Will the US ever see non-traditional transit?

I was discussing transit with an acquaintance today, and mentioned monorail as one technology which could be used on certain corridors. This person stated that they thought monorail was “kitschy” and, perhaps realizing that subjective perception of aesthetic merit is a poor criterion for mode selection, proceeded to reach for other reasons to justify writing off monorail as a technology entirely.

I find these conversations to be somewhat aggravating, as the objections are the same ones I heard as an intern with the Seattle Monorail Project a dozen years ago.

“Monorails aren’t a proven technology”

Japan has had monorails in operation for nearly 50 years.

“Monorails can’t carry high numbers of people”

Tokyo-Haneda carries 120,000 a day. Chongqing carries 1.1 million on a system which is roughly a 50-50 split between monorail and subway.

“It takes a long time to switch trains”

No, segmented switches in use in Chongqing and Tokyo cycle in 5-6 seconds. And the suspended Shonan Monorail operates on a single track, relying on intermediate switches to maintain 8-minute headways throughout the day.

I used to field these questions all the time at public meetings. At the time, we thought their days would be numbered. Seattle would have its system, there would be a heavy urban transit monorail in operation with the US, ignorance would no longer be possible. Alas, the Seattle political process struck in the way that it always has, and after four votes in favor of the monorail a fifth took it away. (This isn’t new – in the 60’s, the Feds were prepared to cover most of the cost of a heavy rail system for Seattle. It was rejected, and the money was sent to Atlanta, where it created MARTA).

Meanwhile, Vegas built their line. And while it has decent ridership density (12,000 people over a four mile route), its location among the casinos does little to establish it as a “serious” transit line in the minds of people for whom “seriousness” matters as a criteria independent of such things as system capability, capital or O&M cost.

I was thinking about this when it occurred to me: this sort of myopia isn’t unique to monorail. In fact, it has afflicted many transit modes.

Consider, for instance, Skybus. Skybus was first-generation AGT, developed from scratch by Westinghouse. Automated, driverless, rubber-tired trains would run every 6 minutes, replacing Pittsburgh’s decrepit streetcar system. Skybus came very close to being a reality, but was ultimately killed by political infighting. Pittsburgh instead got a couple of light rail lines and a busway that no one rides, while the rest of the streetcar system was torn up.

But that wasn’t the end of the technology. While Westinghouse was unable to sell it to the transit operators, they did have some success with airport operators, installing the technology at SeaTac (1969) and Tampa International (1971). Over the years the technology passed through Adtranz to Bombardier, where it continues to be the predominant AGT design in the airport market.

Alas, Bombardier never re-marketed rapid-transit-sized rubber-tired AGT, likely because they also have the rights to the original Skytrain technology. But latecomers in other countries were successful; France’s MATRA was able to sell its VAL system to Lille and Toulouse, in addition to various airport clients. The technology passed to Siemens, who have installed line-haul AGTs in Taipei, Seoul, and Turin. Rubber-tired AGTs also made it big in Japan, with the Kobe Port Liner, the Saitama New Shuttle, the Nippori-Toneri Liner, Yurikamome Line and Yokohama Seaside line all carrying substantial passenger loads.

Up in Canada, Vancouver has continued to build out their Skytrain system. But when the contract for the most recent line was tendered, rules were adopted that expressly prohibited consideration of cost savings resulting from using the same technology as the rest of the system. Thus in 2009 the Canada Line opened not with steel-wheeled LIM-powered AGT, but with traditional third-rail powered EMUs. Meanwhile, the only substantial implementations of the Skytrain tech outside Vancouver have been in Beijing, Seoul, and Kuala Lampur.

You see the pattern here. Southeast Asian cities look at a rapid transit line, consider all the technologies available, and then make a decision. But Americans (and to a lesser extent Canadians) seem to first run transit decisions through a filter which excludes anything that’s not “serious,” meaning anything that isn’t substantially identical to the transit technology that was installed in east coast cities a century ago.

