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November 14, 2005

Derailed Monorail

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Seattle isn't going to get a second monorail line.

The first monorail was built for the 1962 Century 21 world's fair and it's still in operation -- barely. The line runs from the old fairgrounds (now called Seattle Center) to a downtown location about one mile away, with no intermediate stops. Rolling stock consists of two trains each running on its own rail. The Swedish company that built the trains went bankrupt long ago, so maintenance and repair are costly.

In 1997 some activists persuaded Seattle voters to approve funding for a monorail planning and development organization, but that went defunct in 2000 when its funding ran out. In 2002 voters approved authorization for a monorail authority that would build, own and operate a monorail system. Following escalating cost estimates and other difficulties, city officials began washing their hands of the project a couple months ago and voters voted down a new funding proposal November 8th, thus killing the project.

To me, the project never made sense.

Let me restate that: It would have made "sense" to me back in 1955 or 1960 when I was a kid who had had a diet of World of the Future views in the form of illustrations in magazines such as Popular Mechanics and Popular Science, not to mention photos of futuristic city exhibits at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. Monorails were often cited as Transportation of the Future.

It might be hard for present-day readers to understand that from roughly 1925 to 1960, visualizing the world of the future was a big deal. This was especially so for imaginative, suggestible boys lacking in worldly experience. If "they" -- industrial designers, illustrators, and newspaper and magazine feature writers -- said monorails were what would be common by that unimaginably distant year 2000 then, by golly, that settled the matter: vote it in!

In the late 50s few monorail systems existed; the only one that comes to mind immediately is the one running through Disneyland's Tomorrowland (natch) built by the same company that made Seattle's 1962 trains. Its setting was artificial, but Seattle's wasn't.

The Seattle monorail runs along Fifth Avenue through what's locally called the Denny Regrade. The Regrade once upon a time was Denny Hill, situated just north of Seattle's business district, blocking potential expansion. So the hill was dismantled, roughly 1905-30, the dirt and rocks becoming tideflat fill. By the time the hill was gone the Depression hit, halting northward expansion of the business district. In 1960, at the time world's fair projects got underway, the Regrade was a low-rise district with a mix of offices, apartments and non-fashionable retail.

Today the Regrade boasts office and condominium towers and trendy retail outlets -- but not on Fifth Avenue where the monorail runs. Fifth Avenue resembles what it was in 1960 because, in my opinion, the monorail made it a dark, unfriendly street where retail stores withered. Here is what it looks like:

Existing monorail.jpg
Monorail near downtown.

Existing monorail - 2.jpg
Monorail along Fifth Avenue.

Existing monorail - 3.jpg
Monorail downtown.

The new monorail was to have been a little less ponderous, if design illustrations are to be believed:

Artist inrepretation.jpg Depiction of proposed monorail.

This "street killing" should not be surprising to residents of Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens, northern Manhattan, Chicago and other places where elevated trains roam. True, Seattle's monorail does not block as much sky as traditional elevated lines do, but it blocks nevertheless because a monorail is essentially a tidied-up elevated line.

The new monorail line was promoted as:

  • Increasing mobility via bypassing street-level traffic, connecting to other mass-transportation modes, and reducing automobile traffic.
  • Improving environmental quality because it would be electrically powered and would remove cars from the streets.
  • Boosting the economy, at first as a byproduct of its construction and later thanks to retail clustering near stations. Also, property values would rise along the route.

Here is a map showing the proposed monorail line in green and the new light rail system in red.

SeattleRailMap.jpg Seattle rapid transit routes. Monorail in green, streetcar in red.

The monorail route falls entirely within Seattle's city limits, an area well-served by busses. Aside from downtown and some industrial areas, the line would pass through what are now largely low-density neighborhoods. I'm not up to speed on Seattle zoning, but I suppose the monorail corridor would be re-zoned for high-rise apartments if it hasn't been already. Like the light rail line (currently under construction), the monorail would most likely have displaced bus riders, not car drivers. The environmental and traffic claims strike me as being wishful thinking at best or, more likely, bogus public relations flak.

The economic argument also seems largely deceptive; whatever retail gains there might be near stations would be partly or entirely negated by "street death" such as happened to Fifth Avenue along the existing monorail line.

But this is not the end. The political establishment in Washington State and the Mandarins in planning agencies seem firmly convinced that cars are evil and that the ignorant masses would be far happier if Seattle could be transformed into a Hong Kong clone. Don't laugh: it's already happening 140 miles north in Vancouver, B.C.

Vancouver BC - aerial.jpg Aerial view of Vancouver, B.C.

