I have been a frequent rider on Washington’s Metrorail since moving to this area in July 1982, when I retired from the army and joined the Foreign Service. Having lived in a number of countries before and after 1982, I am a firm supporter of efficient mass transit in urban areas, and until recent problems began plaguing Metrorail, particularly the Red Line, which is my main method of transportation around the metro area, viewed DC’s system as one of the world’s finest. I’ve been a passenger on the rail systems in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Tokyo, and Seoul, and viewed our system as one of the most orderly and efficient.
Until recent arguments among the jurisdictions over funding, increasingly frequent breakdowns on the Red Line, and a degradation of order and cleanliness throughout the system, I would never have believed that our system would be in trouble. Alas, it seems to lurch from problem to problem, with no end in sight.
Unlike other urban mass transit systems, Washington’s Metrorail doesn’t have a dedicated budget, but must rely instead on contributions from the three political entities it services, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. In dire need for funds to upgrade in order to merely maintain a modest level of efficiency, the political hassles among the jurisdictions threaten even the now somewhat-degraded service.
I continue to support the system, though, because it is necessary. No urban area can thrive without efficient, affordable mass transit. It makes sense, in terms of helping the economy and protecting the environment. There is, however, another reason it should be strongly supported, and not just by the local political jurisdictions, but the national government as well, and one that has not, to date, been a part of the public discussion.
As a diplomat for over thirty years, I’ve observed the negative effects of the divides between social, political, ethnic, and economic classes in places around the world, both in developed and developing countries. While ethnic differences will always be with us, and economic disparities can only be partially mitigated, the factor that aggravates them is the communication divide that exists within societies. When people of these different demographics get few opportunities to know each other, their views are shaped by impressions and propaganda. When they are put in situations where they actually get to ‘know’ each other, those impressions often change—sometimes for the better.
That is what I’ve seen on Metrorail. When I first came to Washington, DC in the late 1960s, and Metrobus was the only form of mass transit, interactions between and among the area’s various social and economic classes were limited and fleeting. A laborer from Silver Spring seldom had extended contact with a stock broker residing in an affluent Potomac neighborhood, and that stock broker had probably never seen where the man doing his lawn lived. Metrorail went a long way toward changing that.
Before I retired in 2012, in particular during two assignments in Washington—two years working in Rosslyn with the State Department’s Office of Defense Trade Controls and three years as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, with an office in Crystal City, I was a daily commuter on Metro’s Red, Orange, Blue, and Yellow Lines. Not only did I have the opportunity to sit cheek by jowl with residents from neighborhoods from all over the area, but saw many of those areas during the surface portion of my commute. I heard dozens of languages spoken, often had conversations with bored fellow riders who, after a few minutes vented about jobs or family problems, and observed the dress and mannerisms of a broad swath of the population. Five years of people watching gave me a better sense of the area than did thirty-five years of reading and watching the local news reports. It also helped me develop a more inclusive sense of community, and contributed to my decision to stay in the area after retirement. I see myself as a citizen of a diverse community, where all the different flavors, like the new M&M multi-colored candies, add up to a most satisfying whole.
So, for all these reasons, I entreat the powers that be to take a broader, more inclusive view of mass transit in this area. In addition to helping people move about better for economic reasons, and protecting the environment, maintain the system in order to continue building the Washington area’s sense of community. In a time when partisan divides threaten our unity more than ever, we need something to pull us together. A one-hour political speech won’t get the job done, but a one-hour commute can get it started.