Mike Schuh's Monorail Page

This web page discusses some of the specific shortcomings of the Seattle Monorail Project's Green Line proposal and of monorails in general.

There is so much happening with the monorail these days that I am having difficulty keeping this web page up to date. Please send me any errors or problems with dead links. Thank you.

I urged a Yes vote on Seattle Initiative 83 on November 2, 2004 (it failed). Please see my reasons why at yes-I-83.shtml. Thank you!

The Washington State Department of Transportation has a web page discussing the general inadequacy of monorails, and specifically the recurring (poor) proposal to run a monorail along I-5. On that page is an extended quote from Dr. Vukan R. Vuchic, a Professor of Transportation Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania:

[S]tudy after study has found that monorails' advantages over rail systems are far outweighed by their disadvantages. That is the reason that for more than four decades monorails have been built only for special purposes, such as amusement parks and airport shuttles... Since the late 1970s, an increasing number of cities have selected light rail systems because in many cities their speed and capacity are much better than those of buses, while their investment is considerably lower than that for rail rapid transit. Since 1979 no less than 20 cities in North America and many more overseas have built new LRT systems. None has selected a monorail. In addition, no city has built one monorail line and then followed it by another one.

Monorail proponents cite the Las Vegas monorail as an example of what SMP's Green Line will be. But is it what we really want? The Public Purpose web site, a public transportation consultancy, has published a paper "Analysis of the Proposed Las Vegas LLC Monorail", which is decidedly critical (or skeptical). The bond rating company Fitch has downgraded the bonds used to expand the Las Vegas monorail. And, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal, not very passengers are riding it, and it's not breaking even financially.

Here is a letter from OnTrack to the SMP Board about the "gap" between what was promised in the 2002 election and what seems to be offered today.

My letter of November 3, 2002, - urging a vote against the current monorail project - is available as ASCII text or HTML. Warning: it's 8 pages long. While I got a few things wrong, I stand by most of what I wrote, and certainly the central thesis: monorails are inferior technology.

Over the years, I have ridden several urban rail systems, including a few monorails. A brief summary of the ones I have ridden (and a few others) is at http://www.farmdale.com/transit/rail_systems.shtml.

2 minutes between trains?

Two of SMP's web pages make claims about travel time and headway that do not match information from SMP staff. Here are the two web pages (local copy) as they existed when I started complaining to SMP: I corresponded with SMP staff on this. Answer: for much of the Green Line, trains will be at least 5 minutes apart. The answer from Lars Henrikson is near the bottom of the second letter. He wrote "You are correct that trains will not be able to run at two minute intervals on the single track portion of the line north of 65th Street and south of Lander. This does not preclude trains from running every 2 minutes through the highly traveled core from Market Street in Ballard to SODO. We anticipate that trains on the outlying areas of the Green Line will probably arrive every 5 minutes." (emphasis mine)

Actually, I'm guessing (and guessing because SMP refuses to make public the sole bid submitted) that it will work more like this:

In other words, the best the Green Line will be able to do is one train from 85th every six minutes. I've haven't done a similar analysis for West Seattle (i.e., south of Lander St.).

So, let's do some math. The proposed passenger platform lengths are absurdly short, just 90 feet. By way of comparison, most rail systems have much longer platforms:
System Length
SMP Green Line 90
Seattle Center Monorail120
Jacksonville monorail120
Walt Disney World200
Minneapolis Hiawatha Line220
Las Vegas monorail250
Vancouver, BC, SkyTrain330
Seattle bus tunnel400
New York City subwayca. 600
Except for Jacksonville, the currently inoperative Las Vegas monorail, and (obviously) the Green Line, I have ridden each of these systems.
The pathetic Jacksonville monorail, which cost $200 million to build, is carrying under 3,000 passengers/day, well below early predictions. It loses $3 million a year... See http://world.nycsubway.org/us/jacksonville/ for pictures of how massive even these inadequate stations are. A particularly bad one is shown here.

The length of the platform limits the size of the trains. This, combined with the headway between trains, controls the maximum number of passengers the system can carry. If trains will be 5 minutes apart (or 12 trains per hour), and are limited to 90 feet in length (2 cars, or just 200 passengers), then the system can carry a maximum of
200 (passengers/train) x 12 (trains/hour) = 2,400 passengers/hour

Now, SMP claims that the Green Line will carry 69,000 passengers per day by 2020. This is 34,500 each way, which would take the Green Line over 14 hours, running at full capacity, to handle. In other words, even running full tilt, the proposed Green Line will have difficulty carrying the number of passengers predicted.

