The Monorail Opportunity in Seattle, Washington

by Emory Bundy

January 5, 1998

This commentary deals with the opportunities provided by the voter's approval of an "extend the monorail" initiative in the city of Seattle in November, 1997. Detailed information about the initiative is available at three websites: the Friends of the Monorail , the Public Interest Transit Forum and Innovative Transportation Technologies .


Given the voters' approval of the Monorail Initiative, citizens of Seattle deserve to have it energetically and sympathetically explored, in a manner true to the terms of the initiative. Monorail development ought not proceed until an identified technology fully satisfies appropriate performance and cost criteria. In the first instance this is not an exercise in building a system, but a search for an appropriate system to build.

Only when the latter is confirmed should the building proceed. The installation of cutting-edge transit technology may entail risk. But it is more prudent to proceed with a new system that is likely to succeed--even if success cannot be guaranteed--than to continue with old transit technologies that are virtually certain to increase costs while failing to increase marketshare.

Appropriate technologies may exist at the present time. If not, they are technically and economically within reach. The lightweight, reliable and inexpensive microprocessor is the essential prerequisite of new, cost-effective transit systems. It makes possible computer-directed vehicles, saving roughly 70% of the expense of current transit operations. If construction costs can be brought within range--so a community can afford a sufficiently extensive system or network--then a winning combination is achievable. Though there may be some public reticence to installing overhead transit, because of visual intrusion, it is imperative to do so: Going underground is impossibly expensive, and at ground level congestion already is nigh unbearable. Overhead is the only other option. But to be politically viable, overhead transit must be quiet (not steel-on-steel), and its visual intrusion must be modest or small in scale--something far less imposing than the Seattle Monorail down Fifth Avenue.

Seattle has a great opportunity to confront a problem of immense magnitude that afflicts cities all over the world. The task requires vision, imagination, tough-mindedness, technological sophistication, and civic purpose. This community has as much incentive as any, and no community has better raw material to engage the challenge. Further, the successful Monorail Initiative may enable responsible and creative citizens to get beyond the limitations of conventional transportation planning--like the Seattle 1990 process enabled the citizenry to trump the efforts of those determined to invest the City's resources in WPPSS nuclear projects #4 and #5.

The Problem

Seattle is experiencing alarming traffic congestion and loss of mobility. The metropolitan area is rated among the most congested in the US. Average commuting speed (and even weekend travel!) is slowing, commuting distances have lengthened, the average number of passengers per car has declined, the share of trips using transit has dropped, and though the use of efficient transportation modes like vanpools and bicycling has increased, the increase has made barely a discernible impact.

The situation will continue to deteriorate. Seattle is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country; it may absorb nearly a million additional people over the next twenty years. For several decades vehicle miles traveled (VMT) have been increasing at more than three times the rate of population growth. The difficult situation today, exacerbated by dramatic increases in population, compounded by even greater increases in VMT, promises to become a commuter's nightmare tomorrow.

Population growth is driven by a healthy local economy, buttressed by the region's wonderful quality of life. The antidote to population growth is unattractive: Economic setbacks and a sharp decline in the region's appeal. The multiple factors promoting VMT growth are difficult to alter: More people are driving more cars more miles. People live further from places of employment. More women are in the workforce. The ratio of adults to children has grown. A region once featuring a moderately compact central city has given way to countless business parks, shopping malls, and low-density housing developments. In 1950 metropolitan Seattle averaged over 5,000 people per square mile; in 1990 the average was less than 3,000. Growth management--strict adherence to urban growth boundaries, urban in-fill, smaller lots, and greater use of apartments and condominiums--could reverse this trend, with sufficient political will and skillful planning. But that is a very, very long-term strategy. In the meantime congestion will grow more acute and ease of mobility will wane.

The built environment changes slowly. The evolution from a population density averaging 5,000 to 3,000 per square mile took 40 years. Now zoning codes, stipulated lot sizes, spacious single family homes, and height restrictions are established, and average family size is markedly lower. To significantly re-concentrate the built environment and the people who occupy it poses a formidable challenge, even if the region's county and municipal councils have the resolve to pursue that goal.

