Using the same technology licensed from Alweg, Tokyo’s monorail opened two years after Seattle’s monorail for the 1964 Summer Olympics. It is ten times longer and connects central Tokyo to the airport. There’s that and they also built a bullet train.

34 Replies to “Sunday Open Thread: Building the Tokyo Monorail”


    Not sure if it’s shown in either of these, but I think that in late 18- or early 1900’s, overseas German planters set up lines of triangular timber supports carrying rail- for a quick, cheap way to haul crops- across swampy ground.

    Aside from that, can anybody tell me a single advantage over standard rail? Or is it just a giant retrograde engineering plot to keep railroads backward that so may trains aren’t monorail? This IS 1903, you know!

    Won’t ask for stats on total mileage in Japan comparing types of rail. But would bet a lot of sake that no project for any Japanese rail-mode would be headed by a salesman elected by acclaim by an rail-engineer-free cult who thought talent searches were a waste of time.

    Loses Seattle all its cred for ragging on outcome of 2016 Presidential election.

    Mark Dublin

    1. There is one clear advantage for the monorail technology here: It is already built. It served many before it got quasi-privatized and turned into a carousel ride.

      Building another station to replace it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Turning it into the functional equivalent of a 17th Link Light Rail station (albeit a stub line), by ordering the concessionaire to start accepting ORCA card transfers, would be like getting a brand new light station for almost free, and it would immediately become one of the more heavily-used stations.

      That the City doesn’t just fork over the meager entry fee far less than a million dollars to make it happen is cray-cray.

      1. BTW, I thought long and hard about going to Folklife yesterday. I made the conscious decision to instead keep boycotting the Seattle Center until fare integration happens on the monorail. The Seattle Center makes the decision. (But SDOT could easily come up with the money to pay the ORCA pod entry fee.)

      2. It has always been an amusement park ride.

        And despite what the arena groups would want us to believe, the monorail will not solve any of the parking or traffic issues that an NBA/NHL at the Key would create. Seattle needs to grow up and move on from the monorail and Key Arena.

      3. NBA/NHL doesn’t create the traffic problems, since there has been no interest from either NBA or NHL. Chris Hansen is persona non grata with the NBA after financing an initiative to force a vote on the Sacramento arena. Whether the collective NBA owners admit it or not, he is banned for life from ever owning a franchise in their league.

        Concerts, however, do create such traffic problems already. I don’t think building more box seats, and thereby reducing seating for non-sportsball events, is a good idea.

        Regardless, it is painful to witness the monorail being 80% empty in the peak direction during daily commutes. The capital cost of fare integration to the taxpayers is to hand the Seattle Monorail Services four ORCA readers. The operating cost is negligible, as the monorail is already running. Deal of the Century!

      4. “Hundreds of millions of dollars”?

        Why? Probably tens of millions, yes, for a Bettery Street station. But not hundreds. It doesn’t need a mezzanine — it really can’t have one and clear traffic below — so either go to fare inspection or have a turnstile on each side of the street with stairs up and down plus a hydraulic elevator for ADA compliance like in parking garages or low-rise buildings. That’s exactly what the Las Vegas monorail has for its stations. There are no attendants; you pay to enter the station.

        The stations can be “retro” too; the existing ones are certainly Spartan. Of course, to make it really useful, the Westlake station would need to be re-configured to have platforms on both sides or a center-platform.

      5. There is absolutely no evidence that the NBA won’t do business with Chris Hansen. None.

      6. “Chris Hansen is persona non grata with the NBA after financing an initiative to force a vote on the Sacramento arena.”

        I don’t have a deep investment in SODO vs. LQA, but that statement reflects a profoundly deep misunderstanding of the politics involved. The NBA is clearly open to whatever plan Seattle puts forth.

      7. Brent, you’re right on the ORCA cards. But far as I know, nobody has any plans to destroy or convert present monorail to Seattle Center.
        As I’ve said before, it works perfectly as a very necessary horizontal elevator between heart of Downtown and Seattle Center.

        And I’d certainly support a station at Bell Street. While Westlake Center itself was being built- remembering Chicago, I thought previous terminal in what’s now Westlake Park worked much better- a temporary station was built at Stewart Street.

