end of the loop for sydney’s transit toy

This weekend, Sydney will complete a long and predictable narrative that cautions us yet again about the danger of relying on tourist experiences as a basis for transit planning.

The Sydney Monorail, built in imitation of Seattle's, has now been through the predictable phases of exuberance, delight, irritation, and boredom, and has finally arrived at the point of being more of an obstacle than a service.  The Sydney Morning Herald interviews longtime monorail fan Michael Sweeney who says what little can be said in the thing's defense.  He even uses the word groovy, reminding us (and the interviewer) that he's expressing a definition of coolness that prevailed in one historical moment. There was never any reason to assume the monorail would be cool forever.

Why?  The usual things.  It was conceived as part of a redevelopment, designed to be part of the excitement that would sell expensive real estate.  Like many new North American streetcars, the point was solely to achieve a development outcome and nobody much cared whether it would be useful as transit, especially decades into the future.

It was a tiny one-way loop, only about 1 km in diameter, connecting some key tourist destinations into downtown.  Even for tourists it had limited use because — like most North American streetcars again — the route was so short that you might as well walk, as most people do in this area.

As urban design, the monorail wasn't that bothersome when it sailed over the open spaces of Darling Harbour, but when it snaked through the narrow streets of the CBD, it was a heavy weight in the air on narrow streets that were already oppressive to the pedestrian.


 It's not surprising that it took a new redevelopment plan to sweep away the toys of the old.  Still, the calculus came down to this:  It's not very useful.  If you want to get somewhere on the loop, and back, you might as well walk.  And there are far fewer people riding it than walking under it, perceiving it as an oppressive weight.

So it's coming down.  Last ride is this Sunday. 

toronto and sydney: triumphs for network planning, not just light rail

Breakthrough news on rail battles in both Toronto and Sydney, both of which I posted on recently (Toronto, Sydney).  

  • Sydney's state government has made it official.  The one-way loop of the Sydney Monorail, designed to decorate the tourism-convention playground of Darling Harbour without being very useful to anyone, is to be torn down.  While the decision is being described as a move toward light rail — plans for which are definitely moving forward — it's really just a decision to invest in transit lines that do useful things — such as running in both directions, running efficiently enough to justify reasonable fares, and connecting with many other services so that people can go where they want to go, not just where you want to take them. 
  • Toronto City Council has definitely scrapped Mayor Rob Ford's plans to spend all of the city's transit resources on a few expensive outer-suburban subway segments designed to serve small parts of the region.  The move opens the way to move forward on more cost-effective light rail projects that will enrich mobility across the entire city.

Toronto transit commentator Steve Munro makes an important point, which could also be said of Sydney:

This is an important day for Toronto.  We are on track for a [light rail]-based plan and for a more detailed evaluation of our transit future than we have seen for decades.  Talking about one line at once, about fundraising for one project at once, is no longer an accepted way of building the city.  

That's the key.  The Sydney Monorail failed because it was "one line at once" — a project conceived in isolation with no interest in being part of a complete network.  And in Toronto, a city with numerous desperate rapid-transit needs, planning will no longer pit neighborhoods against each other to the degree that Mayor Ford wanted to do.  Instead, Toronto can move forward on projects that fit together into a more complete rapid-transit grid — serving "anywhere to anywhere" trips.

Finally, a warning to technophiles!!  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.  Likewise, the Toronto outcome isn't a victory for light rail or a defeat for subways, but merely a commitment to better network design.

sydney: monorail soon to be scrap metal?


The state government that rules Sydney is giving signs that it's ready to tear down the city's monorail, ostensibly for a rebuild of the convention centre but also to remove some obstacles to surface light rail, including game-changing new line down the middle of Sydney's CBD spine, George Street.  Jake Saulwick has the story in today's Sydney Morning Herald.

A source from one consortium [bidding to build a new convention centre] said no decision had been made ''but the word from the government is 'don't let the monorail constrain your thinking' ''.

''Conversely they say the light rail is quite important.''

