Boris Pushkarev was the guiding force behind RPA’s research for nearly three decades beginning in the early 1960s. Best known for his expertise in transportation policy, he was the author or co-author of groundbreaking studies on mass transit and the public realm. Works such as “Urban Space for Pedestrians,” which came out in 1976, established the case for expanded pedestrian facilities in urban settings, particularly in Manhattan. “Public Transportation and Land Use Policy,” published a year later, established for the first time quantitative land use thresholds for major public transit modes. And “Urban Rail in America” recommended where in the U.S. new rail transit service made the most sense. These works and others shaped much of RPA’s work during his tenure and beyond.
While Boris was an influential thinker on urban planning and transportation issues, he was equally passionate about political and social conditions in the Soviet Union, the birthplace of his parents, who fled the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Boris was born in Czechoslovakia and emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1940s.
He was involved with an anti-Soviet organization based in Europe, and when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, he retired from RPA and launched a second career based in Moscow, writing about 20th century Russian history and issues related to the Fall of Communism.
When he retired from that work in 2013, he decided to write about his career in the U.S. and at RPA. The resulting essay, which follows below, is a personal piece that reflects the opinions and experience of one individual who played a significant role at RPA for several decades.
--Jeffrey M. Zupan, Senior Fellow for Transportation, RPA
By Boris Pushkarev. Adapted from a Russian article for Novyi Zhurnal
In 1960 I returned to the U.S. after a year’s stay in Europe, where I engaged in anti-Soviet activities under the auspices of NTS, an organization that had its roots in the Russian White movement of 1917-1922. I was meeting Soviet tourists in Finland and broadcasting to the Soviet Army from West Berlin. On business I visited Hans Lorenz, a distinguished German highway designer, who gave me a pile of blueprints. His autobahn Aschaffenburg-Nuremberg does not have any straight stretches, only generous, flowing curves, painstakingly inscribed into the hilly landscape.
When I came back to New Haven, Connecticut, I discovered that the contract I had as an instructor at the Yale School of Architecture was only prolonged for one year. The University did not want its alumni to stick around in teaching positions for too long. My main job that year was to collaborate with my boss, Christopher Tunnard, on the book “Man-made America.” I wrote about half the text. My most substantial contribution was the chapter on highway esthetics. The book was published and won the 1964 National Book award in the category “Philosophy and religion.” I was accustomed to a somewhat different use of the word “religion,” but later saw that our book, describing not merely what is, but what ought to be, was indeed written from a religious perspective. On the jury that made the award sat Tunnard’s close friend Professor Sears of the Yale Forestry School, a charming gentleman and the reputed founder of the science of ecology, which became fashionable a few years later.
There was much ado about the award, including a White House reception with President Lyndon Johnson. But all of that was later. That year I had, besides working on the book, to take care of a “visiting lecturer course.” That meant meeting the lecturers at the railroad station, introducing them to the audience, feeding them lunch after the lecture and taking them back to the train. One of the lecturers turned out to be Stanley Tankel, chief planner at the Regional Plan Association (RPA) in New York. After lunch he showed me a job description and asked if anyone of my students might be a candidate for the position. None of my students, I said, but I could. And so, in the summer of 1961, I started working in New York for the Regional Plan Association.
The Association, presided over at that time by C. McKim Norton of Princeton, originated in 1922 as a private, nonprofit organization, dedicated to the coordinated development of a region that included the City of New York and hundreds of surrounding municipalities in three states: New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. This political fragmentation led to the formation of RPA as a nongovernmental coordinating body. It published the first-ever plan for a region, rather than just a city, which came out in several volumes in the late 1920S and early 1930s. Its proposals for express highways, bridges and tunnels were realized, more or less literally, in the following decades by highway agencies of the three states. The crowning link was the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, completed in 1964. Numerous plans for regional parks were also realized, but none of the plans for railroads were. Private companies were impacted by the Great Depression. Subway construction in New York City also practically stopped by 1940. Public money went for highways. The trolley car network, which in the first three decades of the twentieth century served as the main framework of urban development, was rapidly shrinking and disappeared from the region by 1956. This was a nationwide phenomenon, caused by growing automobile use and abetted by bus manufacturers’ aggressive sales techniques.
