In previous posts, I brought up the theory that American cities are run in a feudal fashion, despite the nominally democratic system, and that the failings of feudalism are leading proponents of livable streets and public transit to demand elected absolute monarchs instead. The recent 125th Street bus debacle, and the online livable streets community’s response to it, represent another example of this trend.
To recap: New York City’s Department of Transportation proposed a bundle of bus upgrades along 125th Street: dedicated bus lanes on most of the street for the use of all four bus routes running along 125th, and Select Bus Service on the M60, which connects Morningside Heights with Astoria and LaGuardia. The M60 is by a small margin the top route for boardings along 125th (not necessarily for boardings elsewhere for trips ending on 125th), but it’s third in overall ridership among the four routes. Because of its Morningside Heights bend at the west end and its LaGuardia service it’s perceived as a whiter route than the other three routes: the Bx15, connecting to Third Avenue in the Bronx; the M100, connecting to Washington Heights and Inwood; and the M101, connecting to Washington Heights at one end and going along Third and Lexington at the other. Harlem politicians were livid that DOT were only giving SBS upgrades to the whiter route. State Senator Bill Perkins opposed the plan’s ban on double parking and got the bus lanes truncated from Central and West Harlem to just Central Harlem; he and City Councillor Robert Jackson continued to oppose the plan, Jackson doing so explicitly on the grounds of privileging the M60, and DOT just dropped it.
It is not my intention here to rehash my argument for why Jackson was right and DOT should have proposed SBS upgrades for all four routes, or if it had to pick one then the M101. I have said this on Streetsblog and Second Avenue Sagas in comments. Rather, I bring this up because while many commenters said “we lost, let’s try again” or “we lost, let’s defeat Perkins and Jackson for opposing our interests,” other responded with fantasies of absolute power: fantasies of the city cutting bus routes to West Harlem to punish Jackson and Perkins, fantasies of the city making the Harlem communities beg for any further livable streets improvements (as already happens with bike lanes in East Harlem), fantasies of a Robert Moses for livable streets, fantasies of Bloomberg buying election campaigns to defeat all livable streets opponents.
An absolute ruler is not going to do anything positive. He doesn’t have to – either his rule is secure and he doesn’t need to care, or it’s not and he needs to spend his effort shoring it up with patronage and attacks on opponents. A city government strong enough to do things over the objections of black politicians who are concerned with racial inequality, or over those of pro-car NIMBYs, will also be strong enough to do things over the objections of the livable streets community. Robert Moses’s problem wasn’t just that he was pro-car; it’s that he was authoritarian and didn’t need to care too much about what people thought, so that his own biases for segregation could become city policy.