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On Monorails in LA

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Of all the proposed methods to address the unsustainable congestion in the Sepulveda Pass Transit Corridor, the most captivating--if only for the novelty--is to build a monorail. The successful passage of Measure M in 2016 has made $41.8 billion available for new transit construction. This is a look at the nature of monorails in the US and how it just might make its way to relieving 405 gridlock.

For many, the two things that come to mind regarding monorails are Disneyland and one of the most popular Simpsons episodes of all time. In the case of the former it is a reasonable connotation. The monorail connecting the Disneyland Resort to the main park was the first daily monorail in the western hemisphere. Since then it has largely set the tone for a monorail’s place in the transportation toolkit of the United States.

We have a total of seventeen monorails, most prominently in Seattle, Las Vegas, and Jacksonville. The Jacksonville Skyway monorail is the only in the country that is specifically a commuter line. Most are part of theme parks, fairgrounds, and tourist-oriented transit lines. In a few cases, such as Hershey Park, the monorail itself is the attraction presented as a ride. The other place we see monorails in the US is in airports and while not at all a theme park experience, it serves a similar function of shuttling people within a self-contained and disconnected area.

Construction and operation costs vary widely in monorail projects. In Las Vegas the system is privately owned and 98% passenger fare funded (PDF) It is certainly a financial success, but it only serves resorts and the city’s convention center so it isn’t an ideal benchmark for public transit to serve commuters.

In Seattle their monorail was constructed to serve the Century 21 Exposition: 1962 World’s Fair. Today it is publicly owned and privately operated by the Seattle Center, soon to be integrated into the fare system for the rest of the city’s public transportation. In 2018 it brought in just over $1 million in revenue, less than one sixth of the income generated by parking. Today it is maintained largely as a tourist attraction. Similarly, New York briefly had one built for the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Queens. However that was temporary and deconstructed at the close of the event.

A monorail though Sepulveda serving commuters would be the second ever monorail designed primarily for commuter transportation in the United States. A look at the first is both a cautionary tale and a point of inspiration. The Jacksonville Skyway, constructed in 1989, connects the Florida Community College Jacksonville to the downtown convention center and across the St. John’s River. The system has underperformed its entire lifecycle and presently does not charge a fare. As of financial year 2017-2018 (PDF), it is funded almost entirely by grants and bus revenue redistribution and makes up just 5.25% of total Jacksonville Transportation Authority  expenditures.

However the city is working to reclaim that ambition of being a shining example of sleek city transportation, rather than an underwhelming footnote in US transit history. Jacksonville is currently in the vehicle testing phase of the Ultimate Urban Circulator--stylized U2C--an autonomous vehicle system using the existing Skyway infrastructure. The city is leaning heavily into the futuristic theming which may prove a worthwhile marketing method. Monorails first captured the public imagination in the Space Age because they were seen as the wave of the future.

While dedicated bus lanes are a cost-effective way to improve traffic flow, they have no excitement value. An elevated rail that looks like set design in a science-fiction movie is exciting. Since the era of a widespread rail network in LA has long since passed, if any massive project like Measure M could produce is going to be a success, it needs to reestablish the special value in rail.

I am not advocating for the monorail over the other options, I’m withholding a strong opinion until the data collection is finished this fall. I do not necessarily think it would be best, but it would certainly be the most interesting.

It is perhaps a longshot candidate, but unlike rocket powered cars and personal jetpacks, it is one of the few big ideas in transportation from mid-century futurism that made its way into reality, if only for entertainment. So I’m not quite ready to write it off yet, we are the Entertainment Capital of the World after all.

This article excludes short-distance shuttle monorails such as the Pearlridge Skycab in Hawai‘i.

Information on monorail bridge performance in an earthquake can be found in this article in the Journal of Earthquakes and Tsunami.


Sage MageeComment