Meanwhile, beyond walking distance of the former trolley lines huge expanses of land were opened for development by the automobile. With the help of federal credit policies, they were soon filled by row upon row of single-family houses on spacious lots – a quarter to half acre or more. The houses, of wood and plasterboard on a concrete foundation, were erected quickly. Infrastructure requirements were minimal: a water line and street pavement. Electrical and telephone wires were hung from poles, heating and sewerage were individual (oil furnaces and septic tanks). Such was the realization of an American dream – each family in its own home on its own plot of land. In the Region around New York, 1.1 million such houses were built between 1950 and 1970. Some 60% of all new housing was in single-family units. Commercial development also changed – the downtown shopping street was replaced by the shopping mall far out of town, surrounded by acres of parking. Over 2,000 square miles of land were newly urbanized, compared to only 450 square miles urbanized prior to 1930. RPA’s first regional plan anticipated some decline in development density and advocated decentralization, but what happened went far beyond expectations.
So, when I started working at RPA, the subject of urban dispersal was issue No. 1 there. The new suburbs were settled to a great extent by middle-class families fleeing New York City, where they left behind a few of the very rich and a lot of the poor. In the city, large areas of multi-story housing began to decay (some of them, admittedly, were not the most pleasant for human habitation). The new auto-dependent suburbs, by contrast, lacked any variety in age, income, or racial composition. They were also criticized for wasteful resource use. They withstood criticism because they fitted the prevailing transportation technology and for some deep emotional reasons: single-storied America viewed anything higher than two stories with suspicion.
No direct levers that could restrain the spread of dispersed development across the face of the continent existed. Therefore, RPA opted to pursue two indirect approaches. One was to exclude from development valuable elements of the landscape – mountains, forests, wetlands and shores. Under the energetic initiative of Sheldon Pollack [an RPA official who helped plan the creation of Gateway National Recreation Area] and his successors, hundreds of square miles of open space were preserved, the first national parks within city limits, rather than in the wilderness, established. The other approach was to improve rail transportation to make urban centers more attractive. RPA’s field of activity was broad, ranging from economic research to legislative lobbying. I was mostly engaged in transportation issues, some of which I focus on here.
In 1950 the Port Authority, owner of vehicular tunnels under the Hudson River, had opened the first bus terminal in Manhattan. The bus riders were mostly former trolley car or railroad passengers from New Jersey, who crossed the Hudson by ferry. The experience of the bus terminal demonstrated that buses could not possibly replace all the railroad trains entering Manhattan. Yet all seven railroad companies that operated suburban service in the region were approaching bankruptcy, even as the service played a key role in the economy. It was used for travel to work by Manhattan’s business elite.
These elites were visibly represented on the RPA board of directors, and so the Association began to prepare legislators and the public for the unthinkable – placing private railroads in public ownership. Not all railroads, just those lines that could become part of a unified suburban network. The ideal was to create one agency that would own and operate such a network covering parts of three states. The obstacles were political and technical: from the private companies the public inherited three incompatible electrification systems. Talks proceeded at the state and federal levels. The compromise eventually reached was to create three agencies, one in each state. On issues concerning more than one state they would have to negotiate among themselves.
In 1965 the State of New York set up a commuter rail agency, which in 1968 was renamed the Metropolitan Transportation Authority or MTA, and given jurisdiction over New York City subways, buses and vehicular toll facilities. This was to reduce the municipal burden of funding public transit and redirect automobile tolls to this purpose. Governor Rockefeller appointed William Ronan to head the MTA. Ronan promptly unveiled a “Grand Design” of capital investment projects. Its main features were a new subway under Second Avenue from the Bronx to the southern tip of Manhattan, a new east-west subway into Queens, and a new branch of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) to the east side of Manhattan. Common to the latter two projects was a two-tier tunnel under the East River at 63d Street. That tunnel was built first; cast in concrete on shore, floated in sections to the site, sunk into a trench excavated in the river bottom, and covered with rocks. Construction of the east-west line began also under Central Park in Manhattan and in a far southeastern part of the City, in Jamaica. There, the new route followed a Regional Plan proposal to combine it with an underground relocation of an old elevated line and to create a transfer hub with access to LIRR platforms (and later, the train to JFK airport). In 1972, after four years of preparation, ground was broken under Second Avenue in Manhattan.
