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The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro (Creating the North American Landscape)

4.07  ·  Rating Details ·  221 Ratings  ·  50 Reviews

Drivers in the nation's capital face a host of hazards: high-speed traffic circles, presidential motorcades, jaywalking tourists, and bewildering signs that send unsuspecting motorists from the Lincoln Memorial into suburban Virginia in less than two minutes. And parking? Don't bet on it unless you're in the fast lane of the Capital Beltway during rush hour.</P><P

Kindle Edition, 376 pages
Published (first published February 8th 2006)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Mar 11, 2009 Zack rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Alex Winnett, Lisa Swanson, Aspen Price, any other fan of Metrorail
Shelves: read-in-2009
I recognize that five stars may seem like an awfully high rating to give a book about a subway, but if you know anything about me you can probably guess some of the biases that I'm operating under: (1) I have always been fascinated by trains, and (2) I just moved to the D.C. area and want to learn more about the city.

This book is everything that I wanted in an overview history of Metro(rail), starting with a brief section about the history of the District up to the 1960s and going all the way to
Should be required reading for everyone in DC. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me think, and it maybe--just maybe--restored a little of my hope in Metro's future. After all, the system has already made it through an unimaginable amount of crap and interference. What's one more decade of political strife and lack of funds?

I moved to DC in 2004, when the Green Line was finally finished and the final Red and Blue Line stops mere months from opening. The metro map (save for the Silver Line
Jan 05, 2010 Alex rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Schrag has written a great history of the planning and construction the Washington Metro, and adroitly describes the political processes that both threatened and facilitated Metro. Being the nation's capital meant that Metro got pulled into political currents, some having to do with home rule, some with the fragmented jurisdictions of the DMV, some regarding specific-to-DC quirks (such as the arts commission), and some regarding Congressional control over the District. Moreover, Metro in DC was ...more
Evan H
Nov 14, 2007 Evan H rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: DC residents, transit nerds
This was a fascinating, in-depth account of the Washington Metro. Following the process from its very beginnings as a plan contrary to freeway development, the book finishes up near present-day with the opening of the final 5 Green Line stations and the extension of the Blue Line to Largo, MD.

I would recommend parts of the book to anyone, but it will be best enjoyed by DC Metro riders. Some of the most interesting sections were the anecdotes explaining names of stations, locations of the lines,
Nov 27, 2016 Bitsy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: bk-bookculb
While reading this book I didn't enjoy the style of prose, however all the information I learned has wormed its way into more of my conversations than I ever would have predicted. I am very glad to have read it.
Jan 15, 2008 Rebecca rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: planning-transit
Astonishingly, nerdily, this is a great read. Schrag gets *deeply into* the process of building Metro, the DC subway system. He's over-interested and neurotic about the details, and I loved every second of it.
Dec 14, 2008 Combs rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As a Washingtonian mass transit nerd, this book was great.
Kristen E.
Jan 04, 2013 Kristen E. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: placemaking
One of my favorites, great history up to the mid-2000's of DC's Metro and all the quirks that put it together.
William Mosteller
Wonderful, detailed discussion of the history of the Washington, DC, Metro system, including details of the politics and challenges of the system. Puts the current set of problems in perspective.
Jan 08, 2017 Mark rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Haiku Review № 8:

Built by committee,
the miracle is that it
ever worked at all.
Mar 26, 2012 Alexander rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
This is the definitive history of the Metro, and I say that both as high praise and gentle critique. Schrag's done an exhaustive job cataloging every commission that shaped the Metro system, providing a ton of context to how we got to the Metro we have today.

Most importantly, this book helped me better understand the challenges Metro has today, and the arguments for and against mass transit generally, and specific implementations. I got a weird sense of deja vu reading arguments from the 50s, 6
Mar 30, 2013 Sandy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There are actually two Washingtons: Washington the National Capital and Washington the City. The two inhabit the same physical space but differ in a number of respects that only become obvious after spending some time outside the city's monumental core. Most of us know a lot about that first one thanks to the media and the political class. This book about how "America's Subway" came to be brings the second Washington to the fore.

Transportation historians will appreciate Schrag's descriptions of
David Cooke
Apr 26, 2015 David Cooke rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this book. It's definitely a little dry and academic and truly for only the transportation nerds, but it really puts into perspective the difficulty of trying to get a project of this scope built. I also appreciated the (clearly biased) writer's conclusions at the end of how the short-sighted approach to governance today makes something like this impossible.