        With ORCA and fare inspection, similar structure at Bell wouldn’t need a ticket booth. But for its last months, I attended every project meeting, and advocated building the line from King Street Station to West Seattle.

        I still think that all these Waterfront demolishing years, we would’ve been glad we built it. And that we could’ve done it. If the project itself hadn’t adamantly maintained that they had to build the whole thing.

        Also still believe that large amount of support was a protest against Sound Transit’s neglect of any kind of a fast corridor from Ballard to Downtown and West Seattle. Opposition campaign material showed a lot of LINK cars.

        As if we’d quickly get them instead of the monorail was defeated. Surprised and not very comforted that the monorail effort got as far as it did. For its cost, I hope we’ve got some geological studies we can use for ST West Seattle service.

        But demonstrates danger, just repeated on disastrously National scale, of doing expensive lasting damage just to show how angry you are. Cruel and prejudiced, but better chance for a rematch if you don’t approach voters a spiteful look on your face, a pair of scissors in one hand and your nose in the other.


      8. Brent is right. The monorail is not a carnival ride (like the streetcar). It is a first class public transportation system. Like Link, it has many flaws. It doesn’t have enough stops, it integrates poorly with other public transportation, it doesn’t have the capacity that heavy rail does, nor does it have ideal headways. But like Link, it is grade separated, and connects urban areas. It should be treated like the public transportation system it is.

        The biggest weakness of the monorail — as we’ve been saying for years now — is the lack of ORCA support. Despite a strong effort on behalf of citizens pushing for this (from this very blog) nothing much has happened. We are still studying things, apparently. This is ridiculous. There are lots of little things (and some big ones) that could be done to improve the monorail. We could make the connection between the Westlake station better. We could separate the tracks so that (once again) both trains could run independently all the time. But the first thing we should do is have this thing support ORCA.

    2. Isn’t monorail rubber-tired? That reduces the pounds per square inch that has to be supported. Also, the aerial design blocks less sunlight than double rail tracks do.

      I’m not a monorail advocate but there appear to be some apparent advantages. Switching and speed are major apparent disadvantages so its net benefit would seem to only apply in certain situations.

    3. Well, monorail can climb hills because it has tires, monorail can’t.

      However, the biggest advantage of monorail is that the city already has the taxing authority to build monorail.

      Sound transit is tasked with building a regional light rail system. That means that lines that are mostly of local interest, like the 44 and the 8, may never get light rail lines.

      However, the city could build a monorail for the 44 today if it wanted…

      Ideally, the city of Seattle would have taxing authority for light rail beyond what sound transit has, so that it could build a dense transit network of its own. That might be a tough sell in the legislature at this moment though.

      1. Al, different sense of aesthetics maybe, but existing monorail structure wouldn’t be any more intrusive if it had two rails per direction. And renderings of the line down Second Avenue showed presence that was much worse.

        Any freeway proves that rubber tires aren’t especially quiet. And as with the rest of the technology, world preference for steel wheels and rail gives the engineering profession’s verdict.

        Montreal Subways, however, have two rails per direction. With rubber tires on pads instead of rails. I think it’s because France did that. Since Norway, Sweden, and Finland use steel, less support for tires in Seattle.

        And Brendan, I’d like to see engineering stats on relative climbing capacity for steel and rubber-wheeled trains. Agreed, hard to beat 40′ trolleybuses to replace cable cars in San Francisco.

        From talking to prospective voters, I got sense that many people really thought “monorail” just meant “elevated.” But can anybody quote me the legislature’s definition of the term “monorail?”

        Also don’t think given its present mood and composition, I doubt that the contents of the containment dome across the snail-infested inlet from the Thurston County Courthouse would approve any elevated transportation project that couldn’t carry twelve lanes of traffic carrying uncoupled SOV’s.


  2. Right now we are fighting for upzones to try and mitigate our housing crises. We are currently experiencing a large influx of new, well off, young and relatively childless residents. The housing market has lagged the start of this influx, and the city zoning has only just now started responding to the new pressure. I’m worried about the next housing crises. What happens when all these new tech workers start having kids?

