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Transit Lessons from Las Vegas

Metropolis Magazine has a very cool article about the mostly unknown history of the Las Vegas Monorail. After my Vegas visit last spring, I wrote about the monorail as a huge missed opportunity on the strip. It seems like the article's author, Karrie Jacobs, agrees.

(from flickr user http2007)

Despite its shortcomings, there are a few things about the Monorail that seem relevant in light of the public transit crisis facing cities across America. Specifically:
  • The LV Monorail makes money.
  • The LV Monorail is privately owned.
  • The LV Monorail is completely driver-less.
For the most part, no other transit system in America can be described by all three points (or even two of them).

On the first point, it's important to keep in mind that LV Monorail fares are high, very high. A single ride costs $5 and an all-day pass runs $13. That's at least a 100% price-premium over most American transit systems. But plenty of people still pay. That's the beauty of doing business in Vegas. When people are throwing around chips worth a lot more than a single ride, what's another 5 bucks here or there? It also helps that the Monorail's costs are kept pretty low, but I'll get to that point in a moment.

Regarding the ownership, the reality is that the Monorail is operated with a different objective (to maximize profits) than most transit systems (to maximize social welfare). One reason this can occur is because the owners don't own any other transit lines. Since they don't have to subsidize money-losing service (as most transit services do) the Monorail actually operates fairly efficiently.

Lastly, the Monorail is completely automated with no on-train operators. Although it's usually nice to have someone on the train in the event that something goes wrong. The reality is that it's an insurance policy with very high premiums. The overall success of the LV Monorail in this regard seems to be evidence for the inevitability of computer-controlled transit systems. It will be a long-term transition, both because of necessary technology upgrades and union labor issues, but it's not theoretically impossible.

I'm not writing this is as practical or politically-feasible advice for struggling transit agencies, but it's definitely something to think about.


Peter said…
i'm not in favor of throwing more people out of work, but computer-controlled transit could make sense.

for one, we might not have to worry about getting locked on the train with a knife-wielding murderer...
Daniel said…
My biggest hesitation to implementing automized driving systems on trains concerns the safety of getting on and off trains.
When I was in Washington, despite significant automated safety measures, there had to be a driver to make sure nobody was caught in the doors as they were closing. I suppose you could program a computer to reopen the door when it detects something between the two doors but I imagine that accidents will happen nevertheless.

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