Reinventing the wheel

The Monorail Initiative is flaky and unfunded. But it may be Seattle's chance for a revolutionary transit system that works.

by Eric Scigliano

Senior Editor, SeattleWeekly

(originally appeared in the October 22, 1997, issue of the SeattleWeekly, posted with permission. Illustration by Rod Filbrandt)


In the early 1990s

Amy Larkin was a member of Metro's Citizens Transit Advisory Committee - a designated kibitzer in the formation of what's now the Regional Transit Authority. And like many lay people who stray into the thicket of transportation, congestion, and growth issues, she chafed at the myopia of the transit establishment. "They had this expert panel advising them," she recalls. "Five engineers, the usual academics, one from Harvard, one from Stanford, one from MIT. I asked, `Do you have any bus drivers on the panel?' They looked at me and said, `No, these are experts."

If you want to understand the ills that afflict transit, ask the man who drives it. Neither Metro nor the RTA did. Now, as if in karmic retribution, they're hearing loud and clear from one driver: Dick Falkenbury, a tour-bus driver and cabbie and author of the ballot measure that, confounding the experts, just might pass this November 4 and direct (if not enable) Seattle to build a citywide monorail system.

Call it the initiative process run amok, a wrench in the regional works, or a common-sense antidote to the narrowness of official transit planning; Initiative 41, Falkenbury's monorail scheme out of left field, may be the sleeper of the crowded 1997 ballot. One hint that its prospects are good is the vehemence of the establishment attacks on it. Another is the Weekly's straw poll of 10 pre-primary City Council candidates: Most said they'd vote for Falkenbury's supposedly flaky monorail. None waxed appalled at theidea. A third hint is a poll that Seattle's Alliance Marketing conducted as a demo project for the Monorail Initiative (whose backers couldn't have afforded it). Forty-two percent of 335 regular voters queried said they agreed with the initiative, 35 percent disagreed, and 21 percent couldn't or wouldn't say.

Whether the city would actually reach the end of that path and get new monorails is just one of many questions that attend on Falkenbury's startlingly successful effort at do-it-yourself transit planning. Another very different question is whether a monorail as we know it and Falkenbury understands it is all we'd get. Sometimes unintended consequences are unexpected blessings. Though he didn't will it that way, Falkenbury's initiative could give Seattle a shot at a more novel, even revolutionary, way to get around, a veritable Holy Grail of public transit. Let enough things fall into place and the Falkenbury ploy could make Seattle a showcase for the world's only hope of providing city dwellers with a clean form of public transit that is as appealing and convenient as their cars.

What kind of man loves monorails?

Dick Falkenbury is as unlike the typical gray-suited, smooth-talking, chart-flashing transportation whiz as the typical bus rider is unlike a Lexus driver. He's a big, jowly bear of a guy, a gruffer, capless version of wacko documentary-maker Michael Moore. He's also the last Boy Scout, an indefatigable do-gooder who seems incapable of not helping anyone who needs help or not fuming at any waste or stupidity that intrudes on his view. Ever the tour guide, he hollers across the street to offer help to someone who looks lost. Looking down from the Monorail station, he groans at a binful of discarded timber ends at the Experience Music Project site: "Perfectly good 8-by-8s. Any landscaper in Seattle would jump to get those." He abhors drunken drivers as only someone who spends a lot of time behind the wheel can, and seems ready to crusade to take away not only their licenses, but their cars.

A different sort of road menace - the congestion that swallows buses as well as cars and might also swallow streetcars - prompted Falkenbury's idea of a citywide monorail. While fighting the jams, he arrived at a first principle of transit: "Until you get out of the traffic, you're still stuck in traffic. Once you understand that, only the monorail makes sense."If it is set at grade, even the light rail preferred by the Regional Transit Authority must contend with traffic - either stopping at intersections or making other vehicles wait while the trains cross, worsening the congestion. Sometimes you can get trains out of the traffic by running them down highway medians, as Portland has done, but this makes them inaccessible to passengers. You can send them underground, as the RTA proposes to do between downtown and the University District. But this can be fearsomely expensive: a half-billion in mid-80s dollars for the mile-long tunnel under downtown, an estimated $860 million for a line under First Hill, Capitol Hill, and the Ship Canal - if it finally proves feasible.

And this is only the first phase in a total rail and bus upgrade originally estimated at $14 billion. The days are gone when a city like New York could send an army of immigrants down to work for peanuts and die in droves digging a subway. The RTA has no choice but to dig deep, however, if it wants to serve (or draw off) the rich lode of bus riders on Capitol Hill. Steel-wheeled trains on steel tracks can't make the grade up so steep a hill, so a surface route is impossible.

