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  • Alex Obolensky

Next Stop: Equality of the DC Metro System


Image of a Washington, D.C. Metro station.


Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Washington, D.C. faced a major problem. Between 1930 and 1960, the population of the D.C. had exploded, rising from 860,000 to upwards of 2 million residents during that period. This sudden growth, coupled with the sudden surge of families moving out of the inner city and into newly-built suburbs in post-WWII America, naturally led to concerns about how the city would handle the increase in vehicle traffic, which was already clogging up the roads throughout the region. 


This issue was far from unique to just Washington, with cities across the country faced with fighting traffic and backups on roads unequipped to handle large volumes of cars. Most cities, from Los Angeles to Atlanta, focused on embracing the rising dependence on cars, largely spurred by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. This act, perhaps one of the most influential in modern American history, mandated that the federal government cover 90% of the total cost of highway construction, with each state only responsible for finding funds for the remaining 10%. Such a lucrative offer from the federal government resulted in most major U.S. cities frantically constructing massive, sprawling networks of urban highways, which then destroyed entire neighborhoods and displaced countless numbers of city residents, most of them living in poverty or minorities. 


Thankfully, Washington, D.C. was a notable exception to this trend. This is largely thanks to individuals such as Harland Bartholomew, an urban planner who believed more could be done to solve the growing problem of traffic in American cities. Similarly, groups such as the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis, or the ECTC, further advocated against the construction of urban highways. This interracial and inter-class group is directly responsible for several key victories in protecting and preserving Washington's thriving communities from destruction and is the reason much of the region’s road networks look the way they do today. For instance, the ECTC pushed Georgetown University students to oppose and disrupt the proposed construction of a new bridge across the Potomac River, with the public outcry eventually succeeding in preventing bridge construction and resulting in Interstate 66 terminating on the Virginia side of the Potomac and not crossing into D.C.


Instead, throughout the 1950s and 60s, studies were conducted and plans were made for a new, rapid-transit rail system to be built to service the city and its surrounding neighborhoods. Finally, after almost two decades of planning, on December 9th, 1969 the Washington, D.C. Metro system broke ground under the newly-formed Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, or WMATA. In front of a crowd of roughly 1,500 spectators, the District’s very first Metro station had finally begun construction. More than six years later, in 1976, the first 5 stations spanning 4.2 of the Red Line finally opened to the public, marking the start of a new era. Over the following decades, the Metro system eventually grew to span 128 miles over 98 stations, successfully connecting Washington with its many suburbs throughout both Maryland and Virginia. 




With tens of millions of trips every year, the Metro system - which is the third-largest heavy rail transit system in the US - seemingly accomplished its primary goal with flying colors. Taking the Metro has become an inexpensive and convenient way to get around the region, whether for work or leisure. Approximately 54% of the D.C. area’s jobs are within half a mile of a Metrobus stop or Metro station, and many of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, from the National Mall to the Capital One Arena, can be quickly and easily reached by residents and visitors alike.


And yet, one does not need to look far past the Metro’s seemingly glaring success to notice issues and patterns of inequality that have emerged over the past decades. Perhaps the most glaring one, yet the one that may be hardest to avoid, is gentrification. 


Gentrification is defined as a process where the influx of wealthy or middle-class residents into poorer areas of a city leads to higher rent prices and property values, thus displacing much of the existing residents and local businesses. This is a particularly pressing issue as gentrification is typically more likely to affect minority communities, and may target those who are already disadvantaged or have fewer housing options available. 


In the case of the D.C. Metro system, as mentioned previously, gentrification is difficult to avoid, perhaps because it was one of the major side effects of the system’s expansion. The Green Line, for instance, was developed to fuel new development and promote economic growth in the area between Branch Avenue and Greenbelt. This goal was largely successful, with about a quarter of all new apartments built in the city being located within a quarter-mile of a Metro station in that corridor. Furthermore, the total number of jobs throughout this area increased by 50%  and retail development has quickly accelerated throughout that region. And yet, not everyone has benefitted from such seemingly positive change. Between 2012 and 2016, the average income along the Green Line Corridor of new households increased by almost $40,000, indicating the sharp increase in the area’s “desirability” and therefore increasing rent and property values. This threatens the longtime residents of the area who may not be able to afford these higher costs of living and may become displaced from their neighborhood. Several communities along the Green Line such as Navy Yard saw rent increases of over 55% in the 2010s, simply an unmanageable jump for many.


This trend can be witnessed throughout the entire city as a whole, and its impacts can be felt most strongly in the city’s richly diverse historical background. Once a “national icon of local Black political power”, D.C.’s Black population saw a dramatic decrease from 59 to 41 percent from 2000 to 2020, a staggering change. A study concluded in 2013 found that in the percent of now-gentrified neighborhoods that were “eligible” - meaning they were ranked in the bottom 40% of home values and income levels - Washington was the most gentrified city in the country.


Image of the Navy Yard Metro station sign


Similarly, the Metro and D.C.’s public transit system as a whole are inherently unequal and do not serve everyone’s needs equally. For instance, the average White Washingtonian has access to over 250,000 potential jobs in under 45 minutes using the transit system, while Black residents can only get to approximately 160,000 jobs within the same timeframe. Similarly, more Black commuters rely on public transportation than white commuters (18% and 12%, respectively), further exemplifying the opportunity gap created by the Metro and other transit services. 


Even today, as the Purple Line construction slowly but surely snakes its way through campus, questions are being raised on how beneficial it will be to the communities it aims to connect. For instance, due to the large income disparity between some of the neighborhoods, the line will serve (median household income of $178,000 in Bethesda and $73,000 in New Carrollton), there are worries that communities that are already underserved will become even more marginalized and disadvantaged. Additionally, public transportation users interviewed as part of a University of Maryland study on the Purple Line offered an interesting insight into the new project and the region’s transportation network as a whole. Bus users, who in general tend to be of lower income, view future Purple Line fares as a “perceived barrier” to actually being able to use the new transit option. At the same time, wealthier commuters showed no such concerns and were more likely to express their enthusiasm in utilizing the new transit system, thus bringing into question the effectiveness of the future light-rail line.


Artist’s rendering of the Purple Line, the intersection of Kenilworth Ave. And East-West Highway, Riverdale


So what does this mean for the Metro and the region’s transit network as a whole? Are these drawbacks justified by the net gain both economically and socially enjoyed by Washington, D.C., and its surrounding communities? Although the Metro has inherent drawbacks, an argument could be made that they can be minimized and the inequalities in the system can be tackled one problem at a time. From rent regulations that promote affordable housing to new zoning plans that limit the construction of new and expensive commercial or residential real estate, more can be done to tackle the problem of gentrification. At the same time, lowering fares and increasing access to Metro stations and bus stops can increase the overall efficiency of the system and ensure equal access for everyone.


The Metro may be far from perfect, but with public support and government intervention, the rich and fascinating history of the Metro and D.C.’s impressive public transit system can enter into a new era of improvement and progress for all.

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