Robert Caro is perhaps best known for his biography of Lyndon Johnson that is contained in four volumes. It tells Johnson’s story from his birth in rural Texas to his ascension to the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
But Caro’s skill as a biographer was first demonstrated in 1974 with the publication of “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. In that work Caro told the story of Robert Moses, who oversaw the construction of 13 highways in New York City and numerous parks throughout the city and the state of New York. Moses, who was known in New York as the “Master Builder,” headed several transportation authorities that received federal highway funds.
While the original plans for the interstate highway system mandated that the highways bypass residential areas, Caro documents how Moses directed that those highways be built through residential neighborhoods despite the protests of the residents in those communities. Moses had little interest in funding public transit and the highways be built allowed middle class New Yorkers to move to the suburbs while continuing to work in the city. Caro also details how that every time Moses opened a highway, the number of cars that traveled on it soon surpassed the numbers predicted, and within several years time the media in the Big Apple would document how the tireless master builder was planning to either expand that roadway or to build another one to handle the increasing number of vehicles that were using it.
It was thought that Moses was responding to the demand for more roadways, but Caro explained that in time some urban planners began to theorize that his highways were making the time cost of driving cheaper, which encouraged more driving, which resulted in more traffic congestion. In “Walkable City” urban planner Jeff Speck recently wrote of what is now known as the “induced demand” that results from roadway construction, and quotes a study that concluded “On average, a 10 percent increase in lane miles induces a 4 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled, which climbs to 10 percent — the entire new capacity — in a few years.”
The theory of induced demand also has been summarized as “if you build it, they will come.” As the title of his book suggests, Speck is committed to making cities pedestrian friendly, and he laments the fact that much urban planning is done by engineers and planners who are committed to maintaining the automobile as the primary means of transportation in their communities. But he is encouraged by communities such as Oklahoma City and Edmond that have constructed bicycling lanes on roads and walking trails. He lists a series of measures that cities can take to encourage more walking in their downtown areas.
The author is also a proponent of mass transit systems that connect cities to their suburbs, and reminds us that at one time every American city with a population of more than 10,000 had a streetcar system in place and that in Los Angeles in 1950 more than a thousand electric trolleys were in operation on a daily basis. He asserts that well-planned mass transit systems have made some American cities, such as Boston, Chicago and San Francisco effectively car optional places. Speck believes that the cities that will prosper in the future are ones that include downtown areas that feature residential units and stores as well as entertainment facilities. It is possible that Oklahoma City will in time become such a place.
WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.