Vancouver might seem lovely to folks in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, but it's pretty scary to this former (and probably future) Seattle boy.



posted by Donald at November 14, 2005


Elevated subway lines in New York have *not* ruined the streets beneath. Many of them are thriving commercial strips, for example Roosevelt and Jamaica avenues in Queens, under the 7 and J/Z trains respectively. Broadway (the _other_ Broadway) in Brooklyn, also under the J/Z, has been undergoing a positive boom in recent years.
It is true that Third Avenue in Manhattan was somewhat downscale prior to the demolition of the El in 1955 and has thrived ever since. It may be that elevated lines are okay in the less dense outer boroughs but not in congested Manhattan. If that's the case, the expanded monorail in Seattle should have been tolerable, because as far as I know - I've been in Seattle only once, four years ago - the city's density is much more akin to Brooklyn and Queens than to Manhattan.

Posted by: Peter on November 14, 2005 10:40 PM

What's so bad about Vancouver? Besides the horrible traffic jams when you try to get over the bridges onto the island? I've been there and it was gorgeous.

Isn't the Seattle monorail concept what gave us the movie "Reality Bites"? Should that count for or against it?

Posted by: MQ on November 14, 2005 10:53 PM

I heard only best of references to Vancuver and HK, both by residents and visitors*. What exactly you dislike about them?
As to buses vs. trains - in Manhattan, there are riders in both, at any given time. Elderly ladies and nannies with small charges like to peer from the bus windows at the hurrying crowds, and financial types and students cover under reading materials in the speeding trains.

And yes, there should be as little place for cars in the cities as possible. I am all for trolleys, trams and lite rails, though. Cars are good for vast prairies or deserts, where for miles you see the same tiresome landscape, and your goal is to pass by it asap. But in the cities - ah, there is so much to see in the city...

* I find myself agreeing with MQ for the second time. It's getting positively scary.

Posted by: Tatyana on November 14, 2005 11:13 PM

The southern end of Seattle's existing monorail, near Pine Street, has lots of pedestrians and upscale shops. On Chicago's north side, the elevated train stops form the anchor for neighborhood commercial centers. The evidence doesn't support the idea that an elevated train always results in street death.

Posted by: pete on November 14, 2005 11:26 PM

I have no idea if a monorail makes any sense in Seattle, having spent very little time there. However, in an L.A. that is beginning to literally grind to a halt around rush hour I am beginning to wonder if monorails or street cars or some other kind of practical mass transit isn't going to be a physical necessity in a few years. And I say this as an old Detroit boy who is quite sold on the virtues of cars, so you can imagine how bad the situation must be getting locally.

Your posting raises another interesting question; how can the average citizen have any impact on transportation policy? In Los Angeles, at any rate, the L.A. Dept. of Transportation is almost perfectly insulated from voter opinion, as it really isn't under the control of the mayor, or, for practical purposes, under the control of anybody else, being essentially an autonomous collection of civil servants. (It must be wonderful to have all the authority of the government and absolutely no accountability, don't you think?) L.A. could certainly improve its transit situation by making many of its large surface streets one way and synchronizing the traffic lights to move cars across town at reasonable speeds, taking the pressure off the unbelievably overburdened freeways, but as far as I know nobody is even talking about ideas like this. (I believe that less than 40% of the traffic lights in Los Angeles are synchronized currently.) Likewise, its obvious that Southern California needs to install congestion pricing on its freeways (i.e., tolls priced to minimize the volume of low value trips at rush hour) but I'm not aware of any efforts by local governments to work with the Feds to put such a regime into place. Oh well, I guess if I was employed as a transportation bureaucrat who got paid by the hour (and not by results) I wouldn't bestir my overweight derriere either.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 14, 2005 11:58 PM

Peter -- I've spent about three days in NYC in the last 15 years, so I'm going on memories from the 1960s mostly. And my memory was of darkened streets and not-so-tony stores. Plus Sixth Avenue might have improved a tad after its el went. But I could well be wrong. My memories of the streets the Loop traverses are that they weren't as nice as Michigan Avenue, but I'll await correction on that too.

MQ and Tatyana -- Vancouver and Seattle have gorgeous settings that take the edge off the increasing high-density residential development.

I suppose my problem is that I remember the cities when they were low-density. I like cities where residents live in neighorhoods where houses are set in 1/3 acre properties where lawns and other landscaping details are possible. I like suburbs. I think living in a high-rise apartments and condos can be okay if one has tons of money, but I have my doubts otherwise. You don't need to agree with any of this.

