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

  1. D
    November 24, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    Monorails… oh boy. some people just dont get it. Monorails are not compatible with the current system, cannot carry nearly as much capacity, break down far more often than subways and light rail, are slower, and on wilshire, would take away a min of 2 lanes of traffic. Also, you would need a separate maintenance yard for the monorail trains since its a different kind of rail. lastly, the costs are not that different for monorails and subways, and with all the benefits of subways over monorail, i would take the subway.

  2. Richard H
    November 27, 2010 at 3:20 am

    There is a STRONG Biase against monorails in Los Angeles and probably in the rest of the United States. Primary due to the association of monorails with Disney. People associate monorails with Amusement parks and laugh them off.

    I never cared for monorails as a transit option myself, but given the bad options L.A. has, you need to make a choice. The transit options: Subways (WAY too expensive, anybody that wants them, YOU pay for them), at-grade bus rapid transit(?), at-grade light rail(bus rapid transit on rails(?)), elevated trains (like in Chicago(?) or like in Vancouver or Dubai(?)), or more freeways(Yeah, right); monorails don’t seem so outrageous. Particularly after a little online searching is done.

    I started watching train and metro videos on Youtube. Punch in something like “london tube” or “new york subway” or “moscow metro” in the search box. I’ve found videos of metros on Youtube for every city that has one. There are a lot.

    There are several monorail videos on Youtube. “Haneda Monorail” gives you the entire Tokyo Monorail journey from the driver’s perspective. The Osaka Monorail is like a Heavy Metro. “Chongking Monorail” videos are fun to watch. Japanese cities look like concrete wastelands. The monorail route along Chongking, China is a great scenic trip.

    Subways were built for national defense purposes. The London Tube was a bomb shelter during the blitz. The subways of the Soviet Union were built DEEP, probably to double as nuclear shelters. It is no accident that elevated rails were replaced by subways in many cities after air bombing of cities became a reality in the twentieth century.

  3. Scott Mercer
    December 20, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    How many times do I have to figuratively tamp down you monorail fetishists before you stop bringing it up? Dealing with you people is like playing Whack-A-Mole.

    Listen to me carefully, now. WE ARE NEVER GETTING A MONORAIL IN LOS ANGELES. You are wasting your breath. Just so I am not dissmissed as a mere “ranter” who is “biased” (you bet your ass I am biased; I am biased against stupid ideas) here is a list of reasons why monorails suck:
    1) Monorails are ugly: The trains themselves aren’t ugly, it’s the elevated tracks that cover the streets and block out the light. In a city known for its sunshine, you don’t want to do that.
    2) Monorails are expensive: more expensive than elevated two rail light rail (due to proprietary technology), and less expensive than subways but carry far fewer passengers as cars and trains are smaller. Monorail switches are much more expensive than two-rail switches, and much larger and more complicated. It is harder to keep monorails (with large glass windows) cool in hot LA summer sunshine, than it is to keep underground subway cars cool.
    3) Monorails are unsafe: elevated structures fall down in earthquakes. If trains get stuck, passengers have to be removed from trains with cherry pickers and fire trucks. In subways, passengers can just walk down the tunnels to an exit.
    4) Monrails are not robust: the technology is made by far fewer companies. Two rail technology is made by more companies and is an “off-the-shelf” technology. If a monorail company goes out of business, then the city is screwed as far as getting replacement parts.
    5) Monorail are more expensive to operate: By adding a separate technology to our transit system, we would need to train extra, drivers, maintenance people and mechanics, and probably build separate maintenance facilities, which would cost extra millions.

    I could go on, but, why?

    • edison
      November 19, 2011 at 4:41 pm

      you suck and for hating monorails you (even though you probably like other forms of mass transit, i do to). i hope you get stuck in traffic.

  4. February 27, 2011 at 6:49 am

    Mass transit expansion for greater Los Angeles – revisited
    With the escalating cost of energy – it is time to re-visit expanding the transit system.
    Put all politics aside and look at a short term goals and long term goals.
    Expanding the mass transit system in the Los Angeles Metro Area is critical to the future vitality of its economy; it will save energy reduce pollution, save lives and increase health by reducing stress.
    It is time to forgo ego and consider the good of the public.
    A transit system utilizing cable car or light rail over the freeways or any other types of mass transit in the Los Angeles Metro area is a reasonable solution to decrease the congestion on the roads, save energy, reduce pollution, improve air quality, save money, save lives and improve our health.
    Cost of energy and vehicles and maintenance has climbed dramatically in the past 10 years, warranting this issue to re-examine the expansion of mass transit in the Greater Los Angeles Area. The longer we wait, the greater the cost and the more imperative this project becomes.
    In many areas of the country there are transit stations and parking lots, which provide parking for the transit customers.
    The costs should not be astronomical. (Based on current energy costs, and future increases). There is no need to acquire large parcels of property; with some modification such system can be implemented and operational within the next decade.
    Another option is building a transportation system over the Los Angeles River – From the San Fernando Valley to Orange County.

    YJay Draiman, Northridge, CA 91324

  5. james
    March 24, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    be careful LA. In my experience monrailes do nothing for anything. look at detroits people mover

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