Quick Note: More on Urban Absolutism

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.

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36 Responses to Quick Note: More on Urban Absolutism

  1. Tocqueville argued that it was not absolute centralized power that was the problem per se, but when it was married into an integrated administrative apparatus.

    • Alon Levy says:

      There’s an argument to be made that they’re really the same. For example, in their typology of pre-industrial European government systems and their effects on growth, DeLong and Shleifer distinguish systems in which there’s a monarch who has to rely on independent feudal power sources to govern the provinces and system in which the monarch has full control. Without an integrated administrative apparatus, the people doing the tax collection and peasant revolt suppression can exercise independent power, and to prevent war they need some sort of rule of law; this was the situation in France until Richelieu’s reforms, and not coincidentally it’s under this regime that Paris became Europe’s largest city.

  2. busman says:

    This project being cancelled illustrates your point that leaders unaccountable to the public is a bad thing. More than your so-called champions of equality (the politicians), it was the non-elected community boards that really killed the project. Not exactly vox populi.

    • Alon Levy says:

      I agree that it’s likely that if they’d gone to a referendum in the three affected CBs, or if the CBs had been elected, 125th Street would’ve had bus lanes. But I have not seen anyone in the livable streets and transit community propose more democracy as a solution; some people do talk about the popular support as an argument for why it should’ve been done, but then turn around and say that Bloomberg or DOT should’ve exercised more power.

      • Roland S says:

        How do you explain the transit referenda that have taken place, then? The success of LA’s Measure R was praised widely as a model for other cities. Seattle, Denver, Norfolk, and other areas have had success in furthering transit goals through various ballot measures and referenda.

        Livable streets is trickier because it’s not a discrete list of projects, it’s a mindset – and the thicket of various government agencies responsible for urban streets only makes it more difficult to change that mindset. However, the various guerrilla and tactical urbanism projects that focus on livable streets issues are borderline democratic. Some of these draw inspiration from Lefebvre’s “right to the city”, which is about as democratic a principle as I can imagine.

        • Beta Magellan says:

          Although I don’t know much about how LA, Seattle and Norfolk organized their referenda, in Denver the projects were formulated by the MPO (DRCOG) and RTD in much the same way as any other big American city—they may have been put to a public vote for funding, but their design wasn’t necessarily any more democratic than in any other American city. Furthermore, in practice the timing of referenda is a highly political, elite-driven process which seeks time votes to maximize pro- or anti-transit turnout.

          I’d argue that having a successful transit system requires a mindset, too, and the reason so many online transit commenters tend towards authoritarianism is because they see various neighborhood boards and local politicians espousing NIMBY-ish statements against further transit, for parking and against increased density and assume that’s the default mindset in neighborhoods as well. That may or may not be the case, but the idea that an autocratic mayor will always side with technocratic pro-transit and pro-density developments is terribly naïve.

          • Nathanael says:

            “Furthermore, in practice the timing of referenda is a highly political, elite-driven process”

            Who cares? Every democratic revolution in history has been a highly political, elite-driven process. For centuries, the timing of elections in the UK was a highly political, eltie-driven process. The Reform Bill of 1832 was a highly political, elite-driven process. Getting rid of Charles the I was a highly political, elite-driven process. Heck, the *French Revolution* was a highly political, elite-driven process.

            Despite the flaws of referenda, on the whole I think they’re better than not having referenda.

          • Nathanael says:

            (Although I should make an important point: referenda should be conducted by approval voting whenever there are more than two plausible options. This matters.)

          • LetsGoLA says:

            Referenda can go either way. On the one hand, Measure R. On the other, Prop 13.

          • Nathanael says:

            There’s a lot to be said for the “one topic per referendum” rule. Prop 13 was just loaded with secret “gotchas”. Most people were voting for the property tax cap, not for the 2/3 rule.

      • Damien RS says:

        I’m not “in the community” except as an interested layman and tiny blogger, but I have proposed more democracy direct or otherwise. I even wrote my state legislator suggesting the MBTA had a major democratic deficit as well as poor funding (who can voters vote for or against in anger with MBTA failures? No one, unless one make a deal of it with legislators and the governor). I don’t think it’d be a panacea — I doubt parking requirements would get reduced any time soon with more democracy — but it does seem to increase the legitimacy of whatever does happen.

