Last week I flew into Midway Airport, the smaller of Chicago's two airports. After getting off the plane, I followed the signs to the Orange Line elevated train platform, where I hopped on a train headed downtown. The Chicago Transit Authority's elevated trains--or the El, as the entire system is collectively known--is everything fear-mongering critics claim Seattle's monorail will be. The El is big, loud, and dirty. Streets that run under the El are dark and gloomy, and there's no parking near any of Chicago's El stations.

So does Chicago's El prove that monorail critics are correct? Hardly. Despite the fact that Chicago's El is big, loud, dirty, and dark, people in Chicago clamor to live near it, and streets that are served by El stops--even those dark and gloomy streets under the El--are vibrant and alive. People walk or take the bus to the El, so there's no need for parking lots at stations. What voters here need to bear in mind about Seattle's proposed elevated transit system is this: However big the monorail is, it won't be as big as Chicago's El. However loud the monorail is, it won't be as loud as the El. However dark it is under the monorail, it won't be nearly as dark as it is under the El in Chicago.

As I rode the Orange Line last week, I could see hip, expensive condos going up all along the route; apartments near El stations--apartments that abut the El tracks--rent for considerably more than other apartments. The El is an economic engine that brings life to the neighborhoods it serves, and it serves a social purpose as well, linking the city's far-flung neighborhoods. The El makes it possible for people to live without cars or leave their cars at home, improving the quality of life for all. And as a kid growing up in Chicago, there wasn't anywhere I couldn't go on my own.

Listening to the monorail critics, it's clear that they're relying on the ignorance of some local voters about rapid transit to scare you into saying no to the monorail plan. Don't be fooled. If Chicagoans love their big, loud, dirty, dark, and iconic elevated trains--and they do--imagine how much more Seattleites are going to love their sleek, modern, quiet elevated system.

The El in Chicago goes by another name: CTA Rapid Transit. Since transit in Seattle is anything but rapid, perhaps I should explain the concept and the benefits.

First, the concept: Rapid transit = faster than driving. Subways or elevated trains are rapid transit; they don't get stuck in traffic, they don't have to stop for red lights, and they get you from point A to point B faster than your own car does. Light rail, bus systems, and trolleys are transit options, but they're not rapid transit.

Now, the benefits...

For commuters, rapid matters. Rapid transit is appealing, and it makes sense--which is why the average Seattle resident voted for the first two monorail initiatives despite the opposition of the local establishment (who don't rely on mass transit to get around) and the opposition of both daily papers (largely staffed by suburbanites who don't rely on mass transit to get around). Light rail and express bus service--"transportation solutions" crafted by establishment politicians and shit-for-brains local transportation experts--are not rapid transit. For people who actually rely on mass transit, light rail never looked like a solution--only more crowding of already overcrowded streets. Only subways, which we can't build here, or an elevated system, which we can build here, qualify as rapid transit.

Chicago has rapid transit--which is why someone who complained to Chicago's mayor about how long it takes to drive downtown would NOT be told that the best minds at city hall were hard at work on the problem. What the driver would be told--once the mayor stopped laughing, of course--was where he could find a map of the El. Thanks to Chicago's rapid transit system, the mayor of Chicago doesn't have to pretend that congestion is a problem that he can fix. If you don't like sitting in traffic, he'll tell you, take rapid transit. If you don't want to take rapid transit, don't complain about sitting in traffic.

In cities with rapid transit systems (Chicago, New York, London, Paris), people who choose to drive downtown during rush hour are regarded as slightly mental; people who choose to drive downtown and then complain about it are dismissed as cranks. In Seattle, where we lack a rapid transit option, drivers who complain about traffic are coddled, and the local media tells them that they've been done wrong--and in a way, they have. But the wrong isn't the clogged streets--gridlock is forever--but the lack of a real rapid transit system. Once the monorail is up and running, people who don't want to sit in traffic will be able to take the train, and a new species of public transportation user will emerge: the former driver. Since the monorail will appeal to the self-interest of drivers (it's faster!), it will, like the El in Chicago, lure people out of their cars and onto mass transit. Not all drivers, of course, but some. Will this "solve" the congestion "problem"? No, not any more than the El solved the congestion "problem" in Chicago--or the subways solved the congestion problem in New York, London, or Paris.

So efficient and reliable is rapid transit that once we start building it, we may never stop. The first elevated trains started running in Chicago in 1892. In 1984, Chicago's elevated trains reached O'Hare Airport, and in 1993 the newest El line, the Orange Line, began running to Midway Airport. Now, in 2002, Chicago is talking about building a brand new 13-mile Circle Line that will serve the city's west side. Local monorail critics scoff at the notion of Seattle building the rest of the ETC's "dream" system (see map, lower right). But if Chicago's experience is any measure, once people in Seattle can see what elevated rapid transit can really do, we will keep building and expanding our own system.

The monorail will finally provide Seattle with an alternative. If you don't want to sit in traffic, you don't have to sit in traffic. Once the monorail is built, the mayor of Seattle--and the rest of us--will finally be able to tell off drivers who complain about streets congested with other peoples' cars. "Hey, asshole," we'll be able to say, "if you don't like how long your commute is, get the FUCK out of your car and ride the fucking monorail."

That's worth $1.7 billion right there.