Image by ehplen licensed under Creative Commons.

Conventional wisdom says that the Washington DC Metro was supposed to go to Georgetown (after all, it barely misses it between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom), but NIMBY residents in the 1970s blocked the station, fearing that the subway would bring inner-city (i.e. black and Hispanic) people out from poor neighborhoods to commit robberies. The anticipated crime spike around transit lines never did occur in other neighborhoods and cities, and now the people of Georgetown regret their earlier opposition.

I’ve heard that story from DC residents and seen it written online many times. But it’s not true. Zachary Schrag’s book The Great Society Subway debunks the myth:

In fact, although Georgetown residents did oppose a transit station, their attitude was essentially irrelevant, for a Georgetown station was never seriously considered. While it would have been possible to build a subway line to Georgetown, it would have been difficult. (Page 155)

According to the book, two major obstacles prevented a Georgetown station. First, the corner of Wisconsin and M, which would have been the sensible location for a station, is so close to the river that a station in a river-crossing tunnel would have been too deep at that point, and highway planners had no interest in a bridge. In addition, routing the Metro to Georgetown would force tunneling under private property, which is much more complicated, both for the engineering challenges of underpinning buildings and for the legal issues.

In addition, the Metro was primarily designed as a suburban commuting resource, “connecting suburban parking lots, bus nodes, and clusters of apartment buildings with dense collections of office buildings in downtown Washington and Arlington.” Georgetown was neither especially dense nor a major office center, and therefore wasn’t a prime candidate for a station. (This probably explains why Adams Morgan has no station either, the misleadingly named Woodley Park-Zoo-Adams Morgan station not actually being very close to Adams Morgan).

Schrag continues:

Still, the Georgetown legend has a kernel of truth. Residents of many neighborhoods did protest planned Metro stations, and WMATA was forced to respond, even cancelling one station. [DA: I wonder which one?] But the residential protests lacked the clear-cut class and racial connotations of the Georgetown story, for the protests were common to black neighborhoods and white, to poor neighborhoods as well as rich ones. (Page 156)

Many suburban communities did fear people from the inner-city as the legend suggests; Schrag quotes Idamae Garrott, a WMATA leader from Montgomery County, Maryland, who responded to her constituents’ fears: “A lot of people … think that rapers and muggers will be able to get on the subway for very little money, rape and mug me, and get on the subway and go back. I can’t guarantee it won’t happen, although it’s always puzzled me why more criminals don’t come out here now in cars.” (Page 156)

Suburban racial fear wasn’t confined to Washington, DC. Metro Atlanta’s Gwinnett and Clayton counties opted out of MARTA at least partly for racial reasons (PDF - scroll to page 18). I’ve often heard that the same fears about crime stopped Boston’s Red Line from extending beyond Alewife, at Cambridge’s western border, into Arlington and beyond to Lexington and Concord. I haven’t yet found any more definitive information to prove or disprove this. According to vanshnookeraggen, similar fears led many towns around Route 128, such as Reading and Needham to prefer commuter rail over extending T rapid transit lines to their towns.

Ultimately, it’s clear that while Georgetown didn’t get the chance to oppose a Metro stop (because they weren’t getting one in the first place), they would have tried and perhaps succeeded in blocking one had WMATA included a stop in the initial plans. Many other towns in similar situations did, and succeeded, which is why so many around DC believe Georgetown did the same. It’s only geographic luck and excessively suburban-centric thinking by the WMATA designers that save them from having made such a short-sighted decision.

Meanwhile, I have to read this book (and note to stupid publishers scared of putting book content online: I wouldn’t have bought this book had I not been able to see some of its interesting content on the Web).

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.