Those steel wheels are also noisy; a single train passing in the distance may be romantic, but the near-continual din of a high-volume urban train line is overpowering. When the RTA originally proposed to run its rail up Eastlake Avenue, residents rose up against what they saw as a "neighborhood killer." Now folks along Rainier Avenue are dealing with the same issue.

Rail today can be made much quieter than it used to be; Portland's Max light rail clatters rather than roars. But this boon presents new perils. Light rail's great advantage is that it can run at grade, crossing road intersections with tracks sunk to the pavement level; this saves the big cost of tunnels or elevated guideways. But if cars and pedestrians don't hear the trains . . . watch out! Portland posts dire signs reading, "DANGER. . . Look both ways because you may not hear the train coming." The Federal Transit Administration reports that in 1995, light-rail cars collided 58 times with people and 223 times with other vehicles, causing 14 fatalities and 353 injuries. Automated guideways - including monorails andpeople-movers like Sea-Tac's terminal connector - suffered one collision, no fatalities, and no injuries. Kim Pedersen, president of the California-based Monorail Society , says that total fatalities worldwide in the 91-year history of monorails number . . . zero.

Where noise isn't a problem, there's a cheaper alternative to tunneling for getting trains out of the way of others: elevate them, as in the Chicago and Brooklyn els. But "light rail" ain't light. Its cars weigh more than "heavy-rail" subway cars, and up to twice as much as comparable monorails. And in El guideways, heavier means more money and visual intrusion. Even light-rail advocates like Roger Pence, a former Metro and possible future RTA official who's campaigning against Falkenbury's initiative, concedes that if you're going to elevate, monorails make more sense.

Rubber tires enable monorails to run quietly and to climb inclines like Capitol Hill, where steel rails dare not go. And monorails are famously safe and reliable; Pedersen reports that the first monorail, in Wuppertal, Germany, is still running strong after 96 years, and that unlike its highways and rail lines, none of Japan's eight transit monorails has ever collapsed in an earthquake.

Modern monorails and their people-mover cousins are also more cheaply run because they dispense with by far the biggest operating expense in transit: the driver. That's something on-grade rail lines can't do. Falkenbury also looked at the RTA's "Sound Move" scheme and saw that it offered little for passengers traveling within Seattle but outside the single light-rail corridor. Commuter rail would run where few people live - up the Northwest shoreline and down the Duwamish, initially with just one Seattle stop. (The commuter-rail outlay will improve Amtrak and freight mobility by upgrading the tracks, but it's doubtful folks would have voted to tax themselves for that.) And the rest of the city would get some new express buses.

To redress these apparent shortcomings, Falkenbury sketched out an elegant X-shaped alternative/addition to the RTA plan (see map). Twin monorail lines would run from Greenwood via Ballard, Fremont, and Queen Anne, and from Lake City via the U-District and Eastlake, cross at downtown, and then cut down to West Seattle and Rainier Beach. While the RTA has, wisely, responded mildly to this scheme ("We'll work with them"), the reaction from some RTA supporters - notably the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, which is conducting the anti-I-41 campaign - has been ferocious: "Snake oil . . . a pie-in-the-sky plan . . . a blank check for a boondoggle." Some of the objections to I-41 are troubling; others are shaky, and as for others, Falkenbury is right to say, "They're making my case for me." Among the claims:

Untried new technology

"Considering there are only two monorails in the world - in Seattle and Disneyworld - it's awfully risky technology to be trying," says Chamber of Commerce staffer Mike Luis - revealing a surprising ignorance of the technology. Monorails are fairly widespread in the United States and Europe, but largely confined to airports and amusement parks. Miami and Detroit have monorail-type automatic downtown people-movers, and Jacksonville is now building one. A company called Aeromovel has recently built monorail systems in Jakarta and Porto Alegre, Brazil, and is negotiating to build one in Long Beach. Japan leads the world in monorail technology and usage, with eight transit systems, many smaller lines, innovative new hybrids such as a sophisticated urban gondola called Skyrail, and the first working urban mag-lev system (magnetic levitation, a faster, frictionless monorail variation).

If monorail's so great, why doesn't everyone build it?

