Desire Named Streetcar
My latest Slate column looks at two transportation forms, the monorail and the streetcar, each with their supporters and each with their detractors, and how time’s arrow seems to have inverted somewhere along the way:
What’s interesting about Disney World and Disneyland is not merely the range of transportation options, but the mixture of new and old modes they represent. These varied ways to get around reflect biographer Neal Gabler’s observation that Walt Disney was “at once a nostalgist and a futurist, a conservative and visionary.” One imagines he would have been equally happy riding the retro trolley on Main Street as whisking through Tomorrowland in an ultramodern monorail.
But there is something else to note here. The monorail—which must have looked to Disney and the world like the transportation of the future in the 1950s—is now, to many, considered a historical footnote, a relic of World Expos or, at best, an automated ride between airport terminals. America’s highest-profile monorail project, the expansion of Seattle’s line, was plagued by cost overruns and funding gaps, and was finally dissolved in 2005 (costing taxpayers $125 million). The Las Vegas monorail has filed for bankruptcy. At the same time, those retro streetcars, which Disney himself rode in Kansas City in the early 20th century and which must have seemed to him part of a vanishing past, are returning (or may soon return) to any number of American cities, including Washington, D.C.; Cincinnati’ Tucson; Atlanta; Dallas; St. Louis; and Salt Lake City.
So the future we thought we were going to get somehow seems antiquated, while the past looks increasingly, well, futuristic. Why is the trolley ascendant as the monorail declines?
[P.S. I do realize a fair number of people prefer buses to either of these options, but for space it was cut. An original line read: “Light-rail supporters — and transportation people, whether for reasons of funding, fandom, or something else, and even if they’re working toward similar goals, tend to cleave into camps (a third group, the bus people, find their vessel of choice superior to both the light-rail and monorails) — counter with a battery of well-practiced rejoinders…”]
This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 12th, 2011 at 5:40 pm and is filed under Etc., Traffic Culture, Traffic Engineering. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.