Reinterpreting Robert Moses

A recent post on Streetsblog questions whether Robert Moses really understood the implications of what he was doing.

7 responses to “Reinterpreting Robert Moses”

  1. I particularly appreciate Fran’s comments on the streetsblog:

    “In the middle of a blistering account of the incompetence of the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, the White House, and so on, van Heerden asserted that some levee failure was largely the fault of Mister Go. The New Orleanians filling the auditorium nodded knowingly, while the two dumb-ass San Franciscans stared at each other and asked, “Mister WHO?” Mister Go is the local nickname for the Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet (MR-GO), a channel dug in 1965 to connect the Intercoastal Waterway that flows through New Orleans with the Gulf of Mexico, lopping off 40 twisty miles down the lower Mississippi. It’s known in the Crescent City as an expensive, environmentally disastrous boondoggle.

    The argument van Heerden made, complete with maps and diagrams of storm surge heights and wind directions, showed how the high water driven by Katrina was concentrated at the eastern end of Mister Go and its force amplified by the narrow, deep channel that sent the water rushing west toward the city, with devastating impact on the levees. Meanwhile, miles of wetlands and barrier islands that in the past had absorbed and dispersed such storm surges had been destroyed by oil and gas exploration and development. Their beneficial effect was gone.

    Suddenly, it hit me. Storm surge equals heavy traffic, Mister Go equals freeway, wetlands equals city streets. The analogy is a bit far-fetched, but it’s stood up to subsequent observation. Concentrating traffic on freeways doesn’t remove it from city streets; it just amplifies the impact in certain locations. Communities near freeway ramps know the argument that freeways help reduce traffic is garbage. Cars don’t drop onto freeways from helicopters. They clog up the ramps and spread the mess back from there.”

    This is a very good analogy. A properly-functioning local street grid is a lot like a properly-functioning wetland, while a freeway is a lot like a stream that has been dropped into a culvert.

    One produces a nice, steady amount of water that gets released into nearby waterways at a reasonable pace, no matter how hard it rains. The other will breach its banks and cease to function properly if it rains too hard.

    One gives traffic many alternate routes, such that if one route gets too congested, traffic can simply move to a parallel route and keep going. The other will clog when faced with too much traffic, and slow to a crawl that is slower than that faced on the alternative.

    Just sayin’ it’s a good analogy.

  2. Thanks for the link. Since I’ve been interested in transit ever since I was very young (I still remember my first ride on MAX when I was 6; seeing the bus on the road, whether it be TriMet or C-TRAN, and exclaiming to my mother ‘there’s the bus!’ years before I would ever set foot on one), I’ve always been interested in the dissenting views, such as Robert Moses’ plan. I still wish I could find more information on what he planned for Portland other than the Mt. Hood Freeway.

  3. Thanks George. I actually have a copy of the Willy Week with that map in it (one could roughly argue McLoughlin Blvd. became a freeway/expressway more or less on its own, especially after they built the Tacoma St. overpass). Will have to take a look at the Portland State webpage in more detail a little later on.
    Thanks again!

  4. Don’t mean to call anyone out, but in working on my MA thesis (a history of the Mt. Hood Freeway) it has become pretty clear to me that Robert Moses had nothing really to do with the Mt. Hood Freeway. For the most part Moses is given way to much credit for ideas he was simply rehashing from earlier plans. The idea for I-405, for example was simply an evolution of a west side bypass concept for downtown that dates back to at least 1921. Moses may have brought the idea of the modern freeway to town but not the Mt. Hood. He was more concerned with north-south through traffic – keeping it out of the downtown core. The Mt. Hood Freeway idea was really an evolution of the Mt. Hood Loop Highway from its origins as Powell Blvd – Powell Valley Rd. This route was designated a state highway in the 1920s and the freeway idea simply followed for the most part the same route, with Powell projected to turn into a major frontage street.
    The map from Willamette Week is not Moses’ but from a later report (i’m trying to remember exactly which one but it escapes me at the moment). If people want to really see what the State Highway Department envisioned for the Portland area I suggest looking at their 1955 freeway report, this is where the “Mt. Hood Freeway” – along with 13 other freeways – makes its real debut. If you can’t find that report, take a look at the Oregon Journal & Oregonian microfilm from June 28 & 29, 1955.
    Please, if someone has evidence that proves i’m way off base let me know.

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