An area that I struggled with the book was definitely with the numerous people. While usually an individual's role in the d
Feb 22, 2011 Sharon rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: transportation geeks, train geeks, past / current DC area residents
Shelves: kindle
This is a very thorough and very opinionated history of how the Washington DC area built its metro system. It's mostly about the political work that got the Metro built: crafting legislation in Congress, cobbling together federal and local funding, and getting DC, Maryland, and Virginia to compromise. The book talks about the incredible number of obstacles as well as the personalities and motivations of the people who overcame the obstacles. There's some discussion of engineering and architectur ...more
Jun 02, 2014 Emily rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: DC residents, transit nerds
Shelves: washington-dc
I've been taking metro for 8 years, disembarking at Judiciary Square every morning, but until I read this book I had no idea that was the first station of the 103-mile system. This book is a fascinating look into how metro was built. Not as much the construction side, but the murkier ecosystem of congressional and DC local politics, public opinion, budgets, and economic development. It is mind boggling to me how long (decades!) the effort took--the studies conducted, the requirements and curveba ...more
Apr 09, 2012 Tom rated it really liked it
A comprehensive study of the design, construction, and operation of a subway that nearly wasn't built. While the "urban renewal" movement gained steam in the mid-20th century, the District of Columbia found itself with little power to organize its own affairs, and as a potential playground for urban planners in Congress who cared mostly about keeping "undesirables" out of sight as they commuted between their offices and the Capitol. Thus, large swaths of the District faced demolition in the name ...more
Jan 27, 2008 Joe rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a fun book, especially if you have had any experiences on the Washington Metro and are interested in urban history/policy. In all the ways I found it to be fascinating, I also found it to be a kind of depressing book. The fact is, Washington is a special case, and unique in that it has this tremendous wealth of power involved and automatic significance due to its existence as our nation's capital. Reading it from the perspective of a pro-rail Milwaukeean and an advocate of public transpo ...more
Jul 05, 2016 Lani rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I had high hopes for this, but it is VERY dry. I enjoyed learning about the design of the Metro, but the politics and name-dropping lost my interest pretty frequently. I have read several urban planning non-fiction books recently that I DID find engaging (Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time) so I think that those got my hopes up a bit.
Mar 31, 2015 Karen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book took me ages to complete. It is far more academic than your ordinary "for personal enjoyment" non-fiction read. It gets very bogged down in committee names, local political figures, and the in-fighting among everyone involved. Much like Washington itself, I suppose.

That said, it is thorough as hell. You get a great overview of the competing purposes behind Metro, the unique problems faced by a tri-state-plus-federal metropolitan area, and the successes and failures encountered at each
Feb 02, 2011 Pat rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A nice piece of non-fiction. Only read this work in totality if you're interested in community, state, and federal politics, architecture, transportation, and urban planning. Otherwise, pick and choose chapters.

Be forewarned, Schrag does not attempt to conceal his bias for the many pro-rapid transit local community groups involved in the fight for Metro. He admires their civic pride--nothing wrong with that. If you're sympathetic of federal bureaucrats or egotistical architects, you probably won
Jul 06, 2008 Ari rated it liked it
I enjoyed it quite a bit -- perhaps because I am in DC regularly and always on Metro. It explained some things I had been wondering about -- why the two disconnected Farragut stations, why the lack of express tracks, etc. (The answers are "the park service wouldn't allow a station entrance in the square" and "money.")

The book is part history, part social analysis. If you ride the metro, the history will mean more to you, but the social analysis will be articulating things you already know.

The i
Feb 18, 2016 Adam rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: washington-dc
This isn't the most thrilling book ever written. However, after spending 1000s of hours of my life on the Metro, it was fascinating to see how Metro adapted to and altered the landscape of the DC area during its inception. Plus, it confirmed my dislike of Fairfax County and reminded us that the problems we suffer every day now are just magnified versions of problems that always existed.

I hesitated to give this book 5 stars only because of the very rosy picture the book painted near the end, whic
Apr 04, 2016 Aaron rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For anyone interested in the complex history of the DC metro system, this book comes through big time. With rigorous research, Schraag captures the tension that is still present to this day when the system undergoes a change or challenges notions about the greater good.

There are a few moments that get bogged down with a type of granularity not easily appreciated by the general public, but I suppose if you picked up this book you were prepared for some less than exciting recounting of political g
Oct 29, 2008 Dwight rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you live in DC, use public transit, and follow politics you should thoroughly enjoy this book. Seriously. It's a thoroughly interesting history of not only Washington's Metro (subway) but the entire transportation infrastructure of our nation's capital. I read most of it while riding the commuter train or the Metro, and I can imagine it wouldn't hold much interest for most people who don't live here. That being said, it does give a fascinating history of the intersection of urban and transpor ...more
Aug 07, 2009 Katherine rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very good, though it took me a little while to get through. I'd love to find historical/sociological books like this for other U.S. transit systems (technical/photographic histories are easy to find). It's amazing that such a huge system was built so recently; sadly, it's hard to imagine it happening today in cities that need rail transit.