As for the car thing, the point I was trying to make (but didn't fully develop) was that the proposed transit systems were routed through areas where there are few car commuters to destinations along the routes in the first place. The displacement would be almost entirely from bus to rapid transit and the rapid transit is hellishly expensive to build and operate. Put another way, cost-effectiveness is zilch. Busses are cheaper and route-flexible: rail isn't.

The East Coast cities with rapid transit grew along trolley, el and subway lines. Seattle lost its rail transit around 1940, and by 1970 jobs were migrating to the suburbs, making a comprehensive regional rail system extremely expensive. I remember seeing street cars in Vancouver as late as 1949 and they installed a rail line (expanded since) for their 1986 fair. Zoning against sprawl is quite strict and high-rises are encouraged. Even 35 years ago, it was a chore to drive the place.

Friedrich -- LA might be hopeless. That bureacratic thing sounds so ... European!

I used to go to LA back in the 80s and early 90s on sales calls. If I only had calls on one day, I'd stay out near Bakersfield and time my entry to the city near the end of the morning commute and then get the hell out back north or towards Ventura before the PM commute got too hairy. In between, I'd keep the radio tuned to KNX or whatever it was that had frequent traffic reports. Back in '83 one client described freeway conditions as "borderline breakdown," and I can't imagine that things have improved.

An ideal solution is to live within five miles of where you work. But sometimes jobs change and instead of Joe Blow of Anaheim working in Garden Grove he finds he has to commute to Ontario but can't move because the wife's job's in Tustin.

The place just seems too spread out to retrofit the old "Red Car" lines or a monorail. I haven't followed the subway story; what's the story with it?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 15, 2005 12:02 AM

"Buses are cheaper and route-flexible: rail isn't"

Outside of a few cities, there is a stigma attached to buses that make them an unattractive option for most commuters. Rail transit generally doesn't have that sort of image problem.

Posted by: Peter on November 15, 2005 12:32 AM


The subway in L.A. has been hellishly expensive and consequently insanely cost-ineffective. Although there is talk of extending it, my only comment is "I should live so long." Anyway, the real problem with mass transit for L.A. is that the metropolitan area is both very large (on the order of 100 miles north and south and east and west)and laid out on a grid, which limits the effect of essentially linear forms of mass transit. There has been talk of building monorails along the freeways, which might be workable if and only if they bothered to build parking lots and provided workable transfers from one line to another. (After all, who cares if freeways are dark?) The best option (barring a sudden religious conversion to light rail) is probably buses, and, despite Peter's opinion that riding buses is too declasse for us middle-class types, I might start riding one to go downtown or to the West Side, which otherwise is a grueling trip on the freeway coupled with very expensive parking. If there were good places to change from one bus line to another, offering shelter in inclement weather, it would overcome much of the resistance to bus travel.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 15, 2005 12:47 AM

Very interesting post Ė city transportation seems an almost intractable problem.

I agree with Peter that elevated lines do not necessarily ruin the streets below. I also thought Ė why not develop low cost lighting Ė maybe solar powered LEDs or new technology to mitigate the shadows?

But I think that you are on the money when you suggest that new mass transit options donít necessarily pull people out of their cars or do much for the environment. And I think that in the US all major transit operations are subsidized by general tax revenues and are never self-sustaining, which undercuts the supposed economic gains. On the other hand, more cars and buses on the street just leads to gridlock in the busiest city centers. Look at how London has imposed tolls and fees in an attempt to reduce cars in the City center.

Down here in the Los Angeles area, some of the battle is between residents and all forms of transportation. In South Pasadena, a fairly well-off community north of LA, residents have fought new freeways, freeway extensions and light-rail proposals despite any hardships imposed on traffic flow throw neighboring communities. And perversely, commuters will not abandon their cars for the reliable Pasadena to downtown Gold Line even though the relatively ancient Pasadena Freeway comes to a dead halt during the morning drive on average twice a week due to accidents or clogged freeways.

Friedrich -- one of the problems of LA is that transportation is a regional problem, but Cal Trans, MTA and other agencies are dominated by the county board of supervisors, local transit chiefs and various city officials who seek more to protect their turf than to deliver a workable area wide transit plan. Also there have been long periods -- years Ė when the heads and main deputies of transit agencies have been individuals with absolutely no experience in transportation or any related area. Toll roads have been notoriously unsuccessful in Orange County and would likely do little to alleviate rush hour traffic in LA. One way street conversion was a great success during the 1984 Olympics, but merchants complained bitterly that the change cost them business. Synchronized lights would be a great boon, but somehow mayors and other officials promise to do it, but then never actually get around to implementing it.

