Monorail at the center median of Interstate 64 (Courtesy Scott Ritcher)
Monorail at the center median of Interstate 64 (Courtesy Scott Ritcher)
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[ Editor’s Note: Thanks to Scott Ritcher for allowing the reprint of his monorail proposal developed in 1998 as part of a mayoral campaign. Scott was born and raised in Louisville and is currently living in Stockholm, Sweden where he is reportedly enjoying an extensive transit system. Last summer, he also wrote two articles comparing Sweden’s traffic problems and Louisville’s 8664.org campaign. Check those out here and here. ]

Louisville’s rapid transit dilemma

By now, we’ve all agreed that Louisville needs to invest in a long-term solution to its growing transportation problems. So many people drive cars everywhere they go that we all carry the burden with clogged roadways and air pollution. 73 percent of Louisvillians drive to work alone in a car. Only 8.5 percent of us take TARC.

We’ve heard a lot of talk about investing in a Light Rail system. But I don’t think that’s the solution. People in other cities with Light Rail systems have many of the same complaints about it that we have about our buses. It’s too slow. It makes a lot of noise. Its web of suspended electrical lines are dangerous and ugly. It’s dated.

The problem with Light Rail

Light Rail is called that because it’s smaller than a full-scale train or an underground subway. Louisville’s water table is too high for anything to be built underground, and we don’t have a passenger train station, so if we want to expand public transportation beyond our bus system, we have to build something new. Obviously, we would want something better than buses.

Light Rail has been introduced as a solution because it seems like the logical next step. It has all the look and feel of something you’d see in a big city, and it’s historically a part of Louisville that has vanished.

There are two ways Light Rail can be implemented. In the first, the tracks are built into existing streets and the train is powered by suspended electrical wires. This doesn’t solve any transportation problems because it introduces a new vehicle (the train) into the already cluttered flow of automobile traffic. If you think Bardstown Road or Broadway are congested now, think what it would be like with a train running down the middle of the road! In addition to the logistics of construction, a web of electricity must also be suspended above the road. Ultimately, surface-based Light Rail is subject to the same limitations as a bus. It’s basically just a louder, more expensive bus on that runs on rails.

The second way to implement Light Rail is by running the train on an elevated track, as it is in Chicago. Aside from the fact that you have a huge iron structure that casts an even bigger shadow, can you even begin to imagine the cost of putting a train up in the air? Trains weren’t meant for the sky.

Monorail on UL Belknap Campus (Courtesy Scott Ritcher)
Monorail on UL Belknap Campus (Courtesy Scott Ritcher)

Why is Monorail the solution?

Monorail systems offer something that Light Rail, buses, and subways can never touch: Profit. Seattle’s Monorail opened in 1962 and is operated by a private company which actually pays the city $75,000 a year in return for the concession to operate it. And the people of Seattle voted last year to expand it to a city-wide 40-mile route. Tokyo’s Haneda Monorail is a privately-owned 8-mile dual-beam system which opened in 1964 and turns a profit every year.

Aren’t experimental vehicles expensive? Monorails are hardly experimental, and they are extremely cost-effective. One of the world’s earliest passenger Monorails at Wuppertal, Germany opened in 1902 and is still operating today. Initial costs can be about the same or more than Light Rail, but the required purchasing of right-of-way is greatly reduced, because the track is only 26 inches wide. And if it’s built and operated by a private company, the cost to the taxpayer is nothing.

Construction time and disruption of the local area are also reduced because Monorail beams can be prefabricated off-site and installed off of trucks. The 1.2-mile Las Vegas Monorail was constructed in only seven months.

Perhaps the biggest advantages Monorails boast are in environmental and safety concerns. Environmentally, Monorails are at the head of their class. Because they are powered by electricity, pollution is a non-issue. Monorails are pleasant to look at and extremely quiet as they run on rubber tires instead of steel rails. Monorails operate in an exclusive and completely safe area with no chance of interaction with automobile or pedestrian traffic. They can arrive quickly and safely on time, with no risk of derailment or collision.

This is the answer to Louisville’s rapid transit dilemma.

Map of proposed monorail routes (Courtesy Scott Ritcher)
Map of proposed monorail routes. (Courtesy Scott Ritcher)
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Branden Klayko

Branden Klayko

Founder and Editor at Broken Sidewalk
Branden founded Broken Sidewalk in 2008 while practicing architecture in Louisville. He continued the site for seven years while living in New York City, returning to Louisville in 2016. Branden is a graduate of the College of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, and has covered architecture, design, and urbanism for The Architect's Newspaper, Designers & Books, Inhabitat, and the American Institute of Architects.
Branden Klayko

21 COMMENTS

  1. Mass transit like this would be great economically and best of all environmentally…but do they seriously want to run it through the campus like in the photo? jw.

  2. I am not real familiar with the functioning of monorail, but what are headways like for such a system. I am more than likely missing something, but as depicted in the images, there is only one rail so where do outbound vehicles travel, or is this just a single vehicle that goes back and forth on the line? I think this article makes some good and valid points, but there is something to say about accessibility to at-grade vehicles though the setbacks are duly noted.