This could be read as a story about big bad developers destroying a crucial transit resource, but it's not. The Sydney Monorail, opened in 1988, is the red line in the map below: a one way loop connecting the CBD to the nearby tourism-entertainment-convention district of Darling Harbour:

Map by

Like many transit toys, it was built cheaply on the assumption that the joy of the technology itself would transcend its lack of usefulness.  Its most obvious use is for travel between the convention/exhibition area on the west side of the loop to the city centre in the east, but the key stations on the west side of the loop, serving the convention/exhibition area and Paddy's Markets, are attached to parking structures, offering an unattractive walk to the destination itself.   The fare is $5.00.  Meanwhile, it's less than 1.5 km (1 mile) walk from one side of the loop to the other, mostly along reasonably pleasant paths that lead to the front door of your destination, though to be fair there is one elevated waterfront freeway in the way.

I lived and worked in inner city for five years, crossing the monorail's service area on foot several times a week.  Twice in that time, in very bad weather, using the monorail made sense to me.

The monorail is a barrier to light rail, indirectly, because its pillars form a bottleneck in a potential north-south traffic lane on Pitt Street, and this lane could be useful in rearranging street uses to create room for a light rail line the whole length of George Street, the largest continuous north-south street in the city's core.  Light rail is being designed to be useful.  It will be in an exclusive lane (which is why it's not being called a "tram") and it will form the common CBD segment for several lines branching out in several directions, serving high-demand corridors in the inner city.  Its high capacity (in the sense of passengers per driver) and its two-way service in high-demand places will make it a real transit service, unlike the tiny one-way loop of the monorail.

Next time someone wants to introduce a fun new technology into your city using a one-way loop, remember: 

  1. Very few people really want to travel in circles.
  2. Except for tourists and others travelling for pleasure, most people need direct service in both directions, which loops don't do well, and …
  3. Loops are intrinsically closed, turned inward on themselves, impossible to extend without disrupting existing travel patterns.  That's why one-way loops are never a good starter project for a technology that's expected to expand its relevance in the future.

For more on those principles, see Chapter 4 of Human Transit.

Finally, monorails are fun to ride, but most people experienced this one from being underneath it.  This was just a single beam for one-way loop service, causing all the problems above, but it was still much-disliked, especially in the narrow streets of the highrise core where it added to the sense of overhead weight above the pedestrian.



To be fair, it's less oppressive than, say, the Chicago "L" or many other downtown viaducts.  A transit advocate might fight hard for exactly this kind of visual impact if it was the only way to get useful two-way service through a high-demand area.  In fact, one of the best uses of monorail is in historic and very crowded areas where the combination of archeological and ground-plane impacts of any transit service simply mandates elevated as the least bad solution — parts of New Delhi, for example.  But the Sydney monorail had few of these benefits.  Perhaps it was just a toy, and Sydney has outgrown it.

sorting out rail-bus differences

Here's a crucial passage from the book I'm working on, though it may will end up in the next book rather than this one [Human Transit].  The topic is emotive, so I'm trying to be very carefully factual here.  I welcome your critiques in comments.  If you disagree on a matter of fact, please provide a reference to a source. 

In 2009, the then-popular [but now defunct] blog the Infrastructurist asked its readers whether streetcars are better than buses, and why.  Readers came up with 36 responses (listed verbatim here) that formed a good summary of popular perceptions about the rail-bus distinction.

Of the 36 reasons, only six refer to an intrinsic difference between bus and rail technologies.  All the others fall into two categories, which I’ll call misidentified differences and cultural feedback effects

Misindentified Differences

In your city, the rail system has lots of differences from the buses, including technological differences. But that doesn’t mean that all these distinctions are true rail-bus distinctions.  For example:

