Some Metro Appreciation

Posted in 2012 The Gnovis Blog

D.C.-area residents: picture your morning commute without the Metro. D.C. street traffic is already horrific; this comes from someone who grew up in the Boston area. Now imagine if the 750,000+ Metro trips taken every weekday took place on D.C.’s clogged roads instead.
In truth, this is an unfair thought experiment; if D.C. hadn’t opened a Metro in 1976, it is entirely likely that you or I might not have chosen to settle here, and so our commutes would take place in another city entirely. Metro has facilitated the rapid expansion D.C. has seen in the last couple of years: the Arlington high-rises that empty out every morning as twenty-somethings pour into this boomtown. Without Metro, D.C. would be an entirely different beast.
In my “Infrastructure Studies” class with Professor Ribes, we read the illuminating book The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. I finished the book properly chastised for being so critical of Metro, but I am certainly not alone in my frustration. The author, Zachary Schrag, waxes rhapsodic about the intense love that D.C.-area residents feel for their Metro. As a longtime D.C. resident, I suspect he is traveling in a personal bubble of obliviousness. Mention off-loading, track work, or weekends to anyone who relies on the Metro and you will find yourself in a heated conversation.
The big takeaway from this book is how unlikely it was that the Metro was even built in the first place. The system was conceptualized at a time when the federal government was subsidizing highways up to 90%. One plan put forward at the time was to create an Inner Loop — a second Beltway that would necessitate tearing down entire swathes of the city to facilitate car travel. Things could have easily turned out that way. But through resistance from neighborhood advocacy groups and the persistent angling of dozens of men (and a few women), the idea of a Metro firmly took hold. Eventually, they had blown through too much rock to turn back.
The author describes walking into a Washington Metro station as, “like gazing from a balcony to a ballroom below.” Again, the man is wearing some severely rose-tinted glasses here. I would describe it as “unlike walking into a sweaty, abandoned basement,” which I think applies to New York and Boston’s Metro stations.
Conceived by architect Harry Weese and approved by the District’s Commission of Fine Arts, the stations’ vaulted ceilings alleviate some of the unease that comes with being underground. This Commission was tasked with assuring that the Metro stations’ design would meet a certain level of taste. Imagine if people still took seriously the opinion of a group of patrician tastemakers on city-works projects.
Schrag describes the Metro as a “product of an age that did not always choose cheapness.” People seem to have genuinely believed that the local and federal government could do some lasting good; that they would benefit in the long run from a public system and that it should have the best of everything that they could give it.
Reading Schlag’s book, I kept thinking back to an episode of This American Life that spooked me. In it, Ira Glass described how Colorado Springs’ local government, facing budget issues, decided that street light funding would no longer fall within the city’s purview. Those who wanted a street light lit near their home could personally write a check or organize neighbors to share the cost. If no one could afford it, or no one took the trouble, that block would stay in the dark.
The Metro opened in 1976, less than forty years ago, a truly grand public work. Today, apparently, we are questioning whether everyone deserves to see in front of their face after dark. To me, Schrag’s book presents an example of an actual forward-thinking project emerging, in spite of and because of the chaotic, bureaucratic mess of city and federal politics. Washingtonians depend upon Metro to the point where the city be crippled without it. Had it never been conceived and executed, D.C. would likely have formed into a less expansive, less productive city, and that city might not be home.
Something to think on when you reach the platform and the next train to Vienna is seventeen minutes away.
Schrag, Zachary (2006). The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.
This American Life. “Episode 459: What Kind of Country.” Originally aired 2 March 2012. Public Radio International. Transcript  at
Photo credit:
o palsson, “Washington DC metro station” via Flickr Creative Commons