  3. Here’s the thing, I’m a Louisville transplant who comes from Seattle, WA originally, the monorail system there is a gimmick, no one really rides it, and those who do are tourists. The line runs from Seattle Center which includes the Key Arena, The Space Needle and EMP (Experience Music Project) to Westlake Center, roughly 3 miles from the waterfront and Pike Place Market. It is expensive (Round-trip fares are $4.00 for adults…) and while there are plans to expand it, those plans are largely on the backburner…Seattle is investing Billions in Light Rail, which has and will continue to transform their notorious traffic problems.

    In a similar way, Las Vegas has a monorail system that transports tourists up and down the strip, another Gimmick.

    I agree that Monorail is a cheap, and environmentally conscious idea for Louisville’s public transportation problems, but by and large Louisville does not need a Gimmick, i think Light Rail will provide a much greater opportunity for future ride-ability, with a little education and marketing, the general public would ride in droves.

  4. Heh, that’s a blast from the past, all right!

    History has not been kind to monorail proposals. Seattle’s monorail only goes 14 blocks, and their expansion plan collapsed because monorail is just so expensive. Las Vegas’ is what, 9 blocks? The only thing more expensive is Heavy Rail (subway). If I recall correctly, since this article was written not a single new city worldwide has built a monorail, except to circulate within airports.

    There’s nothing wrong with the Western and North-South alignments per-se – but the Eastern one seems nuts. Running any kind of transit down the middle of an expressway throws away 90% of the benefits of the transit system in the first place, because who likes walking to the expressway? Are you going to develop a new pedestrian-accessible business in Dupont because of this monorail connects you to shoppers from … where? And it stops 8 blocks short of the heart of the central business district? When _I’m_ making fantasy maps, I’m not stingy with the crayon. 🙂

    There’s nothing magical about putting a train in the air that makes it faster. Getting stuff out of the way makes it faster. The author is confusing exclusive right-of-way with the type of wheels the vehicle rolls on. Light rail and even buses frequently operate on exclusive right of way, or with traffic signal pre-emption. T2 Light Rail used both in certain areas.

    Light Rail is noisy? The VTA light rail I last rode was about as noisy as a bicycle.

    For every mile of Monorail you build, you can build roughly 3 miles of Light Rail for the same price. The jury is in: monorail is not the best bang/buck.

  5. Blast from the past indeed, did this bring back fond memories of metroschifter for anyone else? The east bound pine seems poorly planned but I like the other two although connecting to slugger field seems silly, I think the belvedere would make more sense. That being said I also think plight rail would be better. When I lived in Portland, or I made frequent use of light rail and don’t find them slow, noisy or unsightly; streetcars are a different story tho.
    Interesting note about louisvilles wAter table. I think serious attnetion ought to be paid to the red line, connecting the airport and uofl to downtown via rail would be a huge step but t would be great if the hospital area could somehow be included.

  6. a monorail is NOT the answer for improving louisville's transit system. monorails and light rail serve different purposes. monorails are too site-specific, and are usually used to link places like airports, tourist attractions, arenas, and large park and ride areas. I could see how a monorail linking the airport and large event spaces could fit into a larger metro-wide transportation plan, but it's definitely not the answer for improving neighborhood to neighborhood trips within the city.

    I believe an investment in transportation should focus on transit for people in the city, and later on we can worry about moving tourists and business travelers.

  7. I would love it if Louisville had light rail. I like the line going out 64, but I think one going out Bardstown Road would be nice as well. I have used the public transportation in Washington DC (excellent), St. Louis (very good), and San Diego (pretty good, but limited in 2000 when I was last there). DC is the absolute best, but I haven’t used the trains in Chicago or NY. The Metro in DC is clean, reliable, fairly priced, and can get you just about anywhere.
    My daughter is writing a short paper about the history of sewage systems and we checked out a book from the library about the 1st 50 years of MSD (published in 1998). It has some great photos of the construction and as I was looking at them I wondered why in the world they just didn’t put in trains then!

  8. I think they not going be built kentucky has bad economy. Waste money, I need they take of time. I hear it under const. In may from Lou downtown.

  9. Re: those incredibly beaten-up on systems in Seattle is 1.2 miles & Las Vegas is 3.9 miles not 9 blocks. At least a half dozen monorails have been built worldwide since the 1998 Richter proposal- see list below.

    2003 Kuala Lampur, Malasia 5 mi.—2003 Naha, Japan 8 mi.—2004 Shanghai, China 5 mi. (the 'Transrapid' maglev-monorail is the fastest commercial train operation in the world operating at 267 mph – with speed records much faster)—2005 Moscow, Russia 3 mi. —Chongjin, China 12 mi.—2009 Palm Island, Dubai U.A.E.10 mi. The above systems are fully open and operating while countless others are under actual construction. Let's see; Malaysia, Japan, Russia, China and United Arab Emirate —Sounds very worldwide to me and many additional monorails are currently under actual construction. Alignments can be worked out. It's concept that matters.

