Why One Should Always Build Mass Transit When Offered: Georgetown, D.C.

One of the bizarre things about D.C. (not Wor-Shing-Tun, but the District) is that Georgetown, is pretty isolated from the rest of the city even though it’s pretty high density and has lots of nice old (by U.S. standards) architecture. And that’s starting to affect business in Georgetown (boldface mine):

The reason Georgetowners are often disappointed in the state of Georgetown’s retail options is the Georgetown’s retail doesn’t need Georgetowners.

Sternlieb drew a comparison between Georgetown in 1990 and today. One of the starkest differences is that in 1990, Georgetown retail was equally dependent on Georgetown residents to be customers as it was dependent on DC residents generally, people from the DC region, and tourists.

Nowadays those first two categories are relatively insignificant to Georgetown retailers. Georgetowners don’t spend money at local stores like they used to. And DC residents have many more neighborhoods now to spend their money (and they also have shifted to online spending like Georgetowners). Georgetown retail still gets a healthy amount of money from regional customers (mostly Arlington residents, according to Sternlieb). But by far the largest category now is tourists.

This is a problem for many reasons. The first is that restaurants that target tourists don’t have to be very good. There will be a new crop of tourists next week. That turnover presents another problem. Georgetown has to constantly market itself if its primary customer base is brand new every single weekend.

I think this misses something really important: Georgetown just isn’t that accessible. There’s no Metro station nearby (we’ll return to that). Most people would have to take two bus rides to get there–and those who could take the Circulator (a rapid bus) could walk from Dupont Circle (and have plenty to do there, as well as at Logan Circle, Adams Morgan, and Shaw). Parking is awful: for the Bostonians reading this, imagine parking in Back Bay–now imagine it worse. On the weekend, driving into Georgetown is a nightmare (heading the opposite way, I’ve seen backups for a mile just to get into Georgetown. In short, the only people who would head into Georgetown, unless they had a very specific destination, would be tourists.

The irony is that it wasn’t always so. In the 1970s, a decision was made to not build a station in Georgetown:

As rigorously documented in Zachary Schrag’s Great Society Subway, the planners behind Metro simply never seriously considered putting a station in Georgetown. The reason: the Potomac. To get under the river, the Metro tunnel has to start heading down far enough away so that it’s not like a roller-coaster.

Commercial Georgetown is very close to the river and on a steep hill, which wouldn’t give the tunnel much distance to reemerge from underneath the river. Thus a Georgetown station would be extremely deep. It would be physically possible to build, but it would be extremely expensive.

And the Metro planners didn’t see a reason to spend that sort of money on Georgetown. In the 1960s when the plans were developed, Georgetown had little office space and few apartment buildings. It simply was not a destination of suburban commuters. Since that was the audience for which the Metro was primary designed to serve, Georgetown was not considered a worthwhile station location.

The Metro originally was conceived as a commuter rail system, not mass transit. In other words, it was designed to relieve workday traffic from the suburbs to the city. Which worked fine for Georgetown as long as car traffic didn’t become too heavy. Since the 1970s, the region’s population has skyrocketed, and D.C.’s population has rebounded–there are simply too many damn cars. The one exception to this is Arlington, VA, where one could take the Orange Line to Foggy Bottom, or to the Circulator (connect in Rosslyn), and from there, into Georgetown.

Moral of the story: when an opportunity presents itself, always push hard for a transit station. The good news is that there might be a Georgetown station. By 2040….

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1 Response to Why One Should Always Build Mass Transit When Offered: Georgetown, D.C.

  1. colnago80 says:

    It should also be noted that the residents of Georgetown at the time didn’t want a station.

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