MONORAIL NAYSAYERS are fond of claiming that the monorail isn't technologically feasible. Sure, they say, you can run a small train back and forth over a few blocks downtown, but building a functional network that can take the place of a bus system is next to impossible. They are wrong.
The technology to build just such a transit system for an entire city has been around for decades. And over the years, monorails have only gotten more sophisticated. "This is not Buck Rogers stuff," declares Gary Hallman, sales director for Canadian-based Bombardier Transportation. Bombardier is one of several firms that has expressed interest in building a monorail system for Seattle. With salesman-like gusto, Hallman boasts that Bombardier could provide Seattleites with "whatever [kind of monorail] you want."
Hallman laments that Seattle has been reluctant to give monorails a shot out of fear. "The transit industry is a very conservative industry," he says. "Unique technologies often have difficulties breaking into an arena where there are not numerous previous examples for people to point to."
But there are examples out there, and not just one or two. The Japanese started embracing monorail technology in the mid-1980s. Overpopulated and desperate for the most efficient use of space, Asian cities like Osaka and Kuala Lumpur have thrown their transportation systems several meters into the air. Osaka's monorail has been working for several years, proving crucial in 1995 when the neighboring city of Kobe experienced a violent earthquake. Not only did the monorail survive the tremors that had spread to Osaka, but it also served as a vital transit system for fleeing Kobe residents.
When Osaka's system is complete, the monorail will run a total of 50 kilometers (31 miles). For Seattleites, however, Tokyo's monorail system is a better example. The monorail runs from downtown to the Haneda airport, cutting through both heavy commercial and residential areas. The privately run, profitable Tokyo monorail has its own McDonald's-esque bragging rights: From 1964 to 1997 it served an estimated one billion people.
There are working monorails in the U.S., too. Walt Disney has had a monorail system operating in his Orlando theme park for a full 29 years. Disney's system is 23.6 kilometers (14.7 miles) long, has six stations, and carries 150,000-plus people per day.
If all these working examples exist, then why do doubts about the monorail's feasibility in Seattle keep creeping back into serious discussions? "I started off thinking that it's just a big, stinking conspiracy," says Kim Pedersen, head of the Monorail Society, a national advocacy organization. "But it's really just flat-out ignorance, because no one's ever built one here [in the United States] on a citywide basis."
In America, Pedersen is the de facto guru of monorails. He has traveled all over the world riding monorails and promoting the need for them here. He's had little success. Pedersen thinks Disney World's monorail has actually done more harm than good in America. Many have come to believe that monorails only belong in amusement parks, and that they cannot serve as serious transportation systems like subways and buses can.
Pedersen has been avidly following the Seattle monorail controversy from his home in Fremont, California. For every argument monorail opponents offer up, Pedersen has a counter-argument. If Seattle is really serious about solving its transportation problems, he says, monorails are our best bet. Below-ground systems are too expensive, he says, and monorails can climb steep grades like Seattle's hills with ease, a claim backed by Bombardier sales director Hallman. There are other benefits. Since monorails are electrically powered, they're environmentally clean. They're faster to build than subways, especially in heavy urban areas, because they don't require major tunneling. The beams and stanchions for a monorail system are manufactured off-site and installed once complete.
Unfortunately, Seattle politicians are doing all they can to keep from building a monorail. For example, City Council Member Richard McIver, who's opposed to the monorail plan, estimates that it could cost $95 million per mile or more to build. Pedersen, on the other hand, points out that many cities around the world have been able to build monorails at $25 million per mile (reasonable estimates range from $20 million to $80 million per mile--McIver won't say where he got his figures). Compare that to light rail, which is estimated to cost $86.4 million per mile, once at-grade and underground costs are averaged.
Companies like Bombardier and Hitachi could build Seattle a sleek, driverless network that could help alleviate traffic problems. Even Seattle's most emotional issue--a resident's right to an uncluttered view of Mt. Rainier or Puget Sound--could be minimized with current monorail technology, Pedersen says. Monorail companies know how to build systems with guideway beams that are little more than two-feet deep.
"There's this feeling that there's something unholy about putting something over the street," Pedersen says. "It's okay to have a 50-story building that casts a shadow across the whole town. But a one-story, 26-inch-wide [monorail] beam? No way."