  • Propulsion: electric vs internal combustion.   In most North American cities that have both bus and rail, the rail is electric but the buses use internal combustion (diesel, “clean diesel,” or various forms of natural gas).  Electric motors have obvious advantages – in emissions, noise, acceleration, and comfort – but none of these are true rail vs. bus differences.  Rail can be run by internal combustion, and buses can be electric.  If you want to compare your electric rail option with a bus option, compare it to electric trolleybuses.  If you want to compare your internal-combustion buses with a rail option, compare them to internal-combustion rail options such as the Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU).
  • Mixed-flow vs exclusive-lane operation.  Transit speed and reliability are mostly a result of how much you stop and what can get in the way.  Rail is more often run in exclusive rights of way, but some streetcars run in mixed traffic and some buses run in exclusive lanes.  Monorails never get stuck in traffic, but neither do buses in Brisbane, Australia’s busway system.  Most city buses can get stuck in traffic, but so can any streetcar, tram, or light rail vehicle that runs in a mixed traffic lane.  (A major problem for BRT in North America is that people keep taking junkets to Latin America, where BRT is powerful but the economic context is too different, rather than to Brisbane, where they could see high-end BRT working in a wealthy city.)
  • Off-board “proof of payment” fare collection vs. “pay the driver” fare collection.  Fare-collection style has big psychological effects.  “Pay the driver” slows down boarding and is a greater hassle for all concerned.  Some rapid transit sytstems (rail and bus) provide paid areas with faregates, eliminating this delay.  The other solution is “proof of payment,” which means that you buy a ticket on the platform (or already have a valid ticket) but you only show it if a roving “fare inspector” asks to see it.  If you don’t have one, you pay a fine.  Rail is more likely to use “proof of payment” than buses, but there are exceptions both ways, and there’s no necessary link between the rail-vs-bus choice and the fare collection system.  High-capacity bus systems are beginning to shift to “proof of payment” fare collection to eliminate fare-related boarding delay.  UPDATE: San Francisco now uses proof of payment on its entire bus system.
  • Frequency and Span.  Your whole rail transit system may be frequent, while some your buses aren’t, and in that case, you’ll naturally associate frequency with rail.  As we saw here, a good Frequent Network map, which shows both frequent rail and frequent buses, will clear up that confusion.  Buses can be very frequent, while some rail services can run infrequently or peak-only.  (We usually call those commuter rail.)

Cultural Feedback Effects

A community’s attitudes toward rail and bus technologies can easily affect they way they are operated and presented.  In short, people who believe that rail is better than buses will tend to act in ways that make that belief true.  For example;

  • Differences in investment or care.  A community that believes that buses are only for poor people, or that rail is the mode of the future, will under-invest in buses as opposed to rail, producing a difference in quality that will reinforce that belief.  It may also hold bus operations staff to lower standards than rail staff, and encourage other cultural differences between bus and rail operations that become real for the customer, but are not intrinsic to the bus-rail distinction.
  • Perceptions of permanence.  If you don’t stop to think about it, rails in the street will make a service feel permanent, especially if you’re used to hearing people tell you that rails imply permanence.  History clearly shows that rail systems do stop running if their market disappears.  True permanence lies in the permanence of the market, and that lies in the pattern of development [See Human Transit Chapter 14].
  • Perceptions of legibility.  The notion that a bus might do something unpredictable and a railcar won’t is also a cultural feedback effect, typically the result of insufficiently clear and compelling information about the bus network.  It is quite possible to build bus services with such a high level of investment in infrastructure, such as stops and stations, that the routing is as obvious as a rail line’s would be; the Los Angeles Orange Line bus rapid transit system is a good example. 
  • Regulatory differences.  Government regulation often enforces different rules for road transport as opposed to rail transport.  These regulations are themselves a kind of cultural feedback, differences in habit and history between agencies that regulate roads and those that regulate rail.  By enforcing different standards and safety requirements, these regulations can cause outcomes that amplify the apparent difference between road-based and rail-based transit. 
  • Different potential for mission-creep.  If you build a stretch of road for a busway, there’s always a danger that somebody might try to open it to cars.  If you don’t trust your government to protect the stated purpose of a facility, this can be a major decision factor.  This issue applies, however, to the narrow range of cases in which a road or lane is being built that could be useful to cars but is closed to them.  It is not an issue where the proposal is to reallocate existing roadspace from cars to transit, nor when building a higher-end busway whose design makes it useless to cars even if they were allowed on it.

Intrinsic Bus-Rail Differences

When we set aside those two categories and look at the differences that really follow, intrinsically, from the rail-bus distinction, there appear to be seven, and only the first three of them are always to rail’s advantage:

