[Special note 2: Sad news. Hours after publishing today's episode, I learned that Kim Pedersen, the founder and longtime president of the Monorail Society and one of the key voices in the story, had passed away after a battle with cancer. I've updated the show with a short introduction dedicating the episode to his memory.]
Artists, filmmakers, and TV producers depicting “the city of the future” are bound by certain conventions. There are the obligatory tall, imposing buildings with wacky shapes. The more flying cars, hovercraft, or zeppelins, the better. And the most frequent element: an extensive network of monorails.*
How did monorails—a technology that goes back to the 1870s—become such ubiquitous tokens of the future? What are their actual advantages over other forms of mass transit? And why isn’t the US taking part in the new global boom in monorail construction?
This week, Soonish has a one-track mind. And if you follow our train of thought, we'll be careful not to go off the rails. (Okay, I'm out of one-liners.)
Seriously, though: When we’re thinking about the future of our physical environment, especially in cities, we have to think about transportation—how people get to work, to the grocery store, to the big game on Sunday. In the U.S., since the 1950s at least, the dominant transportation mix has consisted of surface streets and freeways for cars; bus routes, subway lines, and commuter rail for mass-transit travelers; and more recently, light rail intra-urban transit, plus designated bike lanes for those courageous enough to venture into traffic on two wheels.
There are only a couple of US cities—Seattle and Las Vegas—where a monorail line is a genuine part of the mix. And I’ve talked with a lot of transportation watchers and monorail enthusiasts who feel that’s a missed opportunity.
The obvious advantage of monorails is that, by definition, they run on a single track or “beamway” that can be elevated above the streetscape, allowing monorail trains to soar majestically over the traffic jams.
Monorails don’t require expensive underground tunnels, and they can carry more people per hour than trains with steel wheels. That’s because most monorails have rubber tires, giving them the traction they need to accelerate and brake quickly. That, in turn, means you don’t need to leave as much space between trains.
Monorails may involve more up-front capital costs than light rail systems and other mass transit options, but proponents argue that they’re cheaper to maintain and operate, and therefore more economical in the long run. That’s part of the reason transportation authorities are building new monorail systems everywhere from Chongqing and Shanghai in China to Panama City, Kuala Lumpur, Riyadh, and Sao Paulo.
But here in the U.S., where facts don’t seem to matter as much, monorails suffer from an image problem. Marge Simpson is partially responsible for that. And monorails may also be burdened by their roles as attractions at world’s fairs and theme parks, especially Disneyland and Walt Disney World. When so many citizens see monorails fulfilling a purely decorative or ceremonial function at theme parks, it’s hard to get them to take the technology seriously as a mass transit option.
“Over the last 30 years of watching this, many times the detractors will bring up, ‘Well, we don’t need Mickey Mouse transit,’” said Kim Pedersen, the founder and president of the Monorail Society. “They’ll degrade the idea right from the start because that’s something for Disney.”
You don’t have to be a monorail enthusiast—and I confess I’ve become one over the course of producing this story—to see that monorail technology has been unfairly railroaded into obscurity. If we want to make our cities more open, navigable, and sustainable, we may want to give monorails another ride. Listen to the whole episode to learn why.
*A partial list of films and TV shows incorporating monorails: The Time Machine, Fahrenheit 451, You Only Live Twice, Babylon 5, The Simpsons, Frasier, Star Trek Enterprise, The Incredibles, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Aeon Flux, Batman Begins, WALL-E, Caprica, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Lego Movie, Jurassic World, and The Man in the High Castle.
Guests and Interviewees
Kylen Sandstrom, monorail conductor, Seattle Center Monorail
Kim Pedersen, Founder and president, The Monorail Society
Einar Svensson, Alweg monorail engineer (retired); founder, Urbanaut
Thom Ditty, general manager, Seattle Center Monorail
Dick Falkenbury, tour operator and author, Seattle
Monorails: Trains of the Future—Now Arriving, by Kim Pedersen
Rise Above It All, by Dick Falkenbury
Grassroots, a comedy film based on the true story of the Seattle monorail project
Why Monorails Are the Future (Really This Time), by Adam Minter, Bloomberg View, December 6, 2016
Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay
The Simpsons Main Title Theme by Danny Elfman from The Simpsons FOX TV series
When You Wish Upon A Star from the Disneyland ABC TV series, 1954-1959
The Jetsons Main Title Theme by Hoyt Curtin from the The Jetsons ABC TV series, 1962-1963
Mitch Hanley was a consulting editor on this episode and John Barth provided valuable notes. Graham Ramsay, Alice Flaherty, Andy Hrycyna, Lucia Prosperi, Warren Prosperi, Jamie Roush, Patricia Roush, Paul Roush, Celia Ramsay, Kent Rasmussen, Wendy Perrotta, and Ellen Leanse listened to early drafts of this episode and also provided feedback and suggestions. My reporting trip to Seattle was made possible by my generous hosts, Luke Timmerman and Tracy Cutchlow.