Though the time horizon will be long, it makes good sense to arrest sprawl, protect environmentally sensitive areas, and maintain existing forests and farmlands. The failure to do so in the past has compounded the transportation problems of the present, and if such failures continue the quality of the future will be compromised further.

The First Transportation Priority: Greater Efficiency

The first, urgent line of attack on congestion must be the more efficient utilization of the region's existing mega-billion dollar transportation infrastructure. We have an array of opportunities; here are a few examples:

The University of Washington's U-Pass program--instituting parking rate increases, incentives to carpool, cheap bus transportation, etc.--swiftly reduced single occupancy vehicle (SOV) usage of 52,000 faculty, staff, and students by one-quarter, from 33% to 24%. It cut SOV use by 4,680 cars. U-Pass programs should be extended to other campuses in the region.

Seats on Metro's buses are, on average, only 14% occupied, revealing significant potential for more efficient utilization. Pricing strategies designed to get greater service from existing bus fleets have proven more cost-effective than building new transit systems, and can be implemented far more quickly.

Commuting automobiles average merely 1.1 occupants per car. Incentives to carpool could significantly impact auto usage. If one more person carpooled for every ten cars--increasing the occupancy rate from a measly 1.1 to a mere 1.2--more cars would be taken from the highways than everything the RTA promises to accomplish in 15 years with $4 billion!

Investments and encouragement for bicycle commuting are puny--yet that fast-growing component of Seattle's commuting population is the most energy-efficient, non-polluting, and cost-effective of all modes. Modest investments in cycling would help relieve congestion. In many European communities, including great cities like Copenhagen, bicycles contribute a substantial share of all trips.

Metro nurtures one of the most extensive vanpooling operations in the nation. Its experts have concluded that the next increment of 5,000 vanpoolers will require an $11 million investment. Once made, the participants will pay all operating and maintenance expenses. But vanpool expansion is not being done, because of the cost. Yet the added 5,000 vanpool riders would be double the number of new riders the Regional Transit Authority's commuter rail line aspires to serve--and they could be removed from the highways in roughly one-ninth the time, at less than one-60th the capital cost ($11 million vs. $670 million). Unlike rail passengers, they would require no operating subsidies.

There are a plethora of perverse practices that subsidize automobile driving, and deny comparable support to other modes of transportation. For example, most employers provide free parking to employees--and bear the substantial costs for land, capital investment to install parking lots and structures, taxes, and maintenance. Meanwhile, they do nothing for employees who carpool, walk, or bicycle. Support for transit, when offered, is but a fraction of the subsidy for parking. A small San Francisco employer adopted a simple and more equitable practice:

Drivers pay part of the cost of the parking, $3 per day, and those who do not drive are rewarded with $3. That makes a $120 "swing" over a month. Each day employees simply note whether they use a parking place, and the total is settled at the end of the month. Most employees promptly found ways to get to work without cars, save for special occasions. They pocket the benefit, and the employer comes out ahead.

Congestion pricing is a must. No capital-intensive infrastructure, whether telephone lines, electric energy supplies, airlines, bus services, or congested bridges and highways, can achieve reasonable efficiency if there is no differentiation between costs during periods of high demand vs. low demand. Those who insist on using the service at peak periods must be required to pay a higher tariff, or the infrastructure is destined to be used inefficiently, and the ultimate cost to customers, or taxpayers, is far greater. Figuring out how to send cost signals in order to improve the efficient utilization of the region's mega-billion dollar transportation infrastructure is a critical challenge demanding political leadership.

The state's Commute Trip Reduction (CTR) Act, calling for employers of more than 100 workers to reduce their employees' SOV commutes by 35%, is a constructive measure. It should be accompanied by incentives, rather than concentrating on bureaucratic controls and threatened penalties.

The measures described above, to promote vanpooling, carpooling, bicycling, better utilization of existing bus and highway capacity, and prudent investments and incentives, are the tools for successful CTR. With incentives rather than penalties, the region also could tap the trip-reduction potential of the vastly greater number of small employers (under 100 workers).

