Monorail!

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Nov. 1 2002 1:28 PM

The Romance of the Monorail

The mass transit technology of Tomorrowland finally reaches today.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

There's an episode of The Simpsons in which a smooth-talking huckster named Lyle Lanley, patterned after Music Man charlatan Harold Hill, persuades Springfield's gullible townsfolk to build a $3 million monorail. The transit system debuts to tremendous fanfare— Star Trek icon Leonard Nimoy shows up for the christening—but the euphoria is short-lived. Minutes into the maiden voyage, a brake line snaps, and the cartoon passengers nearly suffer a violent fate. The show's core joke is easy to get: How could these rubes not have realized that "monorail" is synonymous with "boondoggle"? One-track trains, after all, are a relic of the same Tang-fueled, Jetsons-era futurism that predicted the rapid rise of hover cars and holographic spouses.

But a decade after "Marge vs. the Monorail" first aired, monorails are no longer mere punch lines. Las Vegas is spending $650 million on a seven-mile monorail designed to ferry gamblers from one end of the Strip to the other. On Election Day, Seattle voters will decide yea or nay on a proposed $1.7 billion, 14-mile expansion of that city's one-mile monorail, a leftover from the 1962 World's Fair. And in northern Delaware, transit planners are championing a 15-mile monorail as the best solution for alleviating the region's traffic jams and worsening air quality.

The fad may provoke laughter in those who chiefly associate monorails with Disney World, but the technology's history is longer and more distinguished than most people realize. A suspended version known as the "Swinging Railway" has been gliding through Wuppertal, Germany, since 1901, and monorails flourish in such metropolises as Tokyo, Osaka, Singapore, and Sydney. Just a quick I-5 jaunt from Seattle finds Vancouver's SkyTrain, originally built as a gimmick for the 1986 Expo but later expanded deep into the suburbs. The line now handles nearly 150,000 boardings each weekday.

Why, then, is America a virtual monorail abstainer, save for the occasional theme park or zoo? The nation's automotive fetish is an easy culprit, but Walt Disney deserves a fair share of the blame, too. In 1959, the "Happiest Place on Earth" unveiled a miniature monorail that snaked along the park's edge. Visitors dug the ride, but they also figured that such trains would never work outside Mickey's domain—if it was in Disneyland, well, then it must be a kiddie thing.

The monorail's image wasn't helped by two successive World's Fairs—Seattle in 1962 and New York in 1964—that featured monorails as futuristic centerpieces. The technology just couldn't shake the stereotype of being too fanciful for real-world straphangers. For the "Train of Tomorrow—Today!" tomorrow never seemed to come.

A few decades and massive gridlock later, folks are wising up to the monorail's many perks as they grope about for mass-transit alternatives. New underground subways have been dinosaured by dizzying construction costs, not to mention the legal and engineering headaches of digging through built-up cities. This is a lesson that Los Angeles learned the hard way with its superexpensive Metro Red Line, which hasn't helped a whit in lessening rush-hour congestion on the city's freeways.

Light-rail options are the current vogue, hailed as low-cost and easy to build. But laying trolley tracks on busy urban streets is more labor-intensive than it sounds. A separate lane must be created, electric wires must be hung to provide power, and streets often need to be widened to accommodate both trains and autos. There's also the issue of providing crossing points for pedestrians and vehicles. No matter how many safety precautions are put in place, sooner or later an unlucky driver or walker gets smooshed.

True, monorails cost more than light-rail systems: Estimates in Seattle range upward of $124 million per mile. At least for short-haul routes, however, that's where the disadvantages stop. Monorail tracks are prefabricated and can be erected relatively quickly: Simply dig a hole every 120 feet or so, plop down a column, and lift the track into place. Because the systems operate above traffic, collisions with errant motorists are never an issue. The trains are automated, saving millions in labor costs in the long run. And rubber wheels mean that Simpsons monorail salesman Lyle Lanley spoke the truth when he sang, "It glides as softly as a cloud."

This is not to suggest that Seattle's monorail plan is faultless or that any auto-jammed city need only go monorail to solve its every transit headache. They fit best in still-nascent cities where the columns won't disrupt bustling sidewalks and where commuters aren't too wedded to the freeways already.

A big knock on monorails, favored by opponents of the Seattle initiative, is that they're eyesores that cast shadows upon sidewalks and obscure views. That critique was valid during the monorail's World's Fair heyday 40 years ago, but today's tracks and columns are far less obtrusive. Some monorails get by with tracks just a shade over two feet wide. Support columns are thinner than ever and can be designed to blend into the surrounding environment. Besides, if you want a lovely view in a monorail town, simply fork over your fare and watch the scenery zip by at 50 miles per hour. It's a heck of a lot more entertaining than slogging through a city center via light rail.

As crazy as it may sound, that fun factor counts for something—a lot, in fact. The goal of mass transit is to convince people to abandon their cars, which feature such enticing accessories as CD players and elbow room. Light rails are too buslike to impress most commuters, too squished and close to the ground. Monorails, by contrast, strike a chord with travelers. There's something about the sleek designs, the pillowy rides, and the panoramic views that just enchants. Monorails have their own fan club, which claims more than 2,500 members who swap monorail toys and trinkets. Modern light rail can claim no such devoted fan base.

So, maybe the technology isn't quite as lampoon-worthy as The Simpsons would have us believe. Forget about Disneyland, the World's Fairs, and remember that snappy number from "Marge vs. the Monorail": "Is there a chance the track could bend?/ Not on your life, my Hindu friend."

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