Ronan’s “Grand design” contained an unpleasant surprise for RPA: the new LIRR branch into Manhattan led not to Grand Central Terminal, as we expected, but rather to a separate terminal under Third Avenue. This contradicted the idea of a unified regional system and made it more difficult for future passengers to walk to their jobs or to subway stations. I was furious, and asked my superiors to arrange a meeting with Ronan. The audience was brief. Ronan announced: “The ship has sailed. There will be no more changes”. I heard him imply “We gave you Jamaica and that should be enough for you” – as if we were engaged in political horse-trading. I had the reputation of “a guy who cannot take no for an answer” and knew it was not too late for changes.
I continued to draw the LIRR line as entering Grand Central. “A logical diagram convinces” (Frederick L. Olmsted said something like that). When Ronan left the MTA, Bob Olmsted, the real author of much of the Grand Design, happily reported to me that MTA engineers examined the Grand Central option and adopted it. Funding was not imminent; there was time to explore various approaches. The final concept was more ambitious than what we had in mind –- using storage tracks under Madison Avenue for the terminal. Rather the LIRR tracks went directly under Grand Central in deep tunnels – four to five levels down. This solution was facilitated by the development of tunnel boring machines, capable of carving the full cross-section of a tunnel out of hard rock, such as Manhattan gneiss. Construction started in 2007, when I lived in Moscow and knew nothing about it. Today the excavation is complete but remaining construction will take until 2019. The estimated cost is over $ 8 billion. [As of 2015, the MTA anticipates that East Side Access will open in late 2022. The project’s cost has risen to $10.17 billion.]
The story of the Second Avenue Subway is more dramatic. Unlike the Jamaica hub and LIRR into Grand Central, the Second Avenue subway was not an RPA idea. It was first proposed by the City of New York in 1924, but other priorities intervened. The project was revived in the 1950’s to replace the Second Avenue Elevated, torn down in 1940, and the Third Avenue “El” torn down in 1955 and replaced with nothing. RPA argued that the need for the subway became more urgent as residential and office development in its corridor intensified.
Not quite two years after ground was broken, there was a change in administration in New York City. John Lindsay, who raised many bright hopes in the planning community, was replaced as mayor by Abe Beame, who dashed them. He surrounded himself with a crew that saw social services as the only worthwhile public expenditure. In the transportation field, they only recognized “low-capital alternatives,” which meant buses. Costly capital investment they viewed as inherently undemocratic, because it benefits mostly future generations, whose preferences are unknown: They may as well not need any transportation at all, and just communicate electronically. With regard to Second Avenue, their demand was categorical: “Fill in the holes!” When we inquired what they intend to do with the nearly completed 63d Street tunnel, the answer was “You can grow mushrooms there!”
Things did not go quite that far. In time, approaches to the upper level were completed in part and limited service inaugurated there, as well as in most of the new tunnel in Jamaica. The rest of the new route plan for Queens – in some ways very cost-effective - was scrapped.
One should keep in mind that the federal government was paying for 80% of the cost of the “Grand Design” subways; the City had to put up only 20%. That was too much for the Beame administration; it preferred to give up billions in federal investment dollars in order to spend the municipal share on current operations – to keep the fare down. Beame’s constituents saved a few dollars on the fare, but generations of New Yorkers were deprived of the benefits of two modern subway trunk lines. Today, in the electronic era the number of subway riders is about 50% higher than it was under mayor Beame.
Some MTA capital funds were reallocated to improve the appearance of existing subway stations. Here, too, the low-capital syndrome dominated. Only cosmetic changes were permitted – new paint, new tile, new floor covering. This went hand-in-hand with a retro architectural approach – let’s pretend it is 1907. Structural changes were taboo, with very few exceptions. Meanwhile, the dreary appearance of the underground could be relieved by structural changes at a few major stations – much wider entrances, less steep stairs, open wells to cheer up the underground with daylight.
In 2007, 33 years after the “fill in the holes” edict, construction resumed under Second Avenue. The middle section of the subway from 63d to 95th streets, some two miles long, is being built, with a likely completion in 2017, at a cost of $4.5 billion.
Long lead times from conception of a project to its execution are not new to the region. In 2003, the New Jersey transit agency completed the Montclair connection – a mere 1,200 feet long – a project that was recommended by RPA in 1926. It combines two lightly used suburban lines into one strong one, with direct access to Penn Station in Manhattan.