To orchestrate the entire process of efficient transportation improvements, Least Cost Planning--precisely akin to that pioneered in the Northwest electrical energy system in response to the WPPSS debacle--must be instituted in the transportation sector. Such a process would curb the porkbarrel incentives that affect transportation decisions, and promote prompt, cost-effective responses to the region's traffic problems.

The Limitations of Conventional Transit Technologies

Good transit services, whether public or private, are critical to the success of a metropolitan area. Many people do not drive for reasons of age, infirmity, or income. More cars, roads, and parking are absorbing more of the urban land base (currently about 40%). There is impaired mobility for the transit-dependent, and unbearable traffic congestion.

The very factors that drive congestion--dispersed neighborhoods and business centers, increased population, higher ratio of employed adults, high automobile ownership--undercut the viability of conventional public transit technologies. The bus is a flexible technology, and its capital cost is fairly modest. But it does not offer a reasonable alternative for most commuters in a dispersed metropolitan area, and it is poorly equipped to serve the "chain-linked" trips common to today's travelers. Its high operating costs (70% for labor) severely encapsulates its ability to serve mobility needs. Metro's bus operations are 75% subsidized, underwritten by a hefty 6/10ths percent sales tax plus a share of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax equivalent to a 3/10ths percent sales tax -- yet it struggles to maintain a mere three percent marketshare of trips.

Rail--save for the unusual circumstance in which a surplused freight rail line, located in a fairly heavily settled corridor, can be obtained inexpensively and converted to transit--is even less promising. Thirteen US metropolitan areas introduced or expanded rail service in the 1980s. The uniform result was a radical increase in required tax subsidies and a marked decrease in transit marketshare. The experiences of two of the 13 communities--one that expanded its rail service in the 1980s, Boston, and one that initiated rail systems, Los Angeles--illustrate the difficulties of rail in the relatively dispersed settings characteristic of American cities:

Over the past thirty years Boston integrated the transit systems of the entire metropolitan area into one "seamless" system with standard fares. It offers a rich array of bus services buttressed by extensive light and heavy rail lines. As transit integration proceeded, and as light and heavy rail systems were developed and expanded, the number of transit trips has remained level. Since the population has grown, and the total number of trips has grown faster still, transit marketshare has fallen sharply. Meanwhile, particularly due to rail, the subsidized cost of the transit system has exploded from $21 million in 1965 to $575 million in 1991--and the latter figure is insufficient to sustain the system.* The pent-up frustration caused by worsening congestion is promoting highway expansions, including the "Big Dig," the world's most expensive highway project, in downtown Boston near the harbor, at a cost exceeding a billion dollars per mile.

Los Angeles launched an extremely ambitious rail-building program in 1985. In the first ten years, at prodigious cost, the LA Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) completed three rail lines, including the Blue Line to Long Beach, the nation's third most heavily used light rail line. And the results?

Transit ridership has fallen by 27% in absolute terms (from 497 million trips in 1985 to 362 million in 1995), and by 38% in marketshare!** In addition to the prodigious capital costs, operating subsidies for the trains are far higher than bus subsidies--yet the bus lines carry 95% of the passengers.

The financial demands of the trains prompted the MTA to raise bus fares and cut bus operations and maintenance. Now the MTA is experiencing the maladies of falling marketshare, higher operating costs and subsidies (financed by an additional one cent sales tax), and burgeoning debt.

Recently it conceded a legal case brought by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on behalf of bus drivers and Latino and Black bus-dependent residents. The court mandated that the MTA spend more money on its buses, cut back fares and improve service. Rail construction shortly will grind to a halt while LA assesses the fiscal damage the MTA has visited upon it.

Transit is an essential service. Many people rely on it, and there is no apparent way to redress the growing problem of congestion without the assistance of transit. Contemporary bus and rail systems do not offer sufficiently attractive services to urban commuters at a manageable cost. The Seattle area, like other contemporary metropolitan communities, needs more extensive transit services--but to compete with the automobile they must be much more appealing, and to reach enough of the traveling public to curb congestion the per ride level of tax subsidy must be moderated, not escalated.