Monorail supporters take issue with the above analysis, mockingly pointing out that passengers won't get on at one end and ride the monorail to the other end, but instead some will get on at (or near) one end and get off in the middle, while others will get on in the middle and get off at the other end. Certainly, this is true in concept, and, yes, there is the claim that trains will run more frequently in the downtown core, but it remains highly unlikely that the system, as proposed, will ever be able to comfortably carry 69,000 passengers per day. Among other things, typical ridership patterns are into town in the morning, and out in the evening. During these periods, there is little demand for the opposite direction, and those trains will be mostly empty.

Furthermore, the monorail faces some competition downtown from Metro's "Ride Free" area. If the monorail costs money to ride, but the buses don't, then this will reduce ridership. If the monorail is also free, then there goes some of the revenue that SMP is counting on to operate the system without subsidies. (The ridership projections assume no downtown monorail free zone; see http://archives.elevated.org/project/ridership.shtm.)

But wait - it gets worse: The Green Line is merely "Phase 1" of a larger system. In theory, the future "Blue Line" will connect to the Green Line at Fifth Avenue and Stewart Street (how?). If the Green Line through downtown is already at or near capacity, where will the passengers from the Blue Line go? The term "chokepoint" comes quickly to mind. And then there's the Red Line and the Gold Line... (please see "Future Expansion Will Be Difficult" below).

Speaking of buses...

SMP doesn't say much about this, but there is documentation that they plan to discontinue many bus routes along the Green Line corridor. In June, 2004, engineers from TDA, Inc., analyzed some of these issues (see http://www.monorailontrack.org/documents/TDA_Ridership_Critique.pdf). One of the things they uncovered was assumptions by URS (the lead ridership consultant) that several bus routes in Ballard and West Seattle would be restructured. In West Seattle, there would no longer be through bus service to downtown - all passengers would have to transfer to the monorail. A similar fate would befall passengers from Ballard. Quoting from http://www.monorailontrack.org/documents/URS_RIDERSHIP_FORECAST_DOCUMENT.pdf:
The monorail is a fixed rail system, and has the major disadvantage of such a transit service. That is, potential trip makers who live beyond walking distance from a station need a mode of access to reach the station and use the service. In general, the neighborhoods served by the monorail already enjoy relatively good bus service coverage. Consequently, modest reroutes of existing bus routes can provide feeder bus service to most monorail stations. A more elaborate approach to providing monorail access is to restructure the bus system to provide a comprehensive public transportation system. Restructuring involves not just rerouting existing bus service, but also changing bus service to remove duplication when monorail and bus routes provide overlapping service. To ensure a realistic service, it is best to involve the operating agency when dealing with major bus changes. To this end, the Consultant Team met with officials of the King County Metro Planning group to develop the bus service changes to be included in this ridership forecast.

In this meeting, bus service changes were developed for four of the neighborhoods serviced by the Monorail. The extent of the changes varied by neighborhood. By far, the most extensive changes were introduced for West Seattle. There, it was proposed that all routes serving the Seattle Central Business District be cut back to the West Seattle Monorail Stations. Along with the cutbacks, it was assumed that as feeder route, the bus headways could also be decreased significantly providing service that is much more frequent. Table 19 lists the network changes associated with West Seattle. For Ballard, the changes were more modest, but followed the same principals. Routes 15 and 18 were assumed to no longer serve downtown, and were modified to provide a circulator service within Ballard, connecting with the monorail is several locations.

(page 50 of the URS document, which is page 57 of the PDF file)

So why are the platforms so short?

I take it as an implicit admission by SMP that the aerial platforms will have a very negative impact on the streetscape below. To reduce this impact, they chose to go for smaller platforms. Also, smaller equals cheaper, and we now know that SMP's funding estimates were over optimistic.

Speaking of ridership projections...

