New York’s scale

An amazing excerpt from Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” that reveals the breathtaking scale of what Robert Moses built with his roads, bridges, and public works in New York in the 20th century:

The twenty-nine military highways of Rome, which, built by the greatest men of the Republic (none but those of the highest rank were even eligible to the office of superintending them) and radiating to Rome to which all roads led, ran with Roman directness to avoid curves. Mountains were cut through at enormous expense. Marshes were bridged or simply filled up with solid masses of concrete, to the most remote provinces. Even seas did not stop their progress, for the roads were built up to the water’s edge, and then continued on the opposite shore. To speed the marches of the legions and engines of war which kept Rome mistress of the known earth, were roads through open country.

Their builders may have had to contend with mountains and marshes, with the snow of the Alps and the heat of deserts. But they did not have to evict from their homes tens of thousands of protesting voters, demolish those homes, tunnel under or cut over subways or elevated railroads, sewers and water mains and gas mains and telephone and electric conduits and cables, all of which, providing the city with essential services, had to be kept in operation during construction. They did not have to solve these problems in space almost unbearably constricted, because to obtain a single extra foot of width would require additional thousands of evictions.

A few major roads were built within ancient cities. Some of the Roman highways ran right up to the golden milestone in the Forum, for example. But ancient cities did not have subways and gas mains. These were, moreover, cities on a different scale than modern cities. Imperial Rome was one-eighth the size of New York. Athens at the height of its glory was never larger than Yonkers. So the problem of eviction was on a different scale.

And since the traffic for which these roads were designed was different from modern traffic, not only in volume but in size and speed, they were constructed on a different scale. The major roads in Rome, the widest paved highways in any ancient city, were, even including their service roads, the margins, to which carriages were restricted to keep the central portion free for infantry and pedestrians, only 65 and a half feet wide at their widest point. The highways [Robert] Moses was proposing to build [for New York] were 200 feet wide. A horse drawn carriage can turn fairly sharply.  A monster tractor trailers of the 20th century require a turning radius so great that a single interchange connecting one highway to another can cover 80 acres. Not only did these roads of antiquity have no underpasses or overpasses to carry intersecting roads across them, access to these roads was not controlled. They could be entered from any intersecting thoroughfare. Their very dimensions were so much smaller than those of modern highways that they were really comparable not to those highways at all, but only to modern streets or avenues.