Americans are fascinated by technology and its role in the future—the more incredible the idea, the better. In the 1950s and 1960s the media speculated how new space age technology might be applied to the problems of urban blight and growing transportation gridlock. Middle class families were migrating away from urban areas, only coming to the city for work. Commuting by car became part of American life. Futurists predicted suburban to urban commuting would be transformed by new modes of transportation, including one that could “attain unobstructed, rapid and safe movement under or over the surface congestion”—the monorail. The idea of a fast, suspended, overhead system moving along a single rail captured public imagination. The monorail was promoted as a practical, safe, pollution free, cost efficient way to move people in an urban setting. (Los Angeles Times. May 22, 1950)
Though new to the American imagination, the monorail was not a new technology. It had been used in England and Europe in the late 19th century. French engineers designed a steam-powered prototype in colonial Algeria for moving materials across the desert. American companies Boeing and Ryan Industries created prototypes made of light-weight metal often painted in shimmering colors to suggest their modern design and speed. (Los Angeles Times. December 3, 1950) Viewed as an example of a futuristic system of mass transit, Disneyland installed the first public monorail in the United States at its California entertainment park in 1959.
Until the development of Boulder Dam (now Hoover Dam) and BMI projects in the 1930s, Las Vegas had so few people and automobiles that there was little need for traffic lights or parking meters. Drivers slowed at cross streets and frequently double parked along the major roadways. As the city grew, these wild-west behaviors became problematic. By 1966 the city was looking for new solutions for moving people. Two technology companies, Lockheed and Guerdon Industries, presented their vision of the future to the city government—the Skylift Magi-Cab. Their collaborative proposal—an electronic four-passenger cab system—would travel at 25 mph from McCarran Airport to fifteen stations in downtown Las Vegas. Leaving the airport every 13 seconds, the cars could be shunted from the main track to a substation with the push of a button. Lockheed and Guerdon turned to an architect with acknowledged design cache and experience working in Las Vegas, Paul R. Williams. The Skylift Magi-Cab would be Williams’ final project in the city.
Publicity materials distributed by Gurdon and Lockheed described Williams’ involvement in the project as “Car styling, station design and track architectural conformity…His reputation is such as to assure that all aspects of this installation will be aesthetically pleasing.” Williams’ renderings for the monorail project illustrate his vision of a Googie influenced, “post-Sputnik-Moderne style.” (His use of curves and arches to suspend the entire overhead system are reminiscent of the flowing arches of his La Concha Motel design completed at about the same time.) The promoters of the project estimated the cost for the project would be $17,000,000, totally financed by private funds. (Desert Companion. December, 2012)
Beautiful to look at and financed without cost to the public, why wasn’t the Skylift built in the 1960s? Local historian Dorothy Wright speculates, “Although the monorail was touted as providing as much flexibility as the automobile, this imaginative mass transit project may have been doomed by Americans’ devotion to their single-family cars.” In 2004 a smaller four mile monorail circuit with larger capacity cars was completed in Las Vegas to move tourists from casino to casino along “the strip.” Touted as the largest urban monorail project in the U.S. it cost approximately $100 million per mile to build. It was proposed that some of the cost would be defrayed by "property owners next to the ...monorail stations," revenues from the sale of ads placed in the cars and stations and by selling unused conduit space for cable and utilities. (The Seattle Times. January 15, 2002)
Sleek, utilitarian and modern, this new system lacks the space-age romance of Williams’ original design. Carrying more than 30,000 passengers a day, the Las Vegas monorail is considered under-utilized by critics who believe no mass transist system will ever replace the car in people's affection or imagination.
For more information about the history of Las Vegas see the late Frank Wright's Nevada Yesterdays, 2005.