Monorail proponents assert that URS, the lead consultant for the ridership projections, is one of the top firms in the country. URS has a record, however, of overstating demand. Their predictions for the Suncoast Parkway in Florida were higher than the highway's current traffic levels (traffic is about 70-75% of the projections). In 1992, URS predicted that the Parkway would take in $70 million in tolls in its first year of operation. During the first 11 months, which ended in December, 2001, the total was $6.7 million - less than a tenth the projection. Due to problems with toll booths opening, etc., a better estimate might be higher, and the Turnpike District revised the estimate to $14.8 million. This is about one fifth the original estimate, the estimate upon which the decision to build was based. Of course, Florida taxpayers are stuck with picking up the financial slack...

And even more about ridership...

I continue to harp on the ridership projections because this is the raison d'erte for building the monorail: riders. Prior to the the 2002 election, The Elevated Transit Company (SMP's predecessor) published a campaign ad, officially disguised as an informative communication to the public (available on line at http://archives.elevated.org/docs/ETC_Newspaper_Ad.pdf). It claims "Green Line will carry an estimated 68,000 riders per weekday, but has the capacity to carry many more." Somehow, this number has increased to 69,000, and I doubt that it will (or can) carry that many passengers (to say nothing about "many more").

The official plan is at http://archives.elevated.org/project/final_spmp.shtm). On page 26 (the second page of this section) the potential ridership is explained:

I discussed the commuter number in my November, 2002, essay.

The tourist number might be reasonable, as it's based on actual Seattle Center Monorail numbers.

For the event rides, when I divide 2.5 million by 365, I get 6,849 - not 8,000. Either way, the 2.5 million number is suspect. The Mariners have 80 home games per year, the Sonics 40, and the Seahawks 10 (for the Mariners and Sonics, it appears that we can ignore post-season games for the near furture...). This is a total of 130 games. Add a few concerts, and let's call the number 150 big events near the Green Line (as in, ignore Husky football games and the like). So, the above figure (2.5 million) implies over 8,000 passengers (2.5 million / 150 = 16,666 total rides, or 8,333 each way) riding the monorail to events on event days (that is, not an average day). That's about half the capacity of Key Arena, and (during the dismal 2004 season at least) represents a very major portion of Mariner's average home attendance. In short, the number given seems optimistic.

Assuming it is valid, how will 8,000 passengers, leaving a game, actually get on the monorail? If 4,000 go north, and the others go south, it will take well over an hour for the monorail to transport them! (An hour and 40 minutes, assuming that empty trains arrive once every 5 minutes. If the trains actually can operate with a 2 minute headway, it will still take 40 minutes to move the crowd - if all of the trains arrive at the event site empty.) I seriously doubt that passengers would be willing to wait that long for a ride. This event ridership number is truly bogus, and even more so when it is realized that the majority of Seattle sports fans don't live along the Green Line corridor, nor even in Seattle.

Personal anecdote: In September, 2003, I attended a Univeristy of Utah football game in Salt Lake City, riding the TRAX light rail to get there (there is a station near the stadium). Afterward, my friend and I had to wait a long time for our chance to board a train. The fans left the game at about the same time, and overwhelmed the trains' ability to transport them. TRAX platforms aren't very long, and (as a relatively new system) was short on rolling stock.


Where did the escalators go?

The current designs for the monorail stations do not include escalators. The plan, as presented to voters in 2002, did. I attended several design workshops for Ballard area stations, and all of the designs presented included elevators (for ADA compliance), stairs (for emergencies), and escalators. Officially, the escalators were removed to reduce the station footprint, making for a smaller impact on the neighborhood (an admission, methinks, that the monorail doesn't enhance its surroundings). Actually, I think it's 'cuz SMP doesn't have the money to build them. Of course, all of the funds spent holding the (now discarded) design workshops might have built an escalator or two...

As I reflected on this curious "no escalators" decision, I realized that in my travels (please see http://www.farmdale.com/transit/rail_systems.shtml for a summary of rail systems I've ridden) nowhere have I seen a system that relied entirely on elevators. Every system had either stairs or escalators or both. I simply cannot imagine the New York subway system operating with just elevators! The image of thousands of commuters waiting for the next elevator... I understand that the New York subway, Washington Metro, and the Moscow Metro each have at least one very deep elevator-only station, and I have ridden the elevators in the Portland MAX Washington Park station (and the Sound Transit Seattle LINK light rail will have a deep, elevator-only station under Beacon Hill), but these are exceptions in the respective systems.

Monorail supporters laughingly describe the ludricous prospect of several flights of elevators to serve stations like the one proposed for Delridge. It would be very silly to use escalators for such a station, but not nearly as silly as suspending a transit station 8 stories in the air.

