Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Monorail: Not Just a Better Bus


Dick Falkenbury

Initiator of Modern Monorail Development in Seattle

Elevated Transportation Company Board Member

October 2002

Editors note:  PITF asked Dick Falkenbury to comment on our extended analysis of the Green Line Monorail prepared by co-editor Dick Nelson.

The PITF analysis "Selling a Transit Technology" fails to understand that the monorail is not 'just a better bus'; any more than an elevator is a 'better stairway'.

When riders board the Metro Bus Number 17 at 32nd and Market to go to Second and Union, they are not guaranteed that they will arrive at all; they are almost certainly not going to arrive on time and in the unlikely event that they do arrive exactly on time, the crow-flies trip of five miles will take at least 30 minutes. This is assuming that they were able to board: the bus, even this early in the route, will most likely not be EXACTLY on time and it may not come at all. The Ballard Bridge may open, there may be a fatal accident on Nickerson, the driver might have to take five minutes to assist two wheelchair riders at Seattle Pacific University -- but the bus will almost certainly be late as measured against the schedule and at best, its speed will be about 15 mph.

I have been on several buses where the driver has turned and announced that 'this bus is out-of-service.' Once I was put off of a University area bus because 'the fare collection system was broken'--it seemed perfectly all right when I put MY money in--nevertheless, I had to disembark. I have been on Metro buses involved with accidents and the 'ride' was effectively over.

I consider getting an hour off schedule 'not completing the ride'. I have been on a half a dozen buses that simply 'did not get there'.

I am one of the few correspondents that actually have driven transit--buses and taxis--with real live passengers. My income depended on delivering reliable transit service. While being late may be bad, it is terrible to be early. If you are expecting a bus at 10:10 and you arrive at 10:09 to see the bus leaving early, you are furious. If you arrive at 10:09 and the bus shows up at 10:11, you are probably not going to even notice. Most buses are late.

The monorail will be there; it will get there. Systems like Disneyland (moving over 100,000 people a day) have an on-time record -- documented -- of 99.99%. For those of us whose math is a bit fuzzy, that means that one out of every 10,000 trains are late. They sometimes go a year without a late train.

To give you some idea of monorail reliability, the Haneda Airport to Tokyo monorail -- covering ten miles and moving over 100,000 people per day since 1964 -- has NEVER had an unscheduled stop of a train on the track. If a major bus system had ONE DAY without a breakdown, they would go out and get drunk. What would warrant a press release in the bus world is 'industry standard' for monorail.

As to building a new in-city Bus Rapid Transit system, I ask a one word question: "Where?" In order to deliver the promised one-quarter mile walking distance to the stations, I would presume that this would mean that going north-to-south and given the fact that the city from Shilshole to Magnuson Park is eight miles wide--there would have to be sixteen routes. Frankly, I would be hard-pressed to name one obvious route.

Bus Rapid Transit assumes that buses would have a dedicated lane free of conflicting traffic -- and that includes pedestrians, pets, wild animals and the occasional drunk -- not to mention the propensity of the police to move accidents over to the HOV lane. Listen to a week's traffic reports and I will promise you that you will hear at least once that 'the police have moved the accident over to the HOV lane...." And it doesn't take someone, something, or some other vehicle in the Bus Rapid Transit Lane to slow the bus: if a child is running toward the lane, a drunk weaving on the curb or a car threatening to turn into the lane--the driver of the bus must slow, stop or swerve. I know--I've done it.

As to the parking, that is even more lamentable as an alternative.

Recently, Sound Transit announced that they were expanding the Lynnwood Park and Ride lot by 300 spaces from 500 to 800. The cost is $33,000,000. Of that sum, they are also going to add a new bus ramp, waiting shelters and landscaping. But don't let that fool you: the cost is $110,000 per space.

But it gets even better: remember that Sound Transit is not completely recouping their costs from the farebox. Let us assign Metro's farebox recovery rate of 27%. The farebox recovery rate is the percentage of their total costs that are paid by the fares collected. Twenty-seven percent is not bad by bus industry standards. (For easier math, allow me to lower the farebox recovery rate by 2% to 25%.) If the bus rider getting on at the Lynnwood Park and Ride pays $1.50, then the taxpayers will have to add $4.50 to cover the total cost--$6.00. Assuming that it would be a round trip, the total daily subsidy paid by taxpayers for each trip generated by 'investing in parking' is $9.00. Multiplied by 200 days out of the year, the subsidy bill is $1,800. Times three hundred parking spaces, the total would be $540,000. But there's also the cost of taking the land used for parking off of the tax rolls--in this case $11 million dollars. And it just keeps on: the office and warehouses replaced by parking were presumably 'useful' (and they must be--we just paid $11 million for them); they will be re-built elsewhere. The best guess is that they will be built on land that is currently semi-rural, even further out from the central city.

Buses are very good for some purposes. They are very good for a few miles -- one to three. They are also very good for twenty to two hundred. They are very bad for scheduled routes of five to ten miles. Their average speed in urban environments is 13 mph according to the Federal Transit Administration. More importantly, not one transit agency has substantially improved on this average speed. If there were a way -- or even a systematic approach -- to truly making buses 'work' better, surely some city somewhere, somehow would have figured it out.

Surface transit improvements nearly always hinge on 'if everything works perfectly'. The problem is, with the literal tens of thousands of inputs, there is almost no human way to make it work. If one bus stops in the tunnel, all of the buses behind it must stop. If there is a broken down Chevy on the HOV across the Ship Canal, the bus will not move until that Chevy moves, if there is someone who ignores the signs and crosses in front of the Bus Rapid Lane at NW 52 and 15th, the bus MUST stop.

But a monorail has its own track which no one can interfere with. The motor is electric and has the highest reliability of any propulsion--including walking. The train cannot derail. The track is impervious to weather. The train moves. More importantly, the people move. And isn't moving people what this is supposed to be about?

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Last modified: October 2002