A map of streetcar routes in 1944: nearly all of them pass through the densely congested core between 6th and 17th Streets and K Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.  From the Transportation Survey and Plan for the Central Area of Washington, D.C., J.E. Greiner Company and De Leuw, Cather & Company Consulting Engineers, 1944. Image by District Department of Transportation.

This is Part II of a series of three articles. Read Part I here.

Between 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected, and 1941, when the US entered the war, the District's population rose by nearly 50%. It grew from 510,000 to 760,000 people, ultimately reaching 900,000 by 1943. This spike in population led to overloaded buses and streetcars, as well as severe automobile congestion. The city was in desparate need of transportation alternatives.

In February, GGWash posted a map of a 1940s-era proposal to build several subways for streetcar lines in DC. Turns out there were actually several different proposals for subways in DC in the 1940s. Here we explore some key proposals between 1941 and 1944.

Streetcar underpasses suggested in April 1941

In early April 1941, Traffic Director William Van Duzer suggested that his office's soon-to-be-released report on the District's traffic problems would call for a subway from downtown to the Mid-City area between Rock Creek Park and the Soldiers' Home, where over a third of the federal government's downtown workers lived.

However, when the report was actually released in late April, it did not include a recommendation for a subway. According to DC Director of Highways Herbert Whitehurst, the cost would have been prohibitively high and the distances traveled would be too short to justify it. However, he suggested that streetcar underpasses of major intersections (such as the one later erected at Dupont Circle) might be built in the distant future.

Despite the fact that subways were not included in the transit recommendations of the April 1941 report—it instead recommended removing stops to speed up bus and streetcar service and studying commuting habits to determine if lines should be rerouted—Congress pressed for a more thorough consideration of them. One man in particular was a vocal advocate.

Representative Schulte's push for a rapid transit subway

In October 1941, the House District Traffic subcommittee held hearings on Whitehurst's proposal to solve Washington's transit problems with roads and parking, but no subways. Afterward, on November 29, 1941, the subcommittee's chair, William Schulte, released a report arguing that the District's traffic problems could only be solved by a subway. It said that the cost of building it—estimated at $5 million (just over $85 million today) per mile—should be split between the District and the federal government. He also insisted that, “any rapid transit system must remain municipally operated,” unlike the city's streetcar network.

Eventually, on March 14, 1942—just under a year after the release of his report calling for road-building but no subway to solve DC's traffic problems—Whitehurst was put in charge of studying the possibilities for a subway system in Washington by the District Commissioners. However, this second Whitehurst Report, released in June, was not any more favorable to subway construction than the first.

The report's three conclusions rejected a rapid transit subway system while calling for streetcar underpasses downtown and highway grade separations throughout the District. The conclusions reached as a result of the preliminary survey indicated that:

  • Rapid transit subway lines to the outlying sections of the District were not warranted or necessary.
  • A system of streetcar tunnels and underpasses, including appropriate terminal facilities in the central congested area, was feasible and in many cases warranted.
  • The construction of grade separation structures and depressed highways within and beyond the central area was necessary and logical. Provisions were made for a number of such facilities in the Highway Program, adopted in principle, by the Commissioners the previous year.

The report argued that transit for the District should be planned based on “normal and basic conditions and not upon abnormal or emergency conditions,” such as the influx of residents to the region due to the New Deal and World War II. In the long term, the authors believed, congestion would be relieved by the end of the war, by federal offices being distributed to outlying areas, and the construction of highways that would bypass downtown. (The Fort Circle parks are suggested as a right-of-way for such a proto-Beltway.)

The argument against a rapid transit subway acknowledged a “central congested area” bounded by 6th and 17th streets NW on the east and west and K Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW on the north and south, and suggested that this was the main area in which streetcar underpasses and underground terminals were needed.

On the other hand, the density outside of this central area, and especially outside of the L'Enfant City (bounded by Rock Creek, Florida Avenue, the Potomac, and the Anacostia) was assumed to be too low to support rapid transit subways. Somewhat inconsistently, the report also noted that while subway systems in other American cities provided “temporary relief from congestion,” they eventually led to more population concentration along the lines, which was seen as a downside to be avoided.

Despite the negative outcome of the subway study, Schulte continued to push for one. He argued that New York and Chicago subway engineers had advised him that a subway was the only viable long-term solution to the District's traffic problems. However, he was not re-elected in November 1942, and Congressional support for a rapid transit subway seemed to have ended with his time in office.

Whitehurst's 1942 report called on Congress to appropriate funds for a proper study of possible streetcar grade separations for the District. The report suggested that streetcar tunnels were only needed at major intersections and perhaps in the “congested core.”

But a couple years later, contractors working for the District would bring forth a proposal with a much larger vision for DC's streetcar subway plan.

Sources:

The basic primary sources for this article are three reports on the possibility of subways in DC, all produced in the 1940s. I acquired a PDF scan of the 1942 report (minus figures) from the National Archives, and a PDF scan of the 1946 report from a friend. I was able to view the 1944 report in hardcopy at the DDOT Archives and some high-quality scans of its figures are posted online on their website.

  • Report of a Preliminary Survey to Determine the Feasibility of the Construction of Subways in the District of Columbia for both Streetcar and Vehicular Traffic, District of Columbia Department of Highways, 1942.
  • Transportation Survey and Plan for the Central Area of Washington, D.C., J.E. Greiner Company and De Leuw, Cather & Company Consulting Engineers, 1944.
  • Transportation Plans for Washington, J.E. Greiner Company and De Leuw, Cather & Company Consulting Engineers, 1946.

In addition, a number of Washington Post articles from the 1940s gave me background on the history behind these reports and why they were made.

  • “How U.S. Employes [sic] Get To Their Work,” Washington Post page 6, April 25, 1941.
  • “D.C. Subway Is Predicted By Van Duzer,” Washington Post page 19, April 8, 1941.
  • “Public Hearing On Traffic Plan Set for May 20,” Washington Post page 17, April 29, 1941.
  • “Hearings on Traffic Plan Open Today,” Washington Post page 28, October 14, 1941.
  • “Ickes Seeks Part in Easing Traffic Snarl,” Washington Post page 10, October 26, 1941.
  • “House Unit's Report Calls For Subway System Here,” Washington Post page 1, November 30, 1941.
  • “Whitehurst to Undertake Study of Proposed Subway System,” Washington Post page 16, March 15, 1942.
  • “Subway Plan Not Feasible, Report Says,” Washington Post page 15, July 4, 1942.
  • “Schulte Favors Subway Plan Despite Opposition,” Washington Post page 17, July 10, 1942.
  • “Highway-Transit Superplan Presented to Commissioners,” Washington Post page 10, December 14, 1946.
  • “Underground Streetcars or No? With City Due to Grow a Third by '65, Traffic Plans are Burgeoning,” Washington Post page B3, March 30, 1967.
  • “Evils of Decentralization: Growth of Suburbs Snarls D.C. Traffic, Washington Post page R8, June 20, 1948.
  • “Dupont 'Subway' Nears Completion,” Washington Post page 16, October 14, 1949.
  • “Better Transit,” Washington Post page 10, December 12, 1949.

DW Rowlands is an adjunct chemistry professor and Prince George’s County native, currently living in College Park. More of their writing on transportation-related and other topics can be found on their website.  They also write on DC transportation and demographic issues for the DC Policy Center, where they are a Fellow. In their spare time, they volunteer for Prince George’s Advocates for Community-Based Transit. However, the views expressed here are their own.