This points to the essential contradiction in the public-transit chain, and a main reason somuch public transit is so bad. Transit is a service used by one party (mainly low- and moderate-income people), built by a second (local transit agencies), and paid for in large though diminished part by a third, the federal government. No wonder there's such resistance to innovation, and such disconnection between what the nominal customers want and what they get. The feds dabbled in new transit technologies back in the late '60s and early '70s, when we could put a man on the moon. But they either fumbled those projects or cut them short and grew stubbornly conservative about technologies, preferring those already proven in "revenue applications" - which in the 1980s came to mean bus and highway projects.

Thus Metro was able to get federal funding for its half-billion dollar subway tunnel-without-a-subway by calling it a "bus tunnel." Now light rail, a 150-year-old technology that was superseded by buses 80 years ago, is making a comeback. But the fact that theme parks, airports, and Las Vegas casinos opt for mono- rather than light rail is telling. As Falkenbury puts it, "Whenever you're building with your own money, you build a monorail. When you build with other people's money, you build rail."

Get out of my light.

In this view-obsessed town, monorail's least popular aspect is its visibility. Seattleites are especially anxious on this score because the concrete pillars of our old Monorail are so bulky. And we may remember all the furor when it was built: apparent damage to retail along Fifth Avenue, years of litigation with angry businesses. Consider these mitigating factors: The old court fights, in the end vindicating the Monorail's right to stand, pave the way for a new system. Pillars and guideways are now much skinnier , and might not take even a single lane of roadway; their light blockage would be inconsequential. A monorail would loom lower than elevated light rail, which needs heavier supports, rides higher on its wheels, and might have a guide wire on top.

Back East, elevated-train stations are anchors for healthy neighborhood business districts. Visible guideways may be a reasonable price to save the lanes that would be lost to on-grade trains. And if we actually got good enough transit to significantly reduce car trips, we could reclaim some of those lanes for plantings, parkways, bike paths, and even what Seattle really craves - dog runs. Thus cradled, guideways might be net visual improvements. And they might work to reduce other visual pollution, serving as channels for electric, phone, cable, and fiber-optic lines.

Furthermore, elevated guideways would grant passengers terrific views: 40 miles of mini-Viaducts, with no need to keep your eye on the road and no guide rails to block it. This would be one more inducement to take the train. Why should a city as blessed with vistas as Seattle shove its transit underground? Or do you prefer the view beneath Westlake to that from the Aurora Bridge?

Been there, didn't do it.

The people don't need to shove a monorail down officials' throats, goes this argument, because the RTA has fulfilled its mission to "evaluate and fund innovative ways to provide transit service." But RTA critics have found the deck stacked in favor of light rail from the start. The RTA's predecessor, the Regional Transit Project, incorporated the conclusions of a number of studies favoring light rail in the 1980s. But monorails, mag-lev, and personal rapid transit have made big advances since then. The RTA's light-rail director, Paul Bay, reports that "there aren't any urban monorails operating at the speed we will need, 55 mph," and that Japan's monorails top out at 40 mph. The Monorail Society's Pedersen says he's clocked them at 50. Mag-lev, with its superior braking and acceleration, can top 200 mph.

This past summer, the RTA convened a task force to scope out an alternative route for the downtown-to-U-District rail line, should boring under Capitol Hill prove undoable. At least two members chafed at the RTA staff's (and committee majority's) resistance to exploring maglev or another elevated guideway as part of this alternative. "The task force did not consider alignments based on alternative technologies because previous RTA studies did not evaluate them," dissenter Ed Brighton concluded afterward.

The people have already spoken.

"The voters have made a decision," King County Executive Ron Sims declared repeatedly when queried about the monorail on KUOW-FM. "They want light rail and commuter rail." So shut up already. By that logic, should the RTA have folded up when the voters made their first "decision" and turned it down? Instead, it came back with half its original plan, and will come back with the other half, and much more, later; in for a nickel, in for a dime.

And what did voters think they were voting for when they approved the RTA? Pollster Randall Fields reports that "over 30 percent" of the voters queried on behalf of the initiative thought Monorail was in the RTA plan; 43 percent knew it wasn't and 26 percent didn't know.

That raises several questions. Did the second RTA measure pass (with 72 percent) after the first failed because voters confused it with the Monorail Initiative that had been promoted in the meantime? Will those voters now balk at voting "again" for the monorail? And if they do yea the monorail measure next month, will officials like Sims be so respectful of their decision?

I-41 is spitting in the wind.

