Do monorail projects deserve fair treatment? Part I Editorial: Building knowledge and consensus via the internet

Let me be very clear as to my motives here just so there is no ambiguity on my position. I would like no less than to drive a sharp stake through the dark heart of this egregiously unsustainable transport concept once and for all, so that we can concentrate our limited resources on approaches that are capable of doing the job and meeting the sustainability challenge head on. Which is exactly not the case with monorails. Let’s have a look. - Eric Britton, Editor

In the world of transport, sustainable and otherwise, there are some bad ideas that die-hard, no matter how absurd. One of the more resistant of these is monorails. Once again we are starting to hear the drum beat of monorails being touted as a “genuine, bona fide, electrified” solution to the problems of transport in our cities. For example just the other day it was announced in the press that Mumbai was about to receive the first prototype vehicle for a new monorail project in fairly advanced planning and testing stages. Oops. Let’s see if we can put this one to rest.

Note: It’s not only monorails. There are also PRT – Personal Rapid Transit and other edgy unproven technology concepts to be dispensed with. But for today let’s stick with our topic here, one thing at a time.

Background
In our excellent Global South collaborative forum on sustainable transport in the developing countries — which you can visit and scrutinize at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/sustran-discuss/ — a discussion popped up the other day in which some of our more technical colleagues were comparing CO2 figures of monorails vs. various possible alternatives, BRT at the top of the list among them. This discussion was set off by an article that just appeared in the website of The Cleantech Group under the title “Mumbai monorail project looks to reduce CO2 emissions” (reference: http://cleantech.com/news/5567/mumbai-monorail-project-looks-reduc). The discussions were calm and erudite.

But your editor has had some experience with this particular transport form, and some strong views as a result, which led him to sharing with the group the following short note:

29 January communication to the group
Monorails? What? Again? Still? There is something almost touching when outright avarice, hopefulness and stupidity get together and blatantly hang out there for all to see.

I first looked at (and rode on quite a few) monorails of all kinds of types and stripes back in 1970 in a well-funded multi-client report entitled “New Technology and Transportation, 1970-1990″. It was terrific to have this direct experience; however despite my initial enthusiasm for the bells and whistles (I was young) it did not take a genius to conclude that on a number of grounds they looked just awful then — and they still do today. I have my own long list on this, but if you wish we might have some fun starting a collaborative list under the title of something very elegant such as “Why monorails suck”.

I am amazed that these discussions are still taking place in 2010, and that there are cities and eventual sponsors that even to this day take them seriously. However there is a familiar pattern that shows up and repeats with surprising frequency. There is a monorail cabal that shows up wherever at the drop of a hat to trot out their stuff, often offering generous credits and other forms of compensation to see that their job gets done. I haven’t made any particular effort to keep up (not worth it), but I do recall some recent salvos in parts of India, also Bogotá, São Paulo, Curitiba, the Emirates, and a certain number of US cities that just don’t know when to let a bad idea go. (Check out the historical summary on this in the Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monorails,. Not a bad starting point.)

What I don’t understand is why they are not simply laughed at and set aside for more serious things. But then again, perhaps there is something that I fail to understand.

Educate me.

Eric Britton

PS. Here’s a nice exercise for you if you wish to dig a bit. Go to the New Mobility Partnerships at www.newmobility.org and on the top menu click www.Knoogle.net and once there pop in “monorail”. This will then take you on a lightning survey of more than eight hundred leading international sources, projects and pogroms looking at sustainable and at times unsustainable transport in countries around the world. Interesting.

# # #

And when that did not set off much of an exchange, your editor went back to his last and offered the following by way of further challenge to the idea that monorails could be a serious option for consideration anywhere, and above all in the developing countries.

30 January communication to the group

Dear Sustainable friends,

Someone tell me that I am wrong — but among the many flagrant disadvantages/absurdities of the monorail concept for cities that come to mind immediately, include:

1. They cost far too much money given the level of service they provide

2. They don’t (really) go anywhere (i.e., where they are needed in a many-to-many world)

3. Good transportation is supposed to be as close to seamless as we can make it – and they are anything but, cut off from the rest as they are by definition

4. Limited capacity (per buck spent)

5. They are a visual intrusion (scar) on the city scape

6. The ignore, they actually degrade the street in many ways – the street which is the very heart of the city

7. They are — to a pylon, to a track, to a car, to a station, to a switch, to a shadow — ugly as sin (my old grandmother’s expression).

8. If they need switches, the space requirement becomes complicated.

9. Emergencies are very messy.

10. They saddle the city with debt.

11. To be “cost effective” (ho ho), they cannot provide affordable service for the majority

12. They are often the project of industrial-financial-political interest alliances and even, if one digs deep, corruption. (As so often is the case with big-ticket transport and other public investments.)

13. They are not sustainable by any measure.

But that is not the end of this list, rather just the beginning. I now invite my colleagues to pitch in here to complete this inventory of short-comings so that we can put this concept behind us once and for all and concentrate on the challenges of creating sustainable and fair transport in and around our cities.

By the way, did anyone notice that almost to the day as Mumbai joyously welcomed their first test car the Las Vegas Monorail Co has filed for bankruptcy? Just thought I would mention it.

In summary: Monorails are so awful, so inappropriate, so thoroughly dysfunctional that I even have difficulty in anyone trying to justify them (or not) in terms of anything like “relative CO2 efficiency”. This I see as a splendid task for a MA of PhD student sharpening their tools, but when it comes to the politics of transportation they defy common sense.

So out they go.

Eric Britton

# # #

Now probably what was most important about the process that these two notes have set off is not so much their quality or great originality, but rather the discussions and postings that immediately followed. These we shall give another week to develop, and then get Part II of this short series to you next week. In the meantime, should you wish to add your two cents, you can do that either as Comments here or directly to sustran-discuss@list.jca.apc.org and/or NewMobilityCafe@yahoogroups.com.

Coda: “The Floating Railway of Wuppertal”

A monorail system you really want to visit: The Wuppertaler Schwebebahn – literally the “Floating Railway of Wuppertal” — was built in the city of Wuppertal in 1901. A lovely treatment in English can be found at http://atlasobscura.com/places/schwebebahn-wuppertal. When I first visited and rode this system in the seventies I was told by the general manager that they had never had a fatal accident but one, “and that was the passengers’ fault”. Think the Eiffel Tower laid out on its side and spanning industrial cityscape and the gorgeous valleys of North Rhine-Westphalia. Well worth a visit and a thought about the place of monorails in our very different 21st century cities. (PS. The elephant boarding the monorail that you see in the opening paragraph is part of a true story. You can find the details on the cited source just above.)

And finally, I would be remiss in my responsibilities to our readers if I did not “Well, sir, there’s nothing on earth like a genuine, bona-fide, electrified six-car Monorail!”. remind those of you who do not know it of an episode of the Simpsons, that took place under this title. Check it out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEZjzsnPhnw. A real moral tale. From the mouths of babes and sucklings.

# # #

Eric Britton
Editor, World Streets

* For more Stupid Weekend reading, click here.

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