Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Don't call it a book report

So, I've been reading this book for the last week, The Great Society Subway, which is all about the history of the Metro and WMATA here in the DC region. I think I first heard about it on Rebuilding Place back when it came out. (Actually, in this post)

Shortly after we moved to DC, I saw it in a bookstore in Union Station and picked it up. It had the backstory of how certain stations got their named change, or how Georgetown got left out of the system. Needless to say, it definitely piqued my interest, so once we got our library cards, I put it on reserve from the library.

I had to go pick it up at the MLK Central Library, which is an entire story in and of itself. I'd never been there before. Reminds me of a joke on Weekend Update, when Norm McDonald points out that Kenny G has a new Christmas album out. "So, uh, happy birthday Jesus, we hope you like CRAP!" In the case of the library, Mies van der Rohe is Kenny G, and Dr. King is Jesus. "Here's your library, Dr. King! I spent 5 minutes designing this black shoebox. Hope you like crap!"

I think I'm going to talk about different stuff from the book for the next few weeks, but I'll say that the writer of the book totally doesn't back up his thesis, which is that the Metro system was a product of the Great Society liberalism. It's not a bad idea, he just makes the statement in the front of the book that the Great Society thinking helped bring Metro around, and then he forgets that he has to defend that idea throughout the book.

It's a great book, full of fantastic quotes and deeply-researched information about the process that resulted in the 103-mile subway system of today.

But it's also a book that completely fails to defend his hypothesis. As best as I can tell, the subway was built by a government that alternated between wanting to build the subway and wanting to pave over the district with interstates, with no clear reason why other than to get the people back from the suburbs. Only by the intervention of key leaders, and massive citizen involvement, including the district leadership, did the subway get built. And even then, the process took 30 years because of obstinate federal government members.

That's a far cry from being a grand result of the "Great Society." There may have been a thought of the Great Society under Kennedy or Johnson at one point, but ultimately Metro became its own monster, completely free of any grand ideas like the Great Society.

It's amazing how much of the material is relevant today. I read a chapter last night talking about the difference between the approaches of two suburbs to Metro: Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington, and Fairfax County. One went from an auto-centric stripped-out highway to a dense transit-oriented community, and one stuck Metro in the interstate median, downzoned around the stations, paid no attention to where the line needed to go, and ended up with money wasted on Metro instead of using it to transform their communities. And it's really ironic hearing how the Fairfax leaders totally missed the boat on sending Metro to Tysons Corner. They even had 2 or 3 opportunities to re-study it, and failed miserably on directing Metro to where it needed to go.

And now, they're trying to figure out how to pay for putting Metro out to Tysons, which is where it should have been in the first place instead of Vienna.

Interesting fact: planners in Fairfax concluded that there was space for up to 950,000 sf of office/retail/residential development around the Vienna station, gradually tapering down to the surrounding single-family homes and blending in (much like Arlington). Instead, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors zoned the surrounding area for absolutely zero. Brilliant.

There's a qreat quote from Anne Watkins, a longtime Fairfax supervisor. "Fairfax has never had a transportation plan, because it takes political fortitude to adopt a transportation plan."

Contrast that with comments from Cleatus Barnett, a Montgomery County representative: "We were building these lines for eternity. You're not going to pick them up and move them if you put them in the wrong place. They are there forever. And don't tell me anything about the cost. If it costs more, it costs more, but that's what we're going to do."

I think rail to Tysons is a good idea; it's just shame that they didn't do it earlier when there was a much greater chance to use rail to alter the development patterns. Rail won't turn Tysons into Arlington, but it will lay the framework to make redevelopment possible that is friendly to pedestrians and not auto-dependent.