Why the Monorail Failed in Los Angeles

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Samland

Tagged: , ,


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.


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.


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.


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.”



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.


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.


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.


“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.


“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.


“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.


“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?

Amazon link. Barnes and Noble link.
Twitter – samlanddisney
Facebook – Sam Gennawey
Linkedin – Sam Gennawey

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.

Browse Archived Articles by

  • Haven

    The L.A. Monorail is right up there with such doomed projects as the bullet train between Vegas and Anaheim, another one that has been tossed around for 30 years now.

    • StevenW

      A bullet train from LA to Las Vegas is not economical. You can get there cheaper on a tank of gas. This where green technology begins to impact mass transit.

  • birnam

    Do you know if the monorail at the L.A. County Fair had any ties to these projects, possibly as a working demonstration or an attempt at influencing popular support, or was it intended simply a “ride”?