Via the FT, Gothamist interviews Robert Caro. He was a reporter covering Robert Moses at Newsday in the late 1960s and wrote The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.
Why is New York still such a car-centric city? Why haven’t we learned those lessons that you spent years accruing and putting into print? This will take a minute to explain. In a way, it’s very hard to change it now.
You take Long Island—when he’s building the LIE, Long Island isn’t developed. Suffolk County is nothing but potato farms. The eastern half of Nassau is pretty much a farming area. And portions of the Queens, the northeastern portion is just farms. Everybody is saying to him—it’s not hindsight—people were saying to him at the time, so if you build this road, the minute you build it out to make an exit, you’re gonna have development there. They said the thing to do was build it with a light rail line, down the center. If you do that, it’ll be like the old towns of Long Island, like Great Neck and Port Washington. They’ll be little apartment houses near each exit, and the people who want to go into New York by train will have that option. People who want to use cars can still use cars, but a lot of people will take the train. If you don’t do that everybody’s gonna have to take cars.
In addition to that, land was really cheap. If I remember this, the right-of-way he was buying for this was 200 feet. And they said, but all you need for two light rail lines happens to be an extra 40 feet. So whatever the amount was, if you just add 4 percent more, you can add a light rail line. He was determined not to allow mass transit. He wouldn’t put the light rail in.
They said, if you won’t put the light rail in, at least buy the right-of-way, because now if you do that we’ll have the land to have the light rail line and every 10 miles or so we can add huge parking fields. If you don’t do that, they said, no one will ever be able to buy it because it’ll get too expensive.
Moses was a real genius, he didn’t want that to happen in the future. He engineered the footings of the LIE to be too light for anything but cars, so you can’t ever put a light rail there. He condemned Long Island to be this car-centered place.
So when I say that one man not only shaped New York but shaped it for centuries to come, because now how can you overcome that? All the people who live in northeastern Queens, or Co-op City in the Bronx, and all of Suffolk and a lot of Nassau County, they’re condemned to use cars. It’s not easy to use mass transit. Moses came along with his incredible vision, and vision not in a good sense. It’s like how he built the bridges too low.
I remember his aide, Sid Shapiro, who I spent a lot of time getting to talk to me, he finally talked to me. And he had this quote that I’ve never forgotten. He said Moses didn’t want poor people, particularly poor people of color, to use Jones Beach, so they had legislation passed forbidding the use of buses on parkways.
Then he had this quote, and I can still hear him saying it to me. “Legislation can always be changed. It’s very hard to tear down a bridge once it’s up.” So he built 180 or 170 bridges too low for buses.