I’m currently reading the tome The Power Broker by Robert Caro. For those not familiar with it, it’s the Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Robert Moses. “Robert who?” you may be asking? Robert Moses, perhaps more than any single person literally shaped New York City in the mid-20th Century. Due to his power, he was responsible in NYC alone, for getting the Triborough Bridge, Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, West Side Highway, Cross-Bronx Expressway, and many other large scale projects built. He outlived a number of borough presidents, mayors, governors and even Presidents. Arguably, for decades he was the most powerful man in NYC, at least in terms of how many was spent and what projects were completed. In many ways he was a visionary.
However, as the chapter I’m currently in discusses, he also could be extremely short-sighted. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
In the past week, several small incidents occurred in my life. Separately, they don’t necessarily mean much, but taken together, I realized there was a little theme associated with them.
Last Tuesday I posted an update on my dryer repair and an issue at one of my clients. I described the work incident as an example of the normalization of deviance. A few hours later, someone I’ve known for decades, originally online, but have since met in person, Derek Lyons (who has a great blog of his own on anime, a subject about which I know nothing) posted a reply to me on Facebook and said he had read my article, liked it, but thought I was wrong. I was intrigued. You can see his comment and my reply at the bottom of last week’s post. The general point though is I think he showed my thinking was incomplete, or at least my explanation was. In either case, it made the overall article a better one.
Then on Wednesday, my editor at Redgate, Kathi Kellenberger emailed me with changes to my most recently submitted article. One of the changes was to the title of the article. Now, I’ve come to value Kathi’s input, but I wasn’t keen on the title change, so I suggested something different. She wrote back and recommended we go with hers, How to Add Help to PowerShell Scripts because she said “How to…” generates more hits on search engines and in fact a previous article of mine How to Use Parameters in PowerShell was one of their most read articles at the time (106K hits and climbing). I went with her advice.
Yesterday, a friend contacted me. He was in the middle of doing grading for his students and the numbers on his Excel spreadsheet weren’t quite making sense. The errors weren’t huge, but just enough to make him go “hmmm”. So, he reached out to me to take a look. After a few minutes of digging I understood what was happening and able to write back to him and give him a better solution.
All these have something in common: the final product was better because of collaboration. This is a common theme of mine: I’ve talked about the chat system I use at RPI, I’ve talked about making mistakes. In general, I think that when trying to solve a problem, getting additional input is often valuable.
So back to Robert Moses. In the early part of his career, before his efforts focused mostly on NYC itself, he was responsible for other projects, such as the Northern State Parkway and the Southern State Parkway and Jones Beach on Long Island. He started his career in a time when cars were mostly a vehicle of the well-off and driving a parkway was expected to be a pleasant experience (hence the name). His efforts were built around more and more parkways and highways.
By the 1950s though, it was becoming apparent to most everyone else that additional highways actually generated more traffic than they routed away from the area surface roads. What was originally considered a blessing in disguise, where a bridge, such as the Triborough would quickly generate more traffic (and hence more tolls) than expected, was soon seen as a curse. For every bridge or tunnel built in or around NYC, traffic increased far more than expected. And this came at a price. Urban planners around the country were starting to see the effects. Efforts to build more bridges or highways to ease traffic congestion were actually creating more. Even in NYC as Moses was planning for his next large projects opposition was slowly building. However, Robert Moses was blind to the problem. By the 1950s and 60s he had so surrounded himself by “yes men” that no dissidence was permitted. In addition, opposition outside of this offices was silenced by almost any means Moses could use, including apparently the use of private detectives to dig up dirt on opponents.
In the current chapter I’m reading, Caro, the author, details exactly how much money the Triborough Bridge Authority (which was in practice, though not theory, under Moses absolute control) and the Port Authority had available for upcoming projects, including the planned Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. He goes on to explain how badly the infrastructure of the NY Subway system and the LIRR had fallen into disrepair. Caro suggests how much better things could have been had just a portion of the money the TBA and PA had at their authority had been spent on things like the Second Avenue Subway (something that is only now coming to fruition and will take possibly decades more to complete). Part of the issues with the subway system can be lain directly at the feet of Moses due to earlier efforts of his to get the city to fund his other projects. The issues with the LIRR however were more an indirect result of his highway building out into Long Island.
I suspect some of Caro’s claims are a bit idealistic and would have cost more than the projections at the time (like most projects) and while I think most of the projects he touches upon probably should have been built in the 50s (the Second Avenue Subway being one of them and the LIRR East Side Access being another) they weren’t because of a single man who brooked no disagreement and was unwilling to reconsider his plans.
Robert Moses was a man who got things done. Oftentimes that’s a good thing. And honestly, I think a number of his achievements are remarkable and worthy of praise.
But I have to wonder, how much better of a city could New York be, had Robert Moses listened to others, especially in the 1950s and 60s.
Today’s takeaway? Take the time to listen to input and ask for it. You may end up with a better solution in the long wrong.
I would also suggest “Victims of Groupthink” by Irving Janis.