So Seattle adopts LRT and then ends up with a giant concrete bathtub where they could’ve had two slender monorail beams instead. Pittsburgh adopts LRT and then never expands it, because the city is too hilly to do so without new tunnels. And all across the US, we’re having very earnest discussions about streetcars, which have an average speed of approximately two miles per hour and can generally be outpaced by everyone from novice cyclists to Rascal scooter owners. Meanwhile, Kuala Lampur’s monorail is so popular that they’re extending the platforms to allow longer trains.

Why is this so?

9 thoughts on “Will the US ever see non-traditional transit?”

  1. Don’t hate on Vancouver too much. The Canada Line is driverless, and intersects the Expo Line at right angles, so it would’ve been impossible to share maintenance facilities and such (and besides, the Expo Line trains are ungodly narrow while the Canada Line trains aren’t). The Millennium Line’s awkward shape actually comes from the need for a track connection for the maintenance facility.

    If you want to slag on Vancouver, talk about how the Expo Line wasn’t built with the Millennium Line in mind, so even though the two lines are parallel just west of Commercial the elevation difference makes a track connection impossible.

  2. I agree that elevated rail makes better sense in swampy Houston, but why monorail, specifically?

  3. Once you make the decision to go elevated, monorail has the smallest footprint. The trains are lighter, the beam is narrower, and this lets you run narrower columns (as in Seattle) or span longer distances (as in Osaka). The slender guideway casts a much smaller shadow than other forms of elevated rail, which makes it much less dreary to be underneath one. And rubber-tired vehicles have better acceleration and braking performance than steel-wheeled ones.

  4. Argh, I wrote a long comment and then my cat jumped on the keyboard.

    US politicians are not content to delegate and accept the results. Every engineer/planner you know has worked on a “study” to justify a politically predetermined outcome. US pols don’t see transpo as transpo, they see it as job creation, ribbon-cuttings, personal monuments, etc. Throw in the American fixation the technology and there you go. As Jarrett Walker said, the thought process is “we want streetcars, now where should we put them?”

    As it ever was. The streetcar craze is no different than the Prairie Fork Expressway. Same circus, different clowns.

  5. Alon, would a direct track connection between the Expo and Millenium lines at Commercial lead to any real benifits (excluding better transfer opportunities) considering there is a connection at Columbia?

  6. A discussion of monorail cannot be complete without mentioning the Wuppertal monorail in Germany (“Wuppertaler Schwebebahn”) which is one of the only if not the only true steel-on-steel single rail rapid transit lines in the world. With no place to build a transit system, builders in Wuppertal decided on a crazy monorail in the middle of the river with goofy inverted V-shape towers; the train literally dangles over the water. Still going strong at over 100 years, the Schwebebahn carries over 80,000 riders per day and recently got new (custom) cars.

  7. Rico: well, better transfer opportunities. More precisely, transfer-free trips from north Burnaby (soon also Port Moody and Coquitlam) to downtown.

  8. I know this is late, but I was looking up Skybus and ran across this web site. You mentioned Skybus and said it was killed by Politics. Yes, if you call massive opposition by the people who it was to serve poltics on the ground it promised to give worse service then the streetcar it was to replace, yes it was killed by Politics.

    Why the opposition? The two largest communities served by the existing Streetcar system whould see the number of stops reduced. In one Community (Beechview) from 10 to 1, and other would have its Streetcar right of way paved over to provide routes for buses to go to the Skybus stop. On hearing of the plan for “Skybus” both communities revolted. Now why was Skybus adopted? If you lived at the time period (1960s and 1970s) you quickly learned why, it was NOT to improve transit (if that was the case it would have gone from Downtown Pittsburgh to Oakland, where CMU, University of Pittsburgh and Carlow Collage are), No, Skybus was to replace the last Streetcar lines in Pittsburgh. Three lines that ran on their own right of way and thus were faster at getting to Downtown Pittsburgh then if you drove. Yes, driving from these communities would take longer then taking the Streetcar. The Streetcars ran every few minutes during rush hour and even at night once every half hour. Just under 10% of all people working in Downtown Pittsburgh took one of these routes (and still do till this day). Only one other set of routes has more comuters on it, that is the East Busway (along the right of way of the Old Pennsylvania Main line) it takes in just over 10% (and many people on that route wants it converted to a Light Rail, but the transit providers keeps saying buses are better. In th elast month it has proposed to cut back buses from the East Bus Way stop at the end fo the Bus way and NOT go into Downtown Pittsburgh like they have since it opened, this is make the streets downtown have less buses on them, but I Suspect so they can turn around those buses and do more trips with less drivers).

