Monorails: The Answer to LA’s Problems

Yes, monorails. I have been obsessed with monorails since I road the one at Disney World as a kid. A recent trip to Seattle convinced me that they are a feasible option for mass transit. I read somewhere that every vision of the future included monorails zipping high above the ground. The future should be now in Los Angeles.

We actually would have already had a monorail system if not for an idiotic decision back in 1963. The fine website The Monorail Society writes:

The Alweg Monorail Company, which had gained world-wide recognition for its demonstration monorail at the 1962 Seattle Century 21 Exposition, was looking to establish a major foothold in the world of urban rail transit. “We are pleased to submit this day a proposal to finance and construct an Alweg Monorail rapid transit system 43 miles in length, serving the San Fernando Valley, the Wilshire corridor, the San Bernardino corridor and downtown Los Angeles.” So wrote Sixten Holmquist, then President of the Alweg Rapid Transit Systems in his June 4, 1963 letter to the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). He went on to detail the financing aspect, “this is a turn-key proposal in which a group will share risk, finance the construction, and turn over to MTA a completed and operating system to be repaid from MTA revenues.” The entire system came to $105,275,000, “plus any applicable sales tax.” Alweg also agreed to conduct feasibility studies for expansion of the system over the entire Los Angeles Metropolitan area if the offer was accepted.

So basically this company was going to pay for the monorail itself, and then get paid back through the revenue it generated. How could the city say no to such a virtually risk-free offer? Well, the website reports that LA politicians were excited, that is until Standard Oil got involved. Suddenly, support dried up — another example of automobile interests winning out over public transportation in our city.

This is an artist’s rendering of what the stations would have looked like:

Pretty cool stuff. And it could have been ours, for free. Undoubtedly, had the initial lines been built, more would have followed, so by now we would have an extensive system of monorails serving every corner of the city. What a missed opportunity.

But it’s not too late to correct that mistake. We should immediately stop digging subways and building light rail (although they might as well continue with the Expo Line to Santa Monica), and begin focusing on monorails.

Monrails are perfect for our climate. Subways are great for cold-climate cities like New York, Montreal, Moscow, etc. But there’s no need for Angelenos to go underground and escape the weather to wait for a train. Why wouldn’t we want to stand on a platform above the street, and be out in the glorious sun?

Then there is the construction. Digging up a street and putting a subway tube underneath is a lot of work, and would severely disrupt our already jammed-packed street grid. Sure, installing monorail supports would close off some streets, but it would take much less time to put the supports in place than digging up a street.

Conversely, the cost would be would be less. The Wilshire subway is estimated to cost anywhere from $4 billion to $9 billion dollars. I have no idea how much a monorail down Wilshire would cost (one that extends all the way to the ocean, by the way), but I imagine it would be far, far less than the subway.

Opponents might say, “I don’t want our streets cluttered up with ugly train tracks, blocking the light from the street.” That won’t happen. Those people might be thinking of the elevated subway tracks of such cities as Chicago, where the streets below are dark and univiting. Monorails are not like trains — they run on just one rail (hence the name), so the tracks are much thinner. We would have two lean tracks (for one train running in each direction) overhead. They will not block the sun.

Here are a couple of views of the Seattle monorail:

In this section, the supports are actually on the sidewalk:

So here is my plan for Los Angeles. I would have one monorail running the length of Pico, from downtown to the ocean. This would service Staples Center, the convention center, and the possible new downtown football stadium so people would not have to drive.

Another line would run the length of Wilshire. Still another would begin at Union Station, running up Sunset. That line could have a detour into Dodger Stadium that the train would take on game days. Other days it would continue straight. That line would then turn onto Santa Monica where it begins at Sunset Junction. That train would run to the ocean, with a detour into Century City.

But those are only the east-west lines. This system would be useless without north-south connections. I would run monorails on Vermont, Western, La Brea, and La Cienega, with transfers to the east-west lines. The La Brea line would also run through LAX, so no more driving or begging friends for a lift to the airport!

I’m not forgetting the Valley. A monorail could be run in — wait for it — the Los Angeles River! My next post will feature a video of how simply it could be done.

These plans would be modified, of course. Monorails running on Wilshire and Santa Monica might be redundant after the two streets meet in Beverly Hills, so maybe the Santa Monica line ends in Century City. Maybe a Vermont line is not needed because of the existing subway. Maybe a limited line is needed for tourists on Hollywood Blvd. And maybe lines are needed on other streets that have concentrated populations. The transportation experts who know way more than I do would make those decisions.

But this is the basic plan. It would be cost-effective and bring our city into a new era. The Wilshire subway that dead ends at the Veterans Hospital in Westwood is slated to be complete in 2036. That’s just one tunnel. I’ll bet this extensive system can be up and running many years sooner than that.

Then there is the coolness factor. Monorails just look cool — plain and simple. They are also energy-efficient and quiet.

As Ray Bradbury wrote more than a decade ago lamenting that fateful decision in 1963:

On New Years Day 2001, let us pour 10,000 tons of cement into our never-should-have-been-started, never-to-be-finished subway, for final rites. Its concept was always insane, its possible fares preposterous. Even if it were finished and opened, no one could afford to use it. So kill the subway and telephone Alweg Monorail to accept their offer, made 30 years ago, to erect 12 crosstown monorails–free, gratis–if we let them run the traffic. I was there the afternoon our supervisors rejected that splendid offer, and I was thrown out of the meeting for making impolite noises… Subways are Forest Lawn extensions. Let’s bury our dead MTA and get on with life.

6 comments for “Monorails: The Answer to LA’s Problems

Comments are closed.