You are also correct that LAís size and layout makes transportation planning a daunting task, but itís made worse by the fact that the subway and light rail systems were deliberately designed to omit express or limited stop runs, and to bypass the airport and major tourist destinations such as Universal Studios, Dodger Stadium or the Rose Bowl (although the recent Red Line extension does include Hollywood).

Posted by: Alec on November 15, 2005 7:05 AM

"And I think that in the U.S. all major transit operations are subsidized by general tax revenues and are never self-sustaining"

As of about five years ago, and I see no reason why things would've changed, there was only one heavy-rail urban transit system in the *world* that was fully self-supporting at the farebox, the Hong Kong subway. The New York subway comes relatively close, but that's if only day-to-day operating expenses are counted and capital expenditures are disregarded.
An essential problem with almost any urban transit system, one that's even worse with suburban commuter rail for that matter, is that demand is highly peaked. Ridership during morning and evening rush hours is much higher than during most other times of the day. While businesses of all types experience peaking, of course, in few if any other places is it quite as pronounced as with transit. Accomodating highly peaked demand is almost by definition economically inefficient.

Posted by: Peter on November 15, 2005 9:25 AM

To sum it up:

-Hellishly expensive.

-Planned by unaccountable bureaucrats who gain power, budget money and job security from giant projects. ("Congestion pricing for roads -- but what role would that create for us?")

-Boosted by construction companies (***cough*** campaign contributions, graft ***cough***).

-Funded heavily by taxpayers from areas far away from where the rail systems are built.

-Beloved by socialists everywhere, also by sentimental city-enthusiasts who think it's churlish to consider costs.

What's not to like?

Posted by: Jonathan on November 15, 2005 9:54 AM

The El in Chicago works great, is regularly used by all economic classes, as are the suburban trains. Public transportation has been largely solved there, and in fact the El is part of what makes Chicago...Chicago. Nobody would think twice of jumping on the El to go see the Cubs at Wrigley Field--in fact, nobody would think of driving! Driving around Chicago, including the freeways, is almost as nightmarish as L.A. but I think its travellers---not residents.

Every other city should just study Chicago.

The city slogan for Chicago is "The City that Works" and you know, in many ways, it does!

But Dallas' traffic is getting so awful from the northern suburbs that lots of people, including professionals, are starting to use their monorail.I think they took Friedrich's advice: good parking, good lighting.

Posted by: annette on November 15, 2005 10:35 AM

would you like the project more if it was funded by transportation bonds, not local taxes?

I'm an example of anti-socialist, minimum-government-intervention, les-taxes-the-better libertarian - and I'm a city enthusiast and supporter of public transport. Hard to believe, huh?

While I detest under the table deals, *graft* as you say, unfair bidding practices and union labor, I don't see anything criminal in construction industry wanting to increase their profits per se. It's the reason for existence of any business. All the above evil comes, in my eyes, from bureaucracy on all governmental levels, making fair competition among contractors and manufacturers impossible.

Is there a proper capitalist way to turn "hellishly expensive" rail or other mass-transit system profitable?

Posted by: Tatyana on November 15, 2005 10:43 AM


Sure, I would rather such projects be funded by local taxes than by regional or national taxes. Local bonds would also be preferable to regional bonds. IMO a large part of the problem is that these rail systems are funded by distant taxpayers who have no say in them. Indeed part of the argument the local boosters of these projects always use is that someone else is paying a big percentage of the cost.

I am a city enthusiast too. My disagreement with rail proponents is based on my impression that big, centrally planned showcase projects tend to cause more problems than they solve, on the fact that AFAIK all of the recently built muni rail systems have been either far more expensive or far less popular than proponents predicted, and on my belief that it is wrong to force people in NYC and Iowa to pay for transportation projects in LA and Seattle.

WRT you last question, I think the answer is no. Even if you write off the capital costs, rail routes are too inflexible to be attractive to more than a small percentage of citizens, and few cities are dense enough, population wise, for ridership to justify operating expenses. And you can't just ignore capital costs: even if people from somewhere else are covering 50% of the cost, any big project still represents a substantial tax on local citizens. If it weren't for the big project they would have more money to spend in, probably, more productive ways.

Posted by: Jonathan on November 15, 2005 12:41 PM

Blocking the light? That's funny given here in Vancouver I would say "Sun, what f* sun!". We have four seasons; wet, more wet, sopping wet and slieghtly damp. Where the rail is, the light is already blocked by buildings. And when the sun comes out everyone flees the city anyways. Seattle boy you must be spoiled rotten.

