1. Transport
August 7, 2019

Can The Simpsons explain why monorails never took off as a form of transport?

By Robin Wilde

Conan O’Brien, in the commentary for seminal Simpsons episode Marge vs. the Monorail, described the inspiration for the titular mass transit system as seeing the word “monorail” on a sign in California and thinking, “What could be more wasteful and stupid?”

It seems planners generally agree. Indeed, the Wikipedia article listing the world’s monorails counts only 75 in operation worldwide. Of these, 34 are essentially attractions which serve theme parks, resorts and, inexplicably, zoos. Many of the remainder serve as passenger shuttles at airports, malls and hotels, leaving only a handful used as meaningful public transport systems.

Given that so few of these systems are in operation, the Simpsons might be the closest many people have got to seeing a monorail in action. A Google Ngram search shows that interest in monorails peaked around the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, then declined in the following decades, before a bump following the episode’s airing in 1993.

Since the turn of the millennium, despite several new monorails opening worldwide, interest has continued to decline. So with the fate of this little-loved cousin of the tram resting on this one great episode, what does Springfield’s story get right – and wrong – about monorails?

It glides as softly as a cloud

As Lisa Simpson correctly points out, a small town with a centralised population doesn’t have much need for a mass transit system. Most of the more functional monorails are generally found in Asian megacities such as Chongqing, Shanghai, Tokyo and Mumbai, where their smaller footprint and ability to avoid tunnelling makes their construction easier and less intrusive than traditional light rail.

The closest we get in scale to the Springfield Monorail is the Wuppertal Suspension Railway in Germany, which has been running along the route of the Wupper river since 1901, carrying 82,000 passengers every day. Wuppertal (population 350,000) is still around ten times the estimated size of Springfield, and its monorail has the advantage of not being built by a conman – but it should stand as an example that monorails can, and do, work for smaller cities.

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There ain’t no monorail here and there never was

The allure of an unusual transport system to follow the examples of Brockway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook, and put a city on the map, has often extended beyond the mob mentality of Springfield.

A 1997 referendum in Seattle, on extending the small downtown monorail service into a 54-mile, five-line metro system, passed by 53-47 per cent. This would have made it the largest in the world at the time, and given Seattle’s mass transit system a unique selling point, building on its retro-futurist image linked to the legacy of the World’s Fair, the Space Needle. Unfortunately, a number of setbacks resulted in the project being cancelled in 2005 without any construction work beginning, at a cost of $125m to the taxpayer.

The city settled on building a more practical, if less exciting, tram network instead, the first line of which opened in 2009. But it should be noted that Lyle Lanley built and opened the Springfield Monorail for just $3m – demonstrating that the PFI scheme arranged with the city offered at least some value for money.

Several other monorail schemes have failed to come to fruition. The planned Malaysian city of Putrajaya switched to a monorail design for its light rail system late in the planning process. Construction has been stalled since 2004 due to budget constraints, though the Malaysian government aims to convert to a more standard light rail and open services by 2021. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then Mayor of Tehran, decided in 2002 to construct a monorail for his city at a cost of €135m, which was eventually scrapped after just 3 per cent of the system had been built.

For value, the residents of Springfield might have been better off buying a used monorail. There have been several such exchanges, usually based on the ease of tearing up and moving infrastructure that tends to be small in scale. The Vancouver monorail, built for Expo 86, was later purchased and installed at the Alton Towers theme park, while Blackpool Pleasure Beach purchased theirs from Lausanne in 1964 and ran it until 2012.

Is there a chance the track could bend?

Wuppertal’s monorail has a fairly good safety record for a 12-decade old system, with just one fatal accident in 1999. However, it’s only just reopened after a nine month closure caused by a collapsing support beam in November 2018, demonstrating that Apu’s fears might not have been entirely misplaced.

Generally, monorails are among the safest forms of transport – they move comparatively slowly, are very difficult to derail, don’t have to contend with traffic, and tend to operate over short distances, reducing the possibility of accidents. Many are now driverless, reducing the possibility of errors caused by Homer Simpson’s presence at the controls. They also, crucially, are not solar powered.

With Disney’s purchase of Fox at the beginning of this year, Marge vs. the Monorail is now the property of Big Mouse, and it might cause their PR guys a bit of a nightmare. The Disney World monorail in Florida has had a number of dangerous incidents while carrying 150,000 riders per day, including fires, breakdowns, and a 2009 crash which resulted in one fatality.

The implication that fire extinguisher cases might actually contain a family of possums might add to the company’s animal friendly image, but is unlikely to be reassuring to tourists. To make things worse, the episode’s inspiration, 1962’s The Music Man, is owned by Warner Bros.

It’s more of a Shelbyville idea

The failure of the Springfield Monorail means there are just three transit options left in the USA for fans of the system. The Seattle Monorail runs for just under a mile between Downtown and the Space Needle, while the Las Vegas Monorail serves primarily casinos and the city’s convention centre. The last is the Jacksonville Skyway, which has carried visitors across Florida’s most populous municipality free of charge since opening in 1989.

But there is a happy ending. With their generally logical, grid-based layouts, American cities are finally getting off the ground when it comes to trams and light rail, with new networks opening in Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, Washington D.C. and San Francisco within the last five years. It seems that Americans don’t object to mass transit after all – but after Springfield’s experiment, they prefer to keep them on the ground.

This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.
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