When Walt Disney opened a monorail at his California Disneyland in 1959, he thought it would be the future of mass transit. For a long time, that seemed unlikely. Although a few cities have built successful monorails, for many people they remained synonymous with amusement parks, a notorious “Simpsons” episode and a future that never quite arrived.
Thankfully, that’s about to change.
Monorails might 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.
Which suggests one more advantage: Monorails make ideal complements to other transit. China is building high-speed rail networks to link cities into massive clusters, but getting passengers the “last mile” from rail stations to home or work is proving to be a major challenge. Istanbul — the world’s most congested city — is building a monorail for just that purpose, linking commuters in outlying districts to subway and light-rail lines that feed into the city. Mumbai’s under-construction monorail will ferry people from the suburbs into the city’s famous rail network, via routes that snake through its varied geography and twisting street plan.
For developers, all this adds up to a big opportunity. BYD recently received an $8.9 billion loan commitment from the China Development Bank to fund its monorail business, for a market estimated to be worth $450 billion. The company says it’s in talks with 20 Chinese cities. CRRC, a state-owned railway manufacturer, announced its own monorail system earlier this year. Soon, its railways in places as far-flung as Kenya and Malaysia might be complemented by monorails. Last week, BYD’s chief executive officer was in Mexico City to promote the technology to other gridlocked cities.
Of course, monorails aren’t perfect. They tend to be slower and carry fewer passengers than traditional rail, and they’ve drawn aesthetic complaints. But those are minor concerns for cities that desperately need cheap ways to move people around. From Kuala Lumpur to Sao Paulo, monorails are helping extend transit systems, reduce congestion and get people where they need to go.
Disney’s tourist attraction might just end up being the future after all.
By Adam Minter