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 discoversydney.com.au
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:
- Very few people really want to travel in circles.
- Except for tourists and others travelling for pleasure, most people need direct service in both directions, which loops don't do well, and …
- 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.