A Fast Train to Nowhere

January 17, 2010 at 1:21 pm · Filed under Content / Architecture, Copy / Writing, Interactive / Web, Photography / Film

Seattle Monorail Online web site / Welcome page; 1020 x 440px. / 2002

Every time I visit Seattle (my hometown), which tends to happen more than once a year, I find it surprisingly different than I left it last. Startups become stalwarts, old favorites become new failures and areas of complete desolation become constructed destinations. But, until very recently, the ways to get to and from any of them had hardly changed a bit. Despite its squeaky-green image, Seattle has always been a car town, with a public transit system whose progress comes and goes in fits and starts but never seems to get anywhere useful by any reasonable timetable. As someone who grew up without a car and as a recalcitrant fan of progress (perhaps even Futurism, to some extent), one of the most personally frustrating examples of this city planning torpor is the Seattle Monorail.

As of 2002, when I decided to use it as it as my muse for a web site design class in the Visual Communication Design program at the University of Washington, the Seattle Monorail had been the beginning of something great for about forty years. Originally built in 1962 to shuttle visitors between downtown and the Seattle World’s Fair, the Monorail had since served as little more than an icon of the city’s once future-driven spirit, though there was a resurgent and concerted effort to evolve the system into something much more impressive. In fact, the wheels had been in motion, so to speak, for several years and, despite the work of some determinately opposed political factions, it looked as if the Monorail might actually realize its potential in the foreseeable future.

Even considering its terribly stunted scope of service at the time (it ran just over one mile, end-to-end—only about .1 mile longer than it had run in 1962), the Seattle Monorail was a fascinating entity, in that it was at once an historical landmark, a thriving attraction and the major source of inspiration for what possibly could have been the future of Seattle’s public transportation system. This web site was to celebrate the Monorail system’s rich heritage, facilitate its everyday usage and promote its promising future. As such, I architected the site accordingly, creating sections related to the system’s past, present and future, and built relevant content into each section…

Seattle Monorail Online basic site map / 2002

Before getting too far into the design process, I extended the knowledge I had of the Monorail from prior personal experience with more in-depth research. I tracked down various reference material about Monorails around the world for context. I navigated the fascinating lifeline of Alweg, the German company that designed, built and actually paid for the system in 1961-1962. I sat with curators at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) and the University of Washington’s Special Collections Library, who graciously provided me with a wealth of firsthand anecdotes and gripping archival reference material, including everything from original construction drawings and renderings to World’s Fair promotional material and memorabilia to photographs of Elvis Presley, John Glen and Richard Nixon, among others, enjoying rides.

various archival photos (from the University of Washington Special Collections and MOHAI)
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top: Dr. Axel Lennart Wenner-Gren (ALWEG), Swedish financier and visionary of the German monorail company and a prototype train on a test track in 1952 | a pylon being erected in 1961 in Seattle to support the new Seattle Monorail dual track system | one of the two trains arriving in Seattle on a flatbed truck after being built in, and shipped from, Germany
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middle: the train cars were simply lifted onto the erected tracks with a crane | the Red Train speeds between Downtown and the World’s Fair grounds
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bottom: NASA astronaut John Glen checks out the cockpit of a Seattle Monorail train | 1963 tickets and driver | the Seattle Monorail on the cover of Life magazine

I went downtown and just rode the thing, myself, many, many times, camera in hand. I shot photography from dynamic, often low angles to evoke a sense of speed and stature and emphasize the intrinsic, sculptural beauty of the system.

various photographs taken of the Monorail system and the attractions it served, including the Westlake Mall and other Downtown shops, as well as the Seattle Center (another icon of the ’62 World’s Fair), and Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project; 35mm film, shot with a 1940s Leica 3G / 2002

And I learned about how civic and non-profit NGOs were planning its progress, with a far-sighted, systematic approach and new technology.

top: schematic of shadow casting of elevated light rail vs. monorail track systems | community support of the Monorail project
– – – – – – – – – – – – – –
middle/bottom: renderings and architectural models of an expanded monorail network and new cars

As I gathered research, original and source imagery, I began to develop the visual and interactive design system. The overall design of the site employs the same dynamic, future-looking spirit that built the original Monorail and which drove the project’s progress at the time. A forward-leaning 20º angle is employed throughout the site to frame navigation and content sections. Textural headline typography is letter-spaced exponentially to emote a sense of acceleration and lateral velocity. The body copy is set over a smooth gradient for spacial depth and energy. On pages with several topics or subjects, subsequent angled rule and gradient backgrounds delineate new points of interest.

design elements annotated on the Welcome page for quick reference online style guide; 1024 x 768px / 2002

Each section was color-coded with rich, warm color fields against textural blue monotone track photography backgrounds and framed by gridded white linear tracks. Futura Bold, a Bauhaus-era Modern typeface, was used in display settings to help express the quality of optimism in precise, innovative and timeless design the Monorail concept embodied. (All body copy is system text for usability.)

color and type elements for quick reference online style guide; 1024 x 768px / 2002

All content is built on a flexible underlying grid system. The most obvious usage of the grid in the actual site experience is in the feature imagery, generally grouped together in unique clusters. Looking back on this now, I enjoy the structured collages on their own, but the site design probably would have benefited from more restraint here; the resolution of the imagery at this size and the impact of the site design are sometimes overwhelmed by the complexity of the isolated compositions.

grid system for main site and popup window frames for quick reference online style guide; 1024 x 768px / 2002

Sadly, the most powerful moments of the Seattle Monorail Online experience are, fittingly, in the Past section. It is hard to believe that one of the most futuristic urban transportation systems in the world was built nearly a half-century ago. In this span of time, the Seattle Monorail has enjoyed great highs and endured degrading lows. Though often taken for granted by Seattle residents, the same Monorail system had performed nearly flawlessly for over forty years, surviving two major earthquakes, several attempts of manual demolition and two popular votes (as of 2002). For those interested in the Monorail story, this section provided an interactive timeline, information on the World’s Fair and compelling statistics that charted the impact the Monorail had had since 1962 all the way up to 2002.

