Monorail: A Key Urban Lesson From “The Simpsons”

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If you haven’t seen the claims that Fox’s animated hit The Simpsons has eerily predicted many current events before they happened, here ya go.

OK, some of these predictions are a little far fetched, but still, there are dozens of YouTube videos out there featuring the bold Simpsons predictions that have “come true.”  In nearly 30 years of episodes, it appears Fox’s long-running animated classic has had a little bit of a crystal ball effect.

While not a prediction as much as a lighthearted jab at how expensive, unnecessary projects create a mob mentality with the promise of something shiny and new, one of my favorite Simpsons episodes is “Marge vs. The Monorail.”

The episode really begins with Marge Simpson speaking up at a town hall meeting in favor of fixing the pothole-riddled Main Street.  Just as they are ready to commit funding to this practical infrastructure investment, a sweet-talking Lyle Lanley (voiced by the late Phil Hartman) begins a song and dance routine, and convinces the entire town to build a shiny new monorail instead of fixing Main Street.

Long story short, eventually Marge, who is the only person critical of the project, travels to North Haverbrook where Lanley previously built another Monorail.  The town is deserted and devastated.  While there, Marge is approached by a man who tells her of the con that was Lanley’s Monorail, and how it decimated the town.

While not a prediction per se, this well-known Simpsons episode lightheartedly highlights several of our most eye-rolling urban constructs.  With our urban centers in transition, we often look in the wrong direction to right the ship and make our cities places to be once again.

“We’re Going To Fix… Wait, What’s That Shiny Thing?”

The first and most obvious point that the Monorail episode shows us is how cities often prioritize flashy, vibrant, brightly-lit downtowns over the solving of real problems.  After all, selling populations on expensive, sweeping changes that appeal to the senses is much easier than searching for solutions to real issues of infrastructure and poverty to name a few.

Building Too Big

In the episode, Lisa Simpson asks Lanley why such an elaborate transit system is needed in her small town.  While she’s incorrect in thinking that transit isn’t important everywhere, not every village, town and city needs a Monorail.  Why create an expensive form of transit when a well designed, well conceived solution (usually a strong bus system in some form or another) is a perfectly acceptable option?

The country is seeing first hand how some of our most expensive new street car endeavors are as much as 40% below ridership expectations, and while supporters tout that they have garnered investment dollars for the cities in which they are featured, their failure to move residents to and from locations that matter makes them inefficient and needless.  Much less expensive options could have been employed in most cases, with similar results.

The Sell Isn’t Always Reality

Lyle Lanley gets the whole city singing the praises of the Monorail.  But we find out later his efforts have nothing to do with the health of the city and everything to do with his own bottom line.

Image result for lyle lanley money

Often, the residents of our cities are sold on large-scale projects by inflated promises of jobs, vibrancy and economic success.  Developers, investors, even local government officials will frequently boast gaudy numbers that woo the people into believing that this WILL be the key additive that brings their city back.  While many of our leaders are very much in touch with how these projects will or will not benefit our urban centers, others have little regard for anything other than getting shovels in the ground, securing funding and creating “legacy projects.”

City Against City

Just when Lanley is about to tell the residents of Springfield that he has one of the best ideas ever, he stops short and begins to walk out, uttering that it’s more of a “Shelbyville Idea.”  For those who didn’t regularly follow the show, Shelbyville is Springfield’s arch nemesis town.  With the thought that a game changing idea might walk out the door and benefit another city, Springfield’s Mayor shouts to Lanley, “tell us your idea and we’ll vote for it!”

Recently, we’ve seen the impact of large corporations, the most influential being Amazon, that play city against city in an effort to land a boatload of subsidies for their next headquarters, distribution center, etc.  In a poker-style competition of urban and regional centers, cities have offered up over $1 billion in incentives and spent millions more on flashy presentations in order to court major employers. This “outside-in” mindset, driven by the belief that a city can’t efficiently create jobs on its own, continues to plague the our urban centers.

Mob Mentality

If there is one thing The Simpsons has always highlighted accurately, it’s the power of mob mentality and the inability for large groups of people to think critically about situations.  In Marge Vs. The Monorail, all it takes is a song and dance to sell all of Springfield on the idea of something completely impractical.

While the show amplifies the mob mentality, it offers a reminder of how important it is to think critically about the projects we are invested in as cities and residents. Are we following the loudest voice to a city of bright lights and entertainment or are we researching what it takes to create a people-first, financially sustainable center for the long term? In the Monorail song in the video above, we see this question play out:

Marge: But Main Street’s still all cracked and broken!

Bart: Sorry Mom, the mob has spoken!

Monorail! Monorail!!!! Monorail!!!!!!!!!

While she might not be the exciting character, Marge Simpson is the one critical thinker in a sea of starry-eyed residents and politicians.  She sees the real troubles of her city, and even seeks out answers in other cities to find the truth.  She is not a follower or an obstructionist, but rather a champion for the truly important issues in her community instead of the most popular ones.  People of our great cities, we need more Marge Simpsons and fewer Lyle Lanleys… only then will we realize our true urban potential.