Tomorrowland: DC’s METRO

Washington DC metro station

Washington’s METRO is ranked by many tourists as iconic–among the gems of the subway systems of America. The American Institute of Architects list it’s vaulted stations among the best of American design. That is proof to me anyway, that Americans do not get off the continent very often.

Every season is tourist season in DC, however, from the time the cherry blossoms bloom to the last days of summer, America’s denizens will take the trip to DC for one iteration of the “Great American Summer Vacation.” I can’t blame them. Most people who live and work in DC were once tourists themselves–whether tugged by dad along the Mall’s two-mile expanse or hauled on a charter bus as part of a school trip. The entire city is designed to strike awe in the first time visitor. And so it its METRO rail system.

Living here, of course, conjures up different emotions, of a Dr. Strangelove quality. DC residents have a love-hate relationship with their subway system. I have spent, to my calculation, about 125 days of my life on METRO. Career DC people have spent many more days, years of their lives in fact. And like any love, the intensity and passion of those first days in the relationship fade. Sometimes all we can do is find every last fault, remark on every defect, and become passive aggressive until the day comes when you buy a car, and leave. (I am still talking of the METRO, dear reader!) And while the DC system is fairly clean and can be aesthetically pleasing compared to older systems along the east coast of the US, there is something irritating about the dysfunction of METRO, in a city known for its own dysfunction. Locals vent their frustration with METRO on other blogs, such as “Unsuck DC Metro.”

A cousin of mine was visiting for his annual sojourn to a political action conference. He loathes METRO in the same way many in Congress do–a colossal government project that never seems completed, rife with inefficiency, and as polite of an experience as being a fan of the away team at Yankee Stadium. METRO was a product of the LBJ “Great Society” era. To address the needs of the growing national capital, LBJ and Congress passed the National Capital Transportation Act in 1965. The act called for the funding of a mass transit system in DC–with federal dollars. The reasoning for Congressional action was that this was the nation’s capital after all. London had its Tube, Paris its Metropolitan. Even the Soviets had immense subways with chandeliers. America was “behind.” And so, a regional authority would be formed to govern this new system.

Founded in 1967, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is a bureaucracy so convoluted that it can only be called a “beautiful wreck” or a “hot mess” depending on your decade’s parlance. WMATA is governed by a board whose members are appointed by the liberal governors of Maryland, the conservative governors of Virginia, the federal government’s General Services Administration, and the socialists of the District of Columbia. They pick a sacrificial lamb to serve as administrator–some career whiz kid administrator in the DC area–to manage this four=headed beast. And how does the system sustain itself? Ticket sales only get you so far, as do tax revenues from the member jurisdictions. Remember that Congress created the system. Thus, Congress gets a say too. And because of that, a senator from Kansas can hold up spending on fixing a train car in Washington, DC.

The cousin knows all of this. And since the very air of DC is charged with political polarity, we loudly discuss our mutual loathing of LBJ’s Great Society METRO, riding the continent’s largest escalators into the belly of Hades. His loathing is more political, mine more aesthetic.

“The system cost $78 billion dollars?” he choked.

“Yup, don’t you like what liberals buy for you, cuz?”

“Sure, they buy great stuff with my money,” he sarcastically offered.

My argument is not really with LBJ, it is with the very idea of underground transportation. We continue to ride the moving stairs into the maw of the cavernous netherworld.

“The only time people should be this deep underground is when they are dead,” I gravely suggest.

“Geez. Kinda dark there”

“Its kinda dark down here. Not to mention, do you know what they call this kind of architecture? Brutalist.”

“Sounds Soviet,” he quipped as we joined the great proletariat on the platform for the next train.


That part we can agree upon–the METRO was designed and built in perhaps the worst decade for American style in her history–the 1970’s. Despite the Cold War, some building and design in the US looked downright Soviet during this ear. Starting with the railcars, the color palate was shades of orange pleather with tan plexiglass seats. The cars were not Made in the USA but in Italy. Gramsci would have been proud. The designers of the cars splashed down orange-red carpet, to try to appeal to the DC businessman to treat this system like his personal livery. Clearly the Italians didn’t consult say, Ferragamo or Versace for design, but Mussolini (okay, I am mixing metaphors. But as Keynes observed, the line between Stalinist-socialism and fascism is very thin) Now, there were other designers in the 1970’s. Imagine if instead, the DC overlords channeled Disney. How much more fun would METRO be as Space Mountain:

Disney - Space Mountain Blue Space Shot Tunnel (Explored)

But instead of Disney, the stations themselves are Brutalist in their vocabulary. Brutalism was the style in 1950’s through 1970’s architecture, defined by its stripping bare of decor and artistic style down to the core elements of a building–cement, steel, stone. The feel of one of these buildings is totalitarian. Heaping piles of geometric, cold cement can be found in Boston’s city hall, the FBI building in DC and yes, the METRO. They have not aged well, as the concrete withers in the weather. They do seem to be Soviet–stripped of all embellishment and humanity–and not built to last. They are brutal. And intriguingly, the federal buildings in DC closest to the neo-Classical dome of the Capitol–the Health and Human Services Building and the Labor Building are also in this style. As for METRO, like any good bureaucracy, by the time Washington decided to build, and had chosen its architect in Harry Weese, the style was already on the way out.

