Riding the Monorail

Post by Mike Klassen in


A two-minute ride on Seattle's Monorail – like you're there

I've been to Seattle a bunch of times, but not much in the past several years. So when I visited last month it was with an eye on how successful this metropolitan area has been in making their urban core more welcoming and walkable, and how they're wrestling with the insatiable needs of car commuters.

On the latter, I've already posted a comment. I observed a weave of onramps and bottlenecked 10-lane freeways that don't indicate much progress. In Seattle's downtown I had a different experience. I saw a lot to envy, such as the vibrant Pike Place Market district, and the Olympic Art Park.

On transit, my family and I decided to ride the Monorail from the Seattle Center to the downtown shopping district. After I remembered to push the record button (the first 20 seconds or so are missed from the ride) I shot the video above of the ride. We were expecting something clunky from this service. It's nearly 50-years old (built for the World's Fair in 1962) yet was clean, well-maintained and practically modern in its appearance.

Seattle are taking important steps to integrate a modern (European-built) streetcar system into their transit mix. The video on the front page of www.seattlestreetcar.org is really worth viewing. In about 2-3 minutes you can see the way Seattle of the future, with walkable communities and new housing and amenities building up around the lines, is a place of promise.

There are still many in Seattle who are not convinced of the benefits, such as people quoted in this Seattle PI story:

Licata said he isn't convinced the state is going to pick up the cost to replace the waterfront line, and businesses and neighbors along First Avenue aren't enthusiastic about giving up parking for a streetcar.

"Why would you put a streetcar in a neighborhood when the neighbors don't want it?" Licata asked.

John Pehrson, a Belltown Business Association board member, said the group is concerned about a First Avenue streetcar taking away traffic lanes or parking.

"We feel good about streetcars -- we ride them in Europe and other cities -- but I'm not sure what problem we are solving here. How does it improve my area?" he asked.

Even more in the Emerald City balk at the benefits of transit over cars, as evidenced by these commenters on the PI's story. Thankfully, Seattle City Council approved the expansion of the streetcar system, as a Christmas present to its citizens. Amazingly, the South Lake Union streetcar line trial went from concept to reality in only four years!

Why the Monorail never made it beyond the one short line is probably a long, convoluted and depressing political battle. I can't imagine keeping it running can be cheap, and the ridership must build to make it more than just a tourist attraction. The fact that it remains and operates as well as it does is something Seattle can be proud of. Long live the Monorail. Long live the Seattle Streetcar.


Seattle is moving ahead with their rapid transit as well. Their new rapid transit system opens in just over one week on July 18th. This goes from downtown south to the airport, though the final station on the line, the airport, does not open until December.

An extension north to the University of Washington is also currently being built.

More info:

Unfortunately, these projects don't carry the "commuters". The streetcar is empty 90% of the day, and has 5 riders maximum during rush hour. The costs are just not worth it for the average Seattle taxpayer who is paying property taxes to support these transit lines.

Great video, Michael. I haven't been to Seattle in ages. Time to make a trip, I think.

I'd like to have a closer look at planning for the line. Are they building density around it to support it? What are the funding models for construction -- is the state or fed gov't involved, for example?

There's no point of building transit where it's not needed, but Seattle's heavy reliance on the car has to reach a breaking point somewhere - I'd argue it's already arrived. I'd like to see Puget Sound with more rapid transit alternatives. You'd be surprised in how many people will start using them.

Btw, sorry that your comment didn't post right away. Occasionally they get caught by spam filters, which we should check more dutifully.

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