Interview With Zachary Schrag

Zachary Schrag is a professor of history at George Mason University.  His book, "The Great Society Subway", explores the tumultuous, multi-decade saga of building a subway system in the nation's capital.

What first made you decide to write such an in-depth book about a subway system?

I moved to Washington as a child in 1977 and grew up as Metro was expanding and transforming the city. I suppose the book is somewhat autobiographical. 

Your book makes clear that the Metro has been central to the economic growth of the DC region, but it also shows how politically difficult the completion of the Metro was.

Based on what you learned, why do you think it’s so difficult for public transportation - with clear, proven economic gain - to find political support?

To start with, we need to acknowledge that privately-owned cars are pretty amazing tools. Just walk out your door, and you can transport yourself or your whole family or a load of groceries for a few blocks or for hundreds of miles in a day. The direct costs to the car owner are relatively low, relative to the amazing versatility of the private car. 

To be sure, once we consider the full social cost of automobiles—land devoted to roads and parking, local pollution, carbon outputs, deaths from accidents—public transit is often the better deal. But it’s hard to make the direct comparison so that transit can appear more costly, and automobiles and roads less costly, than they really are.

Like all development issues in America, race is right on the periphery of the development of the Metro. Interestingly, though, it seems like the Metro is one case where racial issues were acknowledged and taken into consideration… at least more than usual. 

While problems persisted, there were community planning successes with the Metro, and it was not ultimately built without demographic context. Why do you think activists and planners were more successful addressing issues of race and income in the metro’s development than they often are? 

I called my book “The Great Society Subway” to draw attention to the political era in which Metro was born. Key players of the 1960s, most prominently Lyndon Johnson, were determined to use public policy to ameliorate racial inequality. 

Since the 1970s, political leaders have been less committed to this cause. 

Washington DC is now gentrifying, and that gentrification is following closely along Metro routes, some of which were put in place specifically to consciously serve lower-income areas. 

Do you think gentrification is a guaranteed side-effect of effective transportation, or were there missed opportunities in offsetting some of the risks?

I looked at this most closely in D.C.’s mid-city, now better known as Shaw. 

My sense is that the neighborhoods were so impoverished in the 1960s that leaders like Walter Fauntroy did not imagine the gentrification pressures that would come with Metro.

Even in retrospect, securing affordable housing is a challenge, since it requires governments to buck market trends. 

The Metro system can be seen as either a failure of a large public works project, or as an example of the huge payoff of those types of projects. How do you see what you learned about the Metro reflected in conversations about infrastructure and civic planning in general?

The book has been well received, and from time to time I get to hear a prominent elected or appointed official refer to its findings about seeking a transportation system that creates the community we want. 

But, Metro’s maintenance and management troubles over the past year remind us that while idealism may be necessary, it is not sufficient to keep the trains running.

The importance of architecture and design in the Metro’s planning really surprised me, and impressed upon me how considered the visual design of the system really is. Was there anything that completely surprised you in the same way when researching and writing the book?

I was surprised at how much decisions about transportation reflected national politics. 

The few previous accounts of the changes in transit plans emphasized technical concerns, such as improved computer traffic modeling.

I found instead a confirmation of Kranzberg’s Fourth Law: "Although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions.” 

Related to Kranzberg’s fourth law and that issue, the Metro was unique in that it relied heavily on federal support and intervention. If you were working on transit at the local level for a city not as connected to the federal government as DC is, what do you think the biggest lessons from the Metro might be?

Every community has some connection to federal transportation policy, if only because a community’s fate is going to be determined in part by its proximity to the nearest Interstate.  And since the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, the federal government has helped fund transit construction across the country.

Moreover, many large urban systems, such as New York Subway and the Boston T, are runs by states, not cities. So, most local transit systems need to make the case that they are important to people outside of their immediate reach.

Do you have any rituals around your daily work?

I care a lot about word count. A book can take years to complete, which is daunting, but I get daily gratification knowing that I’ve written 500 words. (Or, better still, 1000.)

Tracking word count also helps me budget my time in both research and writing. If I know a given topic is only going to get 500 words, I will spend less time researching it and writing it up than one that gets 3000 words—a section of a chapter. 

Scrivener, the word processor I’ve been using for my larger works, is particularly useful because it shows how many words are in each section, each chapter, and the manuscript overall.