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.

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.