Bus Strike Creates Traffic Disaster

Talk about serious road rage … OMG, this would suck. Just be glad you’re not facing this carmageddon today. And don’t complain if there’s a 12 minute wait at Rosslyn for the Orange Line. You don’t have to deal with this disaster (or maybe you did 38 years ago).

Washington residents and those in the suburbs had a rough time in May of 1974 thanks to a Metrobus strike (remember, Metro didn’t open until 1976 … but they probably would have also been on strike).

D.C. workers waiting for cabs during Metrobus strike - 17th and H St. NW (1975)
D.C. workers waiting for cabs during Metrobus strike - 17th and H St. NW (1974)

Thursday, May 2nd was the first day the union members walked off the job. The strike was caused by a dispute over the terms for continuing the cost-of-living adjustments the union had negotiated with Metro and the previous contract expired Tuesday morning. Metro had recently only come into being as an organization and had taken over the former D.C. Transit System in 1974, consolidating control of the public transportation system for the District in preparation for the new subway system. John A. Robertie, the deputy general counsel of Metro, was pushing to shrink the cost-of-living adjustments to control their budget.

Woman tries to hitch a ride home (1975)
Woman tries to hitch a ride home (1974 - Washington Post)

On Thursday, a quarter of a million extra commuters were forced to commute using their personal vehicles, creating an epic traffic jam, clogging all local roads between Capitol Hill and the White House. Commuters had no places to park, so they’d leave their cars in bus lanes, on sidewalks or on the grass.

In an attempt to soften the impact, the federal and D.C. governments released employees an hour early (which was horribly unsuccessful at mitigating the impending traffic disaster). Workers who were “unavoidably late for work” were excused due to the extenuating circumstances. One poor driver commented that it took him 48 minutes to drive from one side of Dupont Circle to the other.

The Washington Post had a lengthy article covering the strike, and mentioned one minor benefit for local businesses. City bars and restaurants were overflowing during happy hour as workers attempted to both wait out the traffic jam and calm their nerves with a couple drinks before hitting the road. Sounds like both an excellent and horrible idea. Downtown bars, notably in the Southwest area, did a rush buiness [sic] as some commuters decided to sit out the jams in comfort. Poor citizens of 1974 … you knew nothing of teleworking.

This was the first strike paralyzing Washington city transportation since a 52-day walkout by the same union in 1955. Luckily, I live reasonably close enough that I can walk to just about anywhere I need to go. I would be so pissed if this happened today. I get frustrated every time I hit the metro platform and it says: 15 minutes. Ugh … and I’m at one of the stops without cell signal.

Policeman directing traffic (1975)
Policeman directing traffic (1974 - Washington Post)

The strike had come to a close by Tuesday, May 7th after Metro and the union agreed to a new contract. But, the three workdays that were impacted by this transit strike were evidently horrible … except for District bars at happy hour.

After looking the these photo, I will no longer complain about waiting 15 minutes for Metro.

Commuter traffic from bus strike (1974)
Commuter traffic from bus strike (1974)
Major traffic due to bus strike (1974)
Major traffic due to bus strike (1974)
Cars parked on the grass (1974)
Cars parked on the grass (1974)
Parking lot in what is now the Reagan Building. Commerce Department in background on right. (1974)
Parking lot in what is now the Reagan Building. Commerce Department in background on right. (1974)
Traffic on H St. NW looking east (1974)
Traffic on H St. NW looking east (1974)

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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  • Wow! I think this speaks to the fact that Metro trains & buses are, in fact, a car-subsidy. Without Metro the traffic would be an even more of a nightmare than it is…can you imagine a walk-out now with that many more vehicles in the area than there were in 1974. All those drivers out there who hate Metro, walkers, and bikers and say we shouldn’t get funding take a long look at those pictures and tell me if that’s what you want. We make it possible for you to be able to drive to work!

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