I recently finished The Power Broker by Robert Caro after many months of Metro reading. I loved the book, and can’t recommend it enough. Caro provides an overview of Robert Moses’ policies here. If you don’t want to invest in reading the full 1162 pages, I would particularly recommend the chapters that explain the impacts of Robert Moses’ policies on what were cohesive neighborhoods: “Changing,” “One Mile,” and “Rumors and the Report of Rumors.”
While reading The Power Broker, I was repeatedly reminded of the massive coercion involved in road building despite the commonly held belief among many advocates of limited government that road provision is one of the least offensive government practices. Oftentimes the small government tolerance of road building seems to stem from the relatively small subsidies that roads require. Randal O’Toole has often demonstrated that automobile travel is cheaper per passenger mile than mass transit and that the bulk of these costs are born by drivers. While he advocates moving to a vehicle mile tax that would more closely tie road costs to their users and allow for the devolution of transit funding, he does not challenge that road building is a legitimate state and local government function.
However, as Stephen, Adam and others have previously pointed out, these accounting costs of road building don’t take into consideration the opportunity cost of the land dedicated to roads, which in areas with high real estate prices is considerable. Moses notoriously bulldozed valuable developments for highways and while he made operating profits on tolls, he put land to lower value use in the process.
For example, Moses used eminent domain and government funds to transform what was once a privately operated elevated rail system into an elevated highway on Brooklyn’s Third Avenue, destroying property values and a neighborhood in the process. We have no way of knowing whether privately run mass transit systems would have continued to thrive in United States cities without the onslaught of government road building and transit regulations, but the fact that government roads are today more cost effective than government transit does not demonstrate that supporters of the market process should tolerate government intervention in urban form, even if it’s covered by user fees.
Caro explains how coercive government policies produced suburban development around New York that favored transportation by car:
The building of public works shapes a city perhaps more permanently than any other action of government. Large-scale public works shape a city for generations. Some public work — most notably the great bridges and highways that open new areas to development and insure that these areas will be developed on the low-density pattern fostered by highways as opposed to the high-density patterns fostered by mass transportation facilities — shape it for centuries if not, indeed, forever.
Obviously not all roads are built with Moses’ complete disregard for neighborhoods, and in a free market it’s likely that automobile transportation would still be the favored mode of transportation for many people. That said, comparing per passenger mile costs in a world where the urban form is determined by the state does not provide evidence that mass transit would necessarily be unprofitable in a free market or that government-provided roads are always less distortive than government-provided transit.