Mono-Railing for all the Wrong Reasons
Transportation planning is not a field predisposed to radical changes. Planners and engineers routinely propose ideas to solve current and future problems with ideas that have worked in the past. Pragmatism probably plays a big part in this; after all, if you are going to devise a solution that will cost one hundred million dollars or more, you damned well need to make sure it will work. Change, when it does occur is evolutionary in nature.
That said, transportation history is littered with countless radical visions for the future of travel. Some ideas were just ahead of their time. Others were straight out of the world of science fiction. As expected, most were indifferent to the issue of energy.
It is always interesting to watch when “old” visions of transportation are periodically resurrected. It is even more amusing when a science fiction author is the one resurrecting the idea.
Earlier this month Ray Bradbury of Fahrenheit 451 fame wrote in the LA Times:
SOMETIME IN THE next five years, traffic all across L.A. will freeze.The freeways that were once a fast-moving way to get from one part of the city to another will become part of a slow-moving glacier, edging down the hills to nowhere.
In recent years we've all experienced the beginnings of this. A trip from the Valley into Los Angeles that used to take half an hour — all of a sudden it takes an hour or two or three. Our warning system tells us something must be done before our freeways trap us in the outlying districts, unable to get to our jobs.
As this passage makes clear, Mr. Bradbury is apparently unaware or incapable of understanding that due to Peak Oil, traffic is the least of our concerns.
If anything, the traffic situation five years hence will be better—not worse.
That fact notwithstanding, Mr. Bradbury opines that the solution to LA’s gridlock is a monorail system. Apparently this is not a new idea. Four decades ago he advocated the very same thing.
More than 40 years ago, in 1963, I attended a meeting of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors at which the Alweg Monorail company outlined a plan to construct one or more monorails crossing L.A. north, south, east and west. The company said that if it were allowed to build the system, it would give the monorails to us for free — absolutely gratis. The company would operate the system and collect the fare revenues.
Obviously this never came to pass. In all likelihood, nothing will transpire this time around either. The past year has not been kind to monorail enthusiasts. Seattle’s on-again, off-again love affair with the Monorail is definitely off. In November of last year, voters turned down a proposal to construct what would have been North America’s first (and only) citywide monorail system.
Then to add insult to injury, later that month the only two monorail cars on the city’s existing segment collided with each other on a poorly designed stretch of track wide enough for only one to traverse at a time. The system remains shut to this day for repairs.
Apparently nobody told Ray.
Compared to the heavy elevateds of the past, the monorail is virtually soundless. Anyone who has ridden the Disneyland or Seattle monorails knows how quietly they move.They also have been virtually accident-free. The history of the monorail shows few collisions or fatalities
At this point, I must say that I have no bias towards or against monorails. As it becomes increasingly clear that our petroleum-fueled transportation system is doomed to run out of gas, we most certainly need creativity when devising whatever transportation solution or solutions to turn to next. We cannot keep throwing transportation ideas that may have worked in the past such as bigger roads or new light rail systems, without really considering whether or not it will continue to work in the future.
We also should not resurrect ideas from the past without a proper justification for doing so. Bringing back monorails to reduce traffic created by poor land use decision-making will not solve LA’s perceived future of gridlock. Without fixing the underlying land use patterns and continued demographic growth, any new capacity created by this system will consumed by the growth in population (particularly in those areas not located near the network.)
At the same time, a monorail proposal for LA will do little to insulate or assist the metropolitan area from the coming era of shortages either. Los Angeles’s real problem is that it exists far past the natural carrying capacity of its region. Contrary to what Bradbury may believe, traffic congestion should be the least of the area’s worries. Keeping the lights on, the water flowing and even the population fed is a far greater concern.
This scenario is of course down the line a little bit. Barring a near-term, catastrophic collapse of civilization, changes in how we move ourselves about can and should be made. We honestly do need to overhaul our transportation system. All options must be on the table, whether the idea is considered “mainstream” or not.
What is more important though is that any transportation plan for the future be holistic in nature. Transportation planning is more than technology application; it is also about land use planning and behavior modification as well. Address all three together and you have the makings of a real plan.