WHAT WOULD American cities have been like without Robert Moses? There can be no separating the man who died Wednesday at age 92 from the tall buildings, the highways, the parks and the public housing that are the signature of American cities today. Mr. Moses' authority cleared the land and built numerous projects in New York, state and city, notably Lincoln Center, the Niagara Power Plant and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. His works became models for city planners around the nation. For example, in 1963 the head of construction for this city went to see Mr. Moses and came back convinced "that Washington should build a freeway system without compromise." That approach led to eventually unsuccessful efforts to bulldoze through some Northeast neighborhoods to continue I395 North.

That incident was typical of the dilemman that his style of urban planning brought to cities. He believed single-mindedly in getting buildings built and roads laid down. Mr. Moses derided the people who opposed him for the disruption his projects caused as "googoos," or people who were full of talk of what cities might be but, in his words, did not have the guts to see their talk get past the inevitable obstacles. In Mr. Moses' vision of a city, the structures, roads and buildings were paramount. He saw the city as a place for people to work, whop and live in style. Otherwise, he expected them to live in the suburbs. "You have to have a central core," he said once, "because of tax realities."

Missing from that vision of city life was a full appreciation of the city as a place where some middle-clas people chose to live and where the poor, immigrants and the aging settle for convenience and jobs, and out of necessity. It seemed not to occur to him that some people like a bustling city neighborhood. His idea for a city was to make it the center of a region, and the center of a region needs roads going in and out more than neighborhoods.

Mr. Moses' response to criticism was to way that the car would have changed the American landscape without his help, and all he did was to try to contral how the automobile changed the scenery. Looking over any city now, with its huge suburban population, it is hard not to thank Mr. Moses for having bult roads. But might life have been different if the emphasis had not been on roads? Would more middle-class people live in the cities, and would cities be a better place to live? One part, anyway, of the record left by Mr. Moses is the lack of compassion he showed forthe city, for city people and or city life in the way of his construction crews.