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

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.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



To Investigate Or Not To Investigate

I was recently confronted with an argument against Cable Propelled Transit which I’d never heard before and it intrigued me. Okay, maybe it wasn’t an argument exactly, but it was certainly a challenge:

Is it a wise idea to investigate another new transit technology? Given how long it currently takes for government to decide upon, gather funding for and build a new transit line, should we be adding another step in the process? Do we really want to wait a couple more years for government to decide whether urban gondolas and cable transit are a worthwhile endeavor?

An interesting point, certainly, but one that requires some context.

The question was asked in relation to Toronto, specifically. The individual pointed out that the city of Toronto had experimented with a new transit technology in the 1980’s and the result has generally been considered a failure. The technology in question was Bombardier’s ICTS technology.

The Scarborough Rapid Transit line in Toronto, Canada is one of only a few cities in the world to ever implement ICTS technology.

Now rebranded as the Advanced Rapid Transit (ART) vehicle, the ICTS was originally invented, developed and deployed by an Ontario Crown (Government) Corporation known as the Urban Transportation Development Corporation. The technology used unique linear induction motors and was the cornerstone of the Ontario government’s strategy to incubate a transportation industry servicing the medium-capacity urban transportation market. Problems with the technology appeared early and the system was implemented in only a handful of cities. Toronto’s harsh winters and heavy snowfall have plagued the ICTS.

In Toronto’s situation, the ICTS was forced upon the City by the Province and replaced a plan to use streetcars and/or light rail vehicles instead. The crux of the argument is this: Since Toronto switched from using a proven technology such as light rail to the unproven ICTS and since that experience was such a problem, does it make sense for Toronto to consider yet another new technology such as cable?

It’s a once-bitten, twice-shy argument that’s pretty good until you look at it more closely.

Firstly, it’s not logical to assume that because the ICTS experience went sour, then so too should experiments with future technologies. It also assumes that had Toronto used Light Rail instead of ICTS, problems would not have occurred. This seems odd considering the general inefficiency of Toronto’s streetcar/Light Rail systems.

Secondly, when sold to the city, the ICTS was a technology that had never been implemented or proven anywhere in the world. Cable transit has a long, successful history. Just because a technology is new to you, does not make it new to the world.

Thirdly, the ICTS was a vehicle crafted by a government-owned Crown Corporation with little experience in transit technology. The cable industry, however, is privately-held with over 100 years experience and tens of thousands of systems installed worldwide. Comparing cable to the ICTS is not only misleading, it is completely inappropriate.

Lastly, the question elevates our traditional transit technologies to some sort of utopian ideal. But they’re not, of course. Each have their own flaws and none work to the extent that we’d wish. Subways are expensive. Buses are unlikeable and expensive in the long-run to operate. Streetcars/Light Rail are slow and inefficient because of their interactions with traffic.

To stick with them simply because we’re used to them is one thing. But to actively ignore another technology that might solve some of these flaws simply because it’s new is a whole other issue.

Creative Commons image by Bobolink.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.