Roger Pence argues that officials will not, and should not, respect a pro-monorail vote: I-41 is so vaguely drafted it will produce merely "two years of frustration for bureaucrats," after which the City Council can legally overturn what the voters have wrought. But if voters believe I-41 will never take effect and never cost them money, they may just be more inclined to vote for it to register dissatisfaction with the current transit recipe.

It's kitchen-table policy making.

When critics complain that he drafted the Monorail Initiative at his kitchen table, Falkenbury replies that Victor Steinbrueck and Folke Nyberg did likewise with their Save the Market initiative. And that too was "poorly worded," bereft of financial analysis, and scorned by the daily papers, the Chamber of Commerce, and the City Council. Who's right now?

Yes, Pence replies, but at least the Market was there to save; with the Monorail Initiative, "There's just no there there, just an idea." Maybe - but the Market was such a wreck, it would have been easier to start fresh. And the cost of saving it is more imponderable than that of building a monorail. This argument from analogy doesn't justify I-41. But it does deflect the kitchen-table objection.

It's cute, but. . . .

The Monorail (i.e., Seattle's World's Fair monorail )does have sentimental appeal; it's a childhood emblem, an artifact of an earlier, innocent time, and, like the Space Needle, an enduring icon of a hopeful future. Opponents warn that we shouldn't vote our nostalgia; we shouldn't fixate on what Preston Schiller, research director for a regional transportation coalition, calls "a good idea for the '60s . . . whose time has come and gone."

But Seattle's existing mini-monorail is also a conspicuously efficient, speedy, and even profitable transport mode. Falkenbury may exploit nostalgia with his "Extend the Monorail" slogan, but his zeal is clearly for the technology's capabilities, not its arguable charm. Rail and subways evoke much deeper nostalgia, and their boosters are more prone to sentimentality than monorailphiles. Around the world, from California to Calcutta, a subway is the ultimate urban trophy, not just a passenger-bearer but a rite of passage to full cityhood. (I marveled at seeing graffiti everywhere in Rio de Janeiro except the spanking-clean subway. "That's because we still respect the subway," one local explained.)

When rail's weary defenders insist that, damn the alternatives, we've got to go ahead because we've been trying to get it for 30 years, are they really arguing from the merits?

Dont spell it out.

Critics complain that Falkenbury's initiative would hamstring planners, and indeed it is unusually specific in one regard: It dictates 22 approximate locations where, within 400 to 1,000 yards, stations would be built. Certainly this seems to leapfrog the usual planning/public hearing process; Falkenbury says he wanted to pre-empt the sort of shortchanging that Seattle usually gets when the transportation pie is divvied up. But there's less here than meets the eye; the initiative only declares that the system will "generally" follow the specified routes. Expect plenty of negotiated (and maybe litigated) changes before actual routes get hashed out.

Funny money.

Falkenbury has variously estimated that his 40-mile system will cost about $20 million or $25 million a mile, or $850 million to $1 billion. This matches the $25 million that private operators spent for a one-mile shuttle between two Las Vegas casinos . Bombardier, the leading North American monorail builder, quotes around $45 million a mile, including stations. Roger Pence notes that high-level bridges over the Ship Canal and Duwamish would add to the Seattle system's cost. And he points to Newark's notorious new airport monorail , which runs 2.1 miles and cost $354 million.

Which precedent pertains? The Newark project was overbuilt, misbuilt, and dogged by mishaps that might only happen in New Jersey, but the airport still got off well; the contractor ate $230 million in overruns. If we're talking boondoggles, consider the subway and light-rail system Los Angeles is now building for an anticipated $75 billion, which The New York Times reports has cost up to $500 million per mile.

One lesson to be drawn: Private developers can build more cheaply than public agencies. But even if the monorail costs twice as much as Falkenbury avows, it would only cost about as much as the RTA's $1.8 billion light-rail line. And it would run twice as far.

Where's the big money?

Pence complains that the Monorail Initiative can't be legitimate because it doesn't have special-interest money behind it. If it really would get a monorail built, manufacturers and contractors would be tossing money to get yet another gravy train started (as they did to get the RTA plan passed). Falkenbury replies that monorail companies are hapless at promoting their product and too compromised anyway. Bombardier also makes rail cars (and many more of them); it has worked for the RTA and donated to its initiative campaign, and would hardly want to offend such a client by supporting the monorail. (Bombardier's various US and Canadian offices did not have any comment on the Seattle proposal.)

Again, the opponents are making the monorail's case for Falkenbury: Why should construction and transportation companies support a cheaper monorail, built of modular parts, if they can make much more from rails and tunnels?

