What The Death of The Sydney Monorail Teaches Us About Techno-Zealotry

Post by Steven Dale

Dead Train Walking, The Sydney Monorail. CC image via Wikipedia.

On the recent news of the soon-in-the-offing death of the Sydney Monorail, Jarrett Walker at Human Transit had this to say:

Technophile commenters will doubtless chalk this up the Sydney decision as a defeat for monorails in general.  I disagree.  It’s a defeat for one-way loops, poor connectivity, and symbolic as opposed to actual mobility.  The monorail didn’t fail just because it was a monorail, but because it was a poorly designed line.

Couldn’t agree more. But I’d like to expand on those words:

Imagine, if you will, a 3.6 kilometre long light rail “loop” with 8 different stations and a flat fee to travel within it. Whether you travel one stop or all six it’s going to cost you roughly five bucks. The line doesn’t allow for integrated fare transfers between local subway or bus connections – not that you’d want to transfer to it as the line effectively takes riders from nowhere in particular to nowhere in specific.

Would you ride that system? Neither would I.

Of course I’m not talking about a fictional light rail system, I’m talking about the real Sydney monorail that was recently purchased by the New South Wales government and slated for demolition whenever “feasible.”

Some have come out showing this to be a definitive example of why monorail technology is somehow an inferior transit mode. A recent article at This Big City, is remarkably inane in its lack of analysis stating “the transit technology just hasn’t been a practical success. Today we have two case studies of cities where building infrastructure up doesn’t always mean moving people forward.” So not only are monorails not a practical success, but elevated transit in general is problematic.

Now I’m no fan of monorail technology as I’ve mentioned before. But my problem has little to do with the actual technology itself and more to do with maddening tourist-oriented installations (such as the Sydney monorail) that bear so little resemblance to actual public transit. Successful monorail systems such as the Wuppertal Schwebebahn, for example, I happen to be rather fond of.

But to return to my original question: Would any average commuter actually ride the above-described light rail line? Would they if it were a subway? A bus line? A gondola? Would they ride it no matter what the technology implemented was?

Of course not. No reasonable person would.

When we argue against a technology because of its inherent (dis)abilities, we have to make sure that our arguments are intrinsic rather than extrinsic to the technology in question. For example:

  • The fact that light rail vehicles must travel on a set of rails is intrinsic to the technology. Where those rails are located, whether in the sky, the ground or in a tunnel is extrinsic to light rail.
  • A monorail intrinsically runs either on top of a single concrete “rail” or is suspended from above by a single steel rail. Extrinsic to the technology is the fare charged for the line and the line configuration.
  • Intrinsic to gondola technology is the fact that intermediary/angle stations are currently required in order for cornering and turns to be realized. Beyond a minimum set of parameters; the size, design, shape and attendant functions of a gondola station are extrinsic to the technology.

See the difference?

Those items that are extrinsic to a technology are limited not by the technology, but by the choices made by the system designers and operators. Yes, extrinsic choices are sometimes limited by the intrinsic characteristics of a technology (for example, current gondola technology does not allow for more than about 8,000 pphpd), but those situations are more the exception than the rule. Where we get into trouble is when people argue against a technology intrinsically when the problems of the system are clearly extrinsic. (Note that I’ve made a very purposeful differentiation between “technology” and “system”.)

Consider perhaps the best example of this problem – Vancouver’s SkyTrain and Detroit’s Downtown People Mover. The two are polar opposites on the end of the success/failure spectrum yet both use the ICTS Mark II Advanced Rapid Transit technology. One system (guess which) is a perpetual money loser, suffers from terrible ridership, provides no free transfers from the existing public transit system, is a 4.7 km long loop through downtown and targets tourists rather than local commuters.

The other has been a roaring success, has witnessed massive expansion throughout the entire city, functions as mass public transit with free transfers between modes and targets local commuters rather than tourists.

Yet they both use the exact same technology. 