    The latest Mongirado/Schimpeler proposal is more on the level of a boxy automated bus on an elevated roadway (*see Miami people mover) For a truly monorail-like people mover look to nearby Indianapolis. Their 'Clarian' 1.5 mi elevated people mover system is a jewel and only misses being monorail due to dual beam guidways. This is a worthy example for Louisville and couldn't be closer. Google it or drive up and ride. It's fare free, automated and driverless. Its lowcost and ease and speed of construction is nothing short of amazing.

    What's with this dual, colflicted love/hate stance for monorails? Announcing "the verdict is in" against monorail?, and then fully endorsing a RAM system – Rapid Access Monorail? No so-called verdict is in about any such thing and why such a sudden leap of faith in favor of Mongiardo/Schimpeler, is it simply because it the most recent offering being dangled?

    Concerned Citizen

  10. Dear Concerned Citizen,

    You ask a fair question, why I would prefer one Monorail proposal and support another. Is there bias in favor of Schimpeler, a transit engineer with experience building all over the world, versus some guy who is such a greenhorn that he connects Shawnee Park, but not Downtown Louisville? Yes, I tend to be more skeptical of the latter! Guilty! 🙂

    Note that CART was careful never to endorse the "Rapid Access Monorail", and in all our educational efforts around it were careful to insert qualifiers like "on paper,…" and "R.A. Monorail promises …". You and I both know there's a history of sky-high claims made by purveyors of a new transit technology, be it LRT, Monorail, PRT, or what have you. Traditional Monorail, in its infancy, has made its fair share. Now Charlie is claiming $20m/mile for an untried technology. Caveat Emptor. We carefully highlighted the technology risk there as well.

    The RAM does provide some advantages over traditional monorail, most notably continuous boarding, but also less obtrusive rails and pylons. It doesn't seem so very different from the system you point to in Indy, though I'm scratching my head over the seemingly derogatory characterisation of the RAM as "boxy automated bus". Is the bullet-train nose so important for a system to appeal to you?

    But traditional monorail now can no longer make sky-high claims, because it has been tested in the real world. (Thank you for enlightening me on the new monorail construction around the world. I guess I got America confused with The World :). FYI, here are the people per square km in the cities you listed that I could find, along with Louisville:

    Kuala Lumpur: 7,388

    Naha: 8,052

    Shanghai: 2,683

    Moscow: 9,735

    Seattle: 7,136

    Los Vegas: 4,154

    Louisville: 720

    Needless to say, their total populations are much higher as well. It certainly doesn't reassure me that traditional monorail is a viable tool.

    If we want to have a discussion about what transit would work in Louisville, then of course I'm down. It was courageous to propose something like this at the time, but time has marched on. We need a really, really good proposal to crack the shell in Louisville. This one isn't it, but I liked talking about it anyway. It concerns me though to see posts say that this "makes sense", when it makes no sense. No harm in putting the idea out there though, and I suspect I'm not the only one who learned from this proposal. 🙂

  11. Well, Dave, here is what I think would work in Louisville.

    You were right to note low population density in Louisvill; I believe this suggests something like RAM would be a good choice. I envision such an unobtrusive and on demand system starting at the airport, having a fairgrounds stop and then a UofL stadiuam/churchill downs stop in the stadium parking lot. That line would end and then would begin north south lines on Floyd and third with a stop at Warnock and Shipp respectively. Next would be Hill and then Oak on which an East and West line would run from Southwestern Parkway to Baxter. At Oak, an 8th St. line would begin parallel to the 3rd and Floyd lines. These three lines would next stop at Broadway where an E and W line would run from Southwestern Pkwy to Baxter up Bardstown until it reached the Gardener Lane Shopping center. The final two stops for the numerical lines would be M. Ali and Market. Market would featurr another E W line that extended from Southwestern Pkwy to the Oxmoor Mall via Wenzel to Story and then up Frankfort Ave. These E W systems could be divided at 3rd to allow more cars to service each section.

    That's a rough picture of a system that would provide good transportation for the city's urban core and the most densely populated outlying areas.

  12. When I sent the list of 1/2 dozen dities worldwide having installed actual working transit monorail it was sent in response to your quote " Since this (Richter's 1989) article was written not a single new city worldwide has built a monorail"

    Louisville is admittedly way down on any totem pole of population density. It's the same even within the USA. Yet it's disturbing that if you examine this (density comparable situation) closely every dity except Louisville KY has found a way to get some form of rail transit up and running, i.e., St Louis, Boston, Pittsburg, Charlotte, Nashville , Cleveland.(Don't confuse population w/ density) Louisville's density is smack in the middle of the preceding city list.

    T-2 was our best, last hope and unfortunately it tuned out to be just another d.o.a plan that was studied till the cows came home, died of old age and were sent to the glue factory. That very propensity to "study to death" is in and of itself a Louisville signature death knell which precludes any and all progress here period. Sound pretty cynical? ….it is.

  13. > When I sent the list of 1/2 dozen dities worldwide having

    > installed actual working transit monorail it was sent in

    > response to your quote ” Since this (Richter’s 1989)

    > article was written not a single new city worldwide has

    > built a monorail”

    Touche! 🙂

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