Posted by: TW on November 15, 2005 1:20 PM

I have mixed feelings about "autos vs. mass transit" and the other issues that were touched upon (e.g., urban change and growth, etc.). For instance, although I'm basically for mass transit in theory, I think a lot of the public policy promoting it is misguided. Rather than get involved in this "big issue" though, here are some random observations instead.

1) I once ran across a fascinating website put up by monorail enthusiasts. What I liked about the website was that it was more than just a "fan" site. The people who put it together seemed to be sober minded, well-educated (with relevant professional eductions?) and level-headed and they made a number of good, apparently well-documented, arguments in favor of monorails as mass transit. One thing I didn't know was that monorail systems are already somewhat common as mass transit in Asia (Japan?). The website has photos and analyses, etc. of a number of the monorail mass transit (as opposed to amusement park) systems.

I just did a quick "Yahoo" search, and the website for the "Monorail Society" may be the website that I saw a few years ago. (I haven't had the chance to go through the site to see if its the same one or not.):

2) Historically, in New York City at least, elevated lines have been both good and bad for the areas around them.

Most of the elevated lines in the outer boroughs of NYC have indeed stimulated a great, great deal of urban development around them and the streets beneath them are usually very important ones in their neighborhood.

But over time these older outer borough "downtown" areas have also lost out to more auto-oriented commerce that was developed later both in nearby suburbs and elsewhere in the outer boroughs. (A "classic" example is the decline of downtown Jamaica and the rise of Queens Blvd. around the Queens Center Mall.)

3) I don't think the creation of "dark" streets was ever the "real" problem with NYC's elevateds (i.e., why people might hesitate to live, work or shop near them.) The real problem was/is the unbelievable, ear-splitting NOISE!!!

Actually, I think the elevateds (minus the noise) lend/lent a certain "big city" glamour to the streets of the outer boroughs.

Another problem is the unattractiveness of most of the elevated superstructures (although some are/were quite beautiful and most could have been made rather attractive with just a bit more thoughtfulness.)

And of course, when the elevateds were first built (i.e., before they were electrified) there was also the problem of smoke and cinders from the locomotives!

4) Although Sixth Ave. did eventually become seedy beneath its elevated line, originally the elevated line brought it enormous wealth. A lot of grand buildings were built along Sixth Ave. after the elevated was built (e.g., the grand departments stores built in the late 19th Century -- now landmarks -- along the "Ladies Mile").

5) Although I haven't been to either Vancouver or Hong Kong, I too have heard great things about both of them.

I think if there is a market for such places (poeple paying good money to buy and rent), then the marketplace (real estate developers) should be allowed to supply them. In other words, if developers could built a Seattle version of Vancouver or Hong Kong (that is still in some ways, of course, uniquely Seattle), I don't think this should be discouraged.

If something like this were to happen, then people who prefer more traditional suburbs would be bought out and could then use the money to move to, or build, newer (and better) suburbs elsewhere.

Basically that's how cities have developed and grown over time and how new cities and suburbs have developed and grown over time. Do we really want to stop this process, and what are the consequences if we follow such an approach?

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on November 15, 2005 2:08 PM

Benjamin -
The story of the elevated lines and downtown Jamaica, Queens is something between a tragedy and a farce. Downtown Jamaica's busy shopping district began feeling the pressure from the suburbs starting in the 1950's. By the early 1970's, things were getting quite tough; store vacancies were increasing and the area was getting a reputation for being unsafe. Clearly something had to be done.
Unfortunately, the downtown merchants decided that the elevated line running down Jamaica Avenue in the heart of the shopping district was a noisy eyesore and had to go. It would also become redundant once the new Archer Avenue subway line opened a block away. Accordingly, the merchants put great pressure on the city and on the transit authority to demolish the Jamaica El. Somehow it seemed to escape everyone's attention that the Archer Avenue line wouldn't be completed for several years.
The merchants got their wish, and the Jamaica El came down in 1976. Unfotunately, the Archer Avenue line didn't open until 1989, leaving downtown Jamaica without any mass transit (except for the costly Long Island Rail Road) for 13 long years. During that hiatus shoppers deserted the area in droves and most of the respectable merchants closed or moved. These included most of the ones, led by Macy's, that had campaigned the hardest for the premature demolition of the Jamaica El. The once-proud shopping district went into a precipitous decline, taking the neighborhood with it. Downtown Jamaica has gotten a little better today, due almost entirely to taxpayer-funded public investments. Private developers continue to avoid the area.
In no way am I claiming that Downtown Jamaica would have remained a thriving shopping district if the El had remained until its replacement was completed. Many demographic and economic factors were at play. Even so, whatever chances the area had of remaining reasonably prosperous were lost when the El came down.