  3. Tom West says:

    It’s absurd that descisions about transit are made on the basis of passengers’ skin colours.

  4. Ryan says:

    Some of the frustration is undoubtedly because of the fact that the current, auto-centric state of the country was brought about predominantly through absolutism and through ignoring or destroying opposition – but now that we as a nation are at least talking about moving forward with things like livable streets and a transit-oriented transportation network, those same tools that caused this problem are unavailable to reverse it.

    It’s really incredibly difficult, as an example, to look at the situation in Boston where billions of dollars were spent and continue to be spent on the creation, maintenance and improvement of Interstate 93 and damn the consequences to the city itself, meanwhile, the future high-speed rail corridor is literally unfixable through Boston because of the legacy curve between Back Bay and South Station and because raising the Fairmount Line to HSR standards would require an interstate level of destruction against minority communities in Dorchester. So Boston gets a state-of-the-art highway right through downtown and will never have state-of-the-art rails even if it gets state-of-the-art trains. More relevant to the situation at hand, that the Robert Moses Parkway exists in spite of opposition and now bus lanes on 125th Street don’t exist purely because of opposition must be similarly infuriating to residents in the area.

    It’s not just damage to communities and neighborhoods, either. When the interstate highway network was being constructed, mountains were leveled and forests were relocated any time they happened to be in the way. Today, when discussing the creation of the interstate HSR network, mountains are (expensively) tunneled through or (inconveniently) routed around, and organized opposition all too readily falls back on a whole host of environmental concerns for the express purpose of delaying projects.

    That’s not to say we’d be better off if only for a rail-building disciple of Robert Moses to come along. Absolutism is incredibly dangerous, as you’ve pointed out. However, that also doesn’t mean that in all cases and under all circumstances, the only acceptable course of action is to cripple or cancel projects and cowardly shy away from opposition. That’s too far in the other direction, and dangerous for an entirely different set of reasons.

    I don’t know what the answer is, or how we balance a need to get things done with the need to respect that curbing the ability of NIMBYs to concern-troll away projects they don’t like ALSO curbs the ability of real communities to stop bad projects that would cause real quality of life impacts and do real harm. But the current system probably isn’t working, and there has to be a better way forward.

    • Andre Lot says:

      The issue of whether large-scale demos and the “blast through” alignment method are not a rail vs. road issue. It is more about historical timing and what practices are generally considered acceptable.

      Up to the early 1970s, the concept of mitigating environmental damage caused by infrastructure works was almost unheard of. So no noise barriers for railways or highways, no tunneling or other similar considerations to avoid destruction of forests or what not. This was the mindset by which much of the existing freight railway links were built, by the way – try to remotely conceive the idea of a brand-new railway being built through national parks in the Rockies alongside some river valleys that would have their banks filled in… not gonna happen now, but happened a lot until the early 1920s.

  5. Stephen says:

    Minor nitpick: it’s not at all clear that Bill Perkins was the driving force behind cutting the Central and West Harlem dedicated lanes. Yes, he cheered it on when it happened, but I was told by a source that none of the CBs or local elected officials actually asked for that specific change. Rather, the source said, everyone complained about a bunch of things (and wasn’t always even that specific – mostly they just bitched about the process, about how they were consulted, etc., etc.), and then the DOT seems to have acted on its own with that, hoping that it would quell the controversy (it obviously didn’t). Nobody, my source said, ever asked the DOT specifically to cut Central and West Harlem out of the dedicated lane proposal.

  6. Jonathan says:

    As Adonia Lugo explains at http://www.urbanadonia.com/2013/06/bike-infrastructure-is-political-too.html , livable-streets advocates fail to see how urban planning has been used for centuries for social purposes, moving undesirable people out of undesirable places.

  7. Stephen says:

    Slightly less minor nitpick: “the objections of black politicians who are concerned with racial inequality”

    This – specifically with regards to the impression that the M60 was for users of the airport rather than people who lived in Harlem – was only one of many issues that “stakeholders” brought up (stakeholders defined the community boards, business groups and local and state elected officials; I suppose transit activists were stakeholders, but they were the ones who initiated the process and asked for SBS – this was not something the community boards or any elected officials initiated).

