It\’s been a long time

I\’ve been distracted, having holidays, not smoking, all sorts. I\’ve also been reading Robert Caro\’s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker.

The book is a monster of nearly 1,200 pages, and its subject comes over as pretty monstrous too. From the mid 1920s to the 1960s, Robert Moses dominated public projects in New York, covering the five boroughs and Long Island with new toll roads, beaches, parks and bridges, creating the type of alienating, car-dominated urban landscape that Jane Jacobs has taught all good urbanists to despise. He achieved these feats through a combination of thuggish arrogance and low cunning, with unattractive top-notes of racism and class prejudice.

And yet, governor after governor, and mayor after mayor, found him indispensable, unsackable. Whatever his methods, Moses got things done, and he got them done within electoral timescales. When he was building his first parks on Long Island in the mid-1920s, he had $1 million out of a total of $15 million. Instead of completing a few projects within budget, he assembled land for a much larger number, thereby forcing NY State Congress to vote him the remainder. Caro reports him as saying: \”once you sink that first stake, they\’ll never make you pull it up.\”

What would Moses have made of Crossrail\’s latest faltering step forwards? When I worked on the Jubilee Line extension project in the mid 1990s, Crossrail was the next big project. Offices were being set up, and engineers recruited. And then, nothing. And now, maybe something? But breakthroughs are reported so frequently, and to so little effect, that it\’s hard to feel too excited by the news.

We seem to be very good at stopping big projects happening in the UK. The Treasury feels that it has been burned by so many wannabe-Moses characters, that it publishes volume upon volume of guidance on stopping big projects. The safest answer is always \’no\’. Soon after London won the 2012 Games, I had a meeting with a senior civil servant. \”You\’ve got the Treasury in an awful spin,\” he said. \”You\’ve robbed them of their three standard strategies: delay, descope and say \’no\’.\” At the IOC meeting in July 2005, London (Jowell, Livingstone, Coe) put some stakes in the ground. They won\’t be quickly forgiven.