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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Washington DC: Without Representation

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Eastern Market Station

WASHINGTON, DC — It is still fall right now in Washington, DC. Leaves cling to trees and only occasionally scatter in a yellow pile. This is my first trip here that doesn’t have to do with my father or eighth grade or some other strangely structured reason; as such I wandered out of DC Union Station past caterers setting up 2,000 champagne flutes and right onto the National Mall. Within half an hour of being here I found a pocket-sized copy of the US Constitution on the ground. So American, this place.

Within another ten minutes I had found a tourist map, also on the ground — this was good as I wanted to check something in this maze of silly alphabet names. I strolled the secure-yet-abandoned perimeter of the Capitol building, then through streets of rowhouses and sidewalks full of rustling leaves, sometimes raked into piles, sometimes raked by my feet. DC is full of familiar Victorian rowhouses: but without the gables of Toronto. It is a little deja vu and a little nicer than I remember it being here.

I am compelled most by the subway: the Metro is the strangest mixture of modern and arcane. Farecards — currently decorated with the giant pandas of the National Zoo — are obtained through a machine that lets you pay down-to-the-nickel per distance. The machines will tell you not only the zone and price, but the travel time — and yet it seems so strange to me that one wouldn’t just want to pay a flat rate for what seems like a small area (even if it spans two states and a taxed-without-being-represented diamond-shape.)

Metro stations themselves are glorious 70s arched futurism: from the footlights that call out the arrival of your train to the spacious ceilings and layered stations (at L’Enfant Plaza the transfers are easy and if you stand in the right place you can see crisscrossing train lines from above and below). The trains themselves, and their passengers, baffle. Carpeting. Seats way too far away from doors. And passengers — they all work for the government, their EPA and Department of Commerce laminates and military fatigues creating a kind of visual-political static — who use trains differently than we do in other cities. They do not take seats. They stand, poking us with their impractical hardback books. I have seen at least three people reading hardbacks on the Metro. This would never happen in New York or Toronto, right?

I tend to think all capital cities suffer from a necessary lack of personality — there’s sort of a sterile-white-paint quality to these places, shaded only by the spectre of weird governmental oppressiveness. DC remains a well-manicured enigma to me: but from the reflecting pools to the loosening brick sidewalks to the guy screaming and jogging backwards on H street, I feel slowly like I have unlocked a little bit more of the oblique mystery here.



  1. DC, sterile? Wander north, through and past Dupont, into Adams Morgan, across the U Street corridor, and onward. I think you will enjoy.

  2. Thanks for this post, taking into consideration your observations of the carpeted rolling stock, zonal fare system, and too-few doors, I glanced over Wikipedia articles on the Washington Metro, and it appears that their system was envisioned on a regional scale, more along the lines of Toronto’s GO Transit. The Washington Metro is more than twice the length of our subways.

    Then, these sorts of idiosyncrasies start to make sense -the trains are designed for long-distance comfort, and the fares are intended to minimize operating losses and minimize subsidy-dependence, just like GO.

    In defence of a system like Washington’s Metro, if the service is as frequent as TTC’s subways, it would fill the crippling service gap between TTC and GO that Toronto suffers from.

    One of TTC’s problems is that it’s trying -albeit at a slow pace -to expand a subway system that was designed to replace streetcars at it’s core.

  3. Don’t eat – they *will* arrest you. Some days on the TTC when someone brings a McDonalds or other hot food on the subway I can see the point.

  4. I wonder if Dalton McGuinty will resort to DC-like tactics in his fight for more federal seats in Ontario.

    For those unfamiliar, DC added “Taxation without representation” to the bottom of their standard licence plate in 2000 to protest that they aren’t represented with a vote in either the congress or the senate. Similar to the reason why Harper won’t consider giving Ontario its fair share of seats, the Republicans weren’t interested in acting on DC’s request for electoral fairness because 89% of electors supported Kerry in 2004.

  5. I was also amused at the carpeting in the subway cars there. It was a grey-blue-red ugly mottled thing out of the eighties; so strange and seemingly impractical but kind of nice just because of that.

    The spacious ceilings are highly necessary. DC is a tropical swamp — if they had the stuffy little stations we do, people would be keeling over from heatstroke in the summer.

  6. The Subway is also Air-Conditioned. But yeah, the Metro was designed to be a regional system to serve the suburbs. SF, Atlanta, Miami, and Baltimore’s system were built with the same idea in mind.

  7. As a Washingtonian that relocated to Toronto for school, I often speak of the metro with nostalgia and praise; the TTC is an unreliable, old-fashioned mess that is overpriced for reasons I can’t understand. If I didn’t live across the street from it, I probably wouldn’t use it as often as I do.

    The Washington pricing system makes sense and does cater to all parts of the inner metropolitan region, although we’re still waiting for a stop at Dulles Airport. I’ll give Toronto credit for having those mini TVs on the platforms with the news, but in DC, we have electronic signs on each platform saying how long the wait is for the next few cars. Good idea, right? Not everyone who runs the city is so terrible.

    I’ll give Toronto this – eating on any subway feels so wrong, but appetizingly convenient – there have been many hungry train rides home in DC. But it’s still wrong.

    Anyway, I am glad to see that DC got some press, I love it so much. (I love Toronto, too!)