Defending the Monorail

Jarrett Walker at Human Transit provided a lengthy response to a comment I made on his blog in defense of monorail technologies. (I was seriously flattered by the shoutout.) In light of this, I’ll post almost all of his (quite good) critique of my position, as well as a rebuttal of my own.

I think I can answer most of J.D.’s challenge, but first, a caution. This is not an “anti-monorail” post. This is a post by somebody who values mobiity and access outcomes and who views transit technologies as tools for delivering those outcomes. I have found Bus Rapid Transit useful in a number of situations, so I tend to say good things about it, but that doesn’t mean I’m attached to buses as a technology, merely that they do seem to be the best solution in a wide range of cases. I’m still focused on the mobility/access outcome, not the technology that delivers it.

I tend not to assume people are opposed to any particular technology unless they suggest that they are, and while I may have read Jarrett’s original words on the subject incorrectly (“I don’t care about powerful-but-vulerable transit technologies in the way I care about cheetahs”), I have experienced a great deal out-of-hand dismissal from others about monorail just as he has about BRT from The Overhead Wire and other sources (though apparently BRT is acceptable if the choice is between that and VAL or monorail – but more on that later).

It should be said that I’ve contributed to The Monorail Society before and have been much more partisan about monorail in the past; when I was in high school I wrote an editorial to the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot advocating monorail as an alternative to the LRT project that eventually developed into the TIDE system. But as my views on transit became more nuanced, I came to value improved mobility and accessibility of any kind over any one particular technology. However, I continue to support monorail (though not, like some, at the expense of any improvements in transit whatsoever) and will argue that it is still a technology that can excel in quality applications.

Having said that, we’re all shaped by our own experience, so I should confess that my view of the potential usefulness of monorails is probably shaped by my experience around the Seattle Monorail Project (1996-2005), the only voter-approved effort North America has seen to develop monorail as a high-capacity rapid transit mode rather than as a circulator or fun-ride. The project failed after consuming a decade of advocates’ sweat and tears, because (a) its costs kept escalating and (b) its all-elevated profile made a lot of enemies among people who care about the urban landscape. Another factor (c) may have been that the monorail’s inability to branch limited the range of future extensions that could be contemplated, and thus the range of neighborhoods who could believe they’d benefit someday.

While even I was shocked by the spectacular burnout of the Seattle Popular Monorail Project, it has to be said that a lot of its failure is probably not so much at the feet of monorail as a technology per se. Much has been made of the region’s political tradition of “death by process”, which killed heavy rail as well as monorail, will probably kill the Alaskan Way tunnel (a costly, anti-urban project that I believe deserves a swifter death) and very nearly killed commuter rail and LRT several times. Much of the spiraling costs of both Link and the monorail expansion can be attributed to the decades it took to implement either project. In addition, the “Seattle process” necessitated the satisficing of parties whose goals are mutually exclusive – in the case of the monorail, decisions at the top were made by board members ranging from Dick Falkenbury (who initiated the project) to Ron Sims (who had previously done everything possible to defeat the project).

Regardless of motivation, however, I will readily admit there were a lot of remarkably bad choices made in terms of vendors and proposed resolutions for otherwise simple technical problems – for example, the “iris/tulip” controversy, which struck me as fairly moot to begin with: why would a station need to be on a single side of the street? The track could be split to service side platforms on either side of the street with crossover traffic at a lower level, or on the street.

What makes this outcome particularly unfortunate is that Scomi, the Malaysian contractor that designed the Kuala Lumpur monorail and several Indian and southeast Asian systems, developed most of their technologies by re-engineering open-source blueprints from the original Seattle monorail. So if Scomi had been chosen as a major vendor or contractor, their system would likely have been backwards-compatible with the monorail that already exists, making it in effect a true expansion and renovation of the current system. Sadly, there was no timely or efficient consensus on this.

I continue to believe this was a missed opportunity, as was the original failure of Forward Thrust forty years ago. Ironically, Los Angeles had a similar opportunity at the time, but oppositely: the engineers behind Seattle’s monorail proposed a rapid transit system for L.A. County as early as 1954, but the proposal was rejected in 1963. A monorail solution would not have been exceptional, or magic. But it would have quickly created the nucleus of a workable rail transit service, saving Angelenos a half-century of heartache in building a piecemeal solution to the sustainability and congestion issues created by southern California’s headlong rush to autocentricity.

Cost escalation is a common problem in transit generally, but the other two problems are quite specific to monorails.

The requirement of exclusively elevated operation is, in my experience, a huge practical and political limit to the use of monorail technology. I suspect that other rail transit technologies will continue to prevail over monorails because they can be elevated but don’t have to be. Monorails are the lightest form of elevated rail transit in existence, so when you elevate them you get a less looming structure than other modes require. But the need to be elevated everywhere — even at points where light rail would run at ground level — is a limitation affecting both cost and visual impact.

