Tuesday, February 2, 2010

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 cites. 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.

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:

30 January communication to the group
Monorails? What? Again? Still? There is something almost touching about avarice, hopefulness and stupidity when they 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 salvoes in parts of India, also Bogota, 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, bonafide, 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

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  1. I would like to quickly add a proviso concerning some of the people I have met over the years who have committed themselves to concepts along these general lines, and specifically to various kinds of configurations involving completely automated transport on separate guideways such as PRT, that is Personal Rapid Transit and its numerous variants.

    In my early years of work in the transportation field, I initially shared some of their fascination, but given the much broader focus of my interests and areas of sustainability and public policy, I rather quickly backed away from my early enthusiasm.

    As a result of my investigations and numerous site visits I got to know a number of the people pioneering work in this field, and I was impressed by their energy and commitment to their ideas. And if these concepts, either for smaller or larger cabins do not in my view have their place in cities, there are a certain number of circumstances in which they seem to be doing yeoman service. Particularly in more or less closed areas such as airports, amusement parks, zoos and other similar applications. But when it comes to cities, and certainly to cities in the developing world,, it is my view that we do a lot better when we approach and solve our problems on the streets. But that of course is why we call this World Streets.

  2. Peter Javsicas, USATuesday, 02 February, 2010

    Eric Britton consistently refers only to “monorail” and does not mention maglev.

    Is there a reason?


    Peter Javsicas
    Executive Director
    Pennsylvanians for Transportation Solutions, Inc.
    3600 Market Street
    Philadelphia, PA 19104
    215 205 8157
    215 382 1895 (Fax)

  3. Thank you Peter.

    Maglev, another technology area that I have followed with interest over the years, with a certain amount of flip-flopping in my views as things move ahead, is another topic for perhaps another day.

    But that said, our main focus at World Streets is rather far from these technologies, as we hope the daily paper makes clear. (Still I would in fact very much like to spend some time looking at, learning about and reflecting on maglev's near term prospects at some future point. Even if it is not on our bottom line here.)

  4. Eric. For public transport planners, the conversation needs to be about the mobility monorails can provide compared to their limitations. I did a commentary on this, which engaged the responses of a few monorail fans, here:


  5. Only monorail I have ridden is the Jumeirah Palm in Dubai. Not only is it used just about exclusively by tourists, but 95% of them are just taking a round trip joy-ride - from the outer end to, where they have arrived by car.

    Not helped by the fact that the station at the "inner" end is almost impossible to find by any mode of transport, has no links to the rest of the PT network, and is a bad walk of 100m or more to the nearest bus stop.

    Ho hum.


    Alan Howes Associates, Transport Consultant
    email: alanhowesworld@gmail.com

  6. Peter Javsicas, USAWednesday, 03 February, 2010

    Thanks for your response.
    In my view – that of a passionate advocate with no relevant training – maglev is an especially pernicious undertaking at this time here in the U.S.
    Funds and attention that should be going to comprehensive reforms in transportation and land use are being frittered away on just such boondoggles and earmarks without any national transportation plan or objectives. As many have suggested, and you seem to agree, our focus should be on creating mobility and access alternatives to the automobile – especially in our mega-regions. I take it that this is why you focus on monorail as an ill-considered approach for metropolitan areas.
    That being said, true high speed rail seems like a great national objective in addition to working at the megaregion level. In Pennsylvania for example, I think a high speed line between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would be truly transformative for both cities and the entire state. Instead of focusing on that, decision makers have pushed for maglev funding on behalf of a line between Pittsburgh and its airport – service that could be provided more cheaply and quickly by conventional steel wheel rail. In fact, the likelihood is that millions more will be squandered on that maglev project - even though it probably will never come to fruition.
    Back in the nineties I ready a book called The Lobbyists, which explains how lobbying works in Washington and why lobbyists are happy to see controversial issues never resolved: they make money from both sides of the dispute. The spine of the account is the maglev saga, which had already been going for some years and of course is still going on.
    If you haven’t already seen it, here’s a link to a Transport Politic piece on maglev. The comments are interesting, too. http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2009/09/14/dot-expands-funding-for-studies-on-u-s-maglev-corridors/
    Best wishes,
    Peter Javsicas
    Executive Director
    Pennsylvanians for Transportation Solutions, Inc.