    We are building lots of new apartments for single people or couples, but we are building no new housing for families. If our congestion and single family home prices are bad when most of the new residents can go in the new apartments, imagine how bad things will get when they are starting families and try to move out to where ever they can get a detached home.

    Now obviously loosing our single family home restrictions could help with this lack of new housing for families, but I think we’ll need to go a step further. This is what I would do as a city planner to preempt the next housing crisis.

    We should make new type of zoning for family apartments. This should require the majority of units to be two or three bedroom. Indoor and outdoor play areas should be required. Maybe give a bonus for rooftop playgrounds. Maybe a max hight of 65′ and a FAR of 4 to keep things from feeling too big

    The best places for this new zoning would be places in walking distance to the amenities families need, but currently have low intensity uses. Any place a quarter mile from an elementary school and a half mile from a large park, good tranportation, and a grocery store could be a good candidate.

    An example of a place which has all those amenities in walking distance is the area between N 80th St, Aurora Ave, and Green Lake. With Green Lake park, Bagley Elementary, the E-line, and PCC, this place is perfect for future growth. Eyeballing the maps, I see many slivers of city that meet this criteria.

    If we start taking action to upzone for families before the families get here, maybe we wont have so extreme of a crises like we have now.

    1. I agree that the block or so along Aurora north of Winona would be a good place for such mid-rise apartments as what you suggest. However, every block closer to the lake one gets the price of a lot goes up by at least $100K; $200 K for the last one. It just wouldn’t pencil out to put apartments on such enormously expensive land. At least not for another thirty years.

      I do agree that it’s a wonderful place to live for folks with families.

      1. There is an advantage to a variety of land prices. Apartments can be built for a variety of income levels. Taller buildings would probably give better ROI in the more expensive segments. I doubt the neighbors would be ok with Stanley Park sized buildings though. Also, anything larger than mid-rise loses that human scale.

    2. Thanks for thinking outside the box. However, I’m having a hard time imagining a “next housing crisis”. The most likely outcome is that the population will continue to increase (by both migration and childbirth), the cities will address it only partly, and it will be like a vise that continues to get tighter. That’s what happened in the Bay Area. Suburbanism and misplaced environmentalism in the 1970s led to an almost complete moratorium on infill development, the housing didn’t keep up with the population growth, and million-dollar houses and $2700 apartments are now standard. Pugetopolis has done better at keeping up with housing but it’s headed for a milder form of the same trajectory.

      So I don’t see a “new housing crisis”, just the existing one gradually worsening. Maybe in twenty years it will become more acceptable again to raise children in apartments, as was common in the 1950s. (My friend grew up in Summit and says it was full of families with children in the 1950s.) The average sized house has also increased, from 1000 square feet to 1500, then 2000, then 2500, and on until you can fit a tennis court in your basement. So families could just reverse these expectations.

      Before 2008 there was an average six-month inventory in for-sale housing. Since the revival in 2012 it has remained stuck at thirty days or less. That’s a dramatically different market. People aren’t selling like they used to; they’re keeping their house. An the suburbs are heeding the call for density in their own way: most of the growth in east King County will be in the Spring District, Totem Lake, the Issaquah urban center, and places like that. So not much different than SLU or Ballard. South King County is still a wildcard because development is just starting there, but almost all the house lots this side of Maple Valley have already been taken so the only choice there will be infill densification. In 10-30 years when those families have children, they won’t be able to buy a house in the suburbs because there simply won’t be any available. To get into a traditional subdivision they’ll have to go to the exurban fringe, southeast Pierce County, Marysville, Olympia, Enumclaw, etc.

      RossB made an excellent point that the Seattle lots platted after WWII are too damn big: you can fit an entire house or two in the yard. That’s where we should be building houses for all these families that want houses.

      (In northwest Everett there’s an even more amazing phenomenon: deep narrow lots with the house in the middle. You could fit an entire house with space around it in the front yard! And most of those yards are empty grass, probably little used because they’re so exposed. I’d like to put more houses there, but given the 1905 vintage of the existing houses I’m sure it would never be accepted. You can see a milder version of these deep setbacks in Magnolia.)