I hate to say “this isn’t a bug, it’s a feature”, but the necessary grade-separation of monorail is what allows it to demonstrate heavy-rail performance at light-rail cost. You could run a monorail at ground level, or put it in a tunnel; but this would be kind of absurd, as most (though apparently not all) rubber-tired monorail technologies have sufficient traction to climb grades that would otherwise require tunneling. In the case of Seattle, this was the original point of the project (and that the board went out of their way to select technologies that render these advantages infeasible is beyond me).

In addition, the complete grade-separation of a monorail allows for a driverless system, which reduces labor costs and allows for a great deal of operating cost savings. At the very least this allows for a certain degree of automation which should assist the driver. There are admittedly arguments that this isn’t the most constructive direction for safety, given two recent high-profile accidents in automated systems; however, Vancouver’s fully automated VAL network hasn’t had any fatal accidents to speak of, so this may have more to do with regular maintenance than operational vigilance. VAL and monorail are both incredibly safe, at least as safe as heavy rail, and arguably safer than surface LRT (which I would like to add is also much safer, relatively speaking, than driving). In any case, I’ll explore this in more detail at another point.

The inability to branch was a small ancillary problem in Seattle because one of the desirable “monorail Phase 2” projects (the Delridge corridor) would have been a branch from partway along the planned Phase 1 monorail, rather than an extension off the end of it. Because of the way monorail trains wrap around their single guide-beam, they just can’t do that. On standard rail, it’s no problem.

I’ll admit that switching for monorails isn’t quite as simple as it is for conventional dual-rail systems, but it can be done, and is done, on a regular revenue-service basis. Osaka’s monorail is branched, and Kuala Lumpur has multiple switches. Neither of these are significantly more complicated, unwieldy, or visually cluttered than the elevated switches at Huntington or National Airport within the Washington Metrorail system.

I have some sympathy for monorail visionaries who feel that we’ll inevitably get over our resistance to having stuff up over our heads in the public street. After all, elevated is much cheaper than underground if those are the only options. Many of us grew up reading science fiction (from the freeway era) which often imagined layer upon layer of elevated structures forming a vertical lattice-like city, and imagined, at a formative time of life, that such a city would be a cool place to live.

But the current generation of urban designers is pretty passionate and unified about the supreme importance of the pedestrian experience at the ground plane, and resistant to putting pretty much any substantial structure directly over a street. Even networks of overhead pedestrian crossings, such as the Skyway networks of Minneapolis and St. Paul, are rarely if ever proposed today on such a comprehensive scale.

I think there’s some difference between monorail and other science-fictional hypermodernist and futurist fantasies, such as pneumatic transit or flying cars or whatever. Most notably, monorail is economically feasible in a way that these other systems are not. I’ll admit that it probably isn’t the best aesthetic choice for a deeply historic city where architectural historicism is a big tourist draw, like Paris or Washington or Savannah; hell, the District of Columbia still hasn’t gotten over catenary wires, for whatever reason. However, this hasn’t stopped Paris from considering monorail in its redevelopment plans. Beyond this, numerous grade-separated conventional heavy rail systems exist and generally aren’t seen to inherently threaten walkability or the pedestrian domain.

You can credibly argue that we’ll get over any phobia about structure above the street once our need for rapid transit is urgent enough and we don’t have any other options for where to put it. But you won’t win many such arguments now in any European, North American, or Australiasian city I can think of, especially in the dense parts of those cities which are (a) precisely where the transit is needed but also (b) the most anxious about loss of sunlight and the effects of looming structure in general.

This may be true, but if the choice is between monorails and any other elevated technology, it’s only slightly more looming (and, arguably, somewhat less cluttered) than catenaries, and certainly less looming than elevated rail. Now, elevated rail can be less looming than some things, but the schematics for, say, Tysons Corner elevated sound remarkably looming, and a lot more looming than they could have been. But it’s being built anyway.* There would be reason to blame Mary Peters and the culture of USDOT under the Bush administration for some of this, but the reality is still that monorail is more flexible than elevated rail, and provides a higher level of service than surface rail, in applications for both.

*I want to say that while I was a tunnel supporter and continue to believe that deep-bore is a better option, I support heavy rail of any kind in Tysons; like I said before, I do not support any one technology above and beyond overall improvements in transit of any kind in any circumstances.

(I should add that I have both ridden and walked underneath many of the commonly cited examples of cool monorails, including the circulator/funride monorails at Disneyland, Las Vegas (pictured here), and Sydney, as well as the old two-station Alweg Monorail in Seattle.

Here in Sydney the monorail is fun for tourists widely despised by the locals because of its impact on the streetscape, and because, as a one-way loop, it doesn’t offer much useful mobility.)

I’ll agree that the Sydney monorail is pretty dysfunctional, though largely for the reason that the Detroit VAL system, or pretty much any peoplemover system, is also dysfunctional – practically no one wants to travel in a one-way loop, as Jarrett has explained before. This has little, if anything, to do with the chosen technology and much to do with implementation.

