Why the Monorail Failed in Los Angeles

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Samland

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Published on May 23, 2013 at 3:00 am with 25 Comments

I realize that most people associate early Monorails with Walt Disney. It is well-known that one of the earliest drawings of Tomorrowland by Herb Ryman had one crossing over the entrance. The Disneyland Monorail was the first daily operating monorail in the Western Hemisphere. Back when the line was extended to the Disneyland Hotel, it was the first US monorail to cross a public street. However, there has been a long history of monorails in the United States and elsewhere, even in the Los Angeles area.

One of the earliest examples was a system designed and patented by inventor Joseph W. Fawkes in 1907. He called it the Aerial Swallow and built a prototype in 1911 with the intention of building a line that would connect Burbank to downtown Los Angeles. He built a quarter-mile test track with a monorail train train that hung from the rail and was powered by a propeller driven by an air-cooled engine. The 40-foot train could travel at 3 mph. The train made its maiden run on July 4, 1911. As investors shied away, the project faded into history.

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On January 15, 1954, Coverdale & Colitis submitted their proposal for $165 million monorail to the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, based on a study that began in 1947. By today’s standards, it would cost almost $1.4 billion. At first, the project was going to be built with private sector funds, but in 1951 a public agency was set up specifically to look at the technology. The monorail was deemed superior to a subway or light rail because of the low-density distribution of land uses throughout the region, the high degree of automobile ownership, and the lack of any surface-free mass transit.

The line would begin at the corner of Van Nuys Boulevard and Roscoe Boulevard in Panorama City in the San Fernando Valley, and pass by Universal Studios on its way to downtown Los Angeles, where it would go under Hill Street for two miles. The monorail would continue to American Boulevard and Broadway in Long Beach. Fifteen stations were proposed, and a trip from end to end would take approximately 67 minutes. Each station would have an adjacent parking lot or parking structure.

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The systems being studied were of a “classical” monorail, whereas the train hung below the rail, and a “split-rail” monorail, which features a train that hung below two closely spaced rails enclosed inside of a box. In both cases, it was suggested that the trains would run on rubber tires instead of steel wheels. In the case of the split-rail technology, the trains would have been virtually silent. At an average speed of 41 mph, the trains would outrun any other mode of travel. The proposed system would have featured 50 foot cars that can hold approximately 67 passengers. Up to eight cars could be combined to build one train.

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The third kind of monorail, the German “saddlebag” approach advocated by ALWEG (and later installed at Disneyland), was dismissed as impractical. The report stated, “Few, if any, American transit experts believe the “saddlebag” has a future in the U.S., but a number suspect that a modern suspended monorail might meet the need of some cities.”

 

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Considering the economics, at best the system would break even and maybe even turn a profit with a modest public subsidy.  Tickets would cost 20 to 50 cents and they initially expected up to 79 million boardings per year. For the system to succeed financially, more than 30 percent of the ridership would have to switch from driving.

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So what happened? The proposal was doomed from the start. The monorail proponents were opposed by two huge political forces: the Pacific Electric Lines (the Red Car) and the Los Angeles Transit Lines. The Los Angeles Transit Lines was run by National City Lines, partially owned by General Motors. Their proposal was a series of express buses along the freeways. Shades of Roger Rabbit. These forces limited the right of way under consideration to a corridor that was the least desirable. They also lobbied the California Legislature to deny access to the Public Utilities Commission and the ability to float tax-free bonds.

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The other strike against the system was the public’s indifference to mass transit in Los Angeles. People just loved their cars and there was a sense of optimism that the region could build enough freeways to eliminate congestion once and for all. Sixty years later, Los Angeles is still counting on the express buses (Metro’s Rapid Bus network) to alleviate congestion. And we are all still stuck in traffic.

This was the only time Los Angeles looked at a monorail system. The following is an excerpt from Walt and the Promise of Progress City:

“An alternate plan was proposed in 1960, just one year after Walt’s demonstration model at Disneyland. This system would have covered 74.9 miles, with 51 miles of beam overhead, 21.6 miles at grade,  and  2.3 miles in tunnels. This system would have cost $529 million. This project was too ambitious and was scaled back to 22.7 miles, with 12 miles in a subway under Wilshire Boulevard, at a cost of $192 million. Monorail  advocates argued that a side benefit to the project was the construction of a multi-mile bomb shelter. Officials were so confident that the project would be funded that they held a public groundbreaking in Downtown Los Angeles and Beverly Hills in 1962. However, the funding did not materialize, and the project went nowhere.

