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Local Political Primer

October 5th, 2009

I have been reading The Great Society Subway. It’s a history of the Washington, DC Metro system.

It’s fascinating. The details of the design and architecture of the system are interesting, especially the conflicts between the engineers and the architects, who had very different understandings of how people move through a space. The Metro was the first major subway system to be built in the Age of the Automobile, so many of the design constraints were unknown — for example, there were no models to predict the association between commute length and ridership. The process through which the design developed was also interesting — I really enjoy reading about how architects think about the interaction of people and their designs (at least, when they do think about it).

But the best part of the book is the detailed account of the shifting local political scene between 1950 and 1980. The metro was designed and built during this period of transition, when DC residents got the right to vote for president, got a city council and mayor for the first time, and gained more influence over local projects like the Metro. I live in the DC area, so this is probably of more interest to me than it would be otherwise.

The book also explained several things about the system that have puzzled me, for example: why were connections between spokes of the system (such as between Rockville and Silver Spring) omitted from the original design? why is there no station in Georgetown? why is the lighting so dim? why is it so quiet? why are some of the underground stations so deep? why do the blue and yellow lines share so much of their route? And it drops in details about the system that I never thought about, for example, that the stations were designed to feel like an outdoor street, and that the system really is a combination of a regional commuter transit system and an urban subway.

It’s really a great read, although it may be of more interest to people with a personal connection to this area.