The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro
On March 17, 2006 the Comparative Urban Studies Project hosted a book discussion with Zachary M. Schrag, author of "The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro". Discussant David F. Garrison, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Brookings Greater Washington Research Program commented on Schrag's book, describing it as a thorough description of a long and complicated public policy decision. Below is a summary of Schrag's presentation.
Metro is the product of two trends: the debate over urban freeway construction in the 1950s and 1960s, and the resurgence of American rail transit since the 1970s. Economists and planners debate the value of new rail transit systems. As a historian, Schrag informs that debate by explaining Metro's creation as a product of the Great Society belief in grand public projects.
Part of the Great Society approach was the democratization of planning expertise, and a major theme of the book is the way in which residents of Washington challenged the work of experts—planners, architects, and engineers—who had traditionally built transportation systems.
Planning began as a top-down exercise by National Capital Planning Commission chairman Harland Bartholomew. Bartholomew believed that only expert engineers and planners were qualified to design transportation systems, and his Mass Transportation Plan of 1959 excluded public input.
John F. Kennedy's election in 1960 changed the process. Kennedy appointed local activists, most notably Darwin Stolzenbach, who challenged Bartholomew's emphasis on highways. The result was a 1962 proposal that emphasized rapid transit.
After Congress approved a stripped-down version of Stolzenbach's plan in 1965, local suburban politicians successfully demanded that transportation planning be turned over to a local body, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Expert planners still proposed routes, but local officials had the final choice among three options.
Under both Bartholomew and Stolzenbach, design was left to civil engineers, for whom holiness is found in thrift. But President Kennedy's endorsement of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's "Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture" persuaded the transit agency to hire an architect: Harry Weese. The result was the grand stations we know today.
Following groundbreaking in 1969, even more people joined in the debates over how Metro would be built. The National Park Service blocked an entrance on the center axis of the Mall and a transfer station at Farragut Square. African Americans demanded affirmative action and minority contracting. Disabled Washingtonians forced the Authority to add elevators.
Using Metro means riding, of course, but it also means setting up the conditions that encourage riding. That means building Washington to take the most advantage of rapid transit. In the old downtown (east of 15th street), Metro attracted new investment without requiring massive structured parking. In the "Mid-City" neighborhoods of Shaw and U Street, Walter Fauntroy saw Metro as a means of repairing damage from the 1968 riots, though now gentrification brings its own problems. In Montgomery and Arlington counties, county boards worked hard to concentrate development in station areas. The Fairfax County board did not, with the result that the major employment center—Tysons Corner—was left without Metro.
As Washingtonians ride Metro, they shape it, by defining the experience of riding. Metro is one of the few places in Washington where people from all over the region mix. The Mall is for the tourists; the streets are at the mercy of the Secret Service. But Metro is a place where suburbanite and District resident, black and white, rich and poor, young and old, able and disabled, mingle and interact with reasonable courtesy.
Together, over the course of half a century, experts and citizens built the Metro we know. They built a machine that was not designed to be utilitarian, or even quantifiably cost-effective. Rather, each new group brought to Metro new missions, until it became a symbol of urbanity, a preserver of neighborhoods, a work of beauty, a political unifier, a shaper of space, and a meeting ground for all Washingtonians. All Washingtonians have a stake in Metro, and Metro's future depends on citizen experts and expert citizens.