- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006


By Zachary M. Schrag

Johns Hopkins, $30, 376 pages


First-time riders of Washington, D.C.’s Metro never fail to be surprised by its appearance, especially if they’re from another big city with heavy rail. Four decades after Metro opened its first line, the stations and cars that serve the 106-mile system remain spotless — free of litter (save the occasional discarded newspaper or water bottle), cigarette butts and graffiti. Vagrants never situate themselves on board, and the stations have stayed, for the most part, safe.

In “The Great Society Subway” — published to coincide with Metro’s 30th anniversary — Zachary Schrag, an assistant professor of history at George Mason University, presents a history of the system. He argues that Metro’s cleanliness and safety are part of its symbolism as a project that emerged during the 1960s and ‘70s, when Americans began to embrace public projects they felt could elevate the status of the capital of the world’s richest nation.

The idea of Metro was first conceived after Washington, D.C. finally achieved the boomtown status city officials had dreamed of since Congress relocated from Philadelphia in 1783. World War II had prompted an influx of residents, and by the late 1940s, as the government busied itself with defending America against the Soviet Union, brand new federal agencies sprang up almost overnight. Lobbying groups, public interests, military contractors and media outlets set up shop.

In 1955, responding to a multitude of factors, including traffic jams and white flight, Congress appropriated $400,000 for the National Capital Transportation Agency to study Washington’s transportation problems. The first priority was looking into cures for the growing region’s traffic problems. No one had any idea if enough commuters would leave their cars at home in favor of rapid rail transit. What’s more, no one knew quite how to study the problem. As Mr. Schrag writes, “Most previous transportation studies had planned for cars and transit separately without trying to define the role of each mode.”

Indeed, out of the existing rapid rail systems, four had been constructed before widespread automobile ownership. Predictably, auto proponents thought more cars were the answer. Out of this group many also pushed for mass suburbanization as an answer. And, of course, rail and bus advocates had their own solutions.

By the mid-1960s — with nudging from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations — the transportation agency had determined that more downtown garages were not ideal and that Washington needed right-of-way rapid transit. In 1966, President Johnson sent a letter to the agency describing an ideal system for the city. He asked that they “search worldwide for concepts and ideas that can be used to make this system attractive as well as useful … to set an example for the nation, and to take its place among the most attractive in the world.” In other words, the subway wouldn’t just be a people mover.

Architect Harry Weese assembled a team to go on a rail-line world tour, to places like Paris, Stockholm, Rome, Madrid and London. The team took notes, snapped photographs and made sketches, determining what worked best and what should be avoided. Clearly, the grime of Madrid’s transit wasn’t ideal, but they also found they didn’t like the clutter of advertisements in London’s Tube stations.

In the end, they decided a “public approach” for Metro was the best fit. As Weese wrote, “The public approach does not treat riders like a captive audience. Its spaces are treated like public buildings and a certain sense of dignity and even elegance is sought after.”

It was hard to make underground stations nice, but Weese submitted a plan to reject traditional columns in favor of vaults, which would mimic the cast-iron trainsheds of 19th-century rail. The vaults would create open spaces, rather than narrow, cramped platforms. Weese had seen these vaults in Lisbon, Rome, Paris, London and at some New York City stations. He wanted vaults for every Metro station.

They could be simple semi-ellispes with a flat floor and curved ceiling, or they could resemble church architecture with straight vertical walls, supporting an arched ceiling. Columns, he thought, would degrade sightlines and provide shelter for vagrants and criminals.

Weese also came up with the notion of using flashing lights to indicate an approaching train. He borrowed from Stockholm an idea to leave sections of uncut, unfinished rock as part of the platform.

Weese sparred a good bit with the Commission on Fine Arts, whose approval he needed to start a final prototype. The commission attacked his designs and showed no concern for the additional costs of its recommendations. The biggest disagreements were about unity. Weese’s ideal was in a “controlling geometry” at each station that would maximize individual spaces. Among other demands, members of the commission wanted lobbies for each station, and rather than volume looked for continuity.

At the third meeting Weese finally understood what it would take get the commission’s approval. His final design, which the commission accepted, included elements of his original plan — vaults, flashing lights on the platform and curved mezzanines. He did, however, give in somewhat on the issue of volume. While much less cramped than New York’s subway, the stations aren’t quite as vast as Weese envisioned.

In 1976 the first Metro line opened. These days Metro has five lines that will take riders from suburban Maryland through almost every corridor of the city out into suburban (almost exurban) Virginia.

Other sections of “The Great Society Subway” detail Metro’s role in downtown revitalization and suburban growth, and discuss Metro’s ridership. About 700,000 people a day use the system, making it a success in that regard, though not a moneymaker. Indeed, Metro operates at a multimillion-dollar loss each year.

Mr. Schrag tells his story in true academic fashion — by unpacking every bit of research he has on Metro, including background information on each of the players involved in its conception and a rather long history of its funding. Of course, for a book with such a broad reach, this is probably necessary, and Mr. Schrag does a thorough job with his subject. Much of the book, however, is so dense and filled with forgettable names that a reader may be left to scan for anecdotes, which make up some of the most interesting material.

Rachel DiCarlo is a Phillips Foundation fellow.

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