  7. I don't think one can be dogmatic on the subject of monorails. Many transport
    innovations have been talked about for years before they become feasible,
    usually as a result of technological developments. How about congestion
    charging, public bikes and carsharing ? One shouldn't rule out in principle the
    idea that the problems with monorails might be overcome at some time in the

    The transport ideas that one should rule out are those that cannot by their very
    nature fulfil the needs of the whole of society. Mass car ownership, however
    fuelled, is one of them. If Personal Rapid Transit is to be ruled out, it should
    be on these grounds rather than because of current technological problems with
    implementing it across a network. Can we say that PRT is definitely unable to
    provide for people's transport needs en masse within the land available ?

    There are of course other ideas that are often talked about but haven't
    happened yet, for which we need to keep considering whether they might now be
    possible in the light of technological improvements. Here are some. (Or have I
    chosen some for which there is no doubt that they could work but which seem to
    have been suppressed by the dominant interests in most places ?)

    1. Rail/road public transport
    2. Amphibious public transport
    3. Transponders on buses so they don't have to keep stopping at traffic lights
    4. Variable speed limiters

    Incidentally, here's another idea. How about a system whereby people who own
    suitable bikes can get credits by leaving them in Velib type stations for
    periods ? This would be analogous to the "feed in tariff" system whereby people
    who produce renewable energy for their own use can get a credit for any excess
    they are able to sell to the electricity distributors.

    Simon Norton, UK

  8. Richard Layman, USAThursday, 04 February, 2010

    PRT by definition is automobile scaled in size, not mass transit scaled. So it's not mass transit. How can the economics possibly work if you don't move a lot of people?

    Monorails have similar kinds of issues in terms of achieving mass in transit. They do seem to work in campus situations. But is that enough to scale them out to serve a metropolitan region?

    old and new is often just about fashion. I was shocked to just read this on a DC-area e-list, about how GE had developed an automatic streetcar, and demonstrated it in 1961. (see below).

    Some of the advocacy _against_ the readoption of streetcars in DC comes from people who argue that streetcars are "old" technology, that they were supplanted by cars for a reason. Well, streetcars were supplanted by cars for many reasons not having to do with the technology of transport, other than the difference between mass and personal transportation, the latter represented by the personally owned automobile.

    But the reality is that the personally owned automobile is optimal for an individual, but suboptimal for a transportation system.

    On one street in DC, 280 bus trips move about 15,000 people in one day, while not quite 30,000 people move through the corridor each day in 24,000 vehicles (cars and trucks). The difference in the amount of space consumed by the buses vs. the vehicles is considerable.

    1/3 of the people are moved in 14,000 linear feet of buses. 28,800 people are moved in a minimum of 480,000 linear feet of vehicles.

    Which is more efficient in terms of the use of scarce road resources?

    The real problem in "mass" transit is that a lot of people don't want to ride in concert with people different from them. So you get the unceasing drumbeat for PRT. (I saw comments from someone who saw Bill Lind speak, he is the co-author of _Conservatives and Public Transit_, and he argues that you have to have multiple classes of service, so that people like conservatives never have to ride with the poor.)

    I don't have solutions for that generally, other than providing efficient high quality transit service that provides better trip options than the personally owned automobile. Even though people aren't as rational as economists believe, when transit is efficient and reasonably cost effective, choice riders will ride, even if they have to mix with people different from them.

    But to get to this condition, you have to have a jobs-housing balance, a decent amount of population and building density, and relatively short trips (under 10 miles, with a minimal number of transfers), in order to make transit competitive with the car (especially with the car being subsidized in many ways in terms of the cost of gas, the cost to maintain the road system, and the cost of parking).

    Among the celebrated Capital Transit Co. and DC Transit System PCCs was car 1304 which, in mid-November, 1961, acted as a fully automated rapid transit car in a demonstration for a group of top transportation leaders. This took place on the rail line at the General Electric plant in Erie, Pennsylvania. The car automatically made station stops, opened its doors to receive and discharge passengers, and accelerated quickly to programmed speeds between stations. 1304's name in this demonstration at GE's Erie plant was "Tomorrow." Operating information on "Tomorrow" (1304 to Washington fans) through a trackside communications link that told "Tomorrow" when to start, speed up, slow down, and stop. This information was then fed to a fast functioning speed and distance regulator which analyzed the information and issued directions to the propulsion and braking controls. The car operated at predetermined optimum rates of acceleration and braking.

