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The Great Society Subway 2009/12/09

Posted by brandonkearse in Transportation Planning.
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Schrag, Zachary M.  2006.  The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 376 pp.

The Washington Metro is widely acclaimed as shining example of public transportation, and for many visitors to our nation’s capital, it is a tourist attraction in of itself.  Indeed at 106 miles in length, the system is the third largest and second busiest in the country.  Meanwhile, its monumental stations are arguably among the most spacious and elegant in the world.

In The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro, Zachary M. Schrag does an impeccable job chronicling the development of this system and the events that determined how Metro came to be and why it is as it is today.  He tells the story of Metro in a more-or-less chronological fashion, distilling a complex interwoven history into a handful of themed chapters that detail every aspect of the process from physical design to political maneuvering to community participation.  Within these pages is something not just for anyone keen on transit, but for any planner.  Most impressive, though, is the objectivity the book, demonstrating remarkably minimal bias; indeed if Schrag can be accused of having any bias at all, it would be simply described as pro-metro.

The moniker Great Society Subway is, of course, a political allusion to Lyndon B. Johnson’s social vision known as the Great Society and its accompanying collection of programs of social improvement in the 1960s.  It is in this environment that the concept of the Washington Metro was shaped and molded, and accordingly, the transit system is imbued with many of the ideals of the Great Society: chiefly that the government and its projects – such as Metro – are intended to ensure equality and improve the quality of life.  Nevertheless, as Schrag highlights, there were many other subtle, and not-so-subtle, events and actions that shaped the Metro.

Among the more interesting and unexpected topics are the discussions of design in Chapter 3, The Stations, 1965-1967.  The design of the cars, for instance, might often be taken for granted.  However, the shape of the car is carefully formed to allow for greater curvature of tunnels.  Meanwhile, the layout of the seats that now seems commonplace is actually an interesting compromise between commuter trains and other inner-city only subways:  more seating is provided away from the doors for long distance commuters, while more standing space is provided near doors for those making shorter trips.  The story of the stations though is even more fascinating.  Architect Harry Weese sought to create the feeling of a people-focused, public, outdoor space, and in doing so, sought to maximize volume and minimize clutter.  The commission so favored his arched design for deep bored stations, though, that they implemented it all underground stations, even in instances where it proved more costly and less spacious than other designs, desiring instead to create a monumental embodiment of the Great Society ideal of equality.

Additionally, many interesting observations are made about community participation.  One of the rumors dispelled, for instance, is that Metro lacks a station in Georgetown for racial reasons. The real reason is actually a much simpler technical explanation:  in order to pass under the Potomac River, the line is simply too deep underground for a station to be practically accessible.  The Green Line, which serves many poorer inner-city neighborhoods, is also a notable case.  Following the race riots of the late 1960s, much effort was made to locate the line and stations in a way that would best service these less-affluent communities and encourage redevelopment while avoiding gentrification.  Unfortunately, the delays caused by the extensive community input and numerous redesigns of the line resulted in the unintended consequence of these under-privileged areas being some of the last to be serviced by Metro.

Some might complain that the book spends an exceedingly long time discussing the political events involving Congressman William Natcher, who chaired the D.C. appropriates subcommittee; however, this provides valuable real-world insights for students of planning.  Not only did Metro planners need to work across the metropolitan area and county lines, but they had to coordinate between states, and, in a manner unique to D.C., work directly with the federal government and Congress to secure funding.  This highlights the current difficulties faced in financing expansion and operations due to political compromises that denied by Metro the authority to tax. It also illustrates the interesting effects that national issues, such as freeway construction and its opposition, can trigger at a local level, especially when personal politics and egos become involved.

In conclusion, the development of the Washington Metro, particularly as told by Zachary Schrag in Great Society Subway, provides an excellent case study for any future planner, transportation or otherwise.  It is filled with useful facts, interesting tidbits, enlightening anecdotes, and thought-provoking observations.  More importantly, though, it highlights the intricacies of a planning process and the difficulties of implementing a plan, even one with federal support.  It demonstrates the reality of political and economic forces, and also prepares one for the sometimes seemingly contradictory desires of the community.  And for those familiar with Atlanta’s MARTA, it provides a brilliant point of comparison as a post-war transit cousin.  (This proves particularly true if read while riding MARTA.)  Overall, Great Society Subway is a must-read, and most importantly, an easy and entertaining read.

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