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Your article on monorail (“The Little Monorail That Could,” 3/7) would have been much more useful if it had not degenerated into name-calling. The rejection of light rail as “nostalgia” is a perfect example of the arrogance based on ignorance that is unfortunately something of an American trait. In the last few decades, scores of cities in dozens of countries on all continents have studied what to do about the failure of the “freedom of the road” model created by automobile and bus manufacturers in the ’50s. None of them made decisions on “nostalgia”; few if any of them were not concerned about money.
The answers have been many: high-speed rail (particularly Japan, France, and Germany); extending suburban rail systems underground through city centers (many cities, the foremost perhaps being Paris); subway systems (many cities, including the Washington metro area); segregated light-rail systems (e.g. Docklands in East London); light-rail systems (in scores of cities, with parts elevated or in tunnels); guided busways (a couple of cities, never very successful); and new roads for buses only (a couple of places). No city has adopted monorail for anything but a specialized use, such as an airport link.
If you look slightly farther outside the Beltway than Baltimore, you will find many new light-rail systems that have been far more successful than the planners ever hoped. San Diego can perhaps be considered the father of modern light rail in the United States, and extensions are constantly under construction. Portland has an entirely new system. New lines can be found from San Jose to Newark. On the other side of the world, big places (e.g., Berlin, Paris, and London) have built and are building light rail to supplement heavy-rail networks. Small places such as Strasbourg and Izmir have created entirely new systems. Sydney, with both a monorail and an extensive suburban rail system, opted for light rail as the next step. New light-rail systems have usually been very successful (attracting more riders than expected). Many now in operation are suffering because they did not buy enough vehicles to begin with. (Hello, Washington Metro?)
Wuppertal is one of the cities that studied the question. It is not expanding the Schwebebahn.The Schwebebahn is like the San Francisco cable car: 19th-century engineering that works and is being maintained. Osaka, certainly, has a monorail. If you check the city transportation-information center, you will see it listed as a link from the airport to the nearest heavy-rail station. Osaka has a dense network of rail, subway, and light-rail lines, which are being extended.
The article promotes the monorail as being a thin line above the busy highway. If you visit the systems now in operation, or look at the pictures of lines at www.monorails.org, you will quickly note that this is a fable. All systems built in the 20th century have a substantial supporting beam 3 to 4 feet across. This is a bit less than half the width of an elevated Metro line, but put two of them down the street (the separation must be about the same as for a Metro line, because of the width of the cars) and you do not have a fine filament. This is not something you can ignore. New York spent a great deal of money replacing elevated trains with subways. Hotel owners on the most logical route for rapid transit in the Miami area, along Collins Avenue on Miami Beach, have resolutely opposed any aerial structure.
The article promotes the relative cheapness of monorail. Believers should check the latest cost estimates for Seattle, done after the election. The Osaka monorail may have survived an earthquake, but so did BART in San Francisco. The monorail at the zoo in Miami was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew; the elevated metro line suffered little damage; nor did the elevated people-mover.
Concerning the gratuitous mention of the U.S. Constitution: another example of ignorant arrogance. Perhaps another issue of the Washington City Paper could list the major ports, canals, highways, railways, and commercial airports that have been built in the United States, ever, without government assistance. (Hint: giving the Union Pacific a square mile of public land for every mile of railway built is assistance.)
All those considering this issue would benefit from travel. Exploring the transportation situation in Singapore, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Istanbul, Paris, San Francisco, and so on, is an education. (And it is a great way to explore a new city. I do it as a hobby.)