    Forwarded from HEADWAY RECORDER, Winter, 1961, page N-9.

  9. Every transit mode has their place. Tram, streetcar, light rail, etc. and even monorail.

    But since this is an attack on monorails, I ask how much do you know about them and its history? Where they go is determined during planning, so they can go anywhere you want them to, just like std rail or whatever. Alof of this stuff needs to be backed up, man. How can you even base your judgment on such generalistic views? Not sustainable? It's the fastest elevated system to build, far outpacing "freeway-sized" elevated std rail systems, and uses less natural resources in the process. Scar in city? Surface rail cuts a divider through the city, demolishing needed ROW, adding curbs, ding ding dings, and cable structure clutter.

    You are wrong in many ways. And sometimes it's not the mode itself, but how it is planned, designed, and built. In that sense, theoretically, ANY transit agency in the world can create success transit systems, whether light rail, monorail, or whatever it is.

  10. Joshua Odeleye, Lagos, NigeriaFriday, 12 February, 2010

    Dear colleagues,
    I believe the new monorail system in Dresden,Germany will serve a densely populated city like Lagos,Nigeria better.

    Joshua Odeleye, Lagos, Nigeria

  11. Chris Bradshaw, Ottawa CanadaSaturday, 20 February, 2010

    The problem with above-ground or below-ground transit systems is that the -pedestrian user has to forsake ground level to use them. Pedestrians own the earth, while self-powered vehicles should be relegated the above/below-ground spaces.

    Ottawa is about to convert its BRT to rail. Phase 1 will cost $2.1 billion Can. and include a tunnel below ground. To bring the users to the train that will run 30-35 metres below ground (a deep tunnel), will mean stations and long (3-stage) escalators, representing about half of the cost of the tunnel section (4 stations). So sad. A lose-lose situation. Probably cheaper to put core roads underground, feeding the underground parking garages directly. The argument that there would be too much transit traffic to handle at grade assumes a) the cars will remain uno-numero there, and b) transit would run on only two of the 89-E-W core streets. There is also continued expectation that all patrons going through from one side of town to the other must pass through downtown.

    An alternative that I have never seen promoted (other than by myself once or twice) is a "gravi-tram," a rail system that goes underground between at-grade stations, which are located at the centres of neighbourhoods districts. By using gravity to both accelerate and decelerate the trains, the only power needed is during the approach to the next station, which, like roller-coasters, can be provided off-vehicle by in-track motors, saving a lot of vehicle weight (brakes are not even needed). The stations would be designed like a roundabout, so that they could handle cars from several tunnels, removing the need of most rail systems, above- and below-ground, to have to further separate the grade of the separate intersecting tracks, also increasing the size and cost of stations.

    As to PRT, the low capacity of the cars tends to carry expectations that the system will come closer to more destinations, meaning far more above-ground tracks and more stations per-km. Another extra cost is the need for cars not needing to stop at a particular station to pass those that do, meaning much double tracking. A compromise is to only offer stair access (vs.
    elevators or escalators, often both are needed), limiting access to seniors and disabled.

    Are streetcars old-fashioned? No, or at least not along streets with linear commercial, unlike the nodal development at intersections of major arterials further out, which now cover so much land and in which constituent business are so large in scale, that the car is needed to move between the different parts of the node. If people like rail so much, street cars should be brought back in the traditional areas, where their use would better support the intensification of traditional main streets. When rail is combined with faster speeds, you get light rail ("rapid transit") that runs usually along formerly green/brown cooridors away from any commercial/office high-traffic buisinesses, and the stations are too far apart to serve those walking to stations. In other words, streets cars serve main streets and medium density grids, while light rail serves and supports suburban and, with park-and-ride lots, exurban development. The choice is simple.

    Chris Bradshaw

  12. Ashok Sreenivas, IndiaMonday, 22 February, 2010

    Well, here's somebody who seems to think alike.

    If you visit page 37 (page 23 of the pdf) of the Feb 2010 issue of "The Energy Business", an Indian energy publication (unfortunately available only as a whole-issue pdf online at http://energybusiness.in/pdf/Energy_issue_feb10.pdf), you will see that ADAG developing the Mumbai Metro plans to use gravity to accelerate/decelerate its trains. However, knowing how things work around here, I would wait till it is a reality before I believe it!

    Ashok Sreenivas, India


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