The Las Vegas Monorail

July 2, 2017 by
Filed under: Car Stop 

I was recently in Las Vegas and took the opportunity to ride that city’s monorail. The question surrounding it is and has been and remains whether it counts as transit or is merely an amusement park ride. Vegas is, after all, essentially an amusement park. My experience as a passenger leaves me with a mixed answer.
Of course, there is no question that monorails are a cost-ineffective way to provide public transportation. Compared with streetcars or light rail, they are expensive to build. Proprietary technology means spare parts and rebuilds are also costly. Because they are often automated (as is the one in Vegas), labor costs can be less (but not necessarily so). But so is carrying capacity, i.e. fares, so that is a trade-off.
I rode most of the Vegas line, in both directions. The ride is rough compared to regular rail transit. But the windows are large and it offers good views — of the backs of the hotels on the strip. The line’s main drawback is its route: instead of running down the strip, as it should (visual impact issues notwithstanding), it runs well behind it, offering in most cases a long walk to the casinos. Why? I was told by a Vegas native that the cab companies blocked it from serving the strip well, because that is where they get most of their revenues. That sounds like Vegas. The monorail does serve the convention center and a couple of hotels, but the poor routing does more to keep it from being real transit than does the technology. A five-dollar one-way fare doesn’t help.
Oddly, my outbound trip was much more pleasant than the return. No, it was not because the former saw car crowded with chorus girls. It was because the loudspeaker malfunctioned and we therefore had a quiet ride. Before the return trip, the system was fixed and we were bombarded not only with station announcements but with endless loud, junky ads and “music.” Frankly, at that point I would rather have walked.
But in answering the base question about the Las Vegas monorail, is it transit, one observation stands out: it was crowded with people. Most of the passengers appeared to be from a national volleyball tournament at the convention center, so regular ridership may be much less. And, again, the small, limited capacity cars fill quickly. But at least when there is a major event at the convention center, the monorail seems to fill a real transportation function. At least it was doing so the day I rode it.
Would a streetcar line down the strip provide better transit than the monorail? No question: yes. But with all its drawbacks, the monorail does still work in a transit role, at least for out-of-town visitors. Should other cities consider the monorail option? Only if they, like Las Vegas, want to be amusement parks. On balance, what runs on one rail in Vegas should stay in Vegas.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, Washington, DC


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