Dan Kempner, Managing Editor, Valutus Sustainability R.O.I.
Canada celebrated its bicentennial 52 years ago and threw a big party called Expo ’67 in Montreal. As an 8-year-old American, seeing Queen Elizabeth’s face on the money during an independence celebration was disconcerting, but the whirl of colors, the crush of onlookers, the fascination of the pavilions, and the joy of La Ronde — the theme park island in the St. Lawrence — swept all that aside. The whole place was magical.
In the American Pavilion — an enormous, Bucky Fuller-designed geodesic dome — we viewed the awesome Destination Moon, exhibit including a number of real Apollo capsules.
I also vividly recall the Telephone Pavilion, wherein “fair-goers were permitted to make videophone calls to volunteer recipients in other cities.” I was one of those so permitted and as I spoke with a fellow youngster across the Great Lakes in Chicago I thought, “This is going to be cool! Soon I’ll be able to talk face-to-face with anyone!”
In fact, it took 30 more years for cell phones to pop, but it did indeed come to pass. Yet there was another unique feature there that evoked the same expectation and anticipation: The monorails whispering past above our heads. There were three separate lines around the Exposition and for my part I could not wait to ride them to-and-from the various exhibits.
This, we were told, was the future of urban transport. Light, graceful, and smooth, with a short price and no need for tunnels, earthen berms, or heavy scaffolding. This would change everything. Walt Disney, for one, had exactly that vision.
After a trip to Germany where he viewed the Schwebebahn, the electric elevated railway topping a ravine in Wuppertal and “the oldest electric elevated railway with hanging cars in the world,” Disney brought the concept to his theme parks. An unusually prescient man, he believed he had found, “a critical step toward building the community of tomorrow.” Both of us were wrong.
The revolutionary idea was that small, light trains could actually move above the populace without bisecting neighborhoods, shutting out the sun, or generating the characteristic shriek-and-roar of heavy rail.
They could even move between — and into — buildings, dropping folks at their homes and offices rather than on or below the street. Watching trains packed with tourists actually enter the American pavilion was one of the highlights of the trip.
As I rode the Expo’s monorail, my family had just recently moved north from Chicago — with its famous ‘L’ trains cruising around ‘The Loop’ on massive overhead structures — to Toronto, a city with both raucous underground subways and charming electrified trams vying with automobiles at street level. My dad took me to the end-of-the-line and back our first week in town, and it was a great way to meet a new city.
Five years later all aboard! again when we moved to New York City, a town always prepared to rumble both under and above the ground. Another fifteen years and I was on to my last U.S. destination, Boston, where the schizophrenic Green Lines can’t decide whether to tram along the streets, roar overhead, or rattle underground, and so do all three.
In each new place I wondered if light transport — such as the Expo’s monorails — might be the right people-moving option but, after a lifetime has passed, the concept still has not caught on. In the U.S. in particular, monorail has been relegated to novelty status, carrying tourists around amusement parks and ferrying travelers to the baggage claim (though at least one new and apparently successful monorail system was installed along the Las Vegas strip a few years ago).
Ryan Kennedy wrote in a treatise on the topic a few years ago that , “the real test for the acceptance and suitability of monorail rapid transit in North America will be Seattle’s 14-mile Green Line, where many of the best and most appropriate aspects of monorail technology such as visually pleasing aerials and full automation have been incorporated.”
If that’s true, then monorail has failed the test: after a bitter, years-long public battle, and a loss of $125 million, the Seattle project was scrapped. Now, Seattle already has a working monorail, built in 1962 for – you guessed it – a World’s Fair. It is still functioning along Fifth Avenue between Lower Queen Ann and Westlake Center downtown. But it doesn’t look like the rest will be built, and other cities have chosen standard light rail or subway extensions and buses to move people around. More buses in New York? Boston? Ho Chi Minh City? No thanks!
But while the North American public has never truly embraced these trains, Europe and Asia seem to think they are terrific. There are currently at least ten lines operating in Japan, including one in Tokyo carrying more than 100 million people annually. This train can take you from Haneda airport to downtown in 19 minutes.
There is also a heavily used monorail in Chongqing, China. And once again my own city — my current home, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam, cries out for this type of solution. Somehow HCMC did not make the official list of most-congested cities, but when Waterloo, Ontario and Eindhoven, Netherlands, rank ahead of this place, said rankings are highly suspect. Love you too, Tacoma, but…really? Have you been to Vietnam?
Cars, rare up to now, are surging as a true middle class has formed. Five years ago, “Ho Chi Minh City had 6.4 million private vehicles, of which nearly six million were motorbikes.” We’re now up to 800K cars with total vehicles expected to reach 10 million next year.
Nine-million motorbikes darting in every direction are no joke, so a monorail system rising above the autos and the Vespa tailpipes would be an elegant solution to the burgeoning traffic in one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.
After all, if monorail works at amusement parks and crowded terminals, and in Japanese and Chinese cities, too, it should work here. The idea is for transport to be out of the way, low profle, nimbly integrated into a cityscape, bypassing obstacles and being part of the view rather than in the way. Perfect! Let’s build one in ol’ Saigon!
But why hasn’t this concept flourished? Why did Disney’s famous prescience fail him this time? There is no single answer.
Magic Ears Dudebro — no, I didn’t make it up — writing in The Medium, claims there are three main negatives for the monorail: The cost of new infrastructure vs the cost of extending old infrastructure; Inability of interaction between systems — meaning regular trains can’t be integrated due to disparate rail types — and finally, the cost of a ticket, for trains of all types, has risen due to declining ridership in the U.S — though not in other places.
Seattle meanwhile, had imposed an auto tax that would have amounted to about $130 a year for most vehicles, which made the project tough for some to stomach. A cool idea, to have drivers pay for public transport even while encouraging them not to drive, but the plan foundered on public outcry.
Right now I’m pinning my hopes on my neighbor, Cambodia, where a feasibility study is currently underway for a monorail in perhaps the best-named capitol on the planet: Phnom Penh. Apparently, the Japanese have been invited there to look at building a monorail as a traffic solution for, as noted above, nowhere has monorail been embraced more warmly than in Japan.
Let’s hope it works in Cambodia. Maybe that will convince the Vietnamese to build one here. Anything that could potentially carry millions of Vietnamese downtown, quietly and without internal combustion, seems like a good idea. Personally, I’d be delighted to jump in a nice, smooth monorail at the end of my block on Trường Chinh Street and, 20 minutes later, find myself debarking inside the Bitexco tower in District 1. That’s quick, but there’s still plenty of time to chow down a Bánh Mì on the way!
Thanks for reading. Your comments are very welcome.