In the 1960s and 70s, the DC Metro was designed with the middle class in mind. The carpeted train cars, cushioned seats, and modernist design sought to create a system that would be up to the standards of the middle class commuter. While the carpet now seems quaint and a bit worn, the vaulted, concrete ceilings of the Washington DC Metro system still hover effortlessly above the passing trains. The brutalist design of the Metro is credited to Harry Weese, but in truth, the iconic column-free vaults were a structural and aesthetic feat achieved over decades by architectural and engineering teams.

Source: Mike Leakey, Flickr

The plan to create an incredibly modern, underground transport system could not rely solely on design, but would also require the support of innumerable technical and communication mechanisms. Forty years later, unlike the seemingly timeless vaults of the Metro (which have seen their share of aging), the technical infrastructure of the grand Metro design is a reminder that the stresses of constant usage and improper upkeep can drastically change the feel of public transport.

When one descends the musical escalators into the Metro in 2011, the ideal of a mechanically seamless and modern transport system seems a distant past or, perhaps, a distant future. While the day-to-day encounters with mechanical failure in the Metro are pretty mundane – walking up or down a broken escalator, blocked-off turnstiles, inaccurate train arrival times, and a muffled PA system – the occasional shocking mechanical failure in the Metro is enough to ignite the public imagination and sense of outrage. In just the past few months, several people dropped into an escalator shaft at the Foggy Bottom stop when the steps collapsed beneath their feet, and in a separate event dozens were trampled when the escalator at L’Enfant Plaza suddenly accelerated, sending people cascading to the bottom. The latter event was captured on video.

Meanwhile, this perceived mechanical dystopia provides the backdrop for what is interpreted as widespread social breakdown in the Metro. On one level, people perceive the Metro as a space where social norms and mutual respect are abandoned. Young men refuse to give up their seats to the elderly, drunkards urinate on the quays, men masturbate shamelessly, and the inconsiderate crowd near doors. On another level, the Metro is a space of rampant violence and crime. In August 2010, a 70-person brawl on trains at the Gallery-Place Chinatown stop spilled onto platforms at L’Enfant Plaza. Just last week, the headline “Teen Mob Attacks Man at Suitland Metro Station” made the rounds. Passengers are also frequently warned to conceal their smart phones due to an up-tick of thefts. The WMATA response to “youth violence” even resulted in a now defunct test program of emitting a low-frequency buzz only audible to teens at the Gallery Place stop, in hopes of discouraging loitering.

The black boxes in the Metro that attempt to conceal repairs.

In considering Metro’s perpetual state of mechanical breakdown, we arrive at a present-day Metro experience that its innovators and planners could not have possibly predicted, an experience dominated by a Metro environment that, while operable, represents a physical cycle of breakdown, repair, and renovation. The DC Metro is hardly unique in its undergoing of maintenance and repairs, but as a widely-used form of transport and public space, its infrastructure is subject to a wider discourse of public safety and responsibility. The system’s deteriorating infrastructure is so apparent that even the Metro General Manager Richard Sarles has had to acknowledge this reality. Paraphrased in a Washington Post article, he expressed that it is “unrealistic for Metro to meet some of its performance standards, given the backlog of maintenance work.”

A short list of the primary communications and technical mechanisms that keep the Metro running is as follows:

  • 589 escalators
  • 271 elevators
  • Digital train arrival signs, with GPS
  • Two-way radios between train operator and control panel
  • PA system
  • Passenger to passenger intercoms
  • Video monitoring for security

On a typical day, these technologies are unreliable or mere simulacra. For example, the security cameras record unusable images or do not record at all, the escalators sit stationary, the voices from speakers are inaudible.

Machinery as the new permanent landscape of repair in the DC Metro.

The daily navigation of the Metro’s unending landscape of repair and degradation has become routine and inescapable. Thanks to the widespread physical presence of machinery, yellow barricades, and mysterious wooden panels concealing repair sites, the physical environment of repair and breakdown has become indistinguishable from the “normal” environment of the Metro. In other words, situations that we have previously assumed are temporary, such as repair and breakdown, have now become a part of the built environment of public transport in DC.