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Monday, July 20, 2009

Wasting Time on the DC Metro

I spent a long time on the DC Metro last weekend, traveling between Alexandria, VA and downtown Washington, DC. I've heard a lot of anecdotal evidence of people loving the DC Metro. I have to admit it is incredibly extensive and clean, but I've always found it to be slow as molasses, complicated to learn, and my new belief is that it encourages the horrendous sprawl around DC. The Alexandria station I visited had clearly never heard the term "Transit Oriented Development." It was a glorified parking lot. In short, the Metro is not very tourist-friendly in spite of DC being one of the top ten family destinations in the country. Heck, they don't even have google maps integration.

While I was spending my 35 minutes traveling into the city on what is essentially a commuter rail, I read the paper - where the city dwellers were bashing the state of the light rail. In Washington, DC, there is a lack of dedicated funding to fix the metro. The recent tragic crash occurred on a train that was behind in brake maintenance. Thanks to the back-handed maneuverings of Dan Onorato, at least Pittsburgh does have a dedicated tax to the funding of public transportation. Of course, that tax only contributes to capital improvements instead of regular maintenance.

Moral of the story? You don't have to have good public transportation for people to use it. You just need to build it. Construction didn't begin on the DC Metro until 1969. That's only 40 years ago even though their population has been relatively flat over that time.

Lesson for Pittsburgh? Plan it and do it. And we already have a step up on DC because we have dedicated funding in place. Let's quit wasting time and whining about how we'll never catch up to the big cities. Because we can.


Paz said...

Couple of things.

First, you are correct, the population of the District has stayed relatively stable. However, the population in the outlying counties has exploded.

Second, Metro is Rapid Transit, not light rail. It serves different scales, travels at different speeds, and it's a little unfair to either of the two to compare them to eachother.

Perhaps Metro has caused sprawl. But it could have been a lot worse. It took an incredible amount of political capital to get that system built instead of an even wider beltway. And while there are definitely some bad eggs in Alexandria (I'm guessing you were staying near King St?), there are plenty of stations in the District, Montgomery County, and Arlington that are extemely integrated into their communities.

I would actually say that WMATA is one of the better "tourist systems" in the country. Thinking about my first experiences on SEPTA, CTA, MARTA, Boston, or New York, I actually think DC was one of the best laid out (though the picture on the map is misleading, the White House is closer to Farragut West than it is to Metro Center).

Finally, WMATA's construction was a very unique time in history that produced the three best systems of this half century: WMATA, MARTA, and BART. "Great Society Subway" was the title of a book I read about it, and it's apt. WMATA is even more unique in that it serves the seat of power, and as a professor told me: "lawmakers want the best for themselves".

Can Pittsburgh catch up? I sure hope so. But the rules (socially, economically, politically, demographically) are different then they were 40 years ago.

Jami Broom said...

i'd be curious to see what the effects on the "metro" that Pittsburgh does have, has had on population & business. the trolley goes from downtown to mt. lebanon and on to castle shannon? or bridgeville, I forget where it ends? how many people are riding it? have there been population decreases/increases in those areas? how much did it cost?

and whatever happened to the metro going to the northside?

i live right next to the EBA & EBO - it takes only 20 minutes to get downtown and it's a straight shot. yet, there's not that many people on the bus, except during rush hour, and during other times there are not that many buses running. i've always wondered if they put a trolley in place of this bus system, if a) more people would ride it and b) would it be more eco-friendly and less expensive in the long-run?

Schultz said...

I am one who loves the DC and has blogged about it here at Green is Good, most recently during my trip to this past January's inauguration. The Metro seemed very tourist friendly, but I see your point if you are looking at it from the Northern VA or Maryland stations, which were designed with the commuter in mind.

The growth in our federal government led to the DC sprawl, not the metro. The biggest jump in both DC area home prices as well as federal employment happened after 9/11, when the government went on a hiring spree as it created the Dept. of Homeland Security. Absent the metro, imagine how snarled DC would be today? The sprawl would most certainly exist because where there is job growth you will find new homes going up to the point where they are being built further and further out from the urban core where land is cheaper and taxes are lower. Sprawl happens, and to drive my point home even further, look at Cranberry Township. There is no metro there, but gee golly there is plenty of sprawl! Now, if Pittsburgh were to extend light rail from downtown out to Cranberry would it make the sprawl worse? The answer is most likely yes, and I think that would be the case in DC as well if they were to extend the Metro out past Manassas.

Schultz said...

Here is a nice overview of the T, which includes both rider stats as well as a system map.

illyrias said...

FYI, Schultz, I've heard glowing praises of the Metro from many people. Maybe I just happen to hit at the wrong times/places? Most recently, I used Van Dorn. I also had an unpleasant experience at King Street.

After lots of experience in Boston and New York, I'm definitely not a big fan of the pay-per-distance idea. It involves too much pre-planning and knowledge of the stops. It's probably great if you live there and commute to the same station each day.

One thing I especially liked about the DC metro? Its peak designation. Anything before 9:30AM weekdays is peak. Very simple.

Anyways, I have some valid complaints. But the fact of the matter is a lot of people love it, and it gets a lot of people around. It doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to exist.

MH said...

"Lesson for Pittsburgh? Plan it and do it."

You don't think that maybe having the federal government in town might make the D.C. case less than strictly comparable with Pittsburgh?