    Anyway, I believe your “black politicians who are concerned with racial inequality” comment is in reference to Robert Jackson‘s spokesman, who said said (and I think implied the racial inequality part): “DOT was only going to do Select Bus Service for the M60 [...] If you’re going to do SBS, do it for all of them, don’t just do it for one.”

    So that’s one “stakeholder” (well, one stakeholder’s spokesman). Were there any others?

    As for what the other “stakeholders” cared about:

    Then there was Henrietta Lyle, at CB10 (Central Harlem), who cheered it on when DOT ended it. Why? Here’s a statement she sent me:

    We are glad to learn that the NYC Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), at this time, pulled back their plans for the 125th Street Bus Improvements, which including Select Bus Services (SBS) on 125th Street. NYCDOT attended several meetings with Community Board 10’s Parks, Recreation and Transportation Committee about the 125th Street Bus Improvement plan, unfortunately, the plan was never voted out of Committee.

    The Committee, along with a Task Force made up of representatives from Community Boards 9, 10, 11, 12, the 125th Street BID, local elected officials and members of the disability community, requested that NYCDOT work with community leaders and other stakeholders to develop a comprehensive study on transportation conditions on 125th Street and the impact of the proposed changes on 125th Street and the surrounding area. The Task Force was also concerned about the economic impact the 125th Street Bus Improvements would have on the 125th Street businesses.

    The Community Board is prepared to work with NYCDOT on a comprehensive study plan. Up until now, NYCDOT was on a fast track to implement the 125th Street improvements without adequate or appropriate input from community leaders and other stakeholders.

    What don’t you see there? Any concern about racial equity or that the project only involved the M60.

    (Sidenote: Henrietta Lyle and her community board have a history of holding street improvements for no good reason, and certainly not any racial equity issues. Just today the Daily News published an article about how her CB delayed the vote on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. improvements for four years, until the DOT finally made the pretty unprecedented step – they almost always seek total “stakeholder” consensus – of just going ahead with them, damn the consequences. What happened? Nothing. Everybody seems okay with it. And what does she have to say about it today? “We didn’t like the big flowerpots on the street and didn’t know how those would be maintained.” She still says they needed more statistics, more community input – ten years after the process was initiated.)

    Sen. Perkins told me the same thing – he wanted a study on the impacts of the bus lane, and he wanted the process slowed down (it’s been 1-1.5 years since it was announced, vs. the usual 2-3…although they never actually set a date for implementing it). Said absolutely nothing about the M60 or airport riders or wanting SBS for everyone on the corridor.

    Then there’s CB11. Their motives similarly had nothing to do with racial inequality. Rather, they were just trying to use their approval of SBS as leverage to get the MTA to relocate the M35 bus, which serves Wards Island with its homeless shelters, psych wards and methadone clinics and drops people off right at 125th & Lex by the subway. They wanted it moved somewhere else…I can’t remember now, but they had some suggestions for contortions the bus could do (which looked like they might add maybe 3 minutes to each trip, if my impression of what traffic is like there is correct).

    And then there were the BIDs. I’ve heard that they were generally opposed to SBS, clearly not for any racial inequality reasons – I think they had the usual parking and loading concerns.

    So while I would love for Bill Perkins and Henrietta Lyle and Robert Jackson to be jumping up and down, asking for full implementation of SBS and for transit justice for the people of Upper Manhattan, I think that would be a strained interpretation of what happened. (In fact, it looks like everyone’s concerns would have been magnified by expanding SBS to all the lines that touch the corridor!) It looks more likely that Robert Jackson’s press guy just mouthed off to a reporter something that he’d heard in passing, and that other than that, nobody was brining up racial inequality.

  8. Beta Magellan says:

    Ah yes, the “cut off service to broad swaths of people” argument—reminds me of the time I was dumb enough to get into an argument online with self-described liberals who thought poor people in the south didn’t “deserve” state-sponsored medical care because of statewide voting patterns.

    • Andre Lot says:

      That is a sad point of view. I remember, recently, having read some people propose that the Federal Government “stalled” federal assistance for a couple weeks to areas affected by the Oklahoma tornado just to “make evident to otherwise alienated people on very red states that they also need federal programs to help them.