      Regarding “family zoning”, I have difficulty accepting restrictive zoning for family-sized housing. It sounds like it might lead to the same problems as other restrictive zoning. But perhaps something could be done with incentives. Also, you realize there’s nothing stopping rich singles from filling these units. The main thing we need to do is just get six-story apartments of any kind all along Aurora. That would make a significant dent in the housing shortage, and it can be combined with large retail. That would make it more of a renter’s market, and then developers would have to cater more to families’ needs because they won’t be able to mine money from single people like the gold rush anymore.

      1. @Mike Orr,

        I don’t think you could have restrictive family size zoning, but you sure could incentivize including more 2 bedroom and 3 bedroom/2 bath units into new development. And the larger units would benefit more than just nuclear families. Such units would fill a need for extended families and more diverse living arraignments too. Many recent arrivals survive in NYC by utilizing just such apartments to keep costs down.

        Per Aurora, it definitely is a housing opportunity we should be taking advantage of. But I’m not sure I would stop at just 6 stories. Modest increases in heights can bring big volume gains. Going from 6 to 8 stories does little visually, but increases the number of units by about 40% (assuming the first floor is business oriented). And there really isn’t any reason to stop at just 8 stories for a lot of Aurora.

        Ut really want to get Aurora redeveloped? Put LR on it, and do it son.

      2. @Mike Orr,

        If tech has a downturn then resurgence like the dot com bust, we could definitely see housing prices drop, then resurge with a focus on family sized dwellings. But even assuming we don’t get hit by a downturn, if our current rate of building one bedroom and studio apartments becomes the norm, I suspect the prices will level.

        As far as raising kids in tiny apartments, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, but housing prices would have to become outrageous to cause that large of a cultural shift. I can imagine some delaying having kids and some changing jobs to move out of the region. But I think a lot of better off families will buy a house in a place like Everett and then commute in. The next affordability crisis I’m predicting isn’t just in Seattle. As you say, there is no new land to develop in the suburbs. The next generation of families in the suburbs could be unable to find housing because families moving from Seattle bid up the price. Some of those will likely end up raising kids in apartments. I’m proposing we try to get apartments which are designed for kids.

        I agree with your and RossB’s infill development ideas. If anything, loosening single family zoning and making family oriented upzones would compliment each other. The combination would mean more choices for families and less pressure on either type of housing, which would likely result in lower prices in both housing types.

        I see your point about not wanting more restrictive zoning. Personally I think the city would do better if it just turned all residential and commercial zoning into unlimited or no zoning zoning. But most people wouldn’t agree with me. If we must have zoning, we may as well adapt it to our needs. Let me ask you this. What is more restrictive, single family zoning, or the new type of zoning I just proposed?

        I completely see your concern about rich singles moving in. I agree that apartments over commercial all up Aurora would help turn this into more of a renters’ market where that would be less of a problem. But even with a renters’ market, those areas which are best suited for family apartments wont upzone on their own. Furthermore, the market tends to go with what has already been shown to work. There would have to be a huge amount of demand from wealthy families before the private market “innovated” apartments for kids. Zoning specifically for kids in the best place for kids would signal the market that this is a good idea and it would provide a place where builders aren’t competing with other types of possibly more lucrative housing.

      3. The next housing crisis is going to be related to the fact that everything being built is only appropriate for people without any mobility impairments. All the boxes going up are utterly incompatible with being elderly or having a mobility limitation that makes stairs impossible. Our current zoning makes skinny tall boxes the only type of housing that gets built – and that’s a problem.

      4. @Hansdalo,

        The big box around the corner from me was built with an elevator.

      5. “I’m not sure I would stop at just 6 stories.”

        That’s a minimum, not a maximum. It will be a hard enough move just to get six stories allowed. But we don’t need more than six stories as long as we have enough buildings.

        Developers build studios and 1-bedrooms because a separate unit is more lucrative than an extra bedroom, and they can get three households’ worth of rent out of the space that two 2-bedroom units would occupy. The way to get developers to build family-sized units is to say that there are no more rich singles or DINKs looking to rent because they already have places. Then the developers will have to build more family-sized and downscale units if they want to make any more money. But first we have to get to that point, and that means a lot more housing of any type.