Posted by: Peter on November 15, 2005 2:30 PM

Vancouver, which I visit regularly, is a pretty good city. According to a poll a couple of years ago, it's the city Canadians are most likely to want to move and the one whose residents are least likely to want to move elsewhere. Outside the downtown peninsula, which is some people's (but not everyone's) idea of an urban paradise, there are some great urban neighbourhoods with streetcar-suburb commercial streets and well preserved urban boulevards. (I don't understand why the latter weren't converted to traffic sewers in the 1960s. Some of the medians are wide enough to "store" your car when you're making a lefthand turn from a sidestreet - which is a beautiful thing.)

On the other hand, housing is expensive, property crimes are high, and traffic (especially downtown) is horrible.

Posted by: Chris Burd on November 15, 2005 4:46 PM

I agree that the premature demolition of the Jamaica Ave. elevated probably hurt the area, rather than helped it -- as did other similiarly misguided attempts at urban revitalization (e.g., the clearing away of buildings for urban renewal-type developments).

Actually, since the "replacement" subway line does not even extend as far into the shopping district as the elevated line itself once did -- leaving mass transit passengers off just where the major commercial area begins rather than at the far edge of the district (which also happens to be near the site of a substantial bus terminal!) -- it's hard to imagine how business people ever thought the demolition of this portion of the el would help them at all. And this would be especially true of those store owners along 164th St. [?] and 165th St. [?], the street where Macy's was located, as these busy shopping streets runs perpendicular to the Jamaica Ave. elevated and thus did not have any problems with its shadows and noise.

But getting back to the issues raised in the original post about whether elevated mass transit helps or hurts the areas surrounding them, I think elevateds were a decided plus when they were the newest and best thing available (a competitive advantage), but as other forms of transportation appeared (e.g., trolleys, subways, modern buses and autos) elevateds became, competitively speaking, more of a mixed blessing.

By the way, about the time of the Jamaica Ave. elevated was demolished, I happened to hear a presentation given by Carlisle Towery, the head of the local development corporation (kind of like a Jamaica Chamber of Commerce). He mentioned a proposal that was kind of interesting: discontinue the elevated line SERVICE but retain all, or part, of the elevated train super-structure as a distinctive space frame "roof" for the shopping district. (Mega structures and space frames, like that at the Osaka [?] World's Fair, were the "thing" at the time.)

- - - - - - - -

To exand on something mentioned by Pete: If I understand the description of the Seattle monorail correctly, two reasons why it might erroneously appear to be a street "killer" are 1) the short lenght of the route (few passengers) and 2) the fact that there are no stops along the line but the first and last stops. So the street that forms its route gets all the negatives of an elevated (to the extent that they are negatives) with none of the advantages (masses of passengers feeding the areas around the stops)!!!

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on November 15, 2005 5:38 PM

Benjamin -

It wasn't just the physical sight and noise of the El that prompted Jamaica business interests to call for its removal. There was a perception during the time that the subway was in decline (a not unreasonable perception), and the merchants thought that the El was bringing the "wrong" customers into the area and driving the "good" customers off to the suburbs. To be fair, "good" and "bad" in this context were defined more in economic than ethnic terms. What happened, alas, is that the 13-year lack of transit drove off _all_ the customers.
The original plans called for extension of the Archer Avenue line well beyond its current terminus, but that changed thanks to the fiscal crisis of the early 1970's.

Posted by: Peter on November 15, 2005 8:21 PM

If the original plans for the Archer Ave. subway called for the new subway line to extend a stop or two beyond Parsons Blvd. (its current terminus), then I could see why the businessmen etc. would be enthusiastic about the demolition of the "el." They would just be exchanging the old-fashioned mass transit technology of the "elevateds" (noisy, "ugly" and relatively slow) for the more up-to-date technology of the subways (less noisy [at the street-level, anyway], less obstrusive and relatively fast).

By the way, the time-lag factor (i.e., the replacement subway being built much later than scheduled) and the false-promises factor (i.e., the demolished elevated not being fully replaced by a new subway line) have, of course, occurred elsewhere in NYC.

