Is There a Monorail in Your Future?

Asian-based writer Adam Minter has taken a hard look at China’s high-speed rail program and found it wanting. The country has built some 12,000 miles of high-speed rail lines, more than the rest of the world combined.

Despite China’s population density and low rate of auto ownership, only one line makes money. The state-owned China Railways Corporation is $600 billion in debt, and that debt is increasing by more than $60 billion per year. It has gotten to the point where the country is building rail mainly to stimulate the economy, not to improve transportation.

If high-speed rail doesn’t work in China, how can it work in the United States? “Just say no” to high-speed rail, Minter concludes.

Given Minter’s hard-boiled skepticism about high-speed rail, why does he fall for the notion that monorails make sense? At least, he thinks they make sense in developing nations. As proof, he points to monorails in–where else?–China, namely Chongqing, which he claims are cheaper to build than subways, better for the environment than cars, and–because they are supported by relatively thin pylons–have minimal land-use impacts and aren’t impeded by “traffic-choked cities.”

Yet monorails suffer the same problem as every other form of fixed-guideway transit: they can only go to a few places. Streets are everywhere people live, and they can be used by buses, private and shared automobiles, trucks, and a variety of other forms of transportation. No matter how cheap Minter thinks monorails are, they will cost–like other fixed-guideway systems–more per mile than streets and carry fewer people and, probably, no freight.

So what to do about “traffic-choked cities”? The simple answer is to stop building dense cities. Dense cities are only built by governments or with government subsidies or mandates.

I can’t find an estimate of how much of China has been urbanized to date, but it can’t be much. China’s overall population density is about 370 people per square mile. That’s about four times as great as the United States, where just three percent of the country is urbanized. Only about half the people in China live in urban areas, compared with 81 percent in the United States, and China’s urban areas are much denser. So it seems likely that only about 3 percent of China is urbanized as well. If China were to allow cities to expand so that traffic is not so choked, urban areas might cover 10 or 12 percent of the country, leaving plenty of land for farms and other rural uses.

Even if the Chinese government won’t let that happen, monorails are not the solution. Their capacity for moving people is low, their speeds are slow, and their costs are high. A better solution is to improve bus-rapid transit, while relieving congestion with a variable mileage-based user fee.

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7 thoughts on “Is There a Monorail in Your Future?

  1. JimKarlock

    Antiplanner wrote: ” The simple answer is to stop building dense cities. ”
    ME– the answer to most urban problems is to stop building density!
    Traffic congestion
    Housing cost
    Urban services cost.
    high taxes.
    (schools cost the same – you just build them further apart)

  2. OFP2003

    After enjoying a wonderful drive through the rural areas of Penn and NY over the Christmas break from my urban life, I don’t think I have ever wanted to