CRM Journal

Book Review

The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro

By Zachary M. Schrag. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006; 376 pp., illustrations, maps, index; cloth, $30.00.


Taking a quarter century and around $10 billion to construct, the 103-mile rapid transit system in the nation's capital known as the Washington Metro ranks as one of the country's major public works. That it was conceived, funded, and built during the heyday of highway construction, and that no less than eight independent governments across two states and the District of Columbia had to reach a consensus on virtually every facet of its design, operation, and funding, make the system's construction a remarkable achievement. Built in spite of seemingly insurmountable opposition at times, it has had a profound, albeit inconsistent, impact on the development of the national capital region.

In The Great Society Subway, George Mason University history professor Zachary Schrag offers a thoroughly researched and clearly written account of the Washington Metro's evolution from its privately owned transit predecessors to the current configuration. By examining Metro from the points of view of those who advocated, fought, built, funded, and use the system, he uncovered a complex set of interacting technical and political forces that ultimately accomplished what some believed could never be done. In the process, Schrag argues that Metro is a unique monument to the Great Society and a time when Americans believed in unlimited possibilities and the desirability of their government to champion and execute extraordinary projects for the public good.

Not surprisingly, funding is a thread that weaves its way throughout the book, but it is by no means the only thread. In fact, Schrag does not detail the financial story—convoluted as it is—until the seventh chapter (out of ten). Instead, he stresses the factors that led to a rail-oriented transit system, such as the geography and demographics of the region, overall planning and route selection, the establishment and functioning of the various inter-governmental agencies involved with the process, the intense opposition by highway advocates seeking to build new freeways and bridges, and the ways that planners in the different jurisdictions that Metro would serve incorporated the system's capabilities into their land-use plans. Their degree of success or failure—and Schrag argues that both are in evidence—played a major role in whether cities and counties on both sides of the Potomac River grew according to a largely preconceived, urban-oriented plan, or along more haphazard lines that ignored, and even opposed, the whole idea of planned urbanization in their suburban and rural areas. Accordingly, this lack of planning and vision left some areas, particularly in Northern Virginia, ill-served and excessively congested with automobiles to this day, while other areas, planned with Metro in mind, have developed into urban corridors.

Schrag included topics that might not, at first glance, seem related to a complex technological system like Metro, but he clearly outlines the roles that a wide variety of social elements, such as race, neighborhood preservation, business interests, Congress, and even Washington's Commission of Fine Arts had in shaping everything from Metro's route structure to the design of its stations. If these often-competing interests did not complicate matters enough, the unexpected demise of the area's privately owned bus lines made it necessary for Metro to take over many of these routes almost overnight, a difficult complication when its primary focus was on subway construction. The long debates between conflicting interests were convoluted, full of intrigue, time-consuming, and messy, but Schrag contends that this process is what ultimately made Metro an egalitarian system that successfully serves the region's socio-economic strata.

As good as this book is, especially with the political and social aspects of the story, some topics are glaringly absent. The civil engineering, architecture, and construction of the fixed plant is covered accurately and well, but beyond basic design concepts for the first cars, Schrag makes almost no mention of Metro's rolling stock. Every order for equipment has been built by a different manufacturer, something that has caused any number of difficulties with setup, operations, and maintenance. Their varying drives and control systems can make for rough rides when these cars are intermingled in a train, as they frequently are. The design and operation of the maintenance shops are missing as well, as are most labor issues. Nothing of substance was included about the design and operation of the system's automatic control system, or of modifications made to it over the years. The development of the automated fare-collection system and its magnetic tickets received little more than passing mention, although this, and the later non-contact "SmarTrip" cards, proved to be vital to the system's efficient functioning. These are all important areas, without which Metro could not function, and they deserve the kind of thorough attention Schrag can clearly give. In fairness, however, these topics are not his strong suits, and he was wise to focus his efforts on the social and planning history that he does so well.

Schrag has written a valuable study of the role of infrastructure in shaping the modern, urban world, and he aptly shows both the possibilities and limitations of major public investments. But as much as anything, The Great Society Subway offers the reader insight into the history of post-World War II urban planning and policy, and how they contributed to the attitudes and agendas of the Great Society era. Resource professionals responsible for managing resources from that era will find Schrag's insights especially illuminating. In a sense, Metro was a microcosm of the Great Society's highest ambitions fashioned in concrete and steel. Reading this book, one wonders if this monumental project would have been possible at any other time in U.S. history.

J. Lawrence Lee
Historic American Engineering Record
National Park Service