Zachary M. Schrag’s recently published book The Great Society Subway has been on my “to read” list for quite some time now.
Since the first time I visited Washington, D.C. I was captivated by the city’s Metro system, which I first began to explore in earnest when I lived in the city without a car for the summer in 2001. The system was surprising to me for two reasons: it’s big and relatively new. In a country where a car is required to get around virtually every city, Washington D.C. had a massive new subway reaching far into the surrounding region. While I heard plenty of people complain it didn’t go enough places, it was clear to me the system was much better than most other American cities. In fact, it’s the second-busiest subway system in the country, behind New York.
As I began to study 20th century urban history in earnest in college, the system seemed even more the marvel. Since WWII, a combination of federal and local policies and personal choices meant America would be a country of autos, freeways, and suburban growth. When I heard about Dr. Schrag’s book I was of course interested: How had Washington’s massive rapid transit system come to be?
The answer, I discovered, is that it was created much like sausage: however functional the end result, its manufacture wasn’t pretty. In its early days subway proponents had to fight against the overwhelming support for highways, and cobble together a fragile coalition between the region’s diverse political jurisdictions. Once authorized Metro had to face down a stubborn Republican Representative hell-bent on forcing the District of Columbia to construct freeways and not rail. When construction costs and inflation spiraled out of control in the 70s the system had to win emergency financing from Congress. While reading Schrag’s story I was sometimes amazed the entire system was actually completed.
Who is responsible for Metro? Was it a small group of city fathers who began discussions about a potential transit system during friendly lunches in the 1950s? Was it citizen activists who filed lawsuits and staged protests to prevent freeways from slicing up their neighborhoods, pushing a subway as an alternative? Was it lobbying and patronage by three presidents and their pro-rail appointments to important federal posts? Was it the residents of several suburbs who voted on massive bonds to help pay for a system? Was it a D.C. Council, which in its first year of existence voted to turn over their highway funds to pay for the construction of the system in lieu of highways? Was it Jackson Graham, the retired general recruited to push through much of the system’s construction?
In Schrag’s telling, all of these people played a role and more: the disabled lobbied for elevators to every station, the influential black minister and civic leader Rev. Walter Fauntroy championed a “mid-city” line to serve African American neighborhoods, and even the now-defunct Commission on Fine Arts played a role, insisting on the dramatic, if expensive, station design.
Yet these actors aside, beyond all the system can attribute its existence to the U.S. Federal Government. First, their legions of downtown workers guaranteed ridership, and a policy of locating federal facilities near transit ensured the pattern would continue. Second, repeated and lavish political and financial patronage ensured the systems survival when it faced dire financial or political challenges. Schrag acknowledges at the start of his book the exceptional nature of Washington, and thus also its transit system. Yet I believe the system’s intertwined history with the government means it should primarily be understood as an artifact of the capital city, not an American city. This caveat aside, it’s a hell of a story and Schrag tells it well. His book contains chapters ranging from the the architecture of the system, the freeway revolt, construction, and even the system’s impact on the surrounding suburbs. While it would be all too easy to reduce the history of Metro as a bureaucratic or technological story of a machine, Schrag has resisted the temptation and instead crafted a holistic narrative about not just a system but the physical and social history of a region. This is the book I was hoping for.
Thus, until I read more about D.C. and have more time to digest what the book does and does not include, I have but a few complaints. His chapter “The Bridge,” which contains a re-telling of the dramatic struggle between proponents of freeway and rapid transit which was symbolized by the never-build three sisters bridge, the activists portrayed are one-dimensional and the focus is on elite discussions and not citizen activism. The Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis, a grassroots organization bridging diverse neighborhood communities is given short shrift, and Shrag falsely, I believe, implies many of the freeway opponents also turned out to be Metro opponents. (As a whole, the bus system
)which serves many more passengers, is almost wholly ignored – but this is not a book about buses, after all.) Scrag freely admits these faults in the introduction (“This book is not an encyclopedia history of Metro … it only brushes against such topics as labor relations, bus operations,a nd maintenance …”) and his book provides a thorough framework for future study.
Most persuasive and intriguing, I think, are his discussions of the impact of the system on the region. In Montgomery County he discusses planners who carefully and deliberately planned for the growth so familiar with us at Friendship Heights and Bethesda. In Fairfax, he observes county leaders unable or unwilling to match the system with the Tyson’s Corner area where most growth has occurred. And in Downtown D.C. the system has, he argues, sparked a real estate revival still playing out. Through these examples he concludes transit-oriented development is “dependence on political leadership and will,” and not a natural, organic process. The system has become a backbone, he argues, which is only now starting to be fleshed out.
This is, at its core, a book about big people making big decisions and building a big subway system. In his view, the system is itself a physical manifestation of the Great Society, which viewed public works like a transit system not simply as a means to move people but to unify and uplift the city. “Metro has been championed by people who believe that public things need not be mean, utilitarian, or even quantifiably cost-effective.” Schrag concludes, “Rather, its advocates have argued that public things should be grand, just, and enduring.” Schrag has ventured into uncharted historical territory of recent history and his book, while far from definitive, will surely prove a standard in understanding 20th century Washington.