Show us the money.

I-41's critics are most on target when they complain that, as Pence puts it, I-41's "financial plan is nonexistent." The public development authority ("Elevated Transportation Company") would seek first private, then public funds. The public funds posited are dubious: increasing the B&O tax or floating "councilmanic revenue bonds." Ditto for the unspecified private revenues. Falkenbury argues that the ETC couldprofit handsomely, just as sports stadiums do, off commercial vendors who would flock to its stations. Pence and chamber staffer Luis note that these vendors would merely compete with existing neighborhood business districts, which are already worth preserving. Falkenbury disputes this. But even in Seattle, the market for espresso and dry cleaning is finite.

Does that mean monorail is a bad idea? No - it just means that we shouldn't count on a boom in station retail to pay for it. Falkenbury originally hoped that the monorail would pick up federal and state funds slated for the RTA, after the RTA scheme went down at the polls. Falkenbury now avows that that doesn't matter, because "I really think we can build this with private investment."

That notion may sound hopelessly wishful in the United States, where the Seattle Center-Westlake Monorail is reportedly the only transit "system" to turn a profit. Fares cover only 22 percent of Metro's bus operations. Then again, eliminating drivers (as a new monorail would do) yields huge savings, which transit systems around the world are just starting to cash in on. According to the journal Mass Transit, fares on a 25-kilometer automated-guideway system the French company Matra has built in Lille return 120 percent of operating costs.

And, of course, there's still the prospect of federal and state funding should the RTA and monorail plans converge - as they would have to do if they're not to compete.

Your personal monorail

The most exciting possible outcome of the Monorail Initiative is one that Falkenbury doesn't welcome or want to publicize: Personal Rapid Transit (a.k.a. "personal monorail," "the horizontal elevator," "automated taxis," or just "PRT" to its friends), a genuinely radical new approach to transit. PRT's distinction lies not in the areas that rail, monorail, mag-lev, and bus boosters battle over - what sort of vehicle will you carry people in, and on what sort of track? - but in the basic conception and structure of the system.

Mass transit, by definition, herds people. Whether bus, train, or monorail, it ordains travel corridors. For the lucky minority traveling from one point to another with the points located on a transit corridor, it is convenient. (The new rail lines will be even more convenient, though the "points" - stations - will be much fewer and farther apart.) But try to go from home in Greenwood to day care in Ballard to work in the U-District to a meeting on Beacon Hill back to day care and then the co-op and the library, as in real life - and you're screwed. Unless you don't mind waiting a half century to see if Seattle will indeed evolve into New York and get a Manhattan-style subway. Even then, you'd still prefer to drive if you could afford to.

PRT proposes to serve that sort of real-life need: to duplicate the automobile's enormous private benefits - mobility, convenience, autonomy - while undoing its enormous collective costs ( see PRT overview ). The key difference is that it would operate as a network, as an urban street system does, rather than as a line, as other transit does. Lightweight, computer-controlled, driverless "cars" (each holding up to four passengers in the leading current model) zip around a web of elevated guideways. Stations are placed every few blocks, and have elevators to assure universal access. The stations are located off-line, so loading and unloading cars won't block moving ones.

Every PRT car is an express. Empty cars queue like taxis at each station and are dispatched on demand 24 hours a day. A passenger or party will pay, probably with a smart card, at an electronic tollbooth and punch in a destination. An empty car will advance, board them, and zip straight to that destination - with no stops or other instructions required along the way. Automation and various safety systems would allow extremely short headways between cars, and a carrying capacity that PRT advocates claim could match that of rail.

Although no full-blown, purist PRT system is yet operating, this is more than a pipe dream. PRT is not a new idea: The US and several European governments began promoting it in the 1960s, when transit use declined while automobile use and its ills soared. The feds also wanted to throw diversification opportunities to defense and aerospace firms. And so our own Boeing built the first quasi-PRT system , at West Virginia University in Morgantown. Boeing did a yeoman's job of it, but political and bureaucratic meddling badly compromised this crucial debut. The Morgantown cars were upped from personal to small-bus size - 12 seats, up to 21 passengers - necessitating a much heavier, costlier guideway. The Nixon administration rushed to have this trophy running before the '72 election, even as it was still being designed, driving up a budget that had (in the way of first efforts) been ludicrously underestimated. It was a great scare, and maybe karma, when at the launch a car took off prematurely with Tricia Nixon aboard. Congressmen and Reader's Digest railed against this "boondoggle," and the stigma has taken decades to shake.