      • Nathanael says:

        That’s a necessary point of view, whether or not you think it’s “sad”.

        You don’t understand how bad things have gotten here in the US. The Oklahoma Senators were voting not to give hurricane relief to New York City.

        We have learned from game theory that you HAVE to use tit-for-tat. Unconditional generosity gets you played for a sucker.

        • Adirondacker12800 says:

          But but but Real Americans ™ should get aid from the Federal Government as expeditiously as possible. Unreal Americans on the other hand, not so much.

        • Andre Lot says:

          The problem with this reasoning is that it relies on two very dangerous premises:

          (1) that the population of individual states are binary and diametrically segregated into two political categories only, and that every citizen on each state is fully supportive of all policies of whatever party has the local majority

          (2) collective punishment is a correct course of action to force electoral preference change fostered by a higher-level government upon a lower-level jurisdiction that doesn’t vote on candidates aligned to the former.

          The whole idea of “making Oklahoma senators beg for federal help” by playing the state voters against their elected officials for political chicanery is outrageous and immoral.

          Actually, among the so-called “planning community” I read a lot of very resented bloggers and/or columnists and pundits that, for instance, have an irrational hate and despise for certain cities (mainly those on the Southwest) that is not based on facts (such as Phoenix agglomeration having higher population density than Philadelphia or Seattle, for instance) but on this binary process that cannot see anything past an idiotic electoral logic. Even respectable online venues like The Altantic Cities often jump on the mud-throwing whenever something bad (such as fires) happen to places that they learned to hate just for some much-less-than-assumed attitude difference among its citizens.

          • Nathanael says:

            No, it doesn’t rely on either premise.

            There is no coherent alternative other than collective punishment — how do you suppose we could take away Oklahoma disaster relief for Republicans only? That would have much worse effects.

          • Nathanael says:

            The whole idea of “making Oklahoma senators beg for federal help” by playing the state voters against their elected officials for political chicanery is absolutely moral, and even obligatory.

            You don’t understand morality. Sad.

          • Nathanael says:

            Frankly, when we face the elected representatives of Oklahoma voting “disaster relief for me, but not for thee”, the only sane alternative is to punish them for it. There are other ways you could punish them for it — take away their committee seats, remove federal highway aid — but removing disaster relief to their districts is one of the ways.

            You advocate being a sucker. That is immoral. I notice you did not provide any evidence that your stated preference would avoid the problem of being a sucker — you just threw mud. Stop advocating being a sucker.

  9. Eric says:

    An absolute ruler is not going to do anything positive. … 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.

    You contradict himself. Moses was a pretty absolute ruler, yet he did many many things that he thought were positive (even as we disagree).

    • Alon Levy says:

      That’s my point, actually. Moses did things that he thought were positive, but there were no checks on his power, so those positive things could include routing an expressway through a neighborhood he personally disliked. Absolute rulers like to frame their power lust in positive terms: Richelieu used the expression “the good of the realm” to describe what he was giving the monarchy absolute power to do, rather than, say, “oppressing the Huguenots” or “taxing the population more efficiently to pay for wars over territory nobody should care about.”

      • Eric says:

        I’d assume that on the balance, the effect of his spite towards particular people or neighborhoods or people was very small compared to the effect of his misguided urban vision.

  10. Andre Lot says:

    An issue that needs to be addressed is: to what extent a process of designing urban development plans is “democratic” and when is the processed just abused by those who will not accept any reasonable outcome?

    This is not an easy line to define once you get past some basic general governance premises (like the one that voters are ultimately electing its government in some capacity, even if not every single public official).

    Public meetings are usually dominated by people who have very high interest on the outcomes of the process, not necessarily meaning the rest is indifferent to it. NIMBYS often perfect the art of requiring more and more input just with the goal of somehow make the process appear so controversial it can possible reach any acceptable consensus. There are also political groups that stand to gain from a take-no-prisoners attitude. Finally, there are those who oppose a project over flimsy disagreements just because they will not reap the same benefits (usually financial like real estate higher prices) as others, even though they will still be better than not having any project built.

    There are also instances where democratic outcomes for a local community would violate general laws. For instance, a community that grows around drug trading, smuggling or settlement of newly arrived foreign prostitutes or other illegal activity might see increased presence of police of renovation of infrastructure as detrimental to the shoddiness that allows them to thrive first place.