Nor was it always necessary to wait 77 years. I was involved in a project that took only 18 years from plan to reality. The story goes as follows: In response to the promotion of low-capital alternatives, advocates of rail transit in the U.S. decided to bring back to life the good old trolley car. It was rebranded light rail or LRT. All it needed to compete in the new environment was its own right-of-way. Short tunnels or viaducts were optional, not required, greatly reducing the construction cost. Rail transit, too, can be low-capital, was the motto.
One day in 1982 a group of young colleagues from several agencies, led by George Haikalis, showed up at my office and said: “Stop drawing pictures of tunnels that will never be built. Draw us a picture of something that can be built now.” So, with a felt-tip pen, I drew a red line on yellow tracing paper. It showed how abandoned railroad rights-of-way in old waterfront cities of New Jersey can be combined to form a high-speed trolley route. Part of this route was still used by freight trains, and I showed how to relocate them to the west side of the Palisades ridge, so that their own route would become shorter and local residents would not be disturbed by their noise. The idea was favorably received. Work on it by the New Jersey transit agency began. I testified at public hearings. I wanted the light rail line to follow the Hudson River shore in Hoboken – that would be very scenic. I showed slides of streetcars on the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, but local residents were not impressed. They thought tracks in their front yard would be ugly and insisted on putting them out of sight. In neighboring Jersey City residents did not object to tracks on the main street of their historic district. The resulting 21-mile Hudson-Bergen Light rail line opened in stages between 2000 and 2011 at a cost of $ 2.2 billion.
In my first decade at Regional Plan I realized that our views in the planning field often differed from those held in the outside world. My colleagues in public relations propagated our views as journalists would. I felt that we needed a better factual research base to strengthen the impact of our arguments. So the next two decades I devoted largely to research. We started in our own front yard. We looked out the window at Midtown Manhattan and saw that most of its public space is allocated to motorists, even as most of the traffic is on foot. This is unfair and it can be proven, we thought. With this in mind I and my new colleague Jeff Zupan, who was trained as a transportation engineer, went to see Martha Wallace, president of the Henry Luce foundation. She gave us a $200,000 grant to do the work. The Port Authority helped, taking detailed aerial photographs of the central square mile of Manhattan (40th to 60th streets) from a helicopter. Student interns interpreted the photos, counting pedestrians under a microscope. Knowing the density of traffic from the aerial photos and assuming its largely known speed, one could estimate the flow per unit of time and compare the performance of sidewalks to that of the roadway. We also did all-day counts of entering and exiting pedestrians at buildings of different types to gain a picture of the daily cycle and of the burden that different uses (office, residential, retail) place on the sidewalk. Further, using time-lapse photography, we analyzed the pedestrian stream – how behavior changes as the stream becomes denser. On that basis we defined levels of comfort, from unconstrained walking to jammed conditions. Standards of sidewalk width were proposed.
For the long term, we recommended to remove motor vehicles altogether from a number of Midtown avenues and some streets. We proposed to start with Broadway as the best candidate for pedestrianization in Midtown. As a vehicular facility it was redundant, lacking a one-way counterpart, and it sliced diagonally across the street grid, causing problems at intersections.
After four decades our proposal was implemented under Mayor Bloomberg. For the first time in history, Times Square began to resemble a square, rather than a convoluted confluence of traffic streams. Despite initial cab driver protests, more walking space, huge flower pots, comfortable seats and a bicycle lane have replaced moving motor vehicles in the middle of Broadway.
Our study of pedestrians contains other themes as well – for example, how to build comfortable stairways. This issue was raised at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; physiological studies showed at what stairway incline the human body expends the least energy. Unfortunately, the Authority did not follow through - stairs at its bus terminal are to this day inhumanly steep. Steps in the subway are not as bad, but still far from optimal. We raised the issue with technicians at the Transit Authority. George Ziegler, newly appointed as chief engineer, said: “Look, we have our hands full with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which demands ramps and elevators to bring wheelchairs to the subway platform; we cannot possibly worry about normal pedestrians.” It was of no use pointing out that stairs in the Moscow subway are much more humane – with inclines of 33% on entrances and 44% on interior stairs, compared to 63% on both in New York. My friends at the MTA knew it – I was with them there in 1970 on a study tour.
