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Lessons from Washington Metro, America’s Last Great Subway System

Highway construction was at its peak when the nation’s capital conceived and built one of the most comprehensive rapid transit systems in modern America. Zachary Schrag explains how and why it happened.

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Washington Metro station. The system includes six train lines and covers 118 miles.
(Shutterstock)
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) is simultaneously a deeply impressive piece of infrastructure and a perennial frustration for residents of the nation’s capital.

Washingtonians will be forgiven for focusing on the system’s flaws in recent months, as hundreds of rail cars were taken off line to deal with a structural issue that resulted in a train derailment. Reduced service on Metro rail will now be matched by reduced service on its buses, as the new COVID-19 wave infects many transit workers.

All of this has frustrated Metro watchers in the wake of a historic regional policy initiative to secure funding from the jumble of jurisdictions that the agency serves. The fact that Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia all began rowing in the same direction was a serious win, which made the latest safety screw up all the more frustrating.

But the ups and downs of Metro have been with the agency from its earliest days, as George Mason University Professor Zachary Schrag documented in his 2006 book The Great Society Subway. Governing talked with him about what sets Metro apart from other American transit agencies, how it revived downtown Washington, and whether America could ever build a public transportation system as ambitious again.

Governing: Metro was arguably the only comprehensive rapid transit system built in America after the rise of mass car ownership. How did that affect the goals of policymakers as they constructed it?

Schrag: At the time, people did not know it would be the only one. Metro does have first cousins, if not siblings. BART in San Francisco, MARTA in Atlanta, eventually Metro in Los Angeles. But the idea in the 1960s was that America could create a new generation of transit systems. At the time, into the 1970s, the people working in Washington were hopeful that Metro could be part of something larger and a model for other cities.

Governing: What effect did mass car ownership have on policymaking? In terms of how the system was designed, who it’s designed to serve, what parts of the city it served? Contrast it with the New Yorker or Chicago systems that were built for more of a captive audience.

Schrag: The planners created Metro as a hybrid between a commuter rail system and an urban subway. In the downtown areas, stations are fairly close together, but there's a lot of service in the outlying areas where stations are further apart so you get more speed and bring people in from the suburbs more quickly.

That affects a lot of other things, like car design. If you want to have a more urban subway, where lots of people are taking short trips and getting on and off, then you have fewer seats and more doors. It's optimized for short trips. Whereas a commuter rail system, you need fewer doors, maybe two per car with more comfortable seats. The designers had to think about how to serve both urban and regional transit trips.

In terms of the amenities — how grand the stations were, having carpeted [rail] cars originally, cars having air conditioning — all of that was to compete with driving as an experience. In the 1960s and 1970s not all cars were air conditioned, but they had padded seats and carpeting. If you want people to give up that experience to take public transit, the thought was that you need to give them the same quality of ride.

Governing: You emphasize that Metro was largely built for commuters. It isn’t ideally constructed for tourists, with stops inconveniently located to many attractions. Even wealthy neighborhoods like Georgetown were left out of the system because they were deemed lacking in commuters or offices. Pre-COVID, what were the strengths and weaknesses of this strategy?

Schrag: When you consider the success or failure of a transit system, you have to think about land use. A major argument of the book is that the transit system isn't just there to serve the city as it exists, but also to shape the city as it grows. I would say that a major success of Metro has been the revitalization of central Washington.

It delivers a lot of people all at once, making downtown a very desirable place to build offices and amenities. It delivers those people without needing one parking space per person. If you travel to most American cities, you'll see an enormous amount of land devoted to structured or surface parking that could have been used for office buildings, apartments, restaurants and shops. Instead, they are sacrificed to car storage.

Washington in the late '60s, early 1970s was not a thriving downtown. Metro helped revive it. In more suburban jurisdictions, like Arlington, you see nodal development around Metro stations. Some of the most desirable real estate in the Washington area is real estate within walking distance of a station. Washington looks different from most metropolitan areas because of Metro.
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Metro under construction in downtown Washington, 1974. (Metro Forward/Facebook)
Governing: Do you think a system that was built so specifically for commuters can retool itself to have less emphasis on nine-to-five after the rise of remote work? Or could Metro become a less important part of the region?

Schrag: I'm getting a little bit out of my lane. As a historian, we prefer to look backward. But certainly, the COVID-19 numbers are shocking. Ridership on Metro just plummeted starting in March 2020, and now it serves a fraction of the people it used to. The fact is that any technology is optimized for certain needs. What heavy rail is really, really good at is getting a lot of people to the same place at the same time. Much better than trying to use a freeway for that.

If we think about some of the pre-COVID challenges of Metro, there was ongoing debate about late night hours. The trade-off is it would be nice to have a system that runs late so if people are at a sports game or want to stay up late, especially drinking, you don't want them driving home. It's nice to have a system stay open for them. But the fact is relatively few people are needing to ride the system at 11 p.m. Those hours might be better used for maintenance, rather than for operations. Even before the pandemic, Metro's managers were struggling to figure out how to serve those nonrush hour needs. That's going to be all the more challenging as patterns of work change.

Governing: You brought up MARTA and BART earlier. Why was Metro able to succeed where MARTA in Atlanta did not — it is much more stunted and less used — and where BART essentially only became a commuter rail service?

Schrag: In both the Bay Area and in Atlanta, you had suburban jurisdictions opting out. In San Francisco, part of it was the Golden Gate Bridge Authority not wanting BART to cross the bridge into Marin County. But also, there was resistance in some of the outlying counties to the original BART plans. Another factor with San Francisco is that they had existing transit, not only in San Francisco, but in Oakland and elsewhere. So, San Francisco, compared to most American cities, is pretty well served by transit.

