What Transit Systems Can Learn From D.C. Metro

The nation's second-largest transit system—and one of its newest—persists in the face of a host of challenges exacerbated by the pandemic.

January 12, 2022, 7:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Washington DC Metro

Mark Fischer / Flickr

Jake Blumgart interviews Zachary Schrag, author of The Great Society Subway, about the history of the ambitious Washington Metro system, which Blumgart calls "arguably the only comprehensive rapid transit system built in America after the rise of mass car ownership."

According to Schrag, officials at the time of its construction in the 1970s hoped it would provide a model for other cities. From its inception, the system had to compete with driving by providing ample amenities and attempting to serve both regional commuters and urban residents. Schrag notes that Metro committed to a more transit-oriented approach than other cities, making transit more convenient and raising the cost of driving and parking. Cities that build highways and parking alongside transit reduce the incentive to take public transportation and make the built environment less friendly to walking and biking. 

Today, the system may struggle to accommodate new travel patterns. "What heavy rail is really, really good at is getting a lot of people to the same place at the same time," says Schrag. The challenge of providing service at off hours may only grow as work and mobility behaviors change.

Ultimately, says Schrag, massive infrastructure projects like Metro—or the Brooklyn Bridge, or the Erie Canal—require major investments in the future that Americans seem less willing to make.

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