    SKybus was thus designed NOT to improve transit, but to replace the last Streetcar lines in Pittsburgh. It is for that reason you had massive opposition to Skybus, for it would provide LESS SERVICE at a SLOWER RATE then the Streetcar it was to replace (Thorugh not as bad if buses had replaced those Streetcars, the estimate was if buses replaced those Streetcars, the bus routes would triple in length of trip, traffic was already bad on the roads the buses would have to go on).

    Now, the actual Skybus would have been faster, given its very limited number of stops (Six was planned), but people would have had to take a bus to those stops, get off the bus and get on Skybus, that trip would have made the overall trip LONGER for the actual rider.

    In the mid 1970s a Study was done on the insistence of the Federal Government, If it had been done in 1965 (or had the 1967 study included Streetcars as a possible replacement for the existing Streetcar system) it would have been clear, Streetcars was the better choice.(by 1975 Streetcars were already being called Light Rail Vehicles). You would have greater service at lower cost.

    Now, as built the LRV system combined the three routes into Two. This was possible for when the Orginal Streetcar line was built it had been built in three sections. First the Streetcar tunnel through Mount Washington in 1904, and from there to Beechview where the person building the Streetcar line had purchased land and was developing housing to sell. The second part was from Donora on the Mongahelia River but in Washington County (The County SOUTH of Allegheny County) to Finleyville and tehmn Library Pa, just across the Allegheny County line. This was cross country away from the rivers. The third part had actually been built first, in 1869 but as a narrow gage railway for hauling coal to Pittsburgh. It went along hillsides to Castle Shannon and had plans to go to Washington Pa and Library PA, but those routes either were never built (Washington route) or if built abandoned within years of Construction (Library). After 1904 the Pittsburgh Streetcar line purchased the right of way to Castle Shannon and Washington PA, while the Donora Streetcar purchased the right of way from Library to Castle Shannon. There seem to be an agreement between the two Streetcar lines to share the less the a mile track from Washington Junction (Where the two lines diverged, one to Washington PA, the other to Donora) to Castle Shannon. At Castle Shannon the Donora Streetcar build a line to Mt Lebenon then connected to the Beechview line. Sometime soon afterward both streetcar lines merged and it was decided to run all the Donora cars via the old narrow gage railway for it was the faster route.

    Now, the Streetcar lines had purchased the Narrow gage railway but had to operate those trains for a couple more years (Technically no runs after about 1908 but the requirement was not lifted till 1950). Thus you had the Valley Route, on the old Narrow Gage Railway but you also had to old route via Beechview line which was maintained as connecting route between the two lines.

    The Washingrton route was abandoned at Drake road in 1952 when the right of way was sold to people who wanted to build business on the then new US 19 in that area (the old route was a very narrow route, that the Streetcar line passed over once, but then stayed away from. The new route of US 19 went right along the streetcar right of way, thus the land value went through the roof). The Donora Route was cut off at Library Pa. That was the Streetcar route from 1952 till it was rebuilt as an LRV system in the 1980s. The reason for this was simple, by abandoning Washington County the Rail system cioud get free of some Public Utiltiy Commission regulations AND replace the bridges it had built in the 1900-1910 period (all were in bad shape by that date).

    Pittsburgh Railway (Which owned the lines under discussion) sold its entire fleet and rails to the Allegheny County Port Authirity (PAT) in 1964, PAT has run the system ever since.

    With the decision to go with the LRV in the late 1970s, the LRV line was to go through Beechview. In Mt Lebanon (the only place it crossed US 19 in Allegheny County) a new tunnel under US 19 was drilled so the tracks could be removed from US 19. US 19 was the only major road that had extensive auto traffic that the Streetcars ran on. From Mt Lebanon the then New LRV lines went by the rebuilt old connecting route Castle Shannon and then to the Library and Drake loops.

