Book Review: The Great Society Subway

Although I’m certainly biased in favor of my hometown, in my opinion the DC Metro is the finest American rail transit system of the automobile age. Fast, extensive, and fully grade-separated, Metro has utterly transformed land use throughout its region. Thirty five years after its opening, the Nation’s Capital is unthinkable without it.

Metro is also the subject of a new(ish) book by Zachary M. Schrag, The Great Society Subway. The book takes the story of Metro from its origin in freeway fights of the 1950s through the final completion of the initial plan in 1990s.

If you’re familiar with the geography of the area and the system, it’s interesting to learn the story of how the lines ended up where they are. A salient fact about Metro is that it was envisioned as an alternative to a web of inner-city highways, rather than a supplement to them. Early in the book, the alphabet soup of shifting planning agencies and parade of old white guys gets a little tedious, but once WMATA (the agency’s name to this day) is formed, things pick up a bit. Aside from the narrative quality, three things stuck out for me.

The first is the shifting valence of the neighborhood activist, fighting freeways and later fighting rail lines. It reminds me of the shared reverence for Jane Jacobs, who was after all two things: an advocate for urbanism and pedestrians over the car, but also a defender of the status quo against the force of the establishment and professional planning. In cities like Seattle where the status quo is heavily auto-oriented, both sides can find inspiration in her story. In Washington’s case, underground rail lines proved less objectionable than elevated freeways, although Schrag has some pretty appalling tales (look up “Yuma Street” in the index for a particularly egregious example.)

Second, I was especially interested in the comparative experience of various jurisdictions with land use. Arlington County, Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland thought early about where they wanted the lines to go and how it would shape those areas, and they ended up with fabulous mixed-use neighborhoods. Fairfax County, VA did not, and ended up with single-family neighborhoods and parking along the Orange Line, while it completely missed the rapidly growing job center of Tysons Corner.*

Finally, it’s interesting what struggles are still interesting today and which seem petty. The aforementioned battles over routing and land use reflect legitimate differences in values and still have significant impacts today. What hasn’t aged as well is concern over cost. The Metro was not built in a particularly austere environment, but decades later compromising quality for what seem like quaint sums today seems particularly shortsighted. The struggle for $65m elevators to make it wheelchair-accessible is a particular low point. But in general costs were allowed to spiral ever upwards to preserve the scope and the region is better off for it.

If the Washington Metro is special to you, you should definitely read this book. If you’re interested in how in two decades we might look back at the rail and land use battles being fought today, the last two-thirds of the book are well worth a read.

* Tysons is finally getting rail service this year with the new Silver Line.