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. 

16 Responses to end of the loop for sydney’s transit toy

  1. Zoltán June 27, 2013 at 6:52 pm #

    With light rail, cityrail clearways, talk of a second harbour crossing and a desire to make buses work better, Sydney seems to be taking useful transit seriously. Perhaps, for those invested in this expansion of transit’s usefulness in the city, the eternal presence of a useless transit toy above their heads is too much to take. With it gone, instead both the sky and the city can be opened up to all.

  2. Aidan Stanger June 27, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

    The monorail is only useless because it’s tickets are too expensive. It could be a success if they wanted it to, simply by integrating it into the new ticketting system. It could be a bigger success with a small rerouting to serve Central station. But I don’t think they want it to succeed – it doesn’t suit someone’s agenda, so they’re closing it while they have the opportunity.

  3. NCarlson June 27, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

    Re: Aidan
    Why should they put any more money into making it marginally more useful? What useful functions it could have are already served by the light rail line.

  4. Richard Ure June 27, 2013 at 10:29 pm #

    The monorail will be missed by the many more walkers than passengers who huddle under the shade of the line as they walk across Pyrmont Bridge in summer.

  5. Andreas June 28, 2013 at 12:30 am #

    really? the monorail tickets are expensive? i dont`t understand why sydney has the monorail, when this is an useless train?

  6. Anon256 June 28, 2013 at 1:10 am #

    It’s Australia, everything is ridiculously expensive, but the monorail is absurdly so, $5 for a one-way ride. Across the Pacific in LA, that same $5 would get you a day pass good for unlimited bus and rail transit all over the sprawling metropolis all day long.

  7. TedRe June 28, 2013 at 4:22 am #

    It can take longer to wait for the thing than to simply walk the distance. It was only ever designed to be a tourist’s joy ride, only worth it if doing the complete loop. It had awesome views of the city.
    Sadly, you could never let your children ride it. Otherwise you’d have to fork out $20 for a family of four every time visiting the city. Would love to be there to give in at last. My 3 year old (at the time) used to go nuts when he’d see it gliding overhead.
    I’m sad to see it go. Like the other posters have said, with extensions, and a reasonable price, it would have worked well.

  8. EN57 June 28, 2013 at 5:50 am #

    As long as there were many willing riders, tickets were being sold and the monorail was making money for its private owners, who’s to say that the monorail was useless?
    In addition to being a tourist amusement ride, there were a number of other small travel markets being served – and the monorail was particularly useful if you ever needed to get from the CBD to Pyrmont or the Convention Centre in a big hurry.
    I don’t think anyone really considered the monorail to be part of the Sydney transit system, so why need it be judged in those terms?
    The visual impact on City streets was the main thing people objected to, but then again, Sydney’s CBD is generally as characterless and boring as countless North American downtown areas. The monorail isn’t a heavy, overbearing structure. When the monorail is pulled down in the coming months, the affected streets will look slightly different at first, and yes less cluttered – but it’s likely there won’t be any major, noticeable improvement in the commercial streetscapes themselves.

  9. Ben Smith June 28, 2013 at 11:15 am #

    I’ve never been to Sydney, but from pictures I’d argue that it may have been one of the finest examples of elevated transit in an urban area. It might not have been perfect, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it certainly would be much cheaper to build elevated transit through an urban centre using monorails rather than tunneling underground.

  10. jack horner June 30, 2013 at 2:55 am #

    Ben Smith: ‘It certainly would be much cheaper to build elevated transit through an urban centre using monorails rather than tunneling underground.’
    Cheapest of all would be: do some brave transport planning so that street level transit is not choked up by traffic.
    The monorail was always an eyesore in narrow city streets.
    It was rammed through by an ignorant, domineering, fashion-besotted minister of transport (Laurie Brereton) in the face of the biggest campaign of opposition that Sydney has ever seen on an urban planning issue before or since.
    That choice held back useful light rail developments in Sydney (LR was a serious alternative at the time) by 25 years.

