[URBAN NOTE] “Why Monorails Are the Future (Really This Time)”
At Bloomberg View, Adam Minter suggests that the monorail might yet have its moment, flourishing in cities of the developing world as inexpensive mass transit systems.
Monorails may not have worked in sprawling, 20th-century Los Angeles. But for the dense, traffic-choked cities of the modern developing world — where populations are growing, pollution is worsening and public funds are limited — they’re ideal. If they catch on, they could change urban landscapes around the world for the better.
In China, they’re already starting to. Although China has built some of the world’s biggest and best metro systems, and plans to build more, subways come with plenty of problems. They’re geographically constrained, disruptive to build and expensive to maintain, especially for the smaller cities driving much of China’s local debt problem. Buses and cars are cheaper and more flexible, but contribute to air pollution and traffic jams.
Monorails could help on all counts. They run solely on electricity, and so are usually better for the environment. They’re built above ground, on relatively thin pylons that can be installed in road medians, and thus avoid the heavy costs of excavation and underground maintenance. BYD, a Chinese manufacturer backed by Warren Buffett, says its SkyTrain monorail costs one-sixth what a traditional metro would, and requires only one-third the time to install. For cash-strapped Chinese cities such as Shantou — home to 5.5 million people and (soon) a 155-mile monorail — that’s an attractive proposition.
More interestingly, monorails can navigate steep grades and sharp curves. This makes them ideally suited to downtowns, where they can easily be aligned with existing roads and landscapes. And it opens up new possibilities. The world’s busiest monorail — with nearly a million daily passengers — is located in the hilly metropolis of Chongqing in Southwest China, where it negotiates curves and hills that would’ve required tunnels for heavier rail. Though few cities are as geographically challenging as Chongqing, there’s plenty of demand for transit systems that can take people exactly where they want to go.