Unfortunately the extrinsic/intrinsic distinction is rarely made by techno-zealots and why celebrations about the death of the Sydney Monorail are disingenuous at best. At worst, techno-zealots use extrinsic arguments against other technologies as evidence of those opposing technologies’ failings. It doesn’t matter that it’s incorrect because that doesn’t change the fact that it happens – a lot. Sadly debate, argument and logical reasoning don’t tend to be a part of our high schools’ curricula so instead of reasoned commentary we get a kind of gangland, partisanship bluster that does nothing to advance conversation.

See! Monorails suck! They’re closing down the Sydney Monorail! Light Rail represent, yo!

Monorails aren’t useless any more than Vancouver’s Skytrains aren’t. The difference is that Vancouver’s Skytrains are treated as public transit whereas the overwhelming majority of monorails have been treated as poorly-thoughout-out tourist traps. It would be like arguing with someone that a football is a terrible kind of ball based solely on the fact that the vast majority of footballs in the world were being used as baseballs.

Nevertheless, that’s where the monorail stands. You can’t turn back history. You can’t eliminate all the missteps along the way. You can’t erase that episode of The Simpsons. Nowadays the monorail is like a disgraced politician. It doesn’t matter if he was good at his job or got thrown under the bus by a scheming associate or whatever. In the court of public opinion, he’s a scoundrel and a deviant and neither has much of a shot in an election. (Though the scoundrels tend to fare better than the deviants in that regard.)

That’s the reason I flee from monorails. They’re a technology with too toxic a reputation and much too much baggage to overcome. That might change sometime in the future, but not in the near future. Right now, monorails are Robert Downey Jr. in 2001 with no guarantee of an Iron Man in the waiting.

Is that fair? No, not in the least. But life isn’t fair and neither is marketing. Anyone who told you otherwise, lied to you.

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  1. Maybe a rebranding of the monorail is needed. The term is clearly dead.
  2. Matt the Engineer
    Seattle's monorail goes all of 1 mile with 2 stops (meaning one at each end, and nothing between), doesn't offer fare transfers to other systems, yet is so successful it pays for itself from farebox recovery (very rare for transit). Would it be successful if it were BRT? Not likely - this thing is (mostly) a toy for tourists. It's ok to have toys for tourists. But just like transit systems you need to do the math and research to make sure they'll work. Of course the best of both worlds would be to have a transit system that tourists can use too - then success could be supported by either use.
  3. I think people should start doing research called the Light Rail Scam. See how many governments have been tricked into building LRT for their cities when they don't need it. I think LRT proponents have done a magnificent job in creating a new term that is truly meaningless. It's incredible how LRT has been able to grab a hold of people's emotions so dramatically and depicted it as some sort of cure-all for all transport woes. As if all other forms of transit is inherently evil. I imagine if the Simpsons did some investigative research and made an episode ridiculing it, LRT will soon become obsolete, just like the Monorail.
  4. Monorails have more intrinsic disadvantages. They need a very large tunnel diameter compared to other modes. Monorails and gondolas are optimized for elevated routes. But to cover a whole city at least a part of the network has to be underground. New regulation require an evacuation walkway along the whole track. The advantage of monorail is gone if you build a walkway besides it. So thats why automated guideway transit systems are now favored. Much more kilometers of AGT are build and they transport more passengers too, even in Japan which has the most monorail lines in the world. Turnouts for AGT or rail are also much easier to build. Those are intrinsic features of the technology which all favors AGT against Monorail. Siemens for example doesn't market their Monorail anymore in favor of VAL AGT. AGT is more versatile than monorail. And LRT is even more versatile. Here in Zürich they run in street sharing the lane with other traffic, on separated lanes, on fenced off tracks on ground, in a subway like tunnel and on elevated sections. This gives city planners a large variety of possibilities. Compare that with monorail which only can run elevated. Its only logical that cities which already have LRT will expand their network and other cities will chose AGT. It is a rational choice and not a bias because of one cartoon episode.
  5. Hobart is trying to get the monorail off Sydney (I think they were cheeky enough to ask the NSW government if they could have it as a present). And even the Tasmanian tourism people think it's a dud idea, saying it'd be better to spend money on more buses and ferries. Reinventing Hobart's extant railway as a passenger railway would be infinitely wiser as well.