Management & Labor

Back to the Future

Forty years ago, American society looked into the transportation future and found it thrilling. The first U.S. astronaut had orbited the earth. Preparations for a moon landing were underway.
by | May 2002

Forty years ago, American society looked into the transportation future and found it thrilling. The first U.S. astronaut had orbited the earth. Preparations for a moon landing were underway. On television, George and Judy Jetson were taking vacations to Venus and cruising along virtual "freeways" at 500 miles an hour.

And the city of Seattle was staging a highly successful World's Fair built around bold visions of human movement in the next century and the gadgets that would be invented to make them come true. The most dramatic exhibit at this fair was "World of Tomorrow," through which visitors traveled in a globe-shaped elevator, listening to descriptions of how they would transport themselves in the year 2000. No destination on earth would be more than an hour away. Businessmen would commute from home to work almost instantly through the use of personal gyrocopters.

It all sounds downright loopy in the cold light of 21st-century reality. Not only is it impossible to jet to Istanbul for lunch--it can take an afternoon to drive across metropolitan Atlanta, and a whole day to fly from Winston-Salem to Fargo, with three changes of aircraft required. The Jetsons don't live here yet; nowhere close.

But one piece of Jetson-era hardware did get built; in fact, it was already operating at the fair in 1962. It was the Seattle monorail, the sleek elevated train that whisked people from downtown to the fairgrounds in less than two minutes. The monorail wasn't especially practical: Almost anyone who wanted to could walk the entire distance in 15 minutes, less time than it often took to wait for the train. But the fairgoers loved it--they loved it so much that more than 7 million of them rode it in a single summer, and the $3.5 million cost of the project was paid for before the fair had even closed its doors.

The universal assumption among the fair's planners was that once the event was over, the monorail would be expanded, first to the airport and then all over the metropolitan area, forming the first genuine space-age mass transportation network.

That never happened. Nobody stepped forward to finance the project, and by the 1990s, Seattle's aging elevated experiment began to seem a little ridiculous--a useless remnant of a bygone era, contemporary with the Jetsons, Madras shirts and Chubby Checker. Comedians began referring to it as the "train to nowhere."

Every once in a while, people in Seattle suggested going back and trying to implement the old idea of a larger monorail system, but they were invariably branded as cranks. Monorails were obsolete technology, critics insisted--and besides, Seattle was committed to building a $4 billion light-rail network to rescue the metropolitan area from its steadily worsening traffic nightmare.

That was where things stood in 1994, when Dick Falkenbury got into the act. What has happened since then sounds a little like the plot of a made-for-TV movie, but it has happened nevertheless.

Falkenbury was a local eccentric, a former hippie who drove a cab and worked occasionally as a tour guide. He thought the monorail made sense and couldn't understand why it hadn't been built. When he asked the transportation bureaucracy about it, they said simply that monorails had become impractical. They never explained why, at least not to Falkenbury's satisfaction.

So Falkenbury started circulating petitions for an initiative mandating the local government to build one. In 1997, after three years of effort, he got it on the ballot, raised $5,000 to promote it, and drew up his own plan for a 40-mile X-shaped monorail system linking the whole area together.

The entire governmental and transportation establishment thought it an exercise in pointless nostalgia. The chamber of commerce ran ads reading, "Let's send these dreamers and con artists back to the drawing board." The afternoon newspaper said Falkenbury's petition campaign was merely evidence that "some people will sign anything."

Nobody but Falkenbury thought it had a chance to pass. Nevertheless, it did. The Seattle city council was now legally bound at least to take steps toward building a monorail system. It took the tiniest steps possible. By 1999, it declared that it had investigated fully and found the monorail a waste of money.

That appeared to be the end of Falkenbury's dream, but it wasn't. His supporters went to King County Superior Court, where a judge ruled that the council either had to implement the law or repeal it--they couldn't just pretend it wasn't there.

The transit establishment then came up with a new strategy. The first initiative had passed, they felt, mainly because no price tag had been attached to it. Bring the issue back to the voters, tell them how much a monorail would cost, and they would come to their senses. "Let's ask them if they are willing to spend in excess of a billion dollars," one council member sniffed. She was pretty sure what the answer would be.