Similarly, the problems with Las Vegas are more to do with implementation than technology – primarily having to do with funding, in this case, and a poor understanding of the business model of quasipublic goods. Many monorail advocates are fond of waxing libertarian with rhetoric about the “inherent profitability” of the technology. This is cute, but irrelevant; while many automated monorail technologies do have lower operating costs, the point of transit isn’t to make a profit – it is to provide mobility and accessibility for the maximum number of people, and to improve regional development as ancillary benefits beyond that.

But if we really care about the “profitability” or otherwise of almost any private commuter passenger rail system, it is almost invariably based on transit-oriented development under its direct ownership or control (save in areas with crush densities like Tokyo). This has been the case for centuries, since the New York subway laid tracks to Coney Island, if not before. And this continues to be the case – the expansion of Metrorail has produced economic and real-estate development values many times its “worth” in terms of capital cost – though in many situations those economic development benefits are externalized because transit systems, at least in the West, are publicly owned and no longer in the business of holding or developing most of the land around their stations.

Finally, J.D. also uses the familiar “the public loves them” argument, which is common among technology advocates generally.

The public is predisposed to a lot of illusions, such as that city parking can be free or that highway widenings relieve congestion. Yes, by definition, planners have to understand the issues better than the average voter does, and that will sometimes mean that planners reach a consensus not widely appreciated by the public. That’s why most advocacy groups understand education, broadly defined, as a key dimension of their work.

The public is also prone to react positively to transit technologies when they encounter them for the first time, as tourists do. Novelty and rarity are attractions in themselves, so you can’t really tell if the public loves a technology until they’ve lived with it for a while.

I agree that it’s unreasonable to say that something isn’t necessarily silly because the public enjoys it. At the same time, though, it’s no more reasonable to say that something is silly because the public believes it than it is to say that it isn’t silly because the public enjoys it. I was just pointing out that they do. This doesn’t validate or invalidate monorail as a transit technology; only applications can do that. The fact that the primary monorail application in the United States is in a theme park, as Yonah Freemark indicates, does not negate the fact that it experiences hundreds of thousands of boardings daily and is the 9th busiest transit rail system in the United States. And, Jarrett mentions below, monorails have had numerous successful heavy-duty commuter applications abroad, particularly the dozens of systems throughout Asia:

Monorails may have more of a future in Asia. For example, a new monorail system proposed for Delhi will snake through a very sensitive and congested area between the Red Fort and Old Delhi — two of the most significant and touristed historic sites in the city. Here I can imagine that the relative lightness of the monorail structure, compared to other elevated modes, might be a very good fit given that (a) some kind of rapid transit just has to be built and (b) underground construction would raise huge archaeological and practical issues in such a touristed spot and (c) the aversion to elevated structure is less total in India, right now, than it seems to be in Europe, North America, and Australasia. So the monorail may continue to find some specialized situations where it really is the best solution.

And if it’s the right tool for the job, they should use it.

I agree with this in principle. I just think that, given the data, planners should be more open to the possibility that it might be the right tool for the job than they currently seem to be.


~ by J.D. Hammond on August 18, 2009.

4 Responses to “Defending the Monorail”

  1. J. D. I agree with almost all of this. In practical terms, however, I stand by my contention that the current urban design consensus is very much against elevated structure in the dense (and often historic) inner city settings where rapid transit is most needed, and that if you’re talking about a corridor where only 1/4 of the corridor has an intrinsic need to be elevated (because there’s no room on the surface) you’re going to have trouble making monorail pencil out against LRT or BRT solutions that are on the surface when they can be.

    It sounds to me like whether monorails make sense will depend on exactly what a project is trying to do. Any corridor project needs to develop goals that take a position on the balance between efficient mobility/access outcomes and placemaking, where the latter concern is often a reason that urban designers want transit on the surface or underground.

    I hope it’s clear that I don’t advocate dismissing monorails out of hand. But I haven’t seen situations where they look like the right way to deliver mobility/access outcomes.

  2. I like monorail. I’ve ridden Seattle and Osaka. It is single-vendor propietary technology that is the greatest strike against monorail. In Seattle two bidders were considering – but neither’s technology would have worked on the other’s system. No entity in their right mind would buy a system that doesn’t have a backup vendor if one goes belly-up.

    • I can understand this complaint, but (and I may have explained this before) there are open-sourced monorail technologies, and Seattle’s current monorail is one of them. In fact, both Scomi and Bombardier (and probably Hitachi as well) derive their technologies and designs from the original ALWEG schematics. If I’m not mistaken they’re still available for public review, which makes it effectively open-source. Which is kind of the opposite of proprietary, isn’t it?

  3. […] ostensible novelty of unique transit technologies isn’t the problem here – God knows I love monorails and I think they get a bad rap – but failing to do cursory research is a failure of the […]

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