ELEVATED TRACKS in a city make a negative primary aesthetic statement: Cities are not works of art, they say. Cities get dirty; they have jobs to do; they function. Urban beauty is and should be an incidental virtue, rather than a guiding principle for a city's makers. Thus, the beauty of elevated tracks should be one of function primarily, and beauty secondarily. This pretty much describes the proposed monorail system for Seattle.
Only two major American cities, Detroit and Chicago, currently boast working elevated-rail-transit systems in their downtowns. (New York City's subway emerges from the underground in Harlem, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.) The comparison between Detroit and Chicago is instructive.
Detroit's People Mover is a "downtown circulator," the kind of system Seattle City Council Member Richard Conlin floated as an alternative to the current monorail plan. Built in the '70s to serve as the circular hub of a radiating system of light-rail lines (lines that were never built), Detroit's three-mile loop is a useless stand-alone system going nowhere except around and around the city's ruin of a downtown. In a drawn-out, suburbanized city like Detroit, the required movement is out and in, not around and around. So the People Mover, like Seattle's current monorail and waterfront trolley, is attractive only to tourists--and Detroit doesn't have tourists. It is known locally as "the train to nowhere," and despite costing only 50 cents a ride, has few takers.
The People Mover's disuse provides ammunition for critics of anyone who might propose building further lines radiating off of it toward the various suburbs where Detroit's jobs and middle class exclusively reside. If you build a non-working transit system at great expense--then tell those who funded it that it will work if they'll only provide more money--you will fail.
The People Mover is actually very beautiful, along the lines of the concrete overpasses that cross I-5 just south of downtown Seattle: high, curving, simple forms in concrete, carried two or three stories above the ground on single columns. The tracks arc gracefully around the downtown, occasionally swooping through the open corner of a building before disappearing into the enormous riverfront Renaissance Center--Detroit's other monument to the grandiose, failed urban-renewal schemes of the late 20th century. And so at night, the People Mover resembles a modern-day ghost ship, or an abandoned satellite: a brightly lit, utterly empty shell zooming across the sky. It is loved only by those with a poetic mindset.
Chicago's elevated rails (collectively known as "the L") are noisy, dirty, and ugly. Downtown, entire streets lie in shadows due to the overbuilt steel structure. As a child, I mistook it for a hellish vision of urban rot, seeing the regular, thick posts marching up Wabash (the eastern border of the "Loop," Chicago's version of the downtown circulator), holding up a track system that spanned the street from curb to curb: a tangle of rails, beams, and steel grating, with various electric lines and guy wires zooming off in every direction.
But just like Chicago itself, the L works. Chicago has ably weathered the demographic and economic storms that emptied or ruined its rust-belt confreres, not simply because of its beautiful lakeside park system, nor its first-tier cultural institutions, nor even the wonders of its downtown shopping strip, Michigan Avenue (a.k.a. the Magnificent Mile). Cities don't rise or fall for sentimental reasons. Chicago survives because it works.
Seen in that light, the noisy clatter of the elevated trains is evidence of vitality, not blight. Its five major lines cover America's third-largest city and its closest suburbs in an efficient web. It's no wonder that Chicagoans love the three lines of their L--they don't even find it ugly, seeing the nearby buried pair of subway lines creepy by comparison.
Seattle's monorail, if built in the X scheme approved by voters, could join the best features of Detroit and Chicago. An effective circulatory scheme combined with the quieter trains and simpler track structures available at this late date, the monorail could be both effective and attractive. But mostly, effective. The tracks would block some of the water views that seem to be the only thing this entire city agrees to value. And that would be good. The elevated tracks would remind us that the task of a city is not to offer good views of nature. The task of a city is to be urban, to effectively condense and circulate masses of people so that they can accomplish great things in the worlds of business, culture, and recreation. So that they can create civilization.