Meanwhile, the feds solicited more PRT demonstration proposals and approved four, in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Denver, and Minneapolis. But local political intrigues and established transit interests (which can behave just like the highway lobby when they feel their turf threatened) scuttled them all.

Two decades later, though, PRT is getting a second chance. The Morgantown line, since expanded, is running well and is heavily used, "the best-kept secret in transit," according to one authority. Japan, France, and Germany have built various on-demand personal transit systems. Computer technology, barely adequate in 1972, has now caught up with PRT's potential demands. Private operators are jockeying to build PRT systems near Denver and Minneapolis. But the next big test of PRT will likely come in the Chicago airport suburb of Rosemont . There, Chicago's RTA and the Raytheon Company , builder of Patriot missiles and air traffic control systems, have designed what will, pending a final go-ahead early next year, be the most ambitious PRT effort yet.

To chase the bugs out, Raytheon has built a one-third-mile test track in the woods outside Marlborough, Massachusetts. I rode it last July. It's neat - and eerie - to glide along, smooth and silent, in a driverless steel-and-glass egg. The pastoral setting aside, I felt like a Jetson. But assure me that one of these would always be waiting to go near where I want to go, and you can take away my car keys and bus pass.

The future is here - in Seatac

If Rosemont flies, who might capitalize on its trials and errors and build the next PRT? Try the fledgling city of Seatac, Washington. In July, Seatac completed an ambitious federally funded study of a PRT answer to address its particular traffic crunch: the fleets of courtesy vans shuttling back and forth - 3,000 times a day, usually with light loads - from hotels, parking lots, and car rentals to the airport. (Raytheon brought its car out for show-and-tell.) The study recommended a 12-mile, multi-loop PRT system costing $307 million, rather more than Raytheon's $14 million per-mile estimate. But it concluded that in a pinch, this system could pay for itself through shuttle fees.

One naysayer is the Port of Seattle, which commissioned its own critique of the study and shows little interest in accommodating PRT at the airport. Nevertheless, the Seatac City Council voted to accept the pro-PRT report, but (sensibly enough) wait and watch Rosemont before going ahead. PRT has meanwhile interested Kemper Freeman, Jr. Bellevue's kingpin developer, and won such fans as state Sen. Leo Thorsness and county-executive candidate Suzette Cooke. These suburban Republicans realize it's a form of transit that might actually win over their car-happy constituents, and some also see it as a chance for the private sector to "break the transit monopoly" and build cheaper and faster than government does.

Commercial suburbs like Seatac and Rosemont, with their multiple, scattered destinations, are natural laboratories for personal transit. But where else might it work? Almost anywhere with moderate to high density, argue boosters like Minnesota PRT guru Edward Anderson , who believes that by shaving headways further, PRT will be able to carry more passengers than light rail - with the added bonus of on-call, point-to-point service. The local RTA's Paul Bay insists that PRT is "not for main corridors," but is "really interesting for distribution systems." In other words, it might be a good feeder for a rail line, improving on local buses and completing, rather than overturning the RTA plan.

Whether an RTA adjunct or alternative, PRT could get a start from the Monorail Initiative. Falkenbury's language - "elevated," "electrically powered," "rubber tires" - all fits PR to a T. Yet the prospect doesn't thrill him. He worries about crime, or the fear of it, on PRT - that passengers will worry about strangers jumping into their cars behind them, though he concedes this seems more a concern with "group rapid transit" like Morgantown's. And he doubts that such complex computer controls can be reliable enough to keep people coming back.

To PRT and mag-lev boosters, like Brighton, it seems ironic that Seattle, the great pioneer of information and aerospace technology, should jump on the outdated train. "Seattle has a real opportunity," says the ever-hopeful Brighton, "we're not hampered by a huge investment in some other system.". But Falkenbury is more cautious. He'd stick with something tried and true, even if a bit old-fashioned. Something like a monorail.

To learn more: Jerry Schneider, professor emeritus of civil engineering and urban planning at the University of Washington, is the Johnny Appleseed of transit innovation, a one-man e-mail clearinghouse of ideas and information. His "Innovative Transportation Technologies" website is a versatile gateway to new developments in PRT, monorails, and other technologies.

The University of Southern California's Catherine G. Burke recounts the 1970s PRT in Innovation and Public Policy: The Case of Personal RapidTransit, a trenchant fable of how bad things happen to good technology. It's out of print but is available in the Architecture library at the University of Washington.

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Last modified: August 18, 2002