But she was wrong. Presented in November 2000 with a ballot measure directing the city to set aside $200 million in borrowing capacity to meet construction costs, Seattle voters went for the monorail idea even more enthusiastically than they had the first time.

Now, a year and a half later, a city agency is actually at work drawing up a detailed plan for a monorail system that will start out at 14 miles in length, cost at least $1 billion to create and as much as $25 million a year to operate. This fall, it will be presented to the voters.

As my father would have said, "What are they--nuts?"

I don't think so. There's a whole battery of arguments that opponents use to ridicule the monorail, and on first encounter they sound substantial. But the more closely you examine them, the less convincing they are.

It's pointed out, for example, that no American city has invested serious money in such a project; the only monorails in operation are either small-scale airport people-movers or amusement park toys. There must be a reason for that.

No doubt there is. But American cities aren't the only cities in the world. Overseas, there are plenty of examples of working monorails that are far more than just novelties. The one in Osaka, Japan, is 24 miles long, has 16 stations, and carries 50,000 passengers a day. Wuppertal, a city of 400,000 in the German Rhineland, has had a functioning 8-mile system in operation since 1901.

The one objection that deserves to be considered quite seriously is the aesthetic objection. Any elevated transit system, it is said, would be a gigantic eyesore, disrupting neighborhoods, blotting out sunlight (on the rare days when Seattle has any) and ultimately killing off retail and pedestrian life underneath it.

If true, this is sufficient reason to drop the monorail idea altogether. But is it true? Undeniably, American cities have made hideous mistakes involving elevated transportation. Boston is spending decades and many billions of dollars just to tear down and replace its elevated Central Artery, the ugly stretch of Interstate 93 that divides the city awkwardly in two.

But that's a highway. It's not clear by any means that a monorail would have a similar effect. In fact, the historical evidence points the other way. Chicago's Wabash Avenue has been darkened by El tracks for the past century, but that has never prevented it from attracting either pedestrian traffic or viable commercial businesses, including in the past decade, new luxury hotels. Meanwhile, Chicago neighborhoods in the shadow of the elevated Brown Line, built in 1910 but still going strong, have seen property values increase dramatically. Trying to predict the impact of a monorail system on the basis of freeway fiascoes such as Boston's Central Artery is an exercise in faulty logic.

The truth is that Seattle's transit planners refused to consider a monorail because they had become ideologically invested in a belief that the solution to the area's worsening mobility problems was light rail. Area voters agreed nearly a decade ago to spend $3.9 billion on a light-rail system, and that commitment is still cited to show that switching to a monorail at this point would be foolhardy.

But in all the years since then, not an inch of light-rail track has been laid down. The system couldn't be in place before 2009 at the earliest. Meanwhile, the estimated cost has risen by more than 50 percent.

More important, anybody who steps back a few paces will realize something that the planners refuse to admit. Seattle's mobility problems, stretching over a metropolitan area that has grown to encompass more than 800 square miles of suburban sprawl, are simply too far gone for light rail ever to solve the problem. Light rail is a wonderful thing for any city to include as part of a balanced regional transportation network. Seattle has no such network. It is basically starting from scratch. There's no way it could ever spend enough money, lay enough track or acquire enough trolley cars to catch up with the problem. The realities of geography would defeat it.

Of course, a monorail is no panacea, either. Building it throughout the metropolitan area would cost billions, and for all the reassuring stories about Japan and Germany, would require taking at least a few risks with evolving technology that might not pan out.

On the other hand, there is one plain fact about monorails that anybody who has been to Disney World recognizes immediately. They are interesting. People want to ride them. The pathetic little stretch of less than a mile that still exists in downtown Seattle, left over from the 1962 fair, draws 2 million riders a year.

In order to attract passengers in the 21st century, public transit has to create an aura of novelty and innovation. If it reminds them of a city bus, they won't want to ride it, even if manages to get them where they want to go.

Ignorant as I am about transportation technology, there's one thing I know about a monorail. It doesn't look like a bus. My guess is that people would travel considerable distances just to see it. Human nature hasn't changed that much since 1962.

In any case, it's pretty obvious that the conventional solutions aren't working very well. The time for unconventional answers has arrived. Sometimes it takes a hippie cab driver to point that out.

Alan Ehrenhalt
Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Contributing Editor
aehrenhalt@governing.com  | 

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