The replacement of the Sixth Ave. "el" by the Sixth Ave. subway, apparently also ran into some delays which wound up hurting businesses along Sixth Avenue. (One reads about this a lot in connection with Rockefeller Center whose builders were depending on the Sixth Ave. subway to be completed on schedule.) And the still yet to be built Second Ave. subway was, in some ways, intended to be the replacement for the demolished Third Ave. "el"!

But both of these areas had other things going for them (and on Sixth Ave. the time lag wasn't as great as in Jamaica to begin with) to make these problems less of an impediment to their subsequent development.

However, getting back to Jamaica, if the Jamaica businessmen were thinking in terms of attracting more upscale shoppers by attracting fewer downscale shoppers (since the new subway line hooks up with an existing line that goes through more upscale neighborhoods than the old elevateds), I think they were grossly deluding themselves.

I grew up in Jamaica and, to a certain extent, I witnessed the tail end of the area's glory years (e.g., when the area even had some upscale shops) and its subsequent decline. Upscale shoppers weren't driven away by downscale shoppers so much, so it seems to me, as by the actual competitive disadvantages of the area itself (compared to newer auto-centered developments in the suburbs and along Queens Blvd., for instance). And so, eventually, the "only" people left there were the downscale shoppers.

Yes, closing the time lag would have helped slow the decline a bit. Extending the new subway line further along the route of the original "el" would also have helped, in my opinion, even more (if it had been done in a timely way). But basically the area still was going to have to find a way to successfully deal with the formidable challenges posed by its burgeoning newer competitors -- e.g., auto-centered commercial developments in both the suburbs and elsewhere in the city.

- - - - - - - - - -

I finally got a chance to look at the Monorail Society website that I mentioned in my first comment in this thread, and I hope that anyone interested in the topic makes a point of visiting this website also -- especially to take a look at the photos.

For instance, the photos that they have of the Seattle monorail make it look much more attractive. (Never having been to Seattle, I don't know which set of photos is more accurate.)

There are also photos of other systems around the world, many of which seem to fit into the surrounding city quite nicely. There is even one system that charmingly fits onto a rather narrow road, and some of the systems are also surrounded by lovely landscaping.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on November 15, 2005 10:20 PM

One point -- among a host of other questionable statements -- jumped out at me: the supposed negative impact of the monorail on Fifth Avenue.

It makes a good story but it ignores one key fact about Seattle development: the old Denny Regrade has developed northwards from the Pike Market (roughly First Avenue) and its views of Puget Sound. Yes, Fifth Avenue with its monorail has less development than First or Second --- but Sixth and Seventh (nice wide streets with plenty of light etc etc) have far less than Fifth.

More tellingly, the monorail is not a drag on rents and Fifth Avenue enjoys healthy occupancie and rents as well as new construction commensurate.

Posted by: David Sucher on November 16, 2005 12:30 AM

Beware the many errors of fact in this post.

Posted by: David Sucher on November 16, 2005 12:59 AM

Itís interesting to see my home, i.e. Hong Kong, come up again and again in this thread. Iíve lived here for 15 years, and love the place, but I must warn the rest of you of using it as a public transport exemplar for North American cities.

Public transport here is indeed an overwhelming success. I like cars, but donít run one here, as doing so is heavily taxed, in both direct and indirect ways ($6.00 gasoline, anyone?).

The thing is, the population density throughout Hong Kong is unlike anything youíll find in any North American city. Yes, Manhattan and downtown Chicago and San Francisco and some other places have high population densities in limited downtown areas. But in HK, nearly all of the suburban areas pack people in even tighter than the downtown areas. How? Simple: just about everybody lives in apartment blocks ranging from older buildings of around 10 stories to newer building that now commonly reach 60 stories. I live on the 46th floor of a 53-story building myself.

This is what makes public transport work economically. Youíve got not just a limited number of people moving into and back out of the city from each low-density suburban area, but lots of people moving point to point in almost any direction you choose to go on the main transport lines.

Forgive me, please, for sounding so pedantic and common-sensical. But what Iíve seen of urban planning in many places just doesnít seem to take these very basic realities into account. There are too many ties between a love of public transport, which is fine, and a potentially silly or even harmful utopianism, which usually isnít fine at all.

So the bottom line is: how tightly are you all willing to be packed?

Posted by: mr tall on November 16, 2005 2:26 AM

David -- We are "graying eternal amateurs" here, seldom claiming professional expertise. Unlike you, I'm not involved in the real estate market and simply pass along what I see and offer opinion.

Elevated lines back east made streets and stores unappealing. The existing Seattle monorail certainly is located about the point where Regrade redevelopment presently ends. I find it an unpleasant street. And might it not be a wall that has retarded deleveopment on 6th and 7th? Time will tell.

