Grant McWilliams

Tech Transportation Seattle Monorail as an important transit link

Seattle Monorail as an important transit link


I've already posted my Regional Transit Plan and will have an update in the future. I put a bit of emphasis on the Seattle Monorail because this article was supposed to be published before the Regional Transit Plan but I didn't get it out. With that in mind I'd like to review the Seattle Monorail and give my additional thoughts on it's usefulness and where it falls down.

Many people think of the Monorail as a tourist trap and not an important transit link in Seattle. I too have thought this way but then I also thought the Tacoma Link was worthless until I went to Tacoma to ride it and realized that it's a very useful train that takes the stress out of going from the Tacoma Dome to anywhere downtown. Being free you just hop on and hop off whenever you want. It's like having one long escalator along downtown Tacoma. Is the Monorail as useful though as a transit option?

There are several advantages of train in general over their street bound bus equivalents - they're consistent, they're more comfortable and they usually have right of way.

These are not constants and can be said for certain types of bus travel as well but for the most part trains trump buses because of these three things. Consistency is a very important ingredient - one the bus people don't get. People will ride transit if it always does what they expect it to do without surprises. Nobody likes the feeling of being on a bus going the right direction and then have it suddenly take a turn and you don't know if you should have gotten off. Buses cause stress. I have many bad stories of riding buses in foreign countries where I didn't know exactly where I was going (and can't ask the driver). I don't have one similar bad train story - trains are consistent. If someone says "get on the number 8 and get off at the commerce station" it's easy and works every time. This should not be ignored. Trains generally have more room so more comfort. Buses can be pretty awesome though and a quick trip to Mexico would prove this. However, there's something about the motion of a train that just can't be equalled by buses. A bus lurches forward then back on acceleration and braking, then makes 90 degree turns, wallows over bumps etc.. A train rocks side to side and clacks down the tracks - which tends to be very soothing and welcome. The worst trains are about as nice as the best buses. As for my last point trains usually have right of way but in the case of Portland's MAX, Tacoma Link, the S.L.U.T. and parts of Central Link they might be in the streets with the cars which is unfortunate. Monorail however, by design always has right of way which returns us to our subject.


The Seattle Monorail was put in 50 years ago as part of the World Expo in 1962 and goes from Westlake Plaza to Seattle Central. There's been many plans to extend it but none have prevailed. Now the monorail soldiers on as a tourist attraction and to be honest is a bit run down. The train cars are no longer being made but Seattle has a copy of the plans if they need to manufacture any new parts. Malasia recently built entire trains from those designs although you'd think they could have just built a new style monorail had they thought about it for a moment. Let's take a journey on the Seattle Monorail then we'll talk about it's usefulness.

The reason we decided to use the Monorail was to go to Pikes Place Market. You might be thinking that we could have just parked at the Market but parking there is extremely expensive and hard to find. You do get about an hour free I believe at a parking garage near the market but an hour gives you just about as much time to get to the market, take on photo of a flying fish and get back. We were there for the day to enjoy the Artisan Food Festival and it was Sunday so street parking was free. It's fairly easy to get street parking on Sunday near Seattle Center so instead of feeding a greedy parking garage we decided to park near Seattle Center and pretend the Monorail was a valid form of transportation. Following is our experience.

We bought round trip tickets at Seattle Center Station near the Center House for $13 ($4 adult, $3 for youth and $2 for seniors I think) total. That's about what we'd pay at the parking garage near the Market but this way we get to see Seattle Center, ride a Monorail, peruse Westlake Plaza AND go to the market. More bang for our buck. Since the Monorail is elevated you wait on a platform high above the ground under a covered roof. What makes monorails different from other elevated trains (Central Link light rail) is that it has one "rail" that the train straddles as opposed to two rails that it rides on. The Monorail is also a rubber tired train so the ride is different. I'm not endorsing rubber tired trains as I have my gripes about them (reverberations at speed) as well but just noting it. The loading platform is completely level and to board you have to zig zag through two levels of railing separating you from the train. This I'd assume is to keep people from falling off the platform when the train is not in the station. Since the Monorail only goes back and forth there's a drivers seat on each end. When it pulls into station the driver walks from one end to the other to drive it back the other direction. The Seattle Monorail controls have been updated over the years and include an LCD screen and other goodies. Part of me wants to know why there's a driver at all though in this modern day. the Toulouse Metro and many Airport skytrains operate just fine with no driver on board. I'd envision a modern version of this to not have a driver. It's not like you're going to run into anything on the route.