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“Author Ray Bradbury was also a big fan of the monorail technology. Bradbury tried to encourage the City of Los Angeles to build a system. He formed a citizen’s group called Save Rapid Transit and Improve Metropolitan Environments. He had admired the multi-modal and successful transit network in San Francisco and thought a layered system like that would work in Los Angeles. He said, “Look, the psychology of the monorail is what makes it superior. First of all, it’s not an elevated like the old trains in Chicago. It’s up in the air, but it doesn’t  make  noise…you hardly hear  it.” Bradbury added, “The important thing  is that it’s above the traffic, and would glide past the traffic.”

“The  Alweg Monorail  Company  agreed with  Bradbury on the merits of the  technology and proposed a demonstration system for Los Angeles. After the success of the system at Disneyland and the experience gained at the 1962 Seattle Century  21 Exposition, Alweg was  looking for a way  to  expand the  business. So,  on June  4, 1963,  Sixten Holmquist, President of the Alweg Rapid Transit Systems, approached the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Metropolitan Transit  Authority  (MTA)  and made them  an offer.

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“The press release said, “We are  pleased to submit this day  a proposal to finance and construct an Alweg Monorail rapid transit system 43 miles in length, serving the San  Fernando Valley, the Wilshire  corridor, the San Bernardino corridor and downtown Los Angeles.” The offer was for “a turn-key proposal in which a group will share risk, finance the construction, and  turn over to MTA a completed and  operating system  to  be repaid  from  MTA revenues.” The budget for the initial monorail network, including rolling  stock, was  estimated to be $187.5 million. Alweg would also conduct feasibility studies for  expansion of the system  to cover the entire Los Angeles  region. In an interview  with the Los Angeles Times in 1965, Walt said,  “A  monorail would be a natural attraction to thousands of people  who  would  just  ride it because it is something new and different. And it is needed. It’s not something that would  be scrapped after two years.”  A competitor company proposed a 75 mile suspended car system  at a cost of $182.3 million.

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“In both proposals, the public agency would  give the company all the fares collected for 40 years;  that money would  be  used to pay for the  bonds that  would finance the projects. With either offer, the Los Angeles region could have had a fixed-rail transit backbone using  revolutionary technology at no cost to the taxpayers. However, political pressure from Standard Oil Company dampened the Board  of Supervisors’ and the LAMTA’s enthusiasm for the project.

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“In an  interview in 2001, Bradbury said, “Telephone Alweg to accept their offer, made 30 years ago, to erect 12 crosstown monorails—free, gratis—if we let them run the traffic. I was there the afternoon our supervisors rejected that splendid offer, and I was thrown out of the meeting for making impolite noises. Remember, subways are for cold climes, snow and sleet in dead- winter London, Moscow  or Toronto. Monorails are for high, free, open-air spirits, for our always-fair weather. Subways are Forest Lawn extensions. Let’s bury our dead  MTA and get on with life.” To date, Los Angeles has spent  billions of dollars to build 79 miles of fixed rail, much of it underground.

Well folks, were Ray Bradbury and Walt Disney on to something? Should LA have accepted the offer of a free monorail system? Or are you happy with your current commute?

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About Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.

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25 Comments

Comments for Why the Monorail Failed in Los Angeles are now closed.

  1. I just love the name – “Aerial Swallow.” Imagine if it would have been built and that sort of cool branding would have stuck in the LA area for decades. LA would be famous instead of infamous.

  2. This was fascinating. Thanks Sam!

  3. It’s really sickening that we let the auto industry keep us from having a cutting edge transportation system in LA. They are also the ones who bought and then killed our extensive red car trolley system. Is it too late to hold GM accountable for the damage they’ve done to LA?

    • I would have let them go bankrupt, but the government saved their buns. Realistically, what accountability? It not a crime to advocate their interests.

      Anyways, if cutting edge is what you want, you can expect high speed rail in 20, 30, 40 years…. The LA subways system is expanding with more lines.

      Personally, if you need to use mass transit, it is not the best place to live.

    • Thankfully, the tide is slowly turning to have more rail projects in the area. It’s just a pain to develop the infrastructure.

      However, a lot of the old PE trolley right of way is still just hanging out, unused, so it can be utilized in the future.

      Urban sprawl really makes mass transit projects in the LA basin difficult.