In Atlanta's case, they built the highways as well as the transit, which in Washington was what a lot of business interests wanted. They wanted something called balanced transportation, where you build a lot of highways and a lot of transit. But if you build highways through downtown, as Atlanta did, you end up chewing up a lot of your downtown for parking. That reduces the incentive to take transit because parking is easier and things are more spread out because of the interruptions that freeways and parking structures create.

Washington committed to a more transit-oriented approach in a way that Atlanta did not. We do have some downtown freeways, but nothing like what most American cities built in the 1950s and 1960s. That encourages not only transit, but also increased walking and biking because things are closer together and less interrupted by these massive gashes.

Governing: Metro was very much the product of the anti-freeway movement. Do you think anti-highway activists were more successful in Washington because they could offer an affirmative alternative?

Schrag: The anti-freeway did better where it could be for something and not just against something. It was a winning argument, eventually, at the federal level when Congress allowed more federal money be used for transit instead of highways. It's also true that transit needed the anti-freeway movement, primarily because of money. Billions of dollars were moved from highway plans to transit plans. But, again, if you're going to build the highway then a lot of people, both individual families and whole counties, may say transit is now less important to us and we're going to opt out. The result is a smaller system.

Governing: Why hasn’t Metro been a model for other cities? No one else has attempted anything on this scope since. Is the presence of the federal government, and the resources winnable from that commitment, the key difference maker?

Schrag: That's part of it. But it also has a lot to do with timing. When Metro was approved as a regional system, in 1969, the economy wasn't great but a lot of people expected it to get better as the Vietnam War wound down. What we got instead was oil shocks and stagflation. An economy of unprecedented crumminess. In the Great Depression, the idea was if you put people to work, you could get the economy moving again. With stagflation you had fears of inflation if the government spent more money.

Metro's finances were never that solid, but they really collapsed in 1974 and required a lot of reconsideration. That greatly encourages austerity. It might have happened anyway, given Gerald Ford's own policy instincts. But looking at the economy of 1974-1975, Ford called for smaller, more incremental transit investments. To some extent, we are still living in that period.

Governing: Metro has long been dogged by safety problems. As far back as 2000, fully loaded trains were sent into tunnels where trash fires were burning. It was a miracle no one died. Later multiple passengers did die in a crash and then because of smoke inhalation. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed “WMATA’s lack of a safety culture.” What explains these persistent problems?

Schrag: That's a great question, but I don't think I have a great answer. I did not look into the daily operations and maintenance of WMATA as part of my research. I think it would be a great opportunity for future research. It's certainly true that transit remains much safer than, say, driving. Part of what we're seeing — this is true of aviation as well — is that deaths in the air or on a train get a lot more coverage than deaths on the road. We're looking at 40,000 [vehicle-related] deaths in 2021, which is so many orders of magnitude higher than transit deaths.

That said, it's absolutely worth others trying to investigate what exactly we mean by "a safety culture" and what it would take to hold transit systems, including Metro, to a higher standard.
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Tunnel construction underway for one of Metro's lines. (Metro Forward/Facebook)
Governing: After your extensive study of Metro, would you redo anything about the system?

Schrag: The simplest answer is Metro should have served Tysons Corner decades ago. As early as 1965, planners had pretty good information that Tysons would be the most robust development in Fairfax County, with tens or hundreds of thousands of jobs. They had the opportunity to serve that with the original system, as opposed to this Silver Line add-on decades later. Now Metro is in Tysons, but awkwardly slotted in. Tysons will take decades to become more pedestrian friendly area as a result. That's the simplest, easiest missed opportunity.

If we want to get a little bolder, given the maintenance issues at Metro and the problems they've had, it would have been great in the 1960s to have developed a long-term plan for rehabilitation. But I never found anything saying, “here's what the system will look like as it ages, and in 40 years we need to do this.”

That ties in to things like construction costs. What we're seeing, not just in Washington, but across the United States is vastly higher expenses for transit, for intercity rail, for other public works compared to other parts of the industrialized world. If we're thinking big, we could ask, why is it so expensive to build transit in the United States? What would it take to get our per mile or per kilometer rate down to what they see in Europe?

Governing: The striking thing about Metro is the ambition. Do we have the capability to deliver projects of this scale anymore?

Schrag: If you look at the history of public works in America, a lot of the things that we now celebrate took longer, cost more or did more damage than their initial planners would have hoped. The Erie Canal was definitely a financial success for New York state, but it disrupted many people's lives. Or the Brooklyn Bridge, another great feat of engineering, but certainly more expensive per pound of capacity than a much uglier bridge like the Williamsburg Bridge.

No public works system is perfect. The more we look, the more we can see the compromises that are necessary. That said, it is striking that in the 1960s Americans were willing to invest and think long term. The idea that you could lure people out of their cars and people could change the way they live their daily lives. That's the kind of ambition that is sometimes lacking.

We're talking about this in the wake of Joe Manchin's rejection of the President's [Build Back Better] bill, sounding remarkably like the Dixiecrats in Congress and their shifting series of rationales for voting against Metro. Unfortunately, I think that we may be in for a long wait before we get back to the New Deal or a Great Society spirit of investing in the future.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of rail cars taken out of service by Metro. Hundreds, not dozens, were removed for a structural issue, not a manufacturing problem.
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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