Trains to Nowhere

by drewnilsen

Washington, DC’s Metro often receives praise as the nicest subway in America. Having just moved to DC after a short stint living in and traveling around Europe – I’d lick the floor of Lisbon’s subway, and a Brussels tram I rode smelled of rich, new cowhide – I can a little snotty about this assessment. Yes, Metro is carpeted and has coolly Modernist stations that don’t drip sewage onto copious amounts of rats, and local riders self-police each other’s behavior (“STAND RIGHT, WALK LEFT, YOU STUPID TOURIST!”).

Yet, Metro shuts down before midnight on weeknights and switches to painfully long intervals at an absurdly early hour (what this blog’s Founder coined “the Matlock schedule”).

But the biggest problem with Metro is coverage, owing to its genesis in an era when cities were out of vogue, and it doesn’t know if it’s an urban rail system or a commuter line.  Metro – and most other American public transit networks (other than New York City’s) – was predicated on a goal of shuttling commuters into and out of downtown, but not necessary to and from neighborhoods where people might live, work, and play.

Greater Greater Washington has a nifty animation of the evolution of Metro, from 1976 to the present.  It should be fun for any Washingtonian to see how the routes have expanded and morphed over the years, particularly in light of last month’s Rush Plus tweaks to the system.

Admittedly, it’s difficult for any system with only five lines to serve most neighborhoods. However, New York City’s MTA, Chicago’s El and Boston’s T all seem to benefit from the existence of complementary suburban commuter lines, which allow the urban rail to focus on the city itself.  Despite the existence of commuter rail in Maryland, Virginia lacks such a system, forcing Metro into a schizophrenia that adequately serves nobody.

Unfortunately, altering train infrastructure is prohibitively expensive and time consuming. If we could start from scratch, though, I suspect the DC Metro map would look much different, and that Chicago’s El lines wouldn’t all require going into the Loop to go from Andersonville to Roscoe Village.

As cities from Los Angeles to Austin to Atlanta create and expand rail and other public transportation in their metropolitan areas, they’d be wise to consider that American cities are no longer what they were in the 1960s and 1970s – people now commute from one suburb to another, not to downtown, and people choose to live and hang out off H Street, not flee to Woodbridge when the figurative foreman’s whistle blows (or happy hour ends).