Travels December 2005

Back to the Future

Which way is the new Las Vegas Monorail heading?

But not until the middle of the past century did America reach the brink of its golden Monorail Age. In 1961 Disney nearly tripled the length of its 1959 Tomorrowland monorail, to two and a half miles, and made it as much a form of transportation as an amusement ride. A year later Seattle opened its mile-long monorail linking downtown to the World's Fair grounds and the Space Needle. A 1964 Saturday Evening Post article painted a glorious picture of tomorrow: "After reaching their train via escalator, the passengers recline in molded fiber-glass seats and gaze out large picture windows as electric power shoots them from station to station at 90 miles per hour." And tomorrow was nearly here. "The climate is right for a breakthrough in urban transportation," Popular Mechanics reported at about the same time, "and those monorail builders are just itching to show what they can do."

So what happened?

"Well, that's the mystery," Pedersen told me. "It runs the gamut from conspiracy theories involving oil and automobile companies to the fact that they just haven't been looked at seriously because they've been at theme parks and world's fairs."

I blame the future. The monorail shows that an idealized tomorrow can be every bit as encumbering as an imperfect yesterday. The monorail was twenty years ahead of its time, and it has been mired there ever since. It is to mass transportation what the theremin is to the symphony—a novelty that most people feel is best experienced once.

This vexes Pedersen, who remains convinced that monorails make good practical sense—despite the fact that the Las Vegas Monorail has been plagued by problems since its opening, including metal pieces that fell into the street, trains that stopped for no apparent reason, and one that left the station with its door open. Pedersen has also videotaped monorails in Malaysia and Japan, and he notes that one-track elevated systems can be installed relatively quickly and without claiming a large right-of-way in crowded urban cores. He sees the burgeoning urban interest in trolleys and other light rail, which often blocks car lanes and contributes to ground-level congestion, as "insane." And he wishes that people (I sense that by "people" he means writers like me) would stop imprisoning monorails in the future and let them come rolling into the present.

In this Pedersen has a natural ally in Curtis Myles, the president and chief executive officer of the Las Vegas Monorail Company. I stopped by to visit Myles at the monorail's office, a few blocks east of the Strip, and found that he, like Pedersen, was quite optimistic, perhaps largely because he'd been on the job only two months. A former executive with the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, Myles sees the monorail as the last best hope for unknotting the Gordian traffic that plagues the Strip. Several times during our meeting he bounded up to a wall-mounted satellite photo of the resort corridor to show the several new routes he hopes to build, glossing over the fact that ridership so far had fallen short of projections. The train will go from the existing terminus to the airport, he said, and then along the west side of the Strip, through the MGM Mirage's new $5 billion Project CityCenter, and onward. "It has the potential to really address what is probably going to be the biggest problem this valley faces, which is getting people from the airport to the resort hotels," he told me. "I don't think people really appreciate how bad that problem is going to be."

This all sounded important, and I tried to focus on what he was saying. It was difficult. The second-floor conference room in which we sat was just yards from the elevated track, and every few minutes a monorail would streak past cinematically, filling the window with the canary-yellow cars of the Nextel train, or the Martian-green cars of Star Trek: The Experience's Borg Invasion 4D. (Resistance is futile, they read. You will be assimilated.) It brought to mind Alvy Singer's home under the Coney Island roller coaster in Annie Hall. Each time, I looked away from Myles and stared at the trains. He noticed. "I get a review of my job performance every six minutes," he said.

It was more than that. Sitting in the quiet office with the monorail whispering past, I was wholly transported to another time. Here was the future—just as I remembered it.

Wayne Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, to be published next year.
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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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