Transit Technology: The Monorail Initiative

The provides a fresh opportunity to review the full range of transit options, and to search for technologies that promise sufficient ridership at acceptable cost. There are many systems that merit scrutiny, scattered throughout Europe, North America, and Asia. Jerry Schneider, of the University of Washington's College of Engineering, tracks innovative and emerging transit technologies from all over the world. Their attributes are summarized at his website . The potential is obvious from Seattle's ancient monorail system--which, in spite of its installation nearly four decades ago, actually operates at a profit--and the personal rapid transit (PRT) system of Morgantown , West Virginia--which, in spite of utilizing fairly primitive computers to direct its vehicles, is the most cost-effective public transit operation in North America. (It was installed nearly two decades ago, using computer technology of that era. An observer recently called it "a Model-T PRT system.")

An attractive attribute of the Monorail Initiative is its flexible approach to transit technologies: They must operate overhead, on rubber tires. That leaves a great deal of latitude.

The members appointed to the Elevated Transit Company (ETC) ought not rush out to build a monorail system--even if they could figure out how to pay for it. The ETC first should thoroughly explore the available technological options. It is proper to provide tax support for transit systems, given the need many citizens have for such services, plus the need to address congestion. But transit technologies that cannot expand marketshare, at reasonable cost, are not responsive to the problem.

The Seattle region cannot afford to escalate transit costs--both capital investments and operating subsidies--without significant improvements in marketshare.

Dick Falkenbury and other campaigners for the Monorail Initiative believe that acceptable technologies are available, off-the-shelf. If that is so, they deserve careful and sympathetic consideration. But even if that view proves optimistic, a great and necessary service can be provided by cogently defining the criteria a transit technology must meet to be acceptable.

Such an exercise has the potential of "driving" technological innovation. This is well-known in many industries, the airlines being one prominent example: If major airlines signal they need planes with greater range, better fuel efficiency, less noise, or lower cost per passenger mile, a company like Boeing assigns its finest engineers to the challenge and meets the demands of the marketplace. If it didn't, it wouldn't be the world's most successful commercial airplane manufacturer. A grievous problem in the transit sector is that public agencies readily buy systems that do not meet acceptable standards of performance, rather than demand performance criteria that could drive needed innovation.

As a result, as the spatial characteristics of America's urban communities have evolved, transit product options have remained relatively static, suited to the past but not the future.

Urban transit systems of the future must be vastly superior to today's buses and trains in appeal, cost, and operating performance. Trains are a dated technology, rigid and expensive. The technology still is profitable hauling great loads of freight long distances, and can haul large passenger loads long distances at reasonable cost, as in the Boston-Washington corridor. But the subtleties of moving goods and people around the complexities of a sprawling urban area fall outside its strengths. Buses, facing higher labor costs and more dispersed, sequential trips, have been rendered progressively less effective.

Meanwhile, the lightweight, inexpensive, reliable microprocessor has advanced tremendously, touching all areas of life and commerce--but it has scarcely been applied to transit.

Each person may have a favored current or prospective transit technology. The task is to promote an open civic process of exposing and evaluating the attributes of operating transit technologies, the promise of those under development, and measuring the assessments against the performance needs and financial constraints of the Seattle community. Accordingly, the membership of the ETC must encompass top-of-the-line skills in emerging transportation technologies, transportation planning, and business development acumen, along with civic spirit and sound judgment.


* The figures on Boston's transit experience are taken from the definitive research of Harvard Professor Jose Gomez-Ibanez, as summarized in "Big-City Transit Ridership: Avoiding Reality in Boston," Journal of the American Planning Association (Winter,1996)

** The Los Angeles ridership figures are from the annual reports of the LA Metropolitan Transit Authority to the US Department of Transportation

Emory Bundy is a graduate of the UW and UCLA and a former professor of political science at Oberlin College and University of East Africa. He has served as head of the staff of a member of Congress and as the Director of Public Affairs at King Broadcasting Company during 1969-83. He has also served as a member of the staff of a major foundation focused on environmental affairs. He is an avid bicyclist and does not own an auto.

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Last modified: August 18, 2002