For years, DC area transit was a hodgepodge of these half measures, stitched together but never a finished a thought… Multiple operators, multiple modes, and multiple payment schemes – the outcome of a more or less free market approach to public transit. The Washington and Great Falls Electric Railway was an entrepreneurial venture susceptible to profit margins and the volatilities of demand. Its ultimate closure is attributable in large part to the rise of the automobile, which was marketed to appeal to the American sense of independence – a quality lacking in the collective, rail-bound atmosphere of a train.
Today, the publicly-owned Metro certainly doesn’t lack for ridership, but it is maligned and cursed, affectionately or not, for its state of disrepair, sometimes charming and sometimes deadly. Frayed carpets are less serious than frayed wires, but on any given day there is a chance you could encounter both somewhere in the system. In contrast to the Washington and Great Falls, the Metro was brought forth by a few visionaries who decided that mass transit was a public good – one that alleviated traffic and air pollution, diminished the demand for parking lots and highways in our urban landscape (both of which were once planned for the National Mall!), and ultimately made the city of Washington, DC a more walkable, vibrant place.
Metro is chronically underfunded, perhaps a consequence of a resurgent car culture or an aversion to so-called “wasteful government spending.” As for transportation, ridesharing is the latest buzzword, along with “on-site parking” at many of the District’s hottest mixed-use developments.
Neither of those are inherently bad things, mind you, but it is worth remembering that even if you rarely or never ride the Metro, you are in its debt. Every rider is one less driver on the road, one less freeway carving through your neighborhood, one additional free parking space on your street, or a lung just slightly less saturated with exhaust.
I’d call most of those things priceless. But remember, you get what you pay for… Or in this case, what your elected officials don’t pay for.
The key difference between the Washington and Great Falls Electric Railway and the Metro is that one was conceived to turn a financial gain, and the other was designed to render up a public good over anything else.
As I stand upon the skeleton of a century-old electric railway trestle, built by capitalism to meet a demand that never materialized at profitable levels, I wonder which will turn out to be the more sustainable experiment.
The present, the here and now, is little more than a bridge that links the past to the future.
And as I mentioned, I like to see that bridge from all angles.
Georgetown and Walhonding Brook
Abandoned Washington DC by Thomas Kenning