Most of the more prominent points in the history of not only the Seattle Monorail, but also of the monorail concept in general, are touched on in the comprehensive Timeline section. One could scroll through the caption boxes and/or click on a date to launch a new window with more extensive information and imagery. One could then navigate through the detailed information of all of the events from this sub-window.

Seattle Monorail Online / Past / Timeline + Timeline detail window; 1020 x 440px. and 760 x 290px., respectively / 2002

But the Monorail was more than just a relic. It was genuinely useful, even in 2002, shuttling thousands of riders per day—including tourists, residents out for entertainment and regular commuters—between downtown’s financial/retail center and attractions such as the Seattle Center and Experience Music Project (EMP). (An interesting development was that Frank Gehry’s EMP, built in the late ’90s of cutting-edge, wildly expensive and complex materials and fabrication, was literally built around the Monorail, and only made the then-30-odd-year-old train system seem even more futuristic.)

For existing and prospective riders, the site offered general information such as timetables, maps, and ticket rates, and even provided information on how to charter one of the two trains for private parties.

Seattle Monorail Online / Present / Attractions; 1020 x 440px. / 2002

Much like the actual Monorail, I coded the site to launch in a long, narrow window, and content moves laterally in the main frame, while primary navigation information stays stationery in the top frame for easy access at all times. Relevant sub-navigation appears in a secondary navigation track as the Past, Present or Future tabs are moused over. Ironically, I decided to code the site to work best with the then-dominant Internet Explorer browser for Mac. (Annoyingly, this means the actual coded site of over 100 pages still works but is noticeably flawed in any contemporary browser. Oh how times change…)

demonstration of user rolling over primary and secondary menus, clicking into the “Attractions” page in the “Present” section and scrolling through the body frame of the page / 2002

But there’s so much more to Seattle than the high-pressure retail sales, a giant, crumpled tribute to Jimi Hendrix and the Space Needle, and the Monorail had the potential to bring people anywhere in the city and surrounding areas, quickly, efficiently, and profitably. In fact, the original Monorail was built in under two years and took less than six months to recover all initial building costs. It also costs virtually nothing to maintain. That means that it was not only the only public transportation system in the country that was actually profitable in 2002 (and to this day, I believe), it had been running almost purely on profit (and a significant one, at that) for nearly forty years. And, with no traffic to compete with and voracious acceleration from its energy-efficient electric motors to a top speed of nearly 70MpH, an expanded system could have made connections (and money) very quickly, indeed.

As of the time of this project, the plan was to have expanded the system from 1.1 to over 13 miles of track throughout the city by 2007. For those who wanted to be involved in realizing the Monorail’s potential, features such as news updates, a community forum, route plans and information on the new trains and stations were available in the Future section.

Seattle Monorail Online / Future / Updates + update thread detail window; 1020 x 440px. and 760 x 290px., respectively / 2002

Alas, all of this potential, progress, excitement and community action were for naught. Despite a public vote passed to begin building the system into possibly the greatest public transportation system in the world and several subsequent, ever-more slyly-written referendums by opposing factions that also met votes favorable to Monorail progress, the car-town Luddites who pulled the strings somehow still managed to pull the plug on the Monorail project with a fifth rewritten referendum that sufficiently tired the voters a couple years after I completed this project.

Last I was in Seattle, over the holidays, I found vastly increased evidence and talk about a new, and, by all evidence, poorly planned light-rail system that currently only goes only to and from the airport and a relatively unpopular area of South Seattle (that is pretty close to the airport, already). Being primarily ground-based, it is more complex to build, takes up much more valuable real estate, cannot connect with existing buildings without significant demolition, and does not provide the invigorating velocity or stunning views of the Monorail experience. It also competes directly with car traffic, blocking sight lines and even dangerously crossing traffic intersections at some points. The flawed ticketing system is likely letting considerable revenue slip through the tracks. It is, of course, behind schedule and over budget, and will take decades to get anywhere near useful as a viable transportation alternative to driving (if it doesn’t get driven off track beforehand).

Meanwhile, the 40+ year-old Seattle Monorail humbly cruises into history, 1.1 miles at a time.

I suppose building the Monorail into its potential is a lost cause. At this point, I can only hope that someone figures out how to build a time machine. Because, next time I go back to Seattle, I want it to be 1962. It seems like that was the last time people could look up from their windsheilds and see the future.


  1. Krischer said,

    January 18, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    Nice project! Would be nice, however, if once in a while such projects would also include a visible section that in detail names the sources for information and illustrations used! The clearly visible lack of such sections is particularly irritating when such projects are used for teaching students. No wonder that the respect for the intellectual work of others and the respect for copyright is slowly but surely becoming a thing of the past.
    Reinhard Krischer
    Colognne, Germany

  2. Daniel P. Johnston said,

    January 18, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Mr. Krischer,

    The years between when I completed this project and now have blurred some of my memory of source material, though I did credit it to the best of my recollection above. Of course, I did manage to forget to mention explicitly one crucial source: You!

    Indeed, your Alweg Archives site (http://www.alweg.com/alweghome.html) was one of my primary references for researching the project and continues to be an inspirational reference for the latest monorail progress around the world, and I am sorry if I have not properly credited any material of yours or of others that you know of. Feel free to contact me directly if you see an opportunity for me to better credit something, or if there is something of yours you want removed.

    Just for reference, I designed this piece as a student, and neither the work nor this post is necessarily meant to teach anyone anything aside from my perspective on it.

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