May 23, 2017

The Power Broker, a very late and incomplete book review.

Having just finished reading The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, I was struck by how much remains relevant today, even though it was published in 1975. The book is a biography of Robert Moses, the legendary and polarizing New York city planner who controlled various government offices (up to twelve at one point!) from 1924 to 1968, a span of 44 years. Moses displayed an unparalleled aptitude for gaining and leveraging power, which he frequently abused to build the infrastructure and housing of New York in his image – which (spoiler alert) relied heavily on the private automobile. For a sense of magnitude, Moses built 669 km of parkways and 13 bridges.
At 1162 pages long, I will spare the reader from a comprehensive review, although I would recommend that this book is compulsory reading for anyone who is interested in how we became so reliant upon the automobile. What follows are two excerpts which are particularly salient when compared to the Massey Bridge project, a local example of this struggle, of which there are already a treasure trove of articles posted on Price Tags.

On accepting traffic as a normal part of one’s day:

It was during the early 1920’s that such traffic first overwhelmed New York; in 1924 and 1925 and 1926, the public reacted with indignation and protest against the jams in which – seated in the vehicles that had promised them new freedom – they found themselves imprisoned instead. Traffic was news, big news; clockings* were a front-page staple. By the late 1920’s, however, a kind of numbness – measurable by a slackening in angry letters-to-the-editor and campaign statements by both-ears-to-the-ground politicians – was setting in. Psychologists know what happens to rats motivated by mild electric shocks or the promise of a food reward to get out of the maze when the maze is excessively difficult to get out of; for a while, their efforts to find an escape become more and more frantic, and then they cease, the creatures becoming sullen, then listless, suffering apathetically through shock or hunger rather than making further efforts that they believe will be useless. People caught in intolerable traffic jams twice a day, day after day, week after week, month after month, began after some months to accept traffic jams as part of their lives, to become hardened to them, to suffer through them in dull and listless apathy. The press, responding to its readers’ attitude, ran fewer hysterical congestion stories, gave fewer clockings. A city editor seeing a couple of reporters with their feet up on their desks on a slow Friday afternoon found other make-work than sending them out to discover how long it took to get from the Queens-Midtown Tunnel to the Lincoln Tunnel. Only in editorial columns – written, it sometimes seems, by men selected through a Darwinian process in which the vital element for survival is an instant and constant capacity for indignation and urgency – did the indignation and urgency endure. Traffic was still news, but it was no longer big news.
*Note: clocking refers to travel time to the Lincoln Tunnel from various locations
Caro, Robert A. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 1975. Part VI: The Lust for Power Chapter 39: The Highwayman P.912

On attempting to alleviate traffic by building larger highway projects:

Highways competed with parallel mass transit lines, luring away their customers. Pour public investment into the improvement of highways while doing nothing to improve mass transit lines, and there could be only one outcome: those lines would lose more and more passengers; those losses would make it more and more difficult for their owners to sustain service and maintenance; service and maintenance would decline; the decline would cost the lines more passengers; the loss in passengers would further accelerate the rate of decline; the rate of passenger loss would correspondingly accelerate – and the passengers lost would do their travelling instead by private car, further increasing highway congestion. No crystal ball was needed to foretell such a result; it had already been proven, most dramatically perhaps in New Jersey, where the Susquehanna Railroad has lost over two-thirds of its passengers in the ten years following the opening of the George Washington Bridge,

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