As the Monorail leaves Seattle Center station it passes through the strange metallic blob of  The Experience Music Project and makes a right turn toward downtown Seattle. The EMP was a later addition and built over the already existing Monorail. As the Monorail gains speed it makes it's biggest turn to the left and leans several degrees over the side of the rail so you can look straight down out the left side of the car. For this reason I always sit on the north side (left going to Westlake, right going to the Seattle Center). My mother however, sits on the opposite side for the very same reason. Along the straight away the Monorail approaches 45 mph and because of it's rubber tires I don't think it could do anymore even if the line was longer. I've mentioned rubber tired trains reverberations earlier. At slower speeds they're a bit smoother than metal tired trains or maybe the bumps are just more rounded. Metal tired trains do the clickity clack think and the bumps are sharp. I've decided though through experience that a rubber tired train does NOT improve the experience, just change it. The ride on the Monorail is surprisingly bumpy.

At the end of the journey which comes far too soon the Monorail makes it's last right turn and pulls up next to Westlake Plaza.  The old station used to be in the middle of the street but they later squeezed both tracks up against the building and they're so close together that only one monorail can be in station at a time or they'll collide. Because of the nature of a monorail you can't just walk across the tracks to exit like you could a metal wheeled train so a very strange metal walkway extends to meet the train. This walkway has enough moving parts that it causes the maintenance crews never ending grief.  It might also cause some people who are afraid of heights grief.

As you leave you have the option of taking an elevator to the street level two floors down or entering Westlake Plaza and using the escalators. Westlake plaza is a shopping mall with restrooms and a food court so we usually dash through it, use the facilities and gawk at the Seattlites in their flannel shirts, sandals with socks and nose rings. Just kidding about the flannel.

The point of this experiment was to see if the Monorail could be a valid form of mass transportation in Seattle and I say it is or at least can be with some slight changes. One criticism toward the Monorail is that it doesn't go anywhere. I think this is a bold statement since the Monorail only goes to the two most touristic spots in the city. I'd consider that somewhere. I think what people are getting at with that statement is that you can't commute with it and unless you're a tourist or just going between Westlake and Seattle Center it's mostly worthless. This is true to a degree and following is my solution.


Currently the Monorail is run as a separate entity for the City of Seattle. It's also supposedly the only transit solution in America that actually makes money. Curiously it's also one of the only transit solution in America that doesn't serve the populous of the city it resides in. Maybe that's why it makes money. Most of Seattle's transit systems take payment in the form of the ORCA card. If you take a ferry, an Everett Transit bus, Community Transit bus, Sound Transit Bus, The Sounder Train, Link Light Rail, Metro Transit bus or Pierce Transit bus you can pay and more importantly transfer with your ORCA card (Tacoma Link is free). There are a couple of transit options left out – The S.L.U.T. (but if you flash your ORCA they'll let you on, I think it's just that they don't have ORCA machines), InterCity Transit (Why InterCity? Why?) and the Monorail. I believe that these three need to get on board and I'll explain why. InterCity needs to take the ORCA because being a rebel only works for certain movie actors, it doesn't work for bus companies, especially ones that connect two other transit options that both use ORCA (Pierce and Metro) so wake up and smell the coffee. The S.L.U.T. Doesn't take them because of a lack of vision on the part of King County Metro – they just didn't put in the pay stations. The Monorail is run like a tourist attraction and is making money so why would they even want to take ORCA? Because the trains aren't full and we are finally getting serious about transit (and trains) in Seattle. Does adding one mile of rail to the ORCA when buses already cover that route make sense? Yes, for consistency. I see buses driving down 4th avenue and I'm sure they go to the Seattle Center but I've never ridden them. I'd rather pay the $4 or walk the mile than get on a bus and possibly end up somewhere else. People will probably tell me to consult a bus schedule but with the Monorail I don't have to – I just get on and this is my point. Allowing the ORCA would allow people from the North Suburbs to arrive via Sound Transit 510/511 buses at Westlake Center and transfer to the Monorail to Seattle Center. It would allow people coming from the Link Light rail or South of the City via the Sound Transit 594 bus or even from the Sounder Commuter train (with a free transfer via Link Light Rail) to transfer at Westlake to the Monorail to go to Seattle Center.