    The new LRV cars purchased were to wide to go on the old narrow gage bridges, thus about a dozen PCC cars were updated and ran on that route.

    Now, the LRV system that was installed was never expanded for Allegheny County (Pittsburgh is in Allegheny County) just refused to build ANY new mass transit systems. In the late 1990s the Federal Government finally came up with the money to update the Valley line of the LRV (it had been abandoned in 1993 due to the 130 year old bridges finally could no longer handled the old PCC cars operating on them). Thus what was called the Valley line was reinstalled after it was rebuilt with modern concrete bridges. When the valley line was rebuilt, the Library and South Hills Village (what the Drake line was renamed) went via the Valley line NOT the Beechview line.

    I remember those old wooden bridges. As a teenager I and my sisters would go to the rear of the car (even if no one else was on it) to get the full feel of that car shaking each way, it was better then some roller coaster routes. High speed rail on tracks not rebuilt since 1904, by the 1970s it was an interesting ride, remember we were in 30 year old streetcars, Streetcars at the end of their Service life.

    The problem with expanding the LRV system was no one wanted to expand it back over its old right of ways to Washington PA or Donora. The Route to Donora is still mostly rural, but the route to Washington PA has a heavy suburban population. The right of way still exists still exists in Allegheny County (Thorugh much of the right of way in Allegheny County is now people’s back yards).

    The part along present US 19 starts right at the border of Washington County. The old right of way was sold off years ago, thus the three miles that is now along US 19 is full with various businesses. Where the old right of way went over the Montour railway (now the Montour rails to trails) stands a small tall concrete berm, where the Streetcar went over a bridge over the Montour. It still stands, but it is alone.

    Thus if you rebuild the Streetcar along its old right of way in Washington County, there will be objections for you would have to buy these businesses and the price will be high. Once you thorugh this three miles you can reuse the old right of way to Cannonsburg. At Cannonsburg you can go through town, as the old streetcars did OR hookup to the C&O track that goes right by Cannonsburg and take it to Washington PA. An alternative way would be to just drill a one mile tunnel to that same railway from the point where the old streetcar line from Pittsburgh hit US 19 (i.e. at the Washington County and Allegheny County Border) and then take that train to Cannonsburg and Washington PA. Thus expansion to the south is possible, but no one wants to fund it. Thus it remains a dream.

    As to Oakland, people have mentioned Streetcars to Oakland, but the issue is where would the right of way go? One proposal is to turn the C&O tunnel under Oakland and double track it, then run a high speed LRV between Oakland and Downtown Pittsburgh over that line (another proposal in to keep it single track but use signals to move the cars both ways through the existing tunnels).

    Presently the tunnel starts in a huge cut between Carnegie Tech and Carnegie Library and Museum. Double track it, then build a huge building over it so people can take ramps, steps or elevators from the Street level to the level of the Cut. This would be a cheap solution, but no one backs it for the businesses in Oakland do not see how they would benefit from it. They keep wanting a LRV on the roads that use to have streetcars on them.

    Allegheny Vally Railroad has proposed a rail system from its rails up the Allegheny River to downtown Pittsburgh via the Strip district and then to the LRV subway system. This may still come about, AVRR recently won a ruling that it retains ownership of tracks through the Strip district, ownership that a Developer of the Strip District said did not exist. The only question is how to get the railroad to the East Busway and to the LRV tracks? LIberty and Penn avenue are in the way and having a train cross then during Rush Hour is NOT going to make to many people happy, unless it is by a New Bridge, and who is going to pay for that Bridge?

    Bus rapid Transit is what people think is in fashion today, and that has been proposed between Oakland and Pittsburgh, but again WHERE? It seems to be liked for it promises greater speed but without having to build a right of way, In other words they will speed up collecting the tolls but run on the same roads. Skybus over those roads make more sense (if combined with the LRV between Carnegie Library an Carnegie Tech in many ways would be ideal,. Skybus stopping as every intersection, collecting people and leaving them off at the Carnegie stop of the LRV so they could be in town within minutes would be an idea combination of both systems, using the strength of each to enhance the other).