      6. “Our current zoning makes skinny tall boxes the only type of housing that gets built”

        Skinny buildings are what we need more of. Too many of them are block-sized breadboxes. The width of a traditional narrow storefont is more pleasing to the eye, and it’s possible to make buildings look like that even if they aren’t by adding vertical lines. Horizontal buildings are what all our mid-century crap and big-box stores are: the scourge of America. As for accessibility, you get the same number of ground-floor units in several skinny buildings as opposed to fewer fat buildings if the land is fully built up.

      7. Huh? All construction must comply with ADA/ANSI standards for mobility and accessibility – that’s the law and it is enshrined as such in state and local building codes. The only multi-family residential buildings that don’t require elevators and a percentage of units to be accessible (and another percentage designed to be easily convertible to accessible units) are a very limited set of very small (4 units or less, IIRC) buildings–and even those need to meet certain stringent requirements as to why they are not required to meet accessibility codes. This has absolutely nothing to do with tall/short/skinny/fat buildings.

    3. Zoning which requires the construction of two and three bedroom apartments will simply push up the cost of all units. There would be nothing stopping single people from renting those places. With only so many places, that is what they will do. Turn one bedroom into an “entertainment center” (AKA “man cave”) and another bedroom into a home office. This is what empty nesters do all the time.

      The main reason that there aren’t more families in Seattle is not the lack of affordable two bedroom apartments, it is the lack of affordable one bedroom ones. As someone who raised a couple kids in a one bedroom apartment, I can tell you it isn’t that hard. Put the kids in the main bedroom, and put a bed in the living room (as you would if it was a studio). Life in the big city, as they say. The problem is that life like that in many parts of this city is very, very expensive.

      Meanwhile, the zoning already encourages bigger apartments. The Apodments rules are a great example of this. Using the “loophole” is no longer legal. You can’t have lots of different units, and pretend the thing is just one giant apartment. But you can still build a giant apartment. The result is fewer independent places to live. Not everyone wants to have a roommate. With so few places to live (of any sort) folks who would be fine living in a small apartment, simply get a bigger one, making it tougher on those with kids.

      The best thing to do is simply allow people to build a lot more, everywhere. More apartments (big and small), more backyard cottages, more basement apartments, more houses converted to apartments and more row houses.

    4. Well, you are describing a baby boom. Frankly, that is unlikely. The fertility rate in the US, and the entire developed world for that matter, is far too low for that to happen.

      The fertility rate in the US has been low since the 70’s. Since the recession, it has been lower than the replacement rate. Fewer people are being born than are dying. The only reason the US population isn’t dropping is because of immigration.

      Already there is a probably ill considered mandate that a certain number of family sized apartments are built in apartment buildings. As it is, 2 bedroom units are going for only for only 35% above the price of a single bedroom. Does that suggest shortage to you?

      I feel like our planning as a society is too much based around the 1950’s baby boomer model of how the world works. Really planning for the future should be based on real demographic data.

      1. “2 bedroom units are going for only for only 35% above the price of a single bedroom. Does that suggest shortage to you?”

        What’s the baseline difference? When I moved into my building in 2011 a studio was $950, a 1BR $1200, and a 2BR around $1600. They have all gone up but have probably remained proportionally the same. The reaction to scarcity isn’t always an increase in rents, it can just be that no units are available at any price. My property manager probably sticks to a scale formula, and probably has at least some sympathy for families. Gouging families for four or eight 2 BR units out of 64 units total wouldn’t make much difference in total profit.

  3. Random idea: Aggressive, reliability based signal priority.

    7 minutes late, next THREE signals (or next half mile, whichever is shorter) remain SOLID GREEN until
    1. Bus crosses the intersection, which also triggers an immediate yellow
    2. Driver pushes a “wheelchair button” on the control panel to indicate a need for a longer dwell time, which reverts affected signals to no priority until the bus begins moving.

    As far as I know, no sort of “solid green until the bus clears, no matter what” type of priority is in use, and with signals being a major cause of slowdown for buses (especially in conjunction with other factors), a simulated signal-less scenario would allow both the bus and traffic on the same road to pick up several minutes of lost time.