    • Nathanael says:

      What do you have against drug trading, smuggling, and prostitution?!? They’re all “victimless crimes”, remember…

      • Andre Lot says:

        I might not be in favor of criminalizing such activities, but I think some level of regulation of commercial activity is warranted by national laws. Once it is decided that drug trafficking is illegal, those who engage in such activity are felons who do not deserve to be considered some sort of stakeholder in any community (as burglars are not considered stakeholders to be consulted about new laws against property crime and rapists are not considered stakeholders on laws against sex crimes).

        I’m actually in favor of decriminalizing most drugs, but while this doesn’t happen, the field is dominated by criminals, and I don’t have a shed of understanding and empathy towards them.

  11. LetsGoLA says:

    An absolute ruler is not going to do anything positive.

    I don’t think that’s quite right. Quibble with the details, but Moses really did think that his freeways, housing projects, etc. were good for the city. So more accurately, even if an absolute ruler tries to do positive things, they are still going to screw things up, because it is impossible for one person to know the details of a city or state intimately enough to make good decisions.

    To me that is the most underappreciated lesson of Death & Life of Great American Cities. At a recent meeting in LA that was well-attended by urban planning students, I heard one say that “we have to, I don’t want to say ‘force’, but get people to live near transit” and another talk wistfully about China’s ability to build infrastructure and relocate people at will. The desire for absolute control is still present in urban planning and needs to be dealt with.

    Returning to the failings of the American political system, feudalism is certainly a problem. There are a couple of other issues: first, when it comes to large projects, the benefits are typically widespread while the impacts are concentrated. The way that projects gather public input is enormously biased towards those feeling the impacts, so there’s very little incentive for those receiving the benefits to participate.

    Second, nobody really expects the public process to have that much impact anyway. Any large infrastructure project in the US is going to get sued for inadequate environmental review, so there’s actually a disincentive to try to do things well. Everyone expects contentious things to ultimately be decided by a court. That’s the message of “California v. All Interested Parties”, right?

    • Andre Lot says:

      The authoritarian tendencies of many on the urban planning community (often revealed on their tweets, blogs or discussion informal groups) is worrying. It actually worries me more than those who are mere responsible for delivering some subset of infrastructure (such as a highway commissioner or a director of a public transit agency).

      Given the fact urban planning is a field prone to overreach and overstretch its reach, at least on currently favored schools of thought in planning, it is easy to stumble across urban planners with serious God-complexes, and to find some of them having this very acrimonious attitude that a form of the city the first, second and third most important things in life to the point they should be given free reign to rearrange culture, lifestyle choices (especially those enabled by disposable income), transportation, education etc.

      I will not give some specific groups more audience than they already have, but if you veer off just one cross-link away from some major urban planning blogs out there, you will stumble upon things like people with advanced degrees seriously thinking, for instance, that society should move towards a single-parent majority model, for no other reason that “this being the only way people can actually live close to work”.

      There are others actively deluded on the realm of draconian laws such as “people shouldn’t be able to work in a city if they don’t live in the city and companies shouldn’t be able to hire people living beyond boundaries, this would force metropolitan mergers and end sprawl so it is something we should consider”.

  12. Damien RS says:

    Hmm, how much desire for planner absolutism, vs. for democratic absolutism or what I think Lenin called democratic centralism? The city majority deciding, and neighborhoods sucking it up after the decision.

    • Alon Levy says:

      The snarky response is that democratic centralism isn’t. The less snarky response is that the desire for planner absolutism isn’t quite about having the majority decide and the minority suck up. It’s about having the government (elected by majority, or just plurality) appoint czars who will decide. There’s a large difference between wanting to put issues to referendum so the majority of voters could decide and wishing for a second Robert Moses. Moses was never elected, and brazenly concentrated so much power that mayors had no choice except to keep reappointing him.

      • Damien RS says:

        I’m sure you’re right about a lot of people wanting planner absolutism, but for their side; I was just wondering if there’s also a strain of wanting more democratic centralism. I’ve had sympathies that way myself, especially when small rich communities allegedly block expansion of public transit. (BART, Arlington MA)

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