Future Expansion Will Be Difficult

SMP hopes to expand the monorail to cover most of Seattle. Prior to the 2002 election, ETC published their concept, available today at
http://archives.elevated.org/project/maps.shtm. Note that there are several places where lines cross (e.g., in Ballard). I asked the SMP staff how monorail lines can cross, specifically, how does one build a monorail grade crossing? With steel wheel/steel rail systems, two tracks can cross each other without any difficulty (given signalling and control systems to prevent collisions, etc.). But how do you do this with a monorail? Answer: you don't, at least not as easily as you can with steel rails.

OK, what about the Purple Line crossing the Green Line in Ballard? It would make the most sense for the Purple Line to cross near the Market St. station, perhaps with a station of its own (well, duh - how else would passengers transfer from one line to the other?). The Green Line station will be a vertical station, with the two guidebeams stacked one above the other. The top of the Green Line station will be about 60' above Market St. (source: EIS Appendix LL, sheet LL-9, page 17 of the PDF document). To this, add another 25' for the Purple Line station, as it would have to pass over the Green Line. Total height: 85' above Market St., making it the tallest object in Ballard (after the Green Line bridge over the Ship Canal).

So I asked SMP staff about this. Their answer? Contrary to what was published before the 2002 election, the Purple Line will stop at 15th Ave. NW! So much for serving downtown Ballard...

Well, then, how about the connection between the Green Line and the Blue Line, shown on the ETC concept as meeting near Fifth Ave. and Stewart St. According to SMP staff, the Blue Line would end a block or so east on Stewart St., and not join the Green Line by means of a new switch. This means that any passenger arriving downtown on the Blue Line and intending to travel further south than Stewart St. will need to transfer. Most likely, this will mean descending from the Blue Line station and walking several blocks to the Green Line station. Imagine how much ridership on Metro buses would decrease if passengers taking buses from the north end (which the Blue Line would serve) had to transfer. Pretty stupid.

This Blue Line question arose when I asked how the two lines would be joined, and was told that they would not. I had wondered about this, because physically connecting them after the Green Line is in operation would require cutting into the Green Line's guidebeam (thereby shutting down the Green Line for several months) and probably require a grade crossing (which are very difficult to construct for monorails).

By contrast, Sound Transit is including a switch just south of the International District station, with the intent that this will be where the future I-90 light rail line will connect. Making this connection at some future date will not require shutting down the light rail line. Heck, even the Las Vegas monorail has incorporated a switch for future expansion. Why isn't SMP planning something similar?

When Portland's MAX added first the airport line and then the Interstate Avenue line, interruption to the exisiting line was minimal, even though they had to insert new switches into the existing line. This is relatively easy to do with steel rail, yet very difficult with monorail's concrete guidebeams.

"Anti-monorail lies"

Here is a page from the "Rise Above It All" web site (the monorail proponents) that puports to debunk "myths" about the monorail: "ANTI-MONORAIL LIES"(this is a local copy)
Now that we have more information, I will compare the RAIA assertions with current reality.
(more to follow)

What will the Green Line look like?

We can get an idea by looking at other systems.

On Thursday, May 20, 2004, Jon Magnusson, world renowned engineer with Magnusson Klemencic Associates, discussed their withdrawal from the monorail project. Their press release stated that their "motivation is simple, from an engineering standpoint: The monorail project is in danger of becoming our generation's Alaskan Way Viaduct ... one that will have to be torn down by our children."
In my essay of November, 2002, I predicted that we would tear it down.

Knute Berger, Seattle Weekly columnist, writes

"For those who say the current derailing effort smacks of Schwarzenegger-style politics, one might simply refer them to the R.H. Thomson Expressway, the massive 1960s project that would have ringed Seattle with freeway. Voters approved it, then changed their minds. The legacy of R.H. Thomson are those Highway 520 off-ramps to nowhere near the Arboretum, where a freeway was stopped dead in its tracks. I pass those ramps every day, and for me they're monuments to a saner, sensible Seattle, a city I hope hasn't completely disappeared."
How about we just don't build it to begin with?
Thank you for reading this. Please take action to help stop the Green Line from being built. If you support the Green Line, I would like to hear from you why you do, and what inaccuracies, if any, you have found in what I have written.

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Last update: August 3, 2005 00:56:19 PDT
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