Robert Moses, Pedal Pusher? (Opinion - Thomas J. Campanella)
The rollout this summer of New York's first bicycle-share program will be the most visible achievement yet of the city's capable commissioner of transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan. Funded by Citigroup and Mastercard, the Citi Bike System will make available 10,000 bicycles for rent and return at any of 600 stations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The rollout this summer of New York's first bicycle-share program will be the most visible achievement yet of the city's capable commissioner of transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan. Funded by Citigroup and Mastercard, the Citi Bike System will make available 10,000 bicycles for rent and return at any of 600 stations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. With Citi Bike, Ms. Sadik-Khan has spun a gossamer new transportation web across much of the city, a healthful and sustainable alternative to getting around by car.
He built New York's first true bicycle network, a vast system of paths that enabled cyclists to ride from one end of the city to the other.
Ms. Sadik-Khan is often portrayed as the anti-Robert Moses, an angel sent down by St. Jane (Jacobs) herself to liberate pedestrians and put the automobile in its place. Though Moses has been partially rehabilitated in recent years, spurred by the revisionist "Robert Moses and the Modern City" exhibitions throughout the city in 2007, he is still Gotham's favorite whipping boy, an expressway-building villain against whom we measure our virtue as greener, gentler, more inclusive urbanists. Moses rode around in a big black limo; Ms. Sadik-Khan bikes to work.
But there were many sides to Robert Moses. True enough, he eviscerated much of the city for highways and housing schemes, destroyed Coney Island with moralistic zeal, and helped force the Dodgers to California. My own mother never forgave him for pulverizing her Vinegar Hill neighborhood, first for the Farragut Houses and later for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. His arterials decanted a generation of New Yorkers to the suburbs, accelerating the city's plunge into that long night of the 1970s, with its fiscal meltdowns and rampant crime.
In the saintly first half of a career cleaved with Manichean symmetry, Moses was the toast of progressive New York—the man who helped close Tammany Hall, turn a sandbar into Jones Beach and create more urban parks than anyone in U.S. history. This green Moses—a man we might almost imagine meeting for a cappuccino with Ms. Sadik-Khan—ended lunatic plans for a highway through Prospect Park ("one of the world's craziest ideas"); blocked a scheme to fill Gerritsen Creek in Brooklyn, one the city's last salt marshes; halted the dumping of refuse in Jamaica Bay and canceled plans to transform its waters—among the richest marine estuaries on the Atlantic coast—into the world's largest industrial port. And long before Mayor Michael Bloomberg's war against Slurpees, Moses banned candy, ice cream and soda from his city playgrounds. He made the children drink fresh milk instead.
This other Robert Moses was also long opposed to a national system of superhighways, something he is now routinely—and incorrectly—credited with inventing. As Moses saw it, interstate highways would be incredibly wasteful; for they would be forced to run "through many thinly populated sections of the country where no such super-highways are needed." Have to travel cross-country? Take the train. To Moses, the highway was an urban appliance only. "[T]he only justification for superhighways and parkways," he explained in a 1940 letter to Thomas H. MacDonald, commissioner of public roads, "lies in their close relationship to metropolitan centers and substantial cities." The whole point of such infrastructure, he argued, was to ease congestion, a function of urban density (what he failed to understand was that new highways often encourage more people to drive, thus hardly alleviating congestion).
Moses' early roads were themselves urbane, meant to serve pedestrians as well as motorists. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade, one of the city's most sublime open spaces, is literally a piece of highway infrastructure; the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway runs along cantilevered decks just below. The outer-borough parkways were especially well endowed with amenities for the nonmotoring public. "Please keep in mind," Moses instructed landscape architect Allyn R. Jennings, "that the incidental recreation features are just as important as the parkway itself"—especially for "people in the neighborhoods along the route, present and future, who do not have automobiles." To Moses, the parkway was literally a park way—"not just an automobile roadway," he explained to journalist Reagan McCrary, but "a narrow shoestring park . . . including all sorts of recreation facilities."
Such as bike paths. Few people think of Moses as a cycling advocate, what with his infamous—and unpardonable—refusal to include bike lanes on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (ostensibly for fear of suicides). But earlier in his career, Moses was a keen advocate of bicycling and built New York City's first true bicycle infrastructure. The Depression had set off a bicycle sales boom in the city, as people could no longer afford cars. In 1938, to accommodate all the new bicyclists, Moses announced a vast system of bike paths—"fifty miles of paved parkland roads exclusively for bicycle riders," gushed the New York Times, that would enable bike enthusiasts to "pedal from one end of the city to the other."
Among these were five-mile loops through Central and Prospect Parks, a long section down Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, and a run through Queens atop William K. Vanderbilt's old Long Island Motor Parkway. At the last's opening ceremony in Alley Pond Park, Moses mused on "the irony of the parkway's surrender to the bicycle after being made obsolete by modern traffic needs"; for "the way to make progress, sometimes, is to go backward." Guests that day included Norman Hill and Charles "Mile-a-Minute" Murphy, both later of the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame.
Moses' greatest prewar motorway was also his ultimate bikeway—a 33-mile chain of roads originally known as the Circumferential Parkway, comprising today's Belt, Southern, Laurelton and Cross Island parkways. The Times hailed it "the greatest municipal highway venture ever attempted in an urban setting." Along much of the road Moses had his designers create a kind of miniature parallel parkway for cyclists, "of such length and design," observed the Times, "that there will be no feeling of monotony." Known today as a "Class I" bike path, such infrastructure—fully separated from motor vehicles, for the exclusive use of cyclists and pedestrians—is the holy grail of pedaldom; and Robert Moses, the man who motorized Gotham, built more of it than anyone since.
A version of this article appeared June 26, 2012, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Robert Moses, Pedal Pusher?.
Campanella is a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome. He has been awarded Guggenheim, Fulbright and James Marston Fitch fellowships and has held visiting appointments at Columbia University, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Nanjing University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He taught previously at MIT, and in 2009 was the inaugural Amacon-Beasley Scholar-in-Residence at the University of British Columbia School of Community and Regional Planning.
Learn more about Dr. Campanella's research, writing and practice >>>