Boosters’ Romanticism

One would expect that boosters of unbridled growth, such as Thomas Friedman, Richard Florida, Ed Glaeser, and countless proponents of urban growth would constantly look to the future and deprecate the past. They certainly deprecate attempts to recreate the past. But do they? Despite unabashed pro-Americanism, they crow about the fast growth of China. Glaeser looks back to an era of great infrastructure spending on water works in turn-of-the-century America. Infrastructurist and urbanophile bloggers look back to Daniel Burnham and early-20th century public works (though the Infrastructurist and Urbanophile themselves are very self-conscious and are more thoughtful in their boosterism).

Instead of writing about history as a series of epics, let us examine it with the same critical eye we examine the present. This means looking at historical paths not taken, much as we should examine alternatives for projects today; this also means looking at costs and benefits. In most cases, the inspirational projects of the past tend to not look very good under the microscope.

For a concrete example, consider the Interstate system. Examples of writings on infrastructure that take its greatness for granted are numerous, even on Streetsblog as far as job creation is concerned. But in reality, it was an epic disaster for most involved. The original 1954 estimate for the cost, enshrined in the 1956 act creating the network, was $25 billion; by 1958 it had already climbed to $40 billion, and the final cost was $114 billion. The construction required demolishing thousands of dwellings in each city the highways went through. Even burying the highways does not help: the scar of Boston’s Central Artery is still there despite the Big Dig, because amidst cost overruns they dropped the option of building above the tunnel.

The utter failure of the USA’s road-building program goes further back. As explained by Owen Gutfreund in his book 20th Century Sprawl, urban streets, on which it was illegal to spend gas tax money until the late 1930s, subsidized the early highways and rural roads; overall, roads only covered about half their capital costs through gas taxes. Tollways faced intense opposition from the AAA and the auto and tire industries. Instead an entire bureaucracy was created to ram roads through, paving the way to the large-scale neighborhood destruction of the 1950s. Tellingly, New York and San Francisco, the first two major cities to have freeway revolts, had a smaller population decline through 1980 than the other major non-Sunbelt cities, and are now the only two to have since surpassed their 1950 population peaks.

Transit investment in that era was no better. New York’s major project in the 1920s and 1930s was the construction of the IND, competing with the existing privately-run IRT and BMT networks. The new lines generally did not add transportation options. The Crosstown and Queens Boulevard Lines added service, but did not connect to existing IRT or BMT stops; to this day, the G train has no transfer to non-IND lines in Downtown Brooklyn, and only one, difficult transfer in Queens, which opened just a month ago. The remainder simply paralleled existing elevated or subway lines, which were subsequently torn down.

Part of it was the general opposition to elevated rail in that era, coupled with fascination with both subways and elevated highways. But only part: one IND line, the Sixth Avenue Line, required building new track alongside and later below the existing Hudson Tubes (now PATH), dooming previous plans to extend them to Grand Central for greater regional connectivity. On top of it, the difficulty of building next to an active subway created massive cost escalation, dooming future expansion plans that would add new service.

Although both of the above examples are from the middle of the 20th century, previous infrastructure investment was not much better. It’s a commonplace that New York’s first subway line was built in four years, versus ten for just one phase of Second Avenue Subway. It’s less widely known that ground broke on the subway in 1900 only after multiple decades of political bickering, route changes, and scandals; a short underground demonstration line using pneumatic tube technology had opened in 1869.

Even before then, Britain had undergone a pair of Railway Manias, one in the 1830s and one in the 1840s (thanks to Danny in the comments for the link). Relative to GDP, the latter mania dwarfed both the 1990s’ tech bubble and the 2000s’ housing bubble. Costs ran over estimates by a factor of 2 or more, and ridership underperformed estimates. Although by the end of the Victorian era the lines had surpassed the mid-19th century predictions and were profitable, the investment was too fast, and ruined many investors.

Nobody romanticizes the present, because its problems are apparent to all. Some people romanticize the future; those are the boosters, for whom every problem with growth has a simple solution. But even those can easily slip and romanticize the past, whose main actors have since become national heroes and whose main battles have turned into epic legends. Obama and Bloomberg are controversial; Eisenhower and LaGuardia are heroes.

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