In the summer of 1955, Capital Transit employees went on strike. You might find some stories in The Washington Post’s archives that would be interesting to current riders coping with Metro’s service interruptions.
— Arnold Moore, Alexandria, Va.
If you lived in Washington in July 1955 and walked into any of the 81 stores operated by Peoples Drug, you may have seen a bulletin board that invited you to jot down your name, address and phone number, along with the time you needed a lift — or could offer one — and your destination.
That’s one way our forebears dealt with the last major, long-term interruption in the District’s public transit system: lots of ad hoc carpools.
Of course, the disruption 61 years ago was more extensive than Metro’s current “SafeTrack” year-long maintenance program. Today’s single-tracking, station closures and early shutdowns affect only the subway, while on July 1, 1955, all 375 streetcars and 750 buses of Capital Transit stopped moving, as union workers struck for higher wages.
When the strike ended 52 days later, The Post reflected on the experience and concluded that “the reaction left no doubt that a large metropolitan city — no matter how well it improvises — is sorely hit when its mass transportation facilities are taken away.”
On the first workday of the strike, traffic was “chaos,” but things improved. How did people cope? Like this:
They took their own cars. Rates of car ownership were far lower in 1955 than they are today, but they were higher than they had been in 1951, when a three-day Capital Transit strike bedeviled the city.
There were obvious downsides to driving. Between 6 and 7 a.m., vehicle volume increased 23 percent. In the first two weeks of the strike, 966 traffic accidents were reported, compared with 749 for the same period a year earlier.
Even so, AAA — that reliable booster of car use — claimed that people were getting to work faster, because the streets were clear of pesky Capital Transit trains and buses.
They formed carpools. The District’s traffic director, George E. Keneipp, implored Capital Transit patrons to share rides. He urged people to go door to door in neighborhoods and office to office at work to arrange carpools. Not everyone listened. Keneipp complained that too many cars carried only one or two people.
And not everyone felt comfortable in a carpool. Many single women were loath to ride with strangers.
They took taxis. Cabdrivers reported that business was up but that the work was harder because of the increased traffic congestion.
The police were mobilized. As the strike deadline approached, all annual leave was canceled for D.C. police officers. Once the strike began, hundreds of cops spread out to direct traffic. There was at least one police officer on every downtown street corner. Some had two or three. (When the strike was over, three of the city’s newspapers — The Post, the Evening Star and the Daily News — presented a plaque to the police chief thanking him for the “patience, courtesy and cheerful spirit” his officers had shown.)
There was free parking. To accommodate more cars headed downtown, District officials greatly relaxed parking rules. Parking at meters was free and without time restrictions. Commuters were allowed to park on the trolley tracks that ran down the middle of city streets. This turned Pennsylvania Avenue into a massive parking lot.
The District estimated that it lost $36,800 a month in parking revenue. Oddly, 1 in 10 motorists were still feeding the meters.
“They must be out-of-towners, or people who absentmindedly put a nickel in,” said the District’s tax collector, Guy W. Pearson.
They walked. There was no mention of cycling in the stories of the 1955 strike, but plenty of people employed shoe leather.
This had several benefits. A reader named John B. Wentworth wrote The Post to say that things were quieter during the strike, the air was cleaner. Walking to work in the morning was invigorating. Walking home at night made people tired, sending them to bed earlier. Wentworth wrote: “This will save their eyes from television, it will save light bills, and tomorrow they’ll feel 100 percent better than they’ve felt in the morning for weeks.”
The strike had ripple effects. Church attendance was down. A Nationals baseball game was postponed. Downtown merchants reported a 7 percent drop in sales. (Suburban sales were up 10 percent, as consumers shopped closer to home.) Private parking lots suffered a loss of revenue as motorists took advantage of free parking at meters. Hotels reduced their rates to lure tourists worried about transit.
“The situation is not normal,” District Commissioner Robert E. McLaughlin said as the 1955 strike loomed. “And we’ve got to face it. Don’t go to town if you don’t have to. Leave earlier than usual if you have to go. Be patient in delay, particular if you’re driving.”
That’s still good advice.
You can’t have an Answer Man column without questions. Send yours to firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.