- You have to know how the political system works — without that, you have a slim chance of moving from “advocate” to “change maker” — actually getting your ideas into law, or actually getting the built environment changed.
- The best way to influence politicians is to represent a constituency that they care about. For example, Moses defeated many attempts to remove him from power by having labor unions lobby politicians on his behalf. And the politicians felt they wouldn’t win re-election without the unions, and backed down. The unions wanted Moses because he was a master at getting billions of infrastructure dollars, which meant guaranteed work for them (this is reminiscent of fights we have today with trying to get California to stop widening highways).
- The man was a genius — he was termed “the best bill drafter in Albany” and knew the law often better than lawmakers. This gave him an incredible advantage in drafting bills to do things that lawmakers might otherwise never approve.
- Here’s a short list of good things Moses did:
He built new parks
He made the beaches of Long Island accessible to more people
He built bridges that made movement between NYC boroughs easier
He successfully got the NYC area a very disproportional amount of federal and state infrastructure money
- Here’s a short list of bad things Moses did:
He displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes to build highways
Through his Title 1 “slum clearance” program, he often bulldozed lower income communities without giving them any other place to go
He starved the Subway and rail transportation for investment
He built massive parking garages
He often lied to make his programs sound good or pencil out
He built underpasses so low that buses couldn’t clear them, ensuring that only wealthier people would be able to easily access his beaches
By only building for people with cars, he discriminated against those that couldn’t afford cars, which were often Brown and Black people
He consistently claimed he would “solve” traffic with just one more lane, and refused to look at the data that proved he was just inducing demand
- The bad far outweighed the good. Even worse, he was considered a building genius — mostly because he actually figured out how to get the money and build far faster than anyone else in any other city — and so cities around the world would send their best people to New York to learn from the master. He literally inspired decades of car optimization and destruction to build highways (Destruction For Nada) around the world and especially in other American cities.
- He was able to build so much, get so much money for his projects, and do it all so quickly, because he essentially wrote and got laws passed that made him the only voice that mattered. No one could remove him from his posts, and he didn’t have to listen to anyone who opposed his plans (the worst example that stuck out to me was East Tremont). Basically, he was a dictator.
- Today, we do outreach ad nauseam, and our politicians often back down in the face of even a little opposition. Moses never would have done this, because he didn’t have to run for re-election, and basically answered to no one. This doesn’t mean we should be less democratic (despite that fact that I’m jealous that China built 26,000 miles of high speed rail in less than 20 years, and California can’t even get a single 300 mile high speed rail line done). It means that it’s more important than ever to elect politicians that have a high degree of conviction in their principles, and make sure their principles align with what you want.
- If Moses had loved rail, bikes, and public transportation, the US would look more like Northern Europe or China instead of putting nearly all of its infrastructure investments in car infrastructure (a pattern that continues today).
- Leverage matters. Moses was a master at using leverage over his opponents. It’s not good to be a bully, but sometimes you need to do that in politics to get hard ideas through. Unfortunately for New York (and the world), Moses bullied his way to building tens of billions of dollars in highways and car infrastructure, and destroyed thousands of homes to do so.
I don’t normally get through such long books, but I’ve never read such an amazing book at the intersection of transportation and politics, which is where I spend my time these days. Robert Caro is a genius, and this book should be required reading for politicians and anyone looking to change the built environment.