10th Street NW facade - J Edgar Hoover Building - Washington DC - 2012

However, METRO, for all of its political and aesthetic warts, is still a very cheap way to commute into DC. And for tourists, the stations link most sites together well enough to make for a decent travel tool around the Capital. DC workers forget what it is like to be a dreamy-eye tourist from the small town, marveling at the marble, granite and bronze city on a hill. We get temperamental when the tourists are unaware of the unwritten rules of etiquette that only a seasoned DC resident knows:

  • Stand on the Right–Caffeine crazed staffers will bolt up and down the left side of the escalator, in the fast lane. All too often, tourists used to riding an escalator (its actual function) are aghast and the rude and curt huffing and puffing of a rube in a hurry. Do yourself a favor, and don’t be, as the locals say, and “escabump.”
  • Let people out of the car first–DC is rude but it isn’t New York. There is a basic expectation that those exiting the train get priority. Only when the last human has passed through the door may you then enter. Cramming in is just rude.
  • Don’t eat on the cars–Do as WMATA says, not what it does. While plenty of cops and train drivers will eat on the train, it is illegal. Teens do it all of the time, stinking up cars with Eau de Big Mac. And well-appointed bureaucrats will get chided for carrying their latte on board.
  • Avoid Orange cars—This is a helpful hint. If you see a car with a number 1000 on it, or it has vintage orange interior, it will smell awfully and will not have a functioning air conditioner.
  • Don’t try to keep the doors open–They are fragile enough to break all of the time, yet strong enough to bruise and maim you. They are not like an elevator door. They will not stay open. They will crush you.
  • One seat only–Do not expect to have a whole bench to yourself when the cars fill up. And don’t think if you sit on the outside seat that no one would dare ask you to make room for them to squeeze into the window seat. They will.
  • Bring a bottle of water. More often than not, these trains break down. And in the summer, the internal temperature of a car can get hot–over 100 degrees. I pack a little water in the summer, preparing for the inevitable–a free sauna with 100 strangers wearing wool suits.

To the tourists credit, they do not seem to be too bothered by offending this secret knowledge. And the tourists make a game of it, assigning blame. They see the busybody Hill staffer or self-important “deputy assistant to the deputy assistant secretary” scurry by on the escalator, and the tourist assumes the bastard must be a member of the other party. Tea party tourists see the rude DC denizens as Obama people. The crowd sees the rude staffer in navy suits and red ties and thinks “Young fascists.” And some tourists say it out loud, and I laugh. Good for them. Rage against the machine!

Metro Train

While DC may have some of the most educated, snarky and professional workforces in the world, the criticism is not undeserved. METRO has to to do its part too. The system is run by a tired workforce, beleaguered by testy travelers and oppressive summer heat. In most metropoli, the announcements are the car are in clear English, impersonal and automated. On METRO, it is a daily occurrence to be accosted by a driver, threatening to off-load the train if the riders are not compliant. DC is a power town–and every bit of power is coveted. I find the scolding to be an embarrassment.

The system is old and was ill-designed. The entire system is like a dual monorail–if one car breaks down on your side of the tracks, the entire system is stopped. And at rush hour, with the teaming angry bureaucrats trying to get home and perplexed tourists wondering how the greatest country in the world could have such an inefficient subway, the masses get cramped and angry. METRO rarely apologizes for its mistakes, creating more passive-aggressive anxiety between the proles and their transportation vanguard.

L\'Enfant Plaza platform

METRO serves more than the political working class and the tourists. An inevitable outcome of a massive public space is that it is a place for all– rush hour and at night. Teens spill McFood on the pleather. Drunks get home from the bar at the witching hour. METRO serves a home for the homeless too. One would think that the cramped METRO cars could be a great leveler. Imagine, the fly-over state tourists coming face to face with urban realism. The congressional staffer looking the poor in the eye. The bleeding hearts seeing protestors on the way to the Supreme Court to defend the 2nd Amendment. And yet, most people have found ways to insulate themselves even in this public space. Ipod ear-buds create a personal inner space even when a stranger is jammed in a seat next to you. Barriers are on the micro level.

In the socioeconomic stew of METRO, there is the complete lack of conversation, the quietude, interrupted by out-of-townees or the rude idiosyncrasies of fellow travelers–music too loud, big talk by little interns, teenagers. I will say, that I think the older generations are more likely to strike up conversation. I sometimes find myself talking to strangers in those tourist months, popping out of my own iTunes universe to answer a basic question on how to get around my adopted town, its METRO and our shared love-hate relationship with DC’s ersatz “Tomorrowland” train.

White House

METRO Photo credit: o palsson / / CC BY

Soviet/USA Photo Credit: ford / / CC BY

FBI Building Photo Credit: dctim1 / / CC BY-SA

Speeding Train Photo credit: chrismar / / CC BY-NC

Teaming masses Photo credit: owash / / CC BY-NC-SA

Homeless Photo credit: nevermindtheend / / CC BY-NC-ND

Space Mountain Photo credit: Express Monorail / / CC BY-NC-ND


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