Does WMATA Serve Its City’s Needs Better Than the MBTA?

While reading Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism by Benjamin Ross (it’s a very good book), I came across this (boldface mine):

As much as the subways of the seventies were a reaction against urban expressways, their designers shared a premise with the highway builders. The goal was to save the city by bringing suburbanites downtown. New rail networks bypassed dense neighborhoods in the urban core and stretched long tentacles out to distant parking lots. Commuters moved swiftly to downtown offices, but city dwellers’ travel needs were less well served. Washington broke the pattern–civil rights leaders insisted on service for the urban poor, and its three rails tunnels span the city’s inner residential neighborhoods as well as its downtown office core–and its new rail system is by far the most successful. Today the Washington Metro is the nation’s second busiest subway, carrying more riders than older systems in Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Having suffered used both systems, I think Ross is wrong. The Washington Metro is a better commuter rail system–it takes me a little under a half hour to commute eight miles (though having my home and office located near the Metro helps). But between the cost, the non-rush hour wait times, and the gaping holes in where the Metro subway goes, it’s not very good at getting around D.C. itself. While Boston’s T can go overboard on the number of stops (does B.U. really need three stops?), in most parts of the city, you can wind up close to where you want to go. In D.C., outside of a small area downtown, the Metro doesn’t really work like that (the bus system is very good however).


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5 Responses to Does WMATA Serve Its City’s Needs Better Than the MBTA?

  1. Bashir says:

    Boston is such a compact city though. I wonder if the DC metro covers a greater area effectively despite the obvious gaps. Either way they are both better than my home town Atlanta.

  2. Adam Gaffin says:

    Good news on the BU stops: The T is looking to eliminate one of them. But more important, there are some really large gaps in Boston: There’s a fairly large swath from Dorchester all the way down to Hyde Park where the main transit service is via bus. A bus that runs on Boston’s creaky road system with the completely uncoordinated light cycles. If the state follows through on its plans to equip the Fairmount Line with DMUs that offer subway-like schedules, that could mean a dramatic change (but who knows what happens with a Republican administration coming in – maybe Baker will decide he’d rather spend the money on the unbuilt commuter-rail line to Fall River). Also: Boston’s rail system is still very much geared to getting people into and out of downtown, which is great if you need to go downtown, not so good if you’re in one outlying area and have to go to another (the state basically declared the Urban Ring plan dead a few years ago).

  3. Joe Shelby says:

    Well, most commuters from outside the city complain that it doesn’t serve them very well. One thing that makes Philadelphia’s system different from DCs is having parallel tracks. This allows trains to pick up at one zone of 8-10 stations and then “skip” all of the stations between them and the 3 core city center stations starting at 30th Street.

    Coming from Bryn Mawr/Swarthmore area takes about 18 minutes during rush hour when these zone-skipping tracks are used. Half that distance (no Metro route goes out that far, relatively speaking, until the Dulles station opens) on Metro would take 45 because of having to stop at every…single…stop.

    How painful a Metro commute is also depends on if one needs to transfer. Any attempt to get onto a Red line from Orange/Blue/Yellow/Green generally requires taking all internal politeness vibes and throwing them onto the 3rd rail.

    • Joe Shelby says:

      There’s also the larger issue of the suburban commute hell. The Metro was designed in the 70s as hub-and-spoke to get people into the cities and then back out again, same architecture attitude that informed Disney’s original EPCOT city design.

      When the Reagan bureaucracy exploded to 3 times the size it was under Carter, plus the massive build-up of military contracting, this lead to more jobs in the area, but the city with its explicit building height limit couldn’t contain them. The result is Tysons, Crystal City, Chevy Chase/Bethesda, Rockville & the 270 tech corridor, Greenbelt, Ballston (which continues to build up), and many more. While some of these are served by Metro, they don’t serve it well under H&S because it means riding the train for half an hour or more to get to the city center then another half-hour or more to get back out.

      Suburb-to-suburb is very poorly served here, as even the bus systems are unreliable due to the car problem. Heck, until the Fairfax County Parkway came along, there wasn’t a single road more than 2 lanes that ran north-south for more than a couple of miles between the Beltway and VA rt 28 (and even inside the beltway, Glebe Road was it for a long time as well).

      Granted, you’ve ranted about the suburbs before, but they’re still here and not going anywhere…’cause there’s another accident on the road somewhere.

  4. Ben Ross says:

    I was comparing the DC Metro to other systems planned in the 1960s & 1970s, principally Atlanta and San Francisco’s BART, and the single lines in Baltimore and Miami. Boston’s subway is of course much older, and expansions since the automobile age have benefited both inner (Alewife, and now the Green Line in Somerville) and outer (Riverside line in 1950s, Braintree) neighborhoods.

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