    The Carnegie LRV could be extended to both Greensburg (the County Seat of Westmoreland County, the county to the East of Pittsburgh) and even Johnstown PA. It can also be extended to the Mongahelia valley. proposed yes, any one comes up with a plan AND money? No. It has been proposed but with no one willing to fund it, it is a dead letter.

    Pittsburgh has a lot of hills and cliffsides, thus in the late 1800s we build a number of what we call “inclines” i.e. cars that are draged up on tracks up a hillside (proper name Funicular).



    We still have two inclines, but every so often someone proposes installing two of the 16 that were torn down. These two, in many people’s mind should NEVER have been torned down, they served a purpose and with the Bicycle Craze of the 1970s (and the massive increase in Bicycle use in the last 20 years), these two would have turned a profit. Both were vehicular Inclines, i.e. were design to take a horse and wagon team on them in addition to people on foot (i.e. also could take cars and light trucks, Johnstown still has a vehicular Incline). Thus it would have been easy to take bicycles on these inclines.

    More on the Johnstown Incline:


    .With today’s computers they could be set to run automatically. In fact several advisers to the City of Pittsburgh have told Pittsburgh to reinstall these two, to connect the city with its Rivers. One is the Penn Avenue Incline from the City of Pittsburgh Hill District to the Strip District along the Allegheny River. The other (The Knoxville Incline) ran from the South Side of Pittsburgh which is along the Mongahelia river, up the Mt Washington Escarpment to Allentown and the orginal road to Washington PA. Both go up steep inclines and once on top it would be easy for bicyclists to go down hill to whereever they wanted to go. In fact this is what they were built to do in the 1880s, to haul wagons up those hillsides so the horse then only had to haul the wagon downhill. The right of ways are both is still open (you can NOT built to much on hillside). The Allentown (knoxville was its name) incline would have to buy one small Stop and Go and maybe one house (the house was build on an embackment for either the old Knoxville or nearby Mrt Oliver Incline, it appears to be on the Mr Oliver income right of way, but you never know.. The Mt Oliver Incline went straight up the hill, but the Knoxville had a Curve in it. Thus while within 50 feet of each other at the bottom of the hill, were 1625 feet on the top (more then a 1/4 mile apart).

    More on the Penn Avenue incline:


    On Knoxville Incline:



    Now, to the existing Inclines, the local government has moderized them. They are now computer driven instead of manually operated, i.e. a computer sets how each car docks, as oppose to the old method is the operator could only see the top car dock and had to guide it in carefully. Computers also mean that except for tolling you could make them automatic i.e. no person operating them. Bicyckes are permitted in the Mongahelia Incline (Built 1869), but by its design a poor option (it has three levels each with room for people only).

    Yes, Pittsburgh has made some effort to improve transit, but it has no leadership (For example the improvement in handling of the inclines). I remember when Mayor Murphy in the 1990s had some people from Califorinia over to see Pittsburgh as a high tech city. Everyone showed up for these people from high tech firms were looking at cities to open new offices. People were willing to discuss anything, location, shipping, airports but the first thing out of these high tech people’s month was “where are the bike trails”, and except for Mayor Murphy (who was an advocate of biking) the people from Pittsburgh did not know for they never saw them as something people looking to open a business wanted to see. It was a shock to these men and women. Mayor Murphy had been fighting to improve biking for years by that time, but kept hitting this break wall that it would NOT bring in business and thus not the business of City or County Government.