      And in Orange County… eh, I hate to politicize it, but it’s all NIMBY Republicans. The light rail from Fullerton to the Irvine Spectrum would have been awesome and useful. Would I take a metro line from Fullerton to Disneyland? Absolutely.

    • Wow, you mean just like in that Disney movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” where the streetcar got replaced by the automobile?

  4. GREAT ARTICLE! Unfortunately, it is as much about our culture as it is about the key players. Yes, we do not want to give up our cars. I work with people who lose their drivers license and need to come to treatment. They out right refuse to take public transportation or ride a bicycle (mind you, on most days my bike is sitting in the back corner of my office). I know in other US cities, or other cities in the world, this would never be put into question! I believe it will take a catastrophe of gas prices of $9 a gallon to force the culture to make a shift.

    For now, I’d just be happy if Disney extended their monorail, here and at WDW, to service more of their property.

  5. I always thought this would have been a great idea for SoCal. Unfortunately, there were always too many greedy business men and politicians who wanted a piece of the profits.
    I can’t remember the details, but there’s been more than one proposal to link Anaheim with a monorail system…Disneyland, Convention Center and the Anaheim Stadium complex. They couldn’t get that passed when only dealing with Anaheim, a city where Disney has a lot of political clout.
    Walts original idea for his Epcot city had a wonderful multi-layered transport system….including people-movers and monorails. Too bad the company didn’t build that project….I would have loved to see it.

  6. Monorails are not the best mass transit system around. Most countries have extensive subways, street cars, and bus systems. Monorails are best reserved for amusement parks and world fairs where they still exist in those environments.

    It is a lie to suggest mass transit will alleviate congestion. If traffic is so bad, mass transit can only serve to make things easier for commuters, but the traffic remains. Logically, if the public sees open streets, they will just use their cars and avoid using mass transit. Much traffic can be accounted for by people who commute to work on routes not served by mass transit. The monorail maps show routes that seem to be designed for tourists, not residents.

    • I wouldn’t say it’s a lie. It’s unproven. There are places in the world where it does (most large cities in Europe, for example) and places were it doesn’t (New York, where everyone uses the subway yet somehow traffic is still horrendous). LA is much more spread out then New York City, so it might help alleviate traffic better then the subway in New York does (where everything is confined to a few square miles), but because it is much more spread out building the monorail or any other public transportation and doing it so that it is effective will cost substantially more to build and maintain. Paris is a pretty good example, which is a huge city in terms of square miles, and has three different major forms of public transportation. Finding a parking space in Paris is next to impossible, but traffic in general is nothing like it is in LA. Now, because of the terrible destruction of WWII, it was easier and less expensive to build the public transportation system because much of the city had to be rebuilt anyway (and of course the US paid for a lot of that), so building an equivalent system in LA would be much more expensive, but if they could get it done there is reason to believe that it would work.

      • Because LA is so spread out, it needs a network that is overlapping and encompassing. The current rail system is barely there. It has 4 lines (Red, Gold, Green, and Blue). The bus system is barely useable. If you have to transfer 3 times, the commute can take 2 hours. Its worse when you miss a train or bus.

        What went wrong with LA rail system is not having a comprehesive system to serve the downtown area. The downtown area itself needs a subway system to serve the major business centers so commuters can quickly go to work. The Red line is the only rail serving downtown. It needs a parallel line to serve other areas of the downtown.

        Another problem is the freeway system. If you commute, you realize that most traffic is directed toward downtown even if you want to bypass downtown and go towards the outlying area.

        As for why LA will never alleviate its traffic problem when there is mass transit, PARKING. People have a place to park their cars. After the day ends, the parking lots will empty out. You did a comparison of New York and Paris and noticed that they have no parking, but still have traffic. Let’s acknowledge the obvious, they are highly density cities. People live and work there unlike LA. Since they live there, they still need to get around. People need taxis on occasion. A minority (perhaps rich) have cars. Trucks need to transport materials, food, goods. Thus, traffic is still bad no matter how much public transportation is available.

  7. Yes, Alweg tried valiantly to interest Los Angeles officials in building a “German Saddlebag” style Monorail system, but to deaf ears. Sixten Holmquist had a small office on Wilshire Boulevard where I would sometimes go help him with technical configurations of such a system. More than just a city Monorail system, we also worked on plans for the Los Angeles harbor where a Monorail could be used to unload cargo ships anchored just offshore, obviating the need for more dock space. Holmquist was a very gentlemanly business executive who drove a cute little Volvo. He also was trying to develop a Monorail system in Caracas Venezuela. Yes, Los Angeles had a Monorail opportunity but blew it.