    If implemented on route 8 and every single signal it crosses, do you think route 8 could get to the point where it runs 10 or more minutes late less than 5% of the time?

    1. True in general, but when multiple frequent bus routes intersect, it’s not a slam dunk, as signal priority effectively pits one route against the other. In the case of the 8, this would affect some very popular routes, including the 40, 48, 49, 70, and C-line.

      1. Exactly, which is another reason why the 8 should be a subway. There is only so much you can do from a bus standpoint. The same is true for the 44.

        In general signal priority is a tricky dance. It is like a lot of things, in that unless you build a very strong network of bus only lanes, you could easily muck up transit, along with regular traffic. I have a feeling that what we really need is not one giant project (or set of projects) but dozens of little improvements made within the system, such as:

        1) Moving aggressively away from cash fares. I don’t know what city has the lowest rate of cash fares, but we should mimic them. My understanding is that Boston has largely replaced cash fares, and we should do the same.

        2) Off board payment for way more bus stops. This is trickier of course (fare enforcement is an issue) but if they manage with the Rapid Ride buses, they should be able to do that with other buses, at least in congested areas (like downtown).

        3) More low flow buses. Basically take a lot of the smaller advantages of Rapid Ride (some off board payment, level boarding) and apply it to a lot more buses.

        4) Simple signal prioritization. I personally have accidentally held up the 41 (the sixth most popular bus in our system) by pressing the walk button. It was ridiculous. I had to wait for about a minute, and the light finally changed to “Walk” just as the bus arrived. There is no way a traffic cop would do that (he would have made me wait another five seconds).

        5) Speaking of traffic cops, we need more of them, to enforce the rules for bus only lanes.

        6) We need more bus only lanes. Even jump ahead lanes can make a big difference.

        I think you could make the case that with the RapidRide+ projects, and the existing Rapid Ride, all we really need is to add a handful of routes (like the 8) to that class of service. But I have a feeling there will be buses that don’t really fit as major routes worthy of being “RapdRide”, but could still use some extra help.

  4. I actually rode on this last month. Here are some pictures:

    Overall, pretty cool. The view from the monorail was different than other forms of transit since all of the guideway is fully hidden from view and much of this stretch is over water. The ride was mediocre in terms of quality, but not horribly worse than some sections of Link. The interior of the cars were a bit inefficient especially since there is a big box in the center for the motor that you sit on and around.

  5. Anecdotal, but …

    I rode several buses in the nearer north side of Seattle today (Memorial Day).

    Compared with what I remember of holiday Mondays of 10-20+ years ago, there were a lot of people on the buses (some standing room only), and, most notably, a LOT of families with kids in the 3-10 year-old range. Not the sparse and mostly elderly or down-on-their-luck holiday ridership of decades past.

    If this was more than just a fortuitous choice of buses, it nourishes my suspicion that the talk of Seattle becoming the next addition to the “transit cities” may actually be on to something.

  6. For anyone with an interest in First Hill, I got this notice of a transit-oriented development open house from First Hill Improvement Association next Monday. (Aside: FHIA threw THE BEST Valentine’s Day open house at the Stimson-Green Mansion. My partner was very impressed.)

    Sound Transit and the First Hill Improvement Association invite you to a community open house to discuss future development on First Hill, located at the northeast corner of Boylston Avenue and East Madison Street. This summer, Sound Transit will reach out to developers to build transit-oriented development (TOD) on this property. TOD usually involves a mix of housing and commercial uses to support the greater neighborhood.

    Combining housing and commercial activity will make it easier for people to get around via transit, support local business and contribute to neighborhood growth, making First Hill a better place to live, work and spend time.

    We are eager to hear from you. This meeting is an opportunity to share your thoughts on specific elements of the future development to help Sound Transit craft its offering to the development community.

    Date: Monday, June 5, 2017
    Time: 6 – 8 p.m. (presentation starts at 6:30 p.m.)
    Location: Silver Cloud Hotel
    Address: 1100 Broadway, Seattle, WA 98122

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