As short of a ride as it is this IS an important link for residents – not just tourists. Just by adding an additional turnstile and an ORCA reader at each end we could add the ability for locals to transfer. Tourists will continue buying round trip tickets for $4 just like they do now because it wouldn't make sense to buy an ORCA card just for one ride. Not only would the Monorail make the money they're currently making but they'd also keep a portion of the money paid on the ORCA card. They'd be even more profitable than they currently are and ridership would go up. Current headways are 10 minutes which are shortened to 6 minutes during special events. With increased ridership and very little additional overhead headways could be shortened to 6 minutes with one train. For special events the second train can be deployed to shorten headways to 3 minutes.


In summary, if you're heading to downtown Seattle on a Sunday when street parking is free then parking near Seattle Center and taking the Monorail may be a great option. You'll still pay for the Monorail but the ride is fun and it helps support a historic icon. However, if they ever start accepting the ORCA you can then just leave the car at home and ride other forms of transit into the city to take the Monorail. I urge Seattle to make this move.

So while I'm dreaming let me express a couple of my negative feelings toward the monorail and my proposed solutions.  From the train the view is excellent. From the ground the views pretty bad. The Monorail tracks from the ground are ugly so let's just get that out of the way. The way I look at it is the Monorail will NEVER be extended and as such the ride will never be any longer. Because it only takes 90 seconds to get from one end to the other and because the ride is so short we have options. In Toulouse the metro doors stay open 15 seconds exactly and trains come by every 60 seconds. We can't have headways like that unless we run two trains but I don't think that's necessary. If we have the train in the station for 1 minute on each end we could run about 3-4 minute headways using one train. With 185 passenger per train load we could move 3600 people per hour which is roughly what the Central Link light rail does with 10 minute headways. Granted, that would be max capacity for a single beam monorail but I'm not sure it's a problem since it's just between two stations. The reason I'm yammering on about a single beam monorail is the aesthetics factor of our current system. in order to support two trains we have two parallel beams end to end and the supporting columns are quite large. This all creates a very heavy, industrial visual statement that is neither appealing or pretty. I think that if the current dual beam monorail was replaced by a single beam and the supports halved in size we'd have a very unobtrusive system that would blend into the view of the sky. A single beam is very narrow and without the V shaped supports supporting two beams and the massive pillars holding it up would be a great visual improvement. Am I talking about replacing the current monorail with a new one? Isn't the same idea as the Green Line that was going to cost $125 million dollars a mile? No, all I'm talking about is a concrete job of replacing pillars and beams. The trains stay the same, the stations stay nearly the same etc... I don't think the cost would be that huge.

Another change I think should be made at the same time is to bring the Westlake Center station nearer to the ground. As the train rounds the corner on 4th and Stewart the train should dip down along Westlake Center to second story level and there should be an escalator to street level then another escalator down into the transit tunnel to ease transfers from the S.L.U.T., surface buses and the Central Link. Also with just one beam the radius of the three curves could be lessened so it can maintain a bit more speed. Maybe it would only amount to a 15 second savings but in combination with 45 second boardings one train could push a 3 minute headway. One of the reasons we have two trains on two beams though is so they can do maintenance on one train while using the other. With one beam and one train we'd lose this advantage so all maintenance would have to be done at night when the monorail isn't running.

That's enough dreaming for one day. None of it will ever happen because this is Seattle and we Seattlites revel in transportation misery.

Tech Transportation Seattle Monorail as an important transit link