The Little-Known History of Transit in Washington, D.C.


In the following interview, we speak with Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. Speck is an architect and city planner in Washington, D.C., oversaw the Mayors' Institute on City Design, and served on the Sustainability Task Force of the Department of Homeland Security.

Speck recounts a part of D.C. history that many residents don't know. Popular protests succeeded in tabling plans to build hundreds of miles of highways in and through the city, with the funds going instead to build the D.C. Metro system.

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Isaac Pino: Perhaps a city that's closer to home for a lot of us, Washington, D.C., also has an interesting story to tell that dates back a few decades, obviously, from Portland's. I was wondering if you could discuss what happened in the '70s or '60s here.

Jeff Speck: Yeah, most people who live in D.C. don't realize that D.C. was slated to receive hundreds of miles of highways -- hundreds -- including one that circled the Mall. Basically, both sides of the Mall were going to be depressed and like four lanes, and there was another one that was going to be about half a mile out, encircling the Mall, and much more Beltway than was ever built. All that ever came was the Beltway.

There was a huge, drawn-out protest movement in the face of universal approval from every powerful entity in the community, like happened everywhere in America, in support of these highways, including the Washington Post, the D.C. Board of Trade, everyone.

Every institution was in support of these highways, but it was labeled "white men's roads through black men's homes," among other things. People lay down in front of bulldozers, and eventually it was stopped. Most of that money then went into the Metro system, which is one of the reasons why D.C. is such a livable, walkable city now.

It's kind of ironic: The federal government, which is based here in Washington, paid for so many cities to be ruined by highways, but we did manage to escape it ourselves.

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