Nine years ago, I took my first monorail ride.
It was a 122°F (50°C) day at the end of July in Las Vegas, and the soles of my Converse had melted from walking on the hot sidewalk. I’d seen the infamous Simpsons episode where Lyle Lanley sells Springfield an expensive and useless monorail. That evening I headed for the MGM Grand station, paid the $5 ticket fare, and waited for my chariot to arrive.
But like some kind of crazy dream, I was literally the only person on a train built to carry 222 people. It was like walking through a deserted mall at midnight—creepy as hell.
A monorail in Las Vegas seems like a good idea: The Strip is long and full of tourists. Even if you’re stone-cold sober, weaving through throngs of people who are so drunk and lazy that they’ve got neck straps for their yard drinks—you know, the long plastic cups filled with margarita slushies—is a pain in the ass.
However, Las Vegas has struggled to deliver on its monorail promise since the 3.9-mile track opened in 2004. The track runs parallel to the Strip— behind all the massive, block-wide hotels. When the project was first proposed, promoters hoped to bring upwards of 20 million riders a year. In 2016, just 4.9 million monorail rides were taken. For reference, nearly 43 million people visited Las Vegas last year, according to the city’s visitor bureau, and the city has a population of about 632,000.
In 2010, the not-for-profit company in charge, named Las Vegas Monorail, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after failing to repay $650 million in construction loans. (It exited bankruptcy proceedings two years later.)
But in true Las Vegas style, instead of taking the loss and heading home with its tail tucked between its legs, the company is doubling down. Now it’s anticipating spending an additional $100 million in private financing to extend the monorail from the MGM Grand to Mandalay Bay—a distance of less than a mile by foot. The company also asked the county to give it $4.5 million of public funds a year for 30 years to support the extension.
“I hate the idea that we have to have this discussion of $4.5 million,” Marilyn Kirkpatrick, a Clark County commissioner, told the Las Vegas Sun newspaper in November. “If something isn’t going to make it over $4.5 million, then it isn’t going to make it… It’s like my kids saying, ‘I just need a buck.’ You’ve got bigger issues all around.”
The tale of the Las Vegas monorail is an allegory for almost every other monorail that exists on this planet.
A monorail in China passes through an apartment building. Video: Amazing World/YouTube
Matti Siemiatycki, a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto, told me that monorails are an easy buy-in for governments and investors because they are cheaper and seemingly less disruptive than digging subway tunnels.
When it comes to transportation, it’s easy to believe the next innovation will solve our urban problems—”the idea that we can use new technologies to shrink the friction of distance,” said Siemiatycki, who researches the policy, planning, financing, and delivery of transportation infrastructure. “Monorail fits into this genre of the futuristic technology that’s going to change the way our cities function.”
Governments and investors are easily wooed by the mental picture of a monorail cutting in between skyscrapers and gliding oh-so-gracefully above ground. “The imagery and symbolism of transportation technologies is really relevant to these discussions,” he continued. In November, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard—who is up for re-election next year—casually suggested a monorail to link Montreal to Quebec City. He specifically ruled out using light-rail transit (LRT) instead. It’d be easy to dismiss as election-season pandering, but Siemiatycki said you’d be surprised how many transportation projects get kickstarted by an offhand remark.
Meanwhile, the volunteer-run Monorail Society—yes, it’s real—has a one-track mind: To promote and celebrate the use of monorails around the world. It says they’re safe, environmentally friendly, and an effective way to move people around a city. For what it’s worth, it’s also floated a conspiracy theory that monorails are often ruled out because of the powerful two-track rail lobby.
But monorails have been promised for more than a century, Siemiatycki told me. In fact, Wuppertal, Germany has had a suspension monorail since 1901. “I think what ends up happening with monorail is that it’s a sort of novelty technology, but nobody can understand the benefit against having two rails,” he said. In short, subways and streetcars are more convenient for riders, and LRT is cheaper to build.
So far, most of the world’s monorails are typically just a few miles long and have been built as shuttles for theme parks and airports. The longest monorail in the world is in densely populated Chongqing, China; Line 3 is 41 miles long and connects the city and its surrounding suburbs to the airport. (It also goes through an apartment building.) About 675,000 rides are taken on it per day—in a city of 30 million.
But in most cities where monorails exist, most people can’t figure out what they’re good for.
In Mumbai, India, a three-year-old monorail does just 17,000 daily rides—significantly short of the 125,000–300,000 passengers per day planners and backers anticipated.
In Malacca, Malaysia, a local newspaper recently published an article criticizing the city’s monorail. The train reopened in December 2017, after four years of being out of service due to technical problems.
A ride on its one-mile track costs about US$2.45—about the cost of a cheap meal in Malacca. “This monorail moves at 20 kilometres (12 miles) per hour. It is definitely not a mode of transportation that the locals can opt for,” critics told the paper. “Why would they pay so much to ride on a monorail that travels to nowhere?”
The same goes for Las Vegas: Why would anybody pay $5 per person to ride a monorail in the sketchy back alley of the Strip, when splitting an Uber or Lyft with friends would likely cost about the same, or less? It’ll take at least another $100 million or so to find out.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .