A failure of imagination put Metro on wrong track
Believers in central planning should take a look at Washington’s Metro rail transit system. While they will find many things to like, they will also see examples of how central planners — and especially rail transit planners — can get things disastrously and expensively wrong.
Things to like include aesthetics. Metro stations and cars are attractively designed and reasonably spacious. Metro attracts more riders than any other American rail transit system except, of course, New York’s.
It has stimulated local planners and developers to create vibrant downtown-like clusters of stores, restaurants and apartment buildings along the Orange Line in Arlington, Va., and around the Bethesda, Md., station on the Red Line.
But then there are the bad things, which my colleagues at The Washington Examiner have documented at great length.
The escalators at the south side of the DuPont Circle station are being repaired and out of commission for — get this — nine months. This is Metro’s fifth busiest station.
Other escalators are often on the fritz. Metro’s designers didn’t put canopies over all of the escalators but left them out in the open. It turns out that it rains and even snows sometimes in Washington and that water corrodes the metal escalator.
Who’d ‘a’ thunk it? Well, actually the designers knew all about the Art Noveau canopies that covered the stairwells of the Paris Metro, but they didn’t have the funds to match what the French were able to manage at the turn of the 20th century.
Deferred maintenance and failure to replace outmoded cars have taken a heavy toll. This isn’t the designers’ fault, but this sort of thing happens frequently in public-sector agencies (and sometimes in private-sector companies, as well).
Metro has found the money to meet union demands, but too often it hasn’t found funds to keep the system up to date.
In the wake of increased delays, and after a collision of two trains resulted in nine deaths in June 2009, ridership has fallen. In response, Metro has raised fares. Higher prices for worse service: not a winning combination.
Metro’s more fundamental and interesting flaw is apparent when you look at its attractive route map. (Metro, like mass transit systems going back to the London Tube in the 1930s, is good at graphics.)
What you see is a bunch of differently colored lines converging in downtown Washington, near government and private-sector office buildings.
The assumption of Metro planners was that jobs would continue to be heavily concentrated in the historic downtown.
So there is no station serving Tysons Corner in Northern Virginia, which has become the largest office center between downtown Washington and Atlanta.
Joel Garreau, in researching his book “Edge City” on Tysons and similar clusters, asked Metro planners why they didn’t put a station there.
The reply: We never thought there would be any development there. Suburbs are for houses.
But Northern Virginia lawyer named Til Hazel, who handled land acquisition cases on the Capital Beltway, figured it out. He bought big parcels in the triangle between the Beltway, Leesburg Pike and Chain Bridge Road, and made millions developing Tysons.
Now Metro is trying to extend the Orange Line to Tysons and beyond to Dulles Airport. This would have been much cheaper when the system was planned in the early 1970s and much of the land in between was vacant.
Now the costs are astronomical and construction deadlines seem far distant. But, hey, other systems are worse. New York opened its first subway line in 1906, but you still can’t take a subway to LaGuardia or Kennedy airports.
Central planners have trouble envisioning the future and, at least in the case of rail transit planners, have a bias toward recreating the past.
They love the idea of channeling the masses into central destinations and have had trouble imagining that suburbs developing beyond the leafy residential enclaves of the 1950s. They have been slow to see that airports would be a major destination.
But as Joel Kotkin has pointed out, the centralization of business and shopping in downtowns was predominant only for a moment in time, between the onset of rail transit till the arrival of the automobile.
Systems like the Metro have failed to anticipate the future and, at great cost to national taxpayers, have helped the minority who prefer dense urban living. But with higher fares and lower reliability. Metro looks nice, but it’s not much of a bargain.