Ever since I visited the Epcot centre when I was only 7 years old, I have been fascinated by Monorails (please check out the Monorail Society for all your single-tracked needs, it is a really fantastic resource). They have always seemed to go hand-in-hand with progressive technological wonderment, and a sense of utopian awe. However, together with flying cars and transportation in tubes, monorails are often depicted as fanciful, characateurs of a by-gone era of transportation planning (the unforgettable Simpsons episode ‘Marge against the Monorail’ no doubt catalysed this). There are a number of monorails in cities across the world, often being extremely efficient and a viable means of intra-city travel (notably in Tokyo), however the image of them as little more than theme park attractions is one which they have failed to defenestrate.
It is perhaps the kitsch simulacrum that oozes from every pore of theme parks (particularly the brashness of Disney’s spaces of hyper-reality in North America) that makes them so amenable to monorails – the overt pride at which the transit cubicles meander through the parks at a funereal saunter, elevated above the heads of the consumers is reminiscent of a male peacock attracting a mate. It is these extravagant characteristics which first enamoured them to the public; their futuristic look and eco-friendly running costs made them attractive to city planners, but only really as a tourist-attraction gadget. Until relatively recently, serious consideration of them as a viable means of intra-city transport remained virtually non-existent.
Take Sydney’s monorail for example (see above). It is often derided as being ugly, and it’s centralised loop makes it only a smidgen over useful for tourists and even less so for actual commuters. Taking the monorail from Chinatown to City Centre is hardly a time-saving journey, and the fact that it goes nowhere near Circular Quay makes it limited for those tourists wanting to use it to take in all the city’s major sites. It’s limitation to Darling Harbour was a planning decision based on cost, and given its protracted development and its constant malfunctioning, many locals consider the monorail a laughing stock – a fairground ride that takes people around the manicured honey-pot site of Darling Harbour.
Maybe it’s the misty-eyed view of utopian ideology which I find so appealing about monorails (much like Dave Harte does in this excellent appreciation of monorails), because its certainly not their efficient commuter service, but their place in history deserves more than a relegation to the comedy files of city life. It is all too easy to dismiss these ‘innovations’ as fanciful and as impractical commuter alternatives, yet their ability to project our gaze from the city present to an urban future still holds true. Much like the Dymaxion Car, the thought process behind the invention has extremely useful intentions pertaining to the future use of materials and fuel in terms of urban transportation, and monorails are a functional artefact of the human condition to better urban life. There is no doubt that monorails offer a fanciful and, yes I’ll admit, a kitsch way of seeing the sights of a city or indeed a theme park, but they allow us to dream about a future that is within reach. They offer us an escape from urbanity which is constricted and straight-jacketed into neo-liberal postmondernity, and provide us with a window onto a historical period of humanity that were committed to an achievable utopia.