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Why monorail failed: Seattle

This is important because we still, even today, have some opposition to street rail here in Austin from people who claim that monorail is an obvious winner - when everybody who knows anything about transit knows it's not; and we even have two American examples; one (Las Vegas) that was built and then failed to generate the massive ridership and accompanying profit that would justify expansion (and put the lie to safety claims to boot); and another (Seattle) that never made it out the gate as the financials collapsed.

Seattle Transit Blog lays out why it failed in Seattle better than anybody ever has before. Worth a read.

This entry was posted in the following categories: I Told You So , Transportation


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The reasons for the failure of monorail in Los Vegas are pretty well documented, and they don't have much to do with the technology. Frankly, if the same people had designed a light rail system, it probably would have been a massive failure too. Rule #1 for transit: put it where people need it and will see it. Not behind the goddamn casinos.

The Seattle Blog does a decent job of explaining why it failed in Seattle -- but not why it would fail elsewhere. I don't think it necessarily would, at least because of the technology alone. For some corridors it could make a lot of sense, especially if it supplements existing LRT or BRT service.

You know what I think will be a failure? Houston's plan to run LRT all the way to Intercontinental Airport, especially if Metro is expecting people to ride all of the 16 miles from downtown to the airport. I just don't think that light rail is fast enough to cover that kind of distance for any choice transit rider -- unless you elevate it (or submerge it) and take away most of the intermediate stops. But then you confuse everyone because they can't understand why this light rail line has so fewer stops than all the other lines. And the system begins to look a lot like a monorail anyway. . .

The Las Vegas monorail dropped a tire - that's kind of a fundamental monorail problem, I think.

As for the Houston case - LRT can go 55-65 mph pretty easily - and airport travellers are less sensitive to time of travel but very sensitive to reliability of travel; so 15 minutes slower than the car's best but ALWAYS THE SAME would be a big winner, I think.

I rode the Vegas monorail on a trip there 3 months ago, just for shits n' giggles. The reasons why it's a transit ghost town are obvious:

1. It only connects casinos on the strip, and I mean that literally. Each of its stops is the ass end of a casino, and you have to navigate the entire blinking, crowded, ringing casino floor (often a 10+ minute walk) to get out to the street. No connection to the airport, of course, as that would hurt the cabs.

2. It's $5 a ride on that monorail. If you have two or more people in your group and you're going from one place on the drag to another (which is the only way the monorail runs anyway), it's cheaper to get a cab. And it's faster, since the cab takes you door to door and you don't have to walk through the entire damned casino like you do to use the monorail.

That monorail cat is hilarious.

I wish I could claim credit. But at least you reminded me to go attribute the picture...

I disagree that Seattle Transit Blog was anywhere near fair-handed. In fact I'd say he starts from a position of not liking monorails so of course he finds it easy to be inaccurate.

Let me put it another way: It's true that the Monorail Authority did not have good management. But it's plan was basically sound except for the financing.

And that doesn't lead the conclusion that the project should have been killed it. The political powers could have done as it did for Sound Transit and given it a chance to clean up its program.

David, I've heard from so many people that there's inherent advantages to monorail technology that make it easier, not harder, to finance (claims it'll pay for itself, or at least pay for operations), so I view the financing plan failure as a failure of the mode itself.

In other words, monorail promoters have asserted that one of the primary benefits of monorail is financing -- so when financing falls apart, I find it eminently reasonable to use it as evidence against monorail.

Well, that's not really fair. I could go around proclaiming that light rail technology inherently makes it cheaper (heck, it'll even pay for itself!), but I'd get laughed out of the building. And then kicked off the transportation commitee. It sounds to me like the only thing inherent about anything having to do with this situation is the gullibility of morons.

Responding to your earlier comment about the speediness of light rail: come on, give me a break. You know what else can technicaly go 55-65 mph pretty easily? My car. Technically. Too bad I'm stuck in traffic half the time. But, whoops! So is light rail. Okay, not exactly, but at least in Houston the train is going to have to wait at several traffic lights. And you're probably not going to want it zipping through any urban areas at 60 mph anyway. I mean, there are kids out there. And dogs. That's the great thing about light rail done right: it's right in the middle of everything. Easy to get to. Unfortunately, that also keeps it from ever going as fast as it technically can.

So that's where monorail comes in: pure grade separation. It fills a different niche. If I'm going downtown from my house (like I will be in 2012, if things go as planned), then I'll hop on the local light rail line. Even if it's only going an average 15 mph, I'll get to my job in a handful of minutes.

But if I'm going to the other side of town, suddenly light rail is not so appealing. I want something faster -- subway fast. Or, barring that, monorail fast. This doesn't have to be (or, at least, shouldn't have to be) an either/or thing.

(Oh, by the way, I REALLY HATE how your preview option centers my message and puts it in black text on a dark green background. I might as well just push "post" and pray that I haven't effed something up)

I wouldn't say "gullibility of morons" - the leadership of the Seattle AND Las Vegas monorail groups made similar claims, as do people pushing monorails in other cities.

And, yes, understood that grade separation is faster than simple reserved guideway. But LRT can do both - as it does in Dallas (runs fast in the burbs, modest in the core). And it can, of course, be elevated - as it turns out, for a similar cost to monorail.

I was going to say that monorail is less of an eyesore. . .but Google images reminded me that they're both ugly as hell.

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