Here’s How Old Subway Cars Could Help D.C.’s Homeless Population

published Mar 2, 2017
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(Image credit: Orhan Cam)

Feel like you live on the subway? It could soon be a reality for some. Washington, D.C., architect Arthur Cotton Moore has an idea to help house the city’s homeless: convert decommissioned Metro cars into small apartments.

As the city takes its unreliable 4000-series subway cars out of service — which have been plagued by brake, door, and propulsion problems since their introduction in the early 1990s— Moore told the Washington Post the old cars ought to be repurposed instead of scrapped.

“We don’t need a propulsion system if we’re going to make them stationary,” Moore told the Post. Brakes wouldn’t be a problem, either, and the fact is they’re pretty darn sturdily built. “They are a very nice enclosure which is watertight and has lovely windows.”

(Image credit: Rendering by Arthur Cotton Moore)

Moore’s design would split each subway car into two 560-square-foot, one-bedroom apartments, with a pre-fab kitchenette and bathroom installed in each. That’s smaller than the average mobile home, but a pretty good-sized one-bedroom. He envisions placing them on vacant city land to house some of the city’s homeless. While the Metro told the Post they’re open to any cost-neutral ideas for the old cars, there would be some potential issues, including removing the asbestos present in some cars.

Repurposing train cars isn’t an entirely new idea, of course. I’ve eaten at restaurants that were once train cars, and there are several hostels (including a lovely one I stayed at in Ireland) that allow you to spend the night in an old rail car.

However, these are more typically built from antique trolleys or former sleeper cars with built-in cabins — they’re charming, and in the case of a hostel, kind of up to the task already. A subway car, on the other hand, is more of a blank steel slate, for better or for worse. And it hardly evokes the romanticism of a long-distance train ride through the countryside.

Still, it’s kind of a cool idea isn’t it? I’m not advocating poaching much-needed potential housing from the homeless, but between the renewed enthusiasm for tiny houses and the urbanite cred of living in an old subway car, you have to wonder if Moore is onto something here — an idea with broader consumer appeal, too.

If it were executed well, including the location and surroundings — perhaps four cars surrounding a small square courtyard — would you live a repurposed subway car?