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Robert Moses and the decline of the NYC subway system

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Tracing the current state of emergency back to the Power Broker

Passengers board a train at Times Square in 1948, during the height of Moses’s power.
Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images

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.

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.)

Robert Moses.
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York’s Digital Collection

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 Cross Bronx Expressway
The Cross Bronx Expressway.
Library of Congress

According to a study in the Yale Law Journal, Moses also looked for ways to offload the negative effects of traffic on minority neighborhoods. He placed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge's exit ramp in Harlem, when a more sensible location would have been the Upper East Side to serve the traffic from below 100th Street. Such planning meant wealthier neighborhoods stayed untouched by traffic, while Harlem became crowded with bridge-bound vehicles.

The Power Broker, the hulking Moses biography by Robert Caro, makes the argument that public transit was not only ignored under Moses, it was actively and consistently undermined. Many issues the city grapples with today—inadequate tunnel capacity under the Hudson River, bringing the Long Island Rail Road to the east side of Manhattan, the lack of public transit to New York’s airports—were addressed in the 1950s, but none of the projects moved forward.

The examples of Moses’s distaste for public transit are numerous. When building the Long Island Expressway, it would have cost just 4 percent more to add mass transit in the middle of the highway and essentially double the capacity of the Long Island Rail Road, but Moses declined to do it. When designing the Van Wyck Expressway to JFK Airport, Moses was asked to to reserve space for future transit at an extra cost of less than $2 million. He ignored the request, and when a rail link got priced a few years later, it was estimated at $300 million.

The bridges that Moses built in New York City—the Verrazano, Triborough, Henry Hudson, Bronx-Whitestone, and the Throgs Neck—are all missing a mass transit component. Proposals to add a rail line and pedestrian walkway along the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge would have fulfilled a long-awaited subway connection to Staten Island, but Moses shut that down, too.

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.

The first phase of the Second Avenue subway, a project Moses fought against, finally opened at the beginning of 2017.

In The Power Broker, Caro details a 1955 transportation budget that was large enough to modernize the Long Island Railroad, build two new tunnels under the Hudson River, and, well, this quote says it all:

It would have been more than enough to build the long-proposed and desperately needed Second Avenue Subway, and to build a tunnel across the East River through which a branch of the Second Avenue line would extend out to Queens to provide adequate subway service there, and to build extensions of the existing subway lines in Queens to provide service to the hundreds of thousands of residents of Eastern Queens who were miles away from the nearest subway, and to extend the Nostrand Avenue subway in Brooklyn three miles along Flatbush Avenue to a new, modern terminal that would serve the growing Mill Basin area that possessed no rapid transit at all, and to construct a new plaza and grade-elimination project at Dekalb Avenue that would eliminate switching delays which caused the most severe bottleneck in train service between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

You can probably guess how that went.

Moses operated on an endless loop of highway worship; the city needed more highways to address the growing traffic, and as more cars filled the road, he pushed for more roads to accommodate them. According to The Power Broker, it wasn’t long before city officials began to notice that his new bridges and highways weren’t solving the traffic problem. Even upon that realization, they couldn’t get him to move any funding toward public transit.

Caro ultimately offers this damning assessment of Moses’s legacy to the subway system: “When Robert Moses came to power in New York in 1934, the city’s mass transportation system was probably the best in the world. When he left power in 1968 it was quite possibly the worst.”

Moses died in 1981 with the subway system in dire shape. The city, emerging from the financial crisis of the 1970s, didn’t have money to fund the system, and federal funds for mass transit had dried up. One year after Moses’ death, the MTA moved ahead on a mammoth program to bring the stations and tracks back into a “state of good repair.” Since then, the system has been in a continued state of “deferred maintenance,” as Draper puts it, and “we have literally reached the breaking point.”

As Raskin says, “we’re still playing catch-up” from the MTA program initiated in the ’80s. And the current stakes are much higher, as ridership levels recently hit the highest numbers since 1948.

Just this week, the MTA began the slow process of addressing those issues; chairman Joe Lhota revealed a $836 million, 30-point action plan to address the key drivers that account for subway delays and system failures. As he said in a press conference announcing the plan, “We’re here because the New York City subway system is in distress,” but some see it as too little, too late.

Despite Moses’s focus on highway development, modern-day New York emerged as a city whose inhabitants depend not just on automobiles, but on trains, buses, ferries, and bicycles. And the period of development under Moses stands as one of New York’s great lost opportunities to invest in and expand public transit—because when it comes to Moses, as Draper puts it, “If he wanted to get it done, it would have absolutely been done.”