Travels December 2005

Back to the Future

Which way is the new Las Vegas Monorail heading?

Las Vegas is the Los Alamos of urban design, the nation's leading laboratory for experimenting with how our cities will look and function a half century from now. Among the questions currently under investigation: How much fake do Americans want and what kinds of fake do they prefer? How high and how far can celebrity-chef franchise dining go? How will hybrid hotel-condos actually work on a citywide level? How do you build a compact, pedestrian-friendly city around what amounts to a short but congested ten-lane highway?

Howard Hughes was right. He said Las Vegas could be a "city of the future," setting a course for the rest of America. (Hughes envisioned a "super environmental" city free of smog and run by an enlightened local government—but whatever.) When I read that Las Vegas had opened a new monorail system last year to whisk travelers up and down the Strip, my first thought was, Of course: all cities of the future have monorails.

My second thought was, When can I ride it? Those of us who came of age making pilgrimages to Disney's Tomorrowland know that monorails produce a complicated nostalgia for the future. For me the very word "monorail" triggers a slightly faded Technicolor reverie in which my back yard has its own helipad and my wife, Zorga, wears a silver body suit and sports a stiffly epoxied hairdo that resembles an inverted chafing dish. So when I visited Las Vegas in September, it wasn't the buffets or the baccarat tables that lured me out of my hotel room before I had even unpacked. It was the prospect of a monorail ride. I made my way over to the nearest station, paid my three dollars, and hopped on the next train, uncertain whether I was bound for the past or the future.

This much most people agree on when it comes to monorails: they run on a single rail. The trains can sit on top of the rail, as they do in Las Vegas, Seattle, and the Disney theme parks, or they can be suspended underneath, as they were at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Kim Pedersen, the founder and president of the 4,300-member Monorail Society, is driven to distraction by people who indiscriminately talk about "monorails" that aren't any such thing. Seattle has a monorail, he says; Detroit, with its People Mover, does not. Disney World has a monorail; Miami, with its Metromover (which, as anyone can see, is just an automated, elevated bus system), clearly does not.

I have my own criteria for a monorail. It has a single rail, of course. But it must also run swiftly on quiet rubber wheels right into the lobby of a hotel or an office building. There should be a soft swooshing sound as it slows; bonus points are awarded for a slight but discernible change in air pressure when it arrives. The opening of the doors should be accompanied by a soft bonging, followed by a lush female voice, at once intimate and aloof, urging one to step smartly inside.

The Las Vegas Monorail gets mixed marks on these counts. Its cars, based on the five-eighths-scale Alweg cars originally commissioned by Disney, are pleasingly futuristic—not fully Jetsons, but not far from A Clockwork Orange. Most of them are wrapped in advertising, like the buses that double as billboards. A beguiling female voice beckoned me inside, but after the doors closed, the spell was broken by piped-in ads for casinos, including one in which Barry Manilow personally implored me to disembark at the Hilton.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the Las Vegas Monorail is the route. The trains don't glide into hotel lobbies or even past football-field-size neon signs. The platforms are behind the casinos on the east side of the Strip, and getting to them from the west side requires a wearying hike across traffic and through bewildering, unmarked thickets of clanging slot machines. Once you're on board, the view out the window is sadly quotidian. The four-mile track winds behind the hotels, affording views mostly of parking lots, croupiers taking cigarette breaks, and vast, sand-colored roofs dotted with HVAC domes that shimmer in the desert heat like distant Bedouin encampments.

And the ride is bumpy and not very fast, owing to track curves and frequent station stops. "I have to admit, it's a little rough," said Pedersen, who recently spent five days in Las Vegas shooting video to promote monorails in other cities. "Especially having ridden so many Japanese monorails, which are as smooth as glass."

Monorails have more history than you might think. A patent for the first prototype was registered in 1821, and the first one-track passenger train appeared in 1825, drawn by a single horse. The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, in 1876, featured a Victorian-looking double-decker steam monorail, and in 1911 the first of the modern monorail cars—those that resemble huge suppositories—made an appearance in Seattle, running on a wooden track.

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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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