  11. Michael Benami Doyle June 30, 2013 at 2:50 pm #

    I’m curious about this comment, to me it doesn’t seem to ring true: ” 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.”
    Would you mind identifying the N.A. streetcar projects where ridership wasn’t a factor in the planning process and/or where ridership hasn’t appeared (for existing systems) or likely won’t (for projects as yet unfinished)?
    The only streetcar I can think of is that might fit this bill is Seattle’s Lake Union line, since it doesn’t really go anywhere. The same, though, can’t be said for legacy, in-progress, or potentially forthcoming streetcar projects in Portland OR, Cincinnati OH, Milwaukee WI, Tucson AZ, St Louis MO, FT Lauderdale FL, Anaheim CA.
    Yes, development was/is a motive in all these projects. But they also all serve both existing neighborhoods and existing commercial areas, in many instances they will include overhauls of the local bus system to make the streetcar a seamless part of the local transit system (see especially Cincinnati in this regard), and for some of these projects will take pressure off overburdened bus lines in areas where a higher-capacity and potentially speedier rail option was necessary long ago (for example, Milwaukee or the Anaheim Resort District.)
    The days are long gone where useless projects like the circulator systems in Jacksonville or Detroit could be built without holistic forethought regarding ridership. Just because new streetcar project ideas are popping up does not mean they won’t be appropriately vetted.

  12. W. K. Lis July 1, 2013 at 4:59 pm #

    “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.”? In Toronto, there is 304.6 km of streetcar tracks, where 247 streetcars carry 58,657,125 people. And where they will soon (2013-2018) take delivery of 204-264 new low-floor streetcars.

  13. Brian July 5, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

    isn’t a monorail basically a fixed guideway bus system that never has the flexibility to leave it’s guideway? My first impression of the Seattle Monorail was that it felt like being in vintage 1960’s bus except with a much bumpier ride due to the camber of the concrete rail sections.
    I can’t say I am very experienced in the “monorails of the world” however. Outside of Seattle the only monorails I have ridden were at Disneyland, Las Vegas and Newark Airport.
    I shouldn’t forget to mention the Circus Circus Monorail in Reno, Nevada connecting two hotel towers at 4 mph. Scavenged from the body of a ski resort aerial tram mounted to a truck chassis, pulled along by a rope tow. It’s a curious and ungainly sight lumbering down it’s single track but damn does it say “the future is here” as only a monorail can!!!

  14. MrV July 7, 2013 at 2:19 am #

    If the monorail had been integrated into the other public transport modes and built as a twin loop central to circular quay via city route running in opposite directions, maybe with a spur to darling harbour that operated on weekends it would be very interesting to see how much easier it would be to get around the CBD. I’ve never understood the issue people had with it especially considering it was mostly a tourist thing given the route that was built.
    For one it is less of an eyesore than the huge volume of noisy buses, and being above street level doesn’t interfere with city traffic.
    This will be the issue with light rail, how fast will the trip actually be given all the stops it will have to make and also contend with cross city traffic lights.

  15. Phil Bruce December 13, 2015 at 10:58 pm #

    One year after the monorail was dismantled you still see an occasional tourist with a map looking up it the sky. I only used it to get from Town Hall (Galleries Victoria) to the Swimming pool at Ultimo. Only the stations remain -some have been re-purposed.
    The trouble with the monorail was it would be difficult to evacuate, you also could not move between carriages. and also a risk if there was a building fire. It was designed to be driverless but the unions would not allow this. Real estate on the level where the monorail ran was hard to lease.
    Many tourists were disappointed about it not going anywhere interesting- expecting to perhaps see the Opera house or the Bridge. The operator also used it as a mobile billboard placing vinyl signs over the windows restricting the view.
    In my opinion it was going on the wrong direction, however it may not have made it up the steep grade above Market Street in the wet, it did struggle to stop on the way down. They tried to sell it to Hobart.
    The current Light Rail (operated by the same company) was extended into the Burbs so the monorail staff didn’t lose their jobs. Thankfully we are getting more Light Rail Through the CBD in a couple of years. Going in over more or less the same route it was removed from in 1961. The monorail was only ever a stop gap until the Light rail was built.