Noise (for steel-rail els), cutting light, posts that block views, and the impression that classy stores are scarce are what I mean by "street killing." (I should have made that more clear. Sorry.) The Seattle monorail route, as best I can tell from that map, does not run on fancy streets, and my conjecture is that it wouldn't have caused Tiffany to relocate from Pacific Place to join the joy of sub-el existence.

The entire monorail project made no financial sense to this amateur. And I believe the claim regarding enticing people out of cars was bogus. Increasingly high parking costs to folks living in Ballard and working downtown might do that trick, but a monorail offering only faster speed than a bus would have only a marginal enticement for me to give up driving if I lived in Ballard and drove.

You well might disagree with my opinions; the article was intended to provoke comments. But please let us know what other facts -- not opinions or conjectures -- I got wrong.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 16, 2005 9:59 AM

David -- Oh, another thought. This is an "alternate history" thing related to your basically correct observation that Regrade Development has been from west to east (though office towers went in on 3rd or 4th back in the early 80s if my foggy memory is right).

Anyway, drop back to 1958 plus-munus a couple years. No fair, no monorail. Pike Place Market has an iffy future. First Avenue and nearby streets from Stewart to Denny Way are cruddy (I remember well). So where is Regrade redevelopment most likely to start? I would place my bet on Fourth and Fifth because of the presence of the big Bon Marche and Frederick & Nelson department stores on Pine street, respectively between 3rd & 4th and 5th & 6th avenues.

But the monorail was built in 61-62 for the fair and that natural potential higher-quality retail axis was never exploited (I'm assuming no zoning problems). Why not? Might have been that pesky monorail. But that's just conjecture.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 16, 2005 11:00 AM

Donald, your points about the alternative path of development from Fredericks northward are fair ones -- that is a reasonable alternative history -- except that there was virtually no development north of Pine Street (and perecious little in the CBD core) as well in the 1950s and 60s...I think that 5th _relative_ lack of development (and it is by no means desolate -- one of Seattle's best restaurants (the Palace Kitchen) is on it -- stems more from "timing, timing, timing," the enormous amount of better-located vacant land, and lack fo views than to anything else. There has in fact been substantiual development on Fifth.

The fascinating thing to me and the true bottom line is that rumor tells me that rents on Fifth -- adjusted downwards for lack of a water view -- are similar to those on First. In fact, one building which has frontage on both Fifth and Fourth sees no distinction in rents.

A more global question is simply -- "What are the alternatives for mass transit in Seattle?" I don't think that there are many. Buses and bus rapid transit destroy arterials because of noise and the eventual need to use parking lanes for transit. Underground is even more expensive in a city of hills. There is not much left except levitation.

Posted by: David Sucher on November 16, 2005 12:02 PM

The Seattle Monorail Project was a criminal mistake that never should have been approved in the first place. Thank goodness the voters of Seattle finally saw the light. From design, to funding, to coherence with all of the other mass transit Seattle is adding, it was a silly idea. I sure hope the citizens of Seattle sue Joel Horn & the other negligent monorail officials and recover some of their hefty salaries back to help retire the massive debt they accumulated.

Seattle's transit problems are deeper than the monorail; the light rail line is a mess too. The multi-billion dollar light rail line won't serve the city's highest transit or congestion corridors. Basically it will serve sleepy neighborhoods that already have over 60% bus ridership rates & it will be faster to take a cab from downtown Seattle to the airport than taking the slow light rail line. In Seattle, they build transit projects not to provide alternative modes of transportation, or to add capacity to high deman lines, they build it for urban development purposes.

When the ST lightrail line is done and doesn't provide an alternative to congestion, serve the highest demand corridors, and is slow, why will people trust the local transportation cabal to more of their money?

They should of listened to the transportation experts, not politicians in the early days of Sound Move. It's way too late now, the line is under construction. A tunnel boring machine is eating an artery through Beacon Hill this very minute and a forest of support columns already traces the highway near the airport.


Monorail or El lines not near station have no utlility to the surrounding buildings. They are a negative feature. Sometimes distance to other areas will trump this, as in the case of 5th Ave development when Belltown started to boom. As the South Lake Union neighborhood develops, 5th Ave with be the least diserable when it is all said & done.

Posted by: AP on November 16, 2005 12:03 PM

If you don't have google earth, download it. Check out Seattle, the monorail line marks the line of dense development. Coincidence?

Seattle's "Monowall" -

Posted by: AP on November 16, 2005 12:27 PM

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