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Urban economics: to have private highrise buildings, do you need a politically-connected “master planner”?

Tyler Cowen links to an article by economist Ed Glaeser on urban political activists Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. Moses, who ran various NYC government commissions in the mid-twentieth century, is famous for organizing the construction of bridges and structuring the financing so that he controlled the flow of money from the tolls. This independent source of funding gave him a huge amount of power within the government to do almost whatever he wanted–for awhile, until Jacobs and others mustered the popular support to stop him. Given my experiences at Columbia University, I can appreciate Moses’s bureaucratic acumen: in any organization I’ve been involved in, there aren’t so many sources of free money–that is, funds that haven’t already been allocated to some expense. Free money is a source of power. I imagine this is true within corporations as well.

That’s all tactics, though. What’s relevant for Glaeser’s article is what Robert Moses did with his money and power, which was to build some highways and attempt to build others that, on the plus side, would make it faster for people to go through New York City on the way to or from other places and, on the minus side, would destroy some neighborhoods and make many of the un-destroyed neighborhoods less pleasant to be in (by being next to a highway, disconnected from the rest of the city, etc).

What about the specifics? Glaeser agrees that Moses’s proposed lower Manhattan expressway was a bad idea, as was his highway that destroyed a neighborhood in the Bronx. On the plus side, Glaeser supports Moses’s parks and swimming pools and describes his roads and bridges as “not all bad.”

One thing that interests me about Glaeser’s discussion is that, implicitly, there are two levels of liberal-conservative dispute here.

One dimension is private vs. government: Moses was government all the way (Glaeser writes, “Moses gave his life to his city and his state, earning far less than he could have in the private sector”–although I wonder how much of this private-sector income would’ve been based on his government connections), while Jacobs actually was in the private sector and also favored private solutions. In her writing she expressed disdain for large-scale planning.

The other dimension is what the government is doing. It’s liberal to support government-funded health care, moderate to support government-guaranteed student loans, and conservative to support government-funded highways. I think it’s probably possible to do some sort of analysis that would make sense of liberals supporting government spending on trains and conservatives supporting government funding on roads.

The relevance here is that I think Glaser, as an economist, is put in an awkward position by the specifics of the highway-building question. For example, he writes, “Except for Los Angeles, every one of the ten largest American cities in 1950 lost at least 10 percent of its population over the next thirty years. New York is exceptional not in its decline but in its resilience, and perhaps Moses deserves some credit for that. New York and Los Angeles are the only two of those ten big mid-century cities that have gained population over the past sixty years.” This I don’t see. I’ve been to most of the largest U.S. cities, and all the ones other than New York seem to have a lot more “Mosesification” than New York. Even small U.S. cities are crossed through with highways, and often the center cities are occupied by huge parking garages. Just for example, check out Richmond, Virginia.


  1. David says:

    I lived in Tucson for a couple of years. I had a friend from Denver who lamented that the 10 didn't run right through the middle of the city. Drove me batty. I grew up in the DC ex-urbs, so I think major cities should have circuits that surround them and isolate them from the through traffic.

  2. Seth Roberts says:

    "I've been to most of the largest U.S. cities, and all the ones other than New York seem to have a lot more "Mosesification" than New York. Even small U.S. cities are crossed through with highways, and often the center cities are occupied by huge parking garages."

    Great point. I agree, there is/was something omnipresent about Moses's way of doing things — Moses was just the most powerful practitioner — whereas Jacobs's idea that these big projects could be stopped wasn't omnipresent.

  3. Andrew Gelman says:


    It's been argued that Moses's biggest influence was not in making NY different than other cities (as Glaeser appears to claim) but rather in setting a template, with New York, that was later followed by other U.S. cities.

    I suspect that Richmond, Indianapolis, etc., would be better off economically if they, like New York, had had Jane Jacobses who successfully resisted big government development, superhighways, etc.–but I don't really know. My guess is that these cities would've adapted to the car in any case, but maybe it would've gone better had government agencies not had the power to stick highways and parking garages where valuable property could've been.

  4. marcel says:

    I don't see that Glaeser referred to racial aspects of Moses' building (from Wikipedia, based on Robert Caro's book on Moses):

    For example, the construction of low overpasses on parkways were made purposely too low for buses to clear, and the veto against extending the Long Island Rail Road to Jones Beach, were to prevent the poor and racial minorities (largely dependent on public transit) from accessing the beach, while providing easy car access for wealthier white groups. In furtherance of this point of view, Caro also notes the provision of numerous park amenities on the West Side highway below 125th Street (the main street of Harlem) versus the provision of few (if any) amenities north of 125th Street. Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters (both of which sit in the northern part of Manhattan Island) were built in Inwood, then an Irish Catholic neighborhood, rather than Harlem which is predominantly black.

  5. harold says:

    Moses was a racist and classist — as was the norm in his era. However, he built highways for recreational driving, not commerce. His parkways lead to huge public parks like Jones Beach and Riis Park.

    Later highways in other cities were built with military and commercial goals in mind and not for the citizenry (rich or poor).