Second in an occasional series where I wildly generalize about a transit system based on limited experience.

Segments ridden:
Red Line: Shady Grove – Union Station
Blue Line: Springfield – Stadium/Armory
Orange Line: W. Falls Church – Stadium/Armory
Yellow Line: Gallery Place – National Airport
Green Line: Gallery Place – Navy Yard
Time ridden: You name it. I grew up here, so I can’t even begin to recapitulate it.

Scope: A
There aren’t a ton of places to go in D.C. and the surrounding area that you can’t get to via Metro, but it falls a bit short of the blanket coverage you see in New York. The vast majority of the service lies inside the Beltway (analogous to I-405) which has all kinds of benefits for preventing sprawl and allowing a car-free lifestyle.

Service: A
Service is frequent except in the wee hours. Message boards tell you when the next train is coming, in pretty much every station.

Routing: B
The Red Line in Maryland follows some major arterials, rather than the nearby freeway. That isn’t the case along the Orange Line in Virginia, however. Inside the beltway, where most of the system lies, there really aren’t enough freeways to even tempt planners to route along them.

Grade/ROW: A+
As with all third-rail systems, no pedestrian or auto is ever going to get anywhere near the track.

Revisiting this with a newly critical eye, the TOD is kind of disappointing. The city itself is really dense, which was the case before the Metro came. Although many stations are underground and therefore impossible to evaluate without stopping there, my limited experience in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs at the ends of the line is pretty disappointing. My read is that local authorities are really starting to get it, however.

Culture: A
For many suburbanites, driving to work is unthinkable. They’re certainly not deterred by park-and-ride fees approaching $5.00 a day, on top of a fare of as much as $4.50 each way. I don’t personally know any people that work in the city anymore, but what I gather from sources like Matt Yglesias is that in the core a car-free lifestyle is increasingly viable and popular as the city emerges from epic mismanagement a couple of decades ago.


If you are visiting DC for the traditional tourist itinerary, there’s no good reason to rent a car. Driving and parking are difficult in the main tourist areas. The Metro goes right to National Airport, and there is straightforward bus service if you must fly into Dulles or BWI.

I happened to be in town the very day the USDOT reversed itself and gave the go-ahead to Dulles Rail. Having spent most of that trip in the Dulles Corridor, I can say that there’s tons of high-rise office space surrounded by parking. That’s a good sign, as it indicates that there’s tons of available real estate with mild zoning restrictions. Furthermore, it’s certainly interesting to see how the attitude of federal bureaucrats can change when the system is in their direct experience, while it’s “let them take buses” out here in the stix. But let’s give Virginia’s leaders credit for persevering in the face of really negative feedback.

In terms of sheer beauty, little in the transit world really comparesto a DC Metro Station. The underground architecture, while composed mainly of concrete, is roomy and appealing. Interestingly, as far as I can tell, exactly 0.0% of the capital expenditure was devoted to public art. If it were up to me, I’d encourage all transit systems to build intrinsic beauty into their architecture, rather than add some art of controversial value to each station.

I’ll finish with a brief anecdote. I attended a game at Nationals Stadium downtown, which was built half a block from the Navy Yard station. I was impressed with WMATA’s event management, with the nearest gate to the stadium being exit-only before the game and entrance-only afterwards. Additionally, there were lots of WMATA personnel around to direct the crowds in the station and make sure that every last car was packed to the gills. It was an extremely well-organized operation, especially considering the stadium had only been open for a month.

At any rate, I soon was waiting for a transfer at L’Enfant Plaza, when I overheard this conversation:
“The next train comes in eight minutes.”
“Eight Minutes?!”

Think of the implications of that conversation:
(1) The agency is able to predict with precision the next arrival.
(2) They inform riders with a simple-to-use message board.
(3) The riders are conditioned to think that 8 minutes is an unreasonable time to wait at 10 pm.

Jealous, aren’t you?

Photo courtesy of

17 Replies to “Transit Report Card: Washington, DC”

  1. It’s mostly underground inside the beltway I take it?

    I wonder, and I’m sure ben knows the answer, which of subways, elevated and at-grade are the best for TOD. I would guess subways, just because new york is out of control dense, but it’s not obvious.

  2. Was really impressed with DC’s metro system. Loved that I practically stumbled onto the train from the plane, didn’t even know where I was going.
    I would love 8 minute headways…during the day! Can’t even expect that. Maybe our anticipated increases in service over the next couple years will help.

  3. Daimajin,

    The Southern end of Blue and Yellow, and eastern end of the Red line, inside the beltway, are elevated. But yes, it’s mainly underground.

    I’d suspect underground is best for TOD, since you can build on top of the station. That maximizes the real estate within walking distance.

  4. we can barely run buses on time at 15 minute headways. the only way to have a reliable, predictable transit system is via reserved right-of-way and ideally rail-based.

    sometimes i wonder if any of our legislators and leaders have ever been to a real city before. surely, because we’re special here in seattle/puget sound, those things couldn’t work here!

  5. I’d thought that the TOD around Arlington, VA was considered one of the big TOD successes. Is that wrong?

  6. Yes, subway is best for TOD, by far. You take up a minimum of street space with it, there’s no noise at street level, and you don’t shadow public space.

  7. It’s true that some of the inner Orange Line Stations in Arlington have decent TOD, as a look at Google Maps will show. I don’t mean to suggest that TOD is non-existent.

    However, there is huge potential that is totally unrealized, and Metro’s been around for a while. Check out the East Falls Church station, for instance.

  8. Wesley,

    Thanks, great link.

    The document seems to confirm my impression — little was done from the line’s inception in the 1970s, but things have been starting to pick up in the last decade or so.

  9. It’s the second highest ridership rail system in America and it’s just 30 years old.

  10. I was in DC this past Nov and the first thing I said when people asked me about the trip was.. METRO! Man, what a great system! There is a stop near everything. Truely amazing system.

  11. No problem. That was just one of 3 issues on DC villages around a station. I couldn’t find the one on Clarendon, which painted the village in a very good light.
    Really inspiring to see DC charging forward in terms of regional transit with transit villages. For sure the place isn’t perfect, but a good example of the direction we should emulate. Thanks for starting the discussion on it.

  12. The self-flagellation is a little misdirected re: “real cities.” DC is not a “real city” in some sense (nor are capitals anywhere).

    The federal government has made investing in infrastructure a priority around its- no other US metro area of its size did anything close to that since, well, they couldn’t rely on federal funds like DC did and does. Maybe San Francisco is close, but not Boston or Chicago or Philadelphia (underinvested legacy systems). And certainly not Atlanta or Detroit (even including road construction funds).

    This is not to say that we (or our parents) didn’t miss the boat. We had a successful freeway revolt like many other cities but the Forward Thrust bond and its reworkings were rejected also – so massive capacity increases simply stopped being added to the transportation network. So, we ended up with 30+ years of piecemeal road widening and penny-ante additions to bus lines (well, other than the transit tunnel – that was and is a huge success story).

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