    Right after that debackle of a meeting the City actually started to try to end its reputation as being the second worse city for biking in the US (NYC was #1). Pittsburgh being #2 was shocking for some natives, for Pittsburgh is above average when it comes to the number of people who walk to work. The City finally decided it would be good to complete the bike trail to Washington DC from Pittsburgh *Which was only completed last year). The City painted some streets for bike lanes (Something I disageee with, and I bike, when I bike I want to be in the same lane as a Car NOT in a lane cars have to cross to make a turn). The City has done a lot, but very little on how to get cyclists up the local hills. Reinstalling the inclines has been suggested, but everyone is looking for someone else to fund it. For example when the Feds came up with money to install bike racks on buses, the bike racks were installed (Bikes are also permitted on the LRV, but no racks, The LRVs are design to walk from the stop onto the LRV without climbing any step or even a curb).

    That is the constant problem with the City of Pittsburgh, unless they can get State or Federal Funding, they do NOT do any but the smallest improvements. Thus I can NOT fault them much when they do things I dislike (like bike lanes).

    Just a comment on Skybus from an oppornet of Skybus and why I opposed it and why it was defeated. It was a bad plan for the sole purpose it was proposed was to get rid of the last Streetcars in Pittsburgh it was NEVER proposed as an actual way to improve transit. This is typical of Pittsburgh, no vision, just repeating what people had done in the past. Given the Technology of the time period when Skybus was being built, it would have been a nice fit other then where it was proposed, but it was proposed NOT to improve transit but to get rid of Streetcars.

    Here are some additional Web sites on mass transit in Western Pennsylvania, which includes some video of Skybus in operations:

    More on the West Penn Railway:




    West Penn even had a line to Clarksburg and Fairmont, West Virginia (it is NOT on the above map):





    Another Streetcar line abandoned in the early 1950s was the Pittsburgh to Charleroi railway (technically it was truncated at the Allegheny County Line and became the Library line and now the Library line of the T):



    Here is the story of Skybus, the failed replacement for Streetcars in Pittsburgh (My father always said, it would have been ideal between Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland, the #2 and #3 stops in the State of Pennsylvania, #1 is downtown Philadephia. The problem was the Port Authortiy Transit that ran Pittsburgh buses had plans to use buses between those two stops and still does. The Streetcars between those two stops had always run on roads, so no private right of way, so no lost in time when the switch from Streetcars to Buses took place. Goes to show this was a plan to replace the last streetcar line NOT to actually improve transit:



    Some videos of Skybus in operation:

    Please note, Skybus lived on as a people mover in many airports. Seattle Airport was built by Westinghouse Electric (and rebuilt by Bombardier, who after several sales, owns the old Westinghouse Electric part that built Skybus).



    You can see Skybus heritage at the San Francisco Airport:


    Miami has a people mover in its downtown area:


    Skybus’s little cousin, a Small elevated transit system built in Morgantown West Virginia for West Virginia University:


    Here is a report that gasoline taxes pay only 50% of all road maintenace:


  9. Monorails have footprints just as large as normal elevated railway lines.

    They didn’t *used* to. However, current “escape walkway” regulations pretty much guarantee that they have the same footprint now. The just-as-wide structure carries just-as-heavy trains (monorails are inherently heavier than regular trains, actually — once you factor out the US “build ’em like tanks” regulations) and casts just-as-big a shadow.

    Monorails (…with the exception of suspended-from-above designs like Wuppertal…) are inherently less efficent than “duo-rails” because two-rail designs are passively stabilized and monorails aren’t.

    As for rubber-tired vehicles, they have worse fuel-efficiency than steel-tired ones, and you have to replace the parts more often, so there’s your tradeoff there.

    Nothing wrong with linear induction motors, though. And of course fully automated systems are a genuine improvement.

    Skybus never had a chance in hell of building a complete system in Pittsburgh; nobody was going to pay for it. And it would have required the same tunnels and bridges as anything else; the design couldn’t negotiate steep slopes as well as the *streetcars* could. If anything had been built, it would have been useless toy-transit along the lines of Detroit’s Peoplemover. Skybus was part of the “remove trains to build inferior buses” program which was still going on at the time. This “roads uber alles” crowd got the Pittsburgh busways built. Pittsburgh was lucky that there was somewhat of a backlash and what’s left of the light rail got revived and expanded.

    (Of course, WABCO’s automated rail line proposlal for Pittsburgh probably would have worked, and looked much like Vancouver’s current system does now.)

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