There is a scene in Mad Men – the hit American TV series that chronicles the 1960s advertising industry and a city’s decline – that raises a laugh for those of us who have lived in New York. When Peggy Olson, a rising executive, goes property hunting in Yorkville, on the edge of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, she expresses concern about the neighbourhood’s isolation. The estate agent reassures her: values will quadruple when the Second Avenue Subway opens. The joke is that in 2013, when the episode aired, the Second Avenue Subway was no more available than in 1968, when the show was set. From its initial proposal in 1919 until just this week, the project was one of New York’s great punchlines, perpetually planned but never arriving. The scene taps into a sense on both sides of the Atlantic that our societies have become hopelessly indecisive about infrastructure. Some other group, either in the past or elsewhere in the world, would have been bolder, runs the argument. Neither the Victorians nor the Chinese would put up with contemporary Heathrow or LaGuardia airports, the Long Island Railroad or wherever last irked us. But the past and people elsewhere are given too much credit. The Victorians built too much shoddy infrastructure without working out the best long-term approach. Much of the infrastructure the Chinese rush up – motorways that are already clogged and polluted, for example – looks likely to be seen as a mistake. While the Chinese have built with vigour, they grapple with snags such as the siting of a costly expansion of Shanghai’s busy port on a frequently fogbound island. Victorian engineering reached great heights, but the Forth rail bridge, one of the jewels, was built well mainly to reassure the public. The weak, shoddy Tay bridge, by the same rail company, had collapsed a few years earlier, drowning a train load of passengers. I was struck by the problem during a family canal-boat trip in summer. At junction after junction, little branches spurted out of the waterway, relics of projects begun 200 or more years ago and abandoned when money dried up. It had always, I realised, been hard to build big, expensive infrastructure. There is often a respectable case for waiting, either to rethink plans or until more money is available. This is personal for me. When I was growing up in 1970s Glasgow, my engineer father was modernising the city’s Subway, the world’s third-oldest underground. To save time and money, the system was constructed in the 1890s with a narrower-than-normal track gauge and mousehole-like tunnels. My dad received regular emergency calls, the result of cramming a new, modern railway into this cramped, non-standard space. Other examples abound. Taking the train to Glasgow recently, I felt it tilting through the multiple curves of the West Coast main line and slowing on long climbs through the Lake District and Scotland’s Southern Uplands. The builders had skimped by circumventing the estates of obstructive landowners and going over hills instead of through them. Near my old apartment in Brooklyn, meanwhile, the subway line featured two unused express tracks. Poor decisions in the 1930s about the siting of stops meant the lines were unusable without unacceptable disruption to more useful services. Yet sensible projects tend, in the end, to be built. As of this week, Upper East Siders have been able to use part of the Second Avenue Subway. While this would be of little use to Ms Olson, who chose the Upper West Side, the stations are better appointed than if the project had been built earlier. The Channel tunnel between England and France, now widely admired, suffered similar stops and starts. But the main reason for the Second Avenue Subway’s late arrival is illuminating. For much of the 20th century, New York’s capital budget was controlled by Robert Moses, a bureaucrat who was determined to prioritise the building of highways and parks. His spending was as dashing as anything by the Chinese. But his schemes starved more worthwhile projects, including new subways, of funding. They devastated neighbourhoods; parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx have not recovered. Today’s planners should be more concerned about avoiding Moses’ mistakes than aping his hurry.