New Yorkers now use a transit system in a state of emergency. The past few months have laid bare the enormity of the problems currently facing the century-old subways, from aging infrastructure to a lack of federal dollars available to help make things better.
Much has also been said about how the world’s largest public transportation system has gotten so bad—the lack of funding, of course, but also Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s penchant for prioritizing flashy projects over system maintenance, along with years of mismanagement within the MTA, an agency that’s admitted to misspent funding that doesn’t go toward maintenance.
But start looking at the decline of, and disinvestment in, New York’s rail lines—from the subway to commuter rails like the Long Island Rail Road—and you’ll find that those problems go back much, much further. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, they seem to lead to one man in particular: Robert Moses.
I have said this before and even written about it:
Moses was known as the great “master builder” of 20th-century New York, whose machinations helped create the city’s highway system, as well as many of its parks, beaches, pools, and bridges. But one thing’s for certain: He had absolutely no interest in public transit. He prioritized roadways and cars at the expense of subways and buses, a move that left a detrimental impact on the transit system that continues to this day.
To understand what the so-called “Power Broker” had to do with the current system’s failings, it helps to go back to the beginning of it all. On March 24, 1900, New York Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck broke ground on the city’s first subway line, which today corresponds to the 4, 5, and 6 lines. It traveled from City Hall in Lower Manhattan to West 145th Street in Harlem, and construction took four years, six months, and 23 days—a timeline that’s inconceivable today. (The newest subway extension, the Second Avenue line, opened nearly a decade after its most recent official groundbreaking.)
Yes I know, they did tunnels differently: just cut and fill;
Though construction on subsequent rail lines would rarely move that quickly, the city had a very specific attitude toward rail development in the four decades following that groundbreaking: “To never stop building,” as Joe Raskin, author of The Routes Not Taken: A Trip Through New York City’s Unbuilt Subway System, puts it. “The idea was to allow the subway system to expand, and let the city go around it,” he says.
And so subway lines stretched quickly (by today’s standards, anyway) into undeveloped areas of Manhattan and the outer boroughs, with the assumption that housing and commercial development would follow. Despite setbacks—financial shortfalls, the clashing agendas of mayors and borough presidents, and battles with local community groups—it’s how New York City got the expansive, complex rail infrastructure that’s now seen on modern subway maps. This period of major growth lasted until the late 1940s, when annual ridership steadily increased year over year and hit its peak in 1948 with just over 2 billion passengers.
By then, Robert Moses was already exercising his power over the city. He began his foray into large-scale public works initiatives in the 1920s, and by the 1930s was able to take advantage of millions of New Deal dollars available from the federal government.
Moses’s attitude toward public transit was clear from the beginning—he didn’t care about it. To use one example, he’s heralded for building Long Island’s Jones Beach, which opened in 1929. But there’s the oft-repeated story that he intentionally built the Long Island Parkway overpasses with perilously low clearances, which ensured that buses—used by anyone who couldn’t afford a car—would never be able to go under them.
As Theodore Kheel, a retired labor mediator who battled with Moses over a 1965 proposal to double bridge and tunnel tolls and use the revenue to subsidize subway fares, told the New York Times, “[Moses] was hostile to mass transit and hostile to poor New Yorkers.”
He wasn’t unique in this, either, as the idea of “urban renewal” took hold across the country, and mostly white male planners starting demolishing and displacing low-income neighborhoods to make way for highways. According to former United States Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, the first 20 years of the federal interstate system displaced more than a million Americans—most of them low-income people of color in urban cores.
Another factor taking hold of the country in the mid-20th century was the embrace of the automobile. By the 1940s and ’50s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had invested in a massive cross-country highway system, and oil companies had grown more powerful. “There’s this concentrated effort to get away from mass transit,” explains Kevin Draper, a historian and director with New York Historical Tours. Subways were considered outdated technology; cars and highways were the glamorous modes of transportation of the future.
It became the American dream that you gotta have a car,” Draper says. “And Moses was all for it.”
Indeed, Moses could make strong cases for his projects—and secure funding for them—better than any mass transit advocate at the time. It didn’t hurt that the Board of Transportation, which ran the subway at the time, was plagued with deep-seated institutional problems that affected transit expansion, alongside the city’s aversion to increasing the 5-cent fare to fund that.
As the Department of Transportation dealt with its own obstacles, Moses gained enough power to charge ahead in building 13 expressways throughout the five boroughs. The impact that they had on the surrounding neighborhoods was swift, and occasionally devastating; the Cross Bronx Expressway, for example, cut off low-income and immigrant communities and devastated property values for residents in those areas.
The Second Avenue Subway was a particular thorn in Moses’s side. The city attempted to build the line twice—in 1942 and again in 1954—and both times Moses prevented funds he controlled from being allocated to the project. The money went to bridges and highways instead.
Now read an article in NY Curbed and it says mch of what I said.