  • Capacity.  Where demand is high, rail can serve that demand at a higher ratio of passengers to on-board staff, which means that once you absorb the (often large) construction cost, you will be able to offer greater capacity for a given operating cost.  A transit vehicle that’s too crowded to board doesn’t meet any of our seven desires for useful service, so this point is often decisive in favor of rail.
  • Ride quality.   Ride quality in buses is improving, and guided busways may give buses an even more rail-like feel, but new rail systems will probably always have an advantage with their smoother running surface.   Is the smooth ride of rail indispensible to a useful network?  This can be a tough question whose answer may vary from one community to another.
  • Limited energy-efficiency and emissions consequences tied to the difference between tires and steel wheels.  Again, the primary factor governing energy-efficiency and emissions is propulsion (electric vs internal combustion), which is not intrinsic to the rail-bus difference.  However, there is a small range of differences that arise from the physics of steel-on-steel vs tire-on-road operation, and that favor the former.
  • Noise from wheel friction.  Most noise impacts are due to internal combustion, which either rail or buses may use, so that’s a misidentified difference.  Rail transit lines that intersect streets may be required to install noisy crossing signals — a valid response to the extreme weight of commuter rail trains but more controversial as applied to light rail.  These regulatory requirements may be cultural feedback effects.  But rail has a further noise disadvantage that really is intrinsic: the tight fit between steel wheel and rail causes noisy friction when going around curves, especially when going fast. 
  • Some variable cost differences.  Broadly speaking, bus-based projects that use portions of existing roadway will be much cheaper than building rail for those same segments would be.  Beyond that, costs for bus vs. rail projects can be hard to compare.  Capital costs for rail include vehicles, while a busway is sometimes run with an existing bus fleet.  Certain bus-rail comparisons in certain corridors may turn up significant differences in operating cost that may be valid in that situation, but need to be checked carefully to ensure that they assume the same factors on both sides.
  • Maneuverability around obstacles is a specific issue for rail in mixed traffic, usually light rail or streetcars.  In mixed traffic, minor obstructions routinely occur in a lane, especially if the lane is adjacent to on-street parking.  People stop in the lane to make deliveries, get into and out of taxis, and parallel-park.  Accidents and breakdowns happen.  If these events block a streetcar, the streetcar is stuck.  A bus, in the same situation, can often go around the obstruction and continue.
  • Ability to extend existing infrastructure.  If you’ve already built rail on a large portion the length of a travel corridor, it may be logical to build rail on the rest, so as not to create a technologically required connection.  On the other hand, busways can often eliminate extra connections because buses can run through the busway but then flow out onto ordinary streets.  In each case, an advantage goes to the technology that makes better use of the infrastructure that already exists, whether road or rail.

Of course, in a particular transit debate, you may not have all of the choices that I’ve articulated here.   Still, it’s important to remember that most of the things you hear about why rail is better than buses are not true in the abstract, as facts of geometry or physics that follow from intrinsic differences between roads and rails. 

It may very well be that rail is culturally better than buses in your city, in which case all you’re really saying is that people in your city think rail is better than buses and will therefore tend to act in ways that make that true.  If you’re interested in appealing to your current population, and motivating them to make investment decisions based on their current perceptions about the benefits of rail, that may even be a good reason to build rail even if you don’t need its intrinsic benefits. 

But if you’re thinking in longer-range terms, don’t forget:  Attitudes, assumptions and perceptions will change over time.  Physics and geometry won’t.

UPDATE!  See endnotes for this post here!

Los Angeles: Columnist’s Insight Solves Everything

David Lazarus’s Los Angeles Times column today lays out what everyone who’s studied the problem knows needs to be done.

  • DSCN2519 Since we can’t afford subways everywhere we need them, create “virtual subways,” i.e. exclusive bus lanes on all the major boulevards, by eliminating car lanes.  (The Metro Rapid bus network, compromised as it is, was in many ways designed to help people discover this for themselves.  When the Rapid was being invented in the 1990s, the LA city council wasn’t willing to consider bus or HOV lanes on arterials.  So Metro took the view, “let’s do everything we can to make an attractive fast rail-transit-like bus service, so that more people will care about buses getting through.”  That’s pretty much what the Metro Rapid is, and did.)
  • Fund transit expansion by hitting up motorists, via gas taxes or congestion pricing.

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Symbolic Logic for Transit Advocates: A Short but Essential Course

Part of our job as informed citizens and voters is to sift through the political claims that we hear and arrive at our own sense of what’s true.  I’ve been listening to such claims in the transit business, and sometimes making them, for almost 30 years now.  It occurs to me that one of the most important tools for evaluating these claims is something you probably learned in high school math and forgot.  (Yes, some of you remembered, but I’m really talking to the ones who forgot.  To those of you who just don’t like math, don’t worry if you don’t follow this next bit; just skim ahead to the example.  This IS really important.)

Here it is.
Consider a statement of the form “If A is true, then B is true,” [A –> B]
IF that statement is true, then:
  • The Converse, [B –> A] is not necessarily true.
  • The Inverse [NOT A –> NOT B] is not necessarily true.
  • The Contrapositive [NOT B –> NOT A] IS true.

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