I meant to photocopy the map at the beginning of the book to have a reference while I was reading. Or I could have just dug up a map from my visit to DC this s
Cody VC
Jun 14, 2011 Cody VC rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Cody by: Mom
Very good overall; some chapters are easier to get through than others, depending on reader interest, but in the end it's a valuable read for those who live in the region and/or are Metro riders.

One thing that I enjoyed was that, within Prof. Schrag's framework, it really is a fairly comprehensive history - meaning that very little seems to have been left out, not even the issue of access for the disabled. (Chapter six, "The Builders" - one of the chapters I personally found the most engaging.)
Apr 29, 2012 Peter rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Fun book for folks who live with Metro. Dispels some of the Metro myths (e.g. Georgetown's white residents vetoed a station; in fact, no station was ever planned for Georgetown because of engineering and usage issues). Also provides interesting local context for the development of the DC area over the past forty years. Contrasts the Mid-City (U St area), Arlington, and Montgomery County approaches to Metro-driven development with Fairfax County's less-dense (worse) approach. Bottom line: cannot ...more
Jul 25, 2016 Csparrenberger rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a very detailed look at the building of the Washington, D.C. Metro system. The most interesting part was the effect the system has had on the areas around each Metro station. This book was of special interest to me as I visit the area twice a year and always ride the metro. Further, I was with one of the contractors employed on the system in the 1970's. Lot of memories in those tunnels.
Feb 04, 2011 Jodi rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
It's a book about the DC Metro, what can I say? Parts are a little boring (and some repetitive) but there were also some really interesting things, like how Metro Center got its name. I had never really thought about city planning, highway planning and such as it relates to metro systems.

I suppose if you for whatever reason want to learn about the metro...this is an excellent place to start.
Unsurprisingly, to anyone who knows me, this is the epitome of the sort of nonfiction I really love. Though I would also have liked this book EVEN MORE if had lingered just a bit longer on some of the construction and engineering details. (Of course, this not being the sole purpose of the book, I am able to overlook it.)
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“Congress displayed contempt for the city's residents, yet it retained a fondness for buildings and parks. In 1900, the centennial of the federal government's move to Washington, many congressmen expressed frustration that the proud nation did not have a capital to rival London, Paris, and Berlin. The following year, Senator James McMillan of Michigan, chairman of the Senate District Committee, recruited architects Daniel Burnham and Charles McKim, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to propose a park system. The team, thereafter known as the McMillan Commission, emerged with a bold proposal in the City Beautiful tradition, based on the White City of Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition. Their plan reaffirmed L'Enfant's avenues as the best guide for the city's growth and emphasized the majesty of government by calling for symmetrical compositions of horizontal, neoclassical buildings of marble and white granite sitting amid wide lawns and reflecting pools. Eventually, the plan resulted in the remaking of the Mall as an open lawn, the construction of the Lincoln Memorial and Memorial Bridge across the Potomac, and the building of Burnham's Union Station. Commissioned in 1903, when the state of the art in automobiles and airplanes was represented by the curved-dash Olds and the Wright Flyer, the station served as a vast and gorgeous granite monument to rail transportation.” 1 likes
“Understanding Metro's history may illuminate today's debates. To conservatives who decry Metro's expense--around $10 billion in nominal dollars--this book serves as a reminder that Metro was never intended to be the cheapest solution to any problem, and that it is the product of an age that did not always regard cheapness as an essential attribute of good government. To those who celebrate automobile commuting as the rational choice of free Americans, it replies that some Americans have made other choices, based on their understanding that building great cities is more important than minimizing average commuting time. This book may also answer radicals who believe that public funds should primarily--or exclusively--serve the poor, which in the context of transportation means providing bus and rail transit for the carless while leaving the middle class to drive. It suggests that Metro has done more for inner-city African Americans than is generally understood. And to those hostile to public mega-projects as a matter of principle, it responds that it may take a mega-project to kill a mega-project. Had activists merely opposed freeways, they might as well have been dismissed as cranks by politicians and technical experts alike. By championing rapid transit as an equally bold alternative, they won allies, and, ultimately, victory.

Most important, this book recalls the belief of Great Society liberals that public investments should serve all classes and all races, rather than functioning as a last resort. These liberals believed, with Abraham Lincoln, that 'the legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves--in their separate, and individual capacities.' This approach justifies the government's role in rail not as a means of distributing wealth, but as an agent for purchasing rapid transit--a good that people collectively want but cannot collectively buy through a market.”
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