  8. The thing that kills me about this is how monorail proposals get shot down by some sort of reactive lobby on the part of some sector (train, auto) that fears change and just wants to keep things the same forever. I’d like for it to be voted up or down based on its true merits. Yes, there would be some initial pains and expenses as a system like that gets put in, but imagine if many of our major cities now had monorail systems that don’t compete with street traffic.

    I live in Austin, and we’ve been growing steadily for decades and our highways are clogged but we keep kicking the can down the road by begrudgingly expanding our highway system and attempting to add a very limited light rail service which totally disrupts street traffic and has already resulted in a fatality. How awesome would it be to have leadership willing to be politically unpopular but do what’s best in the long run!?

    • What I really long to see established somewhere is a blend of monorail lines for doing the heavy lifting of moving lots of people, plus PRT networks for covering the “last mile” at a few popular points of the monorail routes.

      • PRT is AWESOME. I might detour to Morgantown, WV in a few weeks while I’m traveling just to check out their old PRT system.

  9. If nothing else, a monorail system is ideally suited to SoCal because of the earthquakes and the ability to repair and realign such a system in comparison to freeways. Look at the 405. All through the Valley it STILL suffers from the 94 earthquake’s misalignments nearly 20 years later! OUTRAGEOUS!

    LA as a culture and entity is a sadly self interested, narcissistic, self destructive and ignorant city. Somewhere in the first half of the 20th century it jumped its own tracks and has bumped along repeatedly ruining itself at every chance of salvation. I was born there, grew up there and educated there by one of the most prestigious industrial design colleges in the world and saw that even with mankind’s greatest enthusiasm and talent present, LA will likely never live up to its real promise… so I left and don’t really miss it except for what it was in my childhood. (And I miss Disneyland :P )

  10. Monorails .org is loaded with places with working monorails and more are being built. Los Angles has to keep the Unions busy hence Two rail transit . It is sad that the money they spent could have built a monorail system.

  11. This very cool transportation system seems doomed to succeed anyplace. Even here in Seattle, where they actually built one 50 years ago, and where voters later overwhelmingly voted to extend the line from downtown to other neighborhoods, it didn’t get done. Government cried that it would cost too much and blew it off, though they did manage to build 2 sports stadiums that both got voted down.

  12. The Las Vegas monorail would have been highly succesful if it had run all the way from McCarren Airport to the Strip and Downtown hotels. And it sure would have been convenient. But the taxicab lobby stopped it from going all the way, so that you would have to take a taxi to the monorail and then another one the rest of the way to your hotel, pretty much making the monorail a money loser, as few people ever used it. The same thing happened with the so-called Subway to the Sea, in Los Angeles. Nothing like corrupt special interests buying off politicians, at the expense of everybody else.

  13. Remember. The agency that killed the monorail and the subway to the sea (only to bring it back for much more money) wants to dig a hole 400 feet under South Pasadena. Just like in the Disneyland show “Magic Highways.” Except no nuclear powered drilling rig that just burnt a hole in the side of the mountain.

    I just love transportation history!

    Sam
    http://www.samlanddisney.blogspot.com

  14. I’m sure that the monorail in LA will eventually be built, right after the high speed train from San Diego to San Francisco gets done… Unfortunately, the problem is not about the car culture in in California, because that’s about driving for fun and showing off, not about commuting to work. The problem is that no one is ever willing to pay for anything, and even when they do, it turns out to be grossly mismanaged and astronomically over budget (see: LA Subway). Even if LA did try to build a monorail they’d find a way to mess it up. I know cities aren’t built this way, but I’d love to see Disney hired as a consultant to build a brand new city (a big one like LA) from the ground up where they get to design the layout and the public transportation. Not like EPCOT where it’s an amusement park, but a real city. I wouldn’t expect something like that in the US or Europe (because no one would pay for it), but I could see that in China. If you look at Tomorrow City in Shanghai (it was featured prominently in the last James Bond movie) it would be something like that.

  15. We have 10 million people in L.A. County but I believe we’re way too spread out to ever have an effective, fully connected mass transit system that doesn’t cost something astronomical. I agree with Bradbury though about the cost of monorails; it can’t be nearly as expensive as the ridiculous tunneling we’ve done. I would love to see monorail runs in certain high traffic zones; something between the San Fernando Valley and the westside comes to mind.