I'm sitting in the back of a cab as I write these words, typing away on my laptop in the dark. I'm headed to Sea-Tac airport at six in the morning, a trip that takes about 30 minutes and is going to cost me about $40. When I land in Chicago, I can hop on the Blue Line at O'Hare, one of seven lines in Chicago's elevated rapid transit system, and be downtown in 30 minutes. That trip is going to cost me $1.50.
It's ironic that I'm writing up my final thoughts about the monorail on a day that I'm headed to Chicago, the city where Mayor Gridlock and I both grew up. Chicago has two airports, O'Hare and Midway, and the city's beloved elevated rapid transit system, known as the "L," stops at both. Look out the windows of a Blue Line or an Orange Line headed downtown from O'Hare or Midway and you'll see cars moving at a crawl, if they're moving at all.
Chicago suffers from gridlock too, but you can escape gridlock there. If you're willing to sacrifice the privacy of riding in a car or a cab, you can whiz right over the traffic. Chicago, like other big cities with rapid transit, gives you something in exchange for leaving your car at home. Not only can you get from point A to point B without the hassle and expense of driving and finding parking, you can often get from point A to point B faster than if you drove your own car. That's why truly rapid transit pulls people out of their cars; it's the reason rapid transit works. Rapid transit is also better for the environment and cheaper to subsidize than cars. But let's be honest: People in Chicago or New York or San Francisco or London or Paris or Berlin don't ride rapid transit because it's virtuous, they ride rapid transit because it appeals to their own self-interest. They aren't stuck in traffic.
When I moved to Seattle 14 years ago I was shocked to discover that this progressive city, this environmentally conscious city, not only didn't have a rapid transit system, but didn't have any plans to build one. I voted for the first monorail initiative. It was a no-brainer: Seattle, choking on traffic, needed to offer its citizens an alternative to driving—a real alternative, a subway or an elevated train, something fast, which meant something grade-separated, which meant not light rail or buses. The monorail proposal wasn't radical. Seattle would merely be doing what Chicago, New York, Paris, London, et al, had done, oh, a century ago.
The monorail was a populist response to a problem that Seattle's political leaders couldn't solve: gridlock. Still, I was shocked when politicians reacted to the monorail plan like it was an attack on them personally, on their collective boner for light rail, on everything they had done, or failed to do, about Seattle's transportation problem in the past. What they refused to recognize was that Seattle voters were doing Seattle politicians a favor.
We're gridlocked. Drivers stuck in the traffic demand that politicians do something about gridlock. They want it fixed. But gridlock isn't a problem that any politician can fix. Gridlock is a fact of life in big, successful cities, which are, by definition, crowded cities. Gridlock is a badge of honor, a sign that a city is economically and socially successful. The only thing big cities do to "solve" the gridlock is provide an alternative to the car. They can provide rapid transit.
That's why an angry driver in New York who complains to the mayor about being stuck in traffic wouldn't be taken seriously. "If you don't like being stuck in traffic," the mayor of New York might say (once he finished laughing), "then take rapid transit."
Seattle voters attempted to vote for that solution—four times!—but Seattle's political class failed to seize the opportunity and political cover that voters offered them. So, no rapid transit for us. Just slow-moving cars, stuck in traffic. Slow-moving buses, stuck in traffic. Slow-moving light rail, stuck in traffic. Maybe a trolley, also stuck in traffic. So we're going to have gridlock. But unlike New York and Chicago (which also have gridlock), there won't be a way for people to opt out of the traffic and no way for politicians to laugh off the complaints. Drivers will complain, they'll scream, "Do something about gridlock!" And the politicians—whoever the mayor is then—won't be able to say, like the mayor of New York or Chicago or Paris or London can, "Take the train, you idiot."
Nice work, Mayor Gridlock.