Governor and her successfully.
The lessons started almost immediately. When Moses submitted a preliminary outline of suggested commission goals, he included a phrase straight out of the reform textbooks and his Municipal Civil Service Commission days: "Elimination of unnecessary . . . personnel." Mrs. Moskowitz struck the phrase out. Personnel, she said, were voted. You didn't antagonize voters.
It would take awhile, and although Moses would work on better reform proposals, they would have to wait because Smith lost re-election in 1920 and would not be re-elected until 1922. In the meantime, somehow, Moses became fast friends with Smith, a bond that would last until death. When Smith became Governor again, he brought Moses with him. And when Moses convinced Smith to focus on a parks program, Smith offered him the presidency of the planned Parks Commission.

Moses had learned how to draft crafty bills, a skill gained from Smith and Moskowitz. In the Parks Commission legislation, Moses inserted
a clause buried deep within the act empowered the Long Island State Park Commission to acquire land by condemnation and appropriation "in the manner provided by section fifty-nine of the conservation law."
[...] In 1924, "appropriation" had only one meaning in a legislative context: an allocation of funds by the Legislature.
[...] In 1884, the Legislature passed an act empowering the state to "appropriate" forest lands and defining "appropriation" as a procedure in which a state official could take possession of the land simply by walking on it and telling the owner he no longer owned it.
In other words, he exploited multiple meanings of a legal term in a way that only the most savvy of legislators would detect. His friend Al Smith was likely the only one who would know. By writing this language into the bill he gave himself, in effect, almost unlimited power to take private property. That was not all: he made it virtually impossible to be removed as president of the Commission, to be audited by an outside party, or to be questioned by any of the subordinate departments he controlled.

He would use this power almost immediately to begin seizing land for parks in Long Island. He used it to break the robber baron stranglehold on Long Island, who had long conspired to keep the "rabble" from New York City away from their estates. But he also used it to immiserate poor working farmers who happened to own land in the path of one of his planned "parkways." And more often than not, he was willing to make accommodations for the rich and powerful, while rolling over those who were not "elite" enough.
Under Belle Moskowitz's tutelage, Bob Moses had changed from an uncompromising idealist to a man willing to deal with practical considerations; now the alteration had become more drastic. Under her tutelage, he had been learning the politicians' way; now he almost seemed to have joined their ranks.
More, he was openly scornful of men who hadn't, of men who still worried about the Truth when what counted was votes. He was openly scornful of reformers whose first concern was accuracy, who were willing to devote their lives to fighting for principle and who wanted to make that fight without compromise or surrender of any part of the ideals with which they had started it.
Bob Moses was scornful, in short, of what he had been.
He created new parks, he restored old ones beautifully, he did a lot of nice things for the people of New York. But he also did a lot of terrible things to many individuals, and while he was happy to create amenities for "the people," he seemed to have a complete disregard for actual people---particularly minorities, the poor, or anyone who dared disagree with him.
"He doesn't love the people," [Frances Perkins] was to say. "It used to shock me because he was doing all these things for the welfare of the people . . . He'd denounce the common people terribly. To him they were lousy, dirty people, throwing bottles all over Jones Beach. `I'll get them! I'll teach them!' . . . He loves the public but not as people. The public is just the public. It's a great amorphous mass to him; it needs to be bathed, it needs to be aired, it needs recreation, but not for personal reasons---just to make it a better public."
There's so much more---funny, sad and fascinating---and I'm only partway through the book myself. I'm definitely glad I picked it up.