Unlike the criteria of highway esthetics from my work at Yale, which were incorporated into official design standards, albeit on an optional basis, our pedestrian standards never made it into an ordinance or code. On the contrary, the New York City zoning ordinance was revised to reduce pedestrian plaza space. With the epigraph “Pedestrians should be loved,” our study was published in 1975 by MIT Press under the title “Urban Space for Pedestrians.” Forty years later, it sells on the Internet for up to $600 a copy.
The abandonment of construction on Second Avenue in 1974-1975 was perceived by me as a major personal blow. I decided that a city which throws its future away so lightly is not worthy of me. That meant I should pay more attention to Russian affairs, where I did see a future. Coincidentally, new arrivals from the Soviet Union appeared in New York in the late 1970s. Working with them – arranging lectures, editing texts – was interesting. I was elected to the NTS Board of directors and from 1980 on, every January, went to attend its week-long annual meeting at a secluded inn in the mountains near Frankfurt, Germany. In 1981 in New Jersey I incorporated the Russian Research Foundation to study ”alternatives to Soviet policy.” The same year in Asilomar, Calif., the American scholar Alexander Dallin helped us set up a seminar on transition from socialism to a market economy. No economists who later engaged in “transitology” were interested. Still, modest funds were raised by the Foundation over three decades.
The orientation of RPA research changed too – toward national issues and a national audience. Our next study dealt with how public transportation is affected by the density of urban development. Public transportation is possible when the trip trajectories of a substantial number of people coincide. The higher the population density, the higher the probability of such coincidence. By contrast, when only a few people are travelling in scattered directions, it is hard to collect them into a bus, not to speak of a train. Our laboratory in this case consisted of 3,600 square miles, for each of which the Tri-State Transportation Planning Commission, a newly formed public body, collected detailed data in 1963. This included the amount of residential and nonresidential floorspace, the number of residents and their characteristics, and an inventory of their trips. When arrayed by the density of floorspace, these square miles show a consistent pattern: as density rises, so do auto trips – up to a certain level. Additional trips above that level are taken by public transit. It is also evident that the territory served by rail has higher transit use than bus-only territory. Which mode of travel a person chooses is thus clearly dependent on the density (measured in people, floorspace or trip ends) at which the person lives, and less so on individual characteristics such as income or age.
Our conclusions were put roughly as follows: if you live at a density of less than four dwellings per acre, don’t expect much bus service. If you want a light rail line, don’t throw your nonresidential floorspace around the landscape in a haphazard way: collect it in one place; a cluster of 15 million square feet of nonresidential activity should be enough to support a light rail line even with high auto ownership. Of main interest to us were the specific numbers defining where particular forms of transit work; to many in the outside world the very dependence of transit on development density was a revelation. Published in 1977 by Indiana University Press under the title “Public Transportation and Land Use Policy,” the book was widely used as a text in university courses.
We at Regional Plan were criticized for an urbanite viewpoint, for forgetting that New York is not the United States. The latter we certainly knew, but we also knew that the Region including New York contains the full array of settlement densities found in the nation. In that sense, we knew the country better than it knew itself.
A good example is a study of how the annual mileage driven by a car depends on population density. The laboratory in this case was the State of New York, which contains both the county with the highest density in the nation and one with the lowest east of the Mississippi. Sure enough, we found a strong statistical relationship between annual miles driven and declining density. The relationship simply went unnoticed in places where such contrasts do not exist.
Our book “Public Transportation and Land Use Policy” paid a lot of attention to buses but not enough to rail transit, because the latter requires a more complex methodology. Meanwhile, the bus versus rail debate in the nation intensified. The federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) was funding full-scale rapid transit systems not just in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, but also in less obvious places like Miami and Baltimore. New requests kept coming in and how to evaluate them was unclear. The “low-capital” crowd, led by some professors at UCLA, conducted a shrill campaign against new rail systems. UMTA was a particular target. So I showed up at UMTA with Jeff Zupan and we said: We are not for rail or against rail. One simply has to find out where it is appropriate and where not. We can offer objective criteria. Of course, we knew that it is most appropriate and also most expensive in New York. But in the political climate of the day we could not think about New York. Rather, we thought about expanding the constituency of cities where rail could make sense, so that federal funding would not dry up. UMTA gave us the contract to develop criteria for rail transit. The result was the 1982 Indiana University press book “Urban Rail in America.”
It starts from a 120-year overview covering the history of the first steam-powered elevated trains, horse-cars, cable cars, electric streetcars, the first electrified tunnels, up to automated rapid transit systems in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Then follows an analysis of the operations of existing systems, rapid transit, light rail and bus, their consumption of basic resources (labor, energy, land), their output in passenger-miles, and recent construction costs. Taking all this into account, criteria warranting new lines are derived. They depend on the magnitude of the passenger stream. The heaviest streams warrant full underground construction; intermediate streams – perhaps some short tunnels or viaducts: light streams – only at-grade tracks. Still sparser streams are the domain of the bus.
The next task was to find where passenger streams of these magnitudes might actually exist. We examined the downtown size and the population distribution of some 25 American urban areas and identified corridors that could support a rail line. Heavy passenger flows that warrant a full tunnel were found only in Los Angeles. But 17 other cities had flows in the mid-range, able, in some cases, to support short underground or above ground structures. Seven of the urban areas examined were found not to warrant any rail.
Our work elicited interest in the cities we listed. I was twice called to speak in Dallas, which soon began to build an ambitious light rail system, then in Houston, where things moved slowly. In St. Louis we eyed an abandoned railroad tunnel under downtown, which indeed was later used for light rail. But the main prize was Los Angeles, where we expected a fight with the “low-capital” professors on their own turf. I spoke before the powers-that-be in California. In a letter dated March 25, 1980, the state’s secretary of transportation wrote back: “Your contribution was very much appreciated. Because of it we learned enough that was new and different to have us re-examine our direction in transportation policy…. this was one of the most successful undertakings as far as knowledge imparted and ideas explored.” The “ideas explored” were various possible routes of the LA rail transit system. Ten years later, (10 years, not 18 or 40) the light rail line to Long Beach that we envisaged opened to traffic. The main tunnel we proposed opened in stages between 1993 and 2000 – from Union Station under Wilshire Boulevard, then north under the Hollywood hills to the San Fernando Valley. A connecting light rail line to Pasadena that we anticipated opened in 2003. My favorite branch under Wilshire Boulevard to Santa Monica was not built because of abandoned oil wells found in its path, but other lines were added for a total of 88 miles.
After our book came out, rail transit systems were built, besides Los Angeles, in 14 other urban areas including Baltimore, Buffalo, Dallas, Denver, Honolulu, Houston, Jersey City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Portland (Ore.), St. Louis, San Jose, Seattle and Phoenix. All except the last one were on our list of cities warranting light rail of varying capital intensity. Only four cities that we considered as candidates for rail did not build anything. The total mileage added in 20 years following our study – including cities with existing systems – was 291 miles of light rail and 174 miles of rapid transit. The former figure exceeded our target, the latter fell short, mostly because of New York City, where only five miles were built. I remember snide remarks to the effect that we were supposed to do regional, not national planning, but we clearly had more success nationally.
Though our study did not deal with the expansion of rail systems in the 10 urban regions where they already existed, we did make some suggestions, about New York in particular. This prompted the New York MTA to give us a small contract to look at the issue. Among the objectives we listed were a) providing subway service to parts of the city that have none, but do have sufficient population density to support it; b) reducing the mileage of intrusive iron elevated lines; c) constructing new lines for these two purposes so as to make most use of abandoned or underused railroad rights-of-way, saving tunneling cost. An illustrative map of the reconfiguration of the subway was provided, as well as many tables dealing with operating cost. One sensitive subject we pointed to was the inordinately high salaries of rail employees compared to bus drivers. The report, entitled “A Framework for Transit Planning in the New York Region” appeared in April 1986 and can be viewed as the fifth volume of my collected works on urban transportation. I worked on it alone – Jeff Zupan by that time had gone to work for the New Jersey transit agency – but by design my name appears nowhere on it. I wanted it to be an institutional document, not a personal one.
The success of our Urban Rail study prompted UMTA to give us half a million dollars to investigate the impact of rail transit on land value. Funds spent on the construction of rail transit do not evaporate in thin air; they are capitalized in increased real estate values. In theory, part of them could be recouped by appropriate taxation. The relationships are complex and we decided to study them at two levels, micro and macro. At the micro level, the City of New York supplied us with data on over 6,000 recently sold parcels of land. For each of the parcels we determined the distance to the nearest subway station, to the nearest elevated line (for negative impact) and neighborhood characteristics such as income, racial composition, school ratings etc. The statistical method of multiple regression was used to show the validity and weight of each of these variables.
Individual parcel data could not show a picture of the region in the aggregate. For that we turned to the regional science department at the University of Pennsylvania. In my position as vice-president for research I was able to give them a contract to apply their regional land value model to the New York Region. Its author, Britton Harris was pleased, but some of my colleagues were less so, because money was not spent in-house. The model was the most advanced in the country and much work was done, but the results were discouraging: the statistical regression for the city data showed a very strong dependence of land value on transit access, while the regional model – a rather weak one. Possibly at fault was the different grain: the regression dealt with actual values for specific lots, the model – with averages by postal zip code. In any case, our economist Regina Armstrong wrote up the results in detail and presented them to UMTA with the conclusion that the subject requires further study – which she did pursue.
My academic ties to the regional science program at the University of Pennsylvania date back to the early 1960s, when I was invited to study for a Ph.D. there. I did not consider myself strong enough in mathematics and felt no need for a doctorate degree. To maintain ties to academia, from 1967 to 1979 I taught a course in urban transportation at New York University (NYU) as an adjunct professor. I was offered this position by Dick Netzer, who served as chief economist at RPA when I came there, and later became dean of the School of Public Administration at NYU. He continued to be my mentor on economic issues even after I left for Russia. He gave me important intellectual support in 2003 for a study demonstrating that the standard of living in Russia rose above the Soviet level as early as 1995, contrary to official figures indicating more than a decade of slump. Regina Armstrong helped by downloading World Bank data that I would not know how to find.
My return to Russia began in the fall of 1989, when six Communist regimes collapsed in Eastern Europe. I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg (then still Leningrad), met with NTS members who had just come up from the underground. My colleagues at RPA foresaw that events would soon pull me in that direction as well. In March 1990 they gave me a going away party on a balcony of Grand Central Terminal. I took early retirement and left for Germany. I could not go to Russia right away because, having described my 1989 trip in a journal article, I was put on the blacklist by the KGB. Only after the Soviet Union was abolished, in December 1991, and with it the KGB, was I able to travel there, which I did in March 1992. I was able to buy an apartment and spend 18 years in Russia – virtually a second life. For that I am grateful to John Keith, my longtime boss at RPA, who urged me to put more of my salary into the pension fund.
When in Russia, it was not immediately clear in what capacity I could be of most use: in my professional, or my political one? I gave talks on both subjects – including one at the Tauride Palace, (the seat of the Russian parliament in 1907-1917). The field of urban planning elicited no interest, while the political one – a great deal. Nevertheless, I wrote two articles on the subject of plan and market in urban development. Among other things, I mentioned the row-house of the type seen in Baltimore as a settlement form combining a garden, a parking spot, and transit-supporting density, but no architect that I knew could visualize it. Much later, townhouses began to appear in Russian real estate ads in the priciest range as “taunhauzy.” For two semesters I taught a course on the relationship between government and the market at a private university. I tried to place my 1963 paper on freeway esthetics in a highway journal, but without success. The first two Russian freeways built in the late Soviet era were reasonably elegant in places, but some of what followed was pretty bad. Just in case, I left all my publications of the RPA era with the National library in Moscow, making the librarians happy.
Nor was it easy to find a political niche for our NTS organization – there was much turbulence and conflict over unrealistic ambitions to organize a political party. More than five years were needed to agree that publishing was our main venue. From early 1999 to the end of 2009 I ran the nonprofit “Posev” publishing house in Moscow; its origins went back to post-war refugee camps in Germany.
We continued publishing a monthly magazine and put out during my tenure some 100 books, and did original research on the history of the Russian resistance to Communism. Our bestseller turned out to be “The Black Book of Names that have no Place on the Map of Russia”. It was meant to encourage the elimination of Communist place names – a process that stalled. Most important is a collective work that I edited entitled “The Two Russias of the Twentieth Century” – a textbook on the history of the Soviet period. The St. Petersburg Theological Academy immediately purchased 40 copies. State universities were much slower to respond: whitewashing the Soviet past still remains the official line. In sum, we did not become rich or famous, but we did create a firm base of knowledge for those who are ready for it. The New York experience has taught me that certain things do take time.
I was very fortunate to spend a major part of my productive life in a free Russia, which was always on my mind. Eventually, friends took over as my eyesight declined. My 75th birthday in Russia was celebrated much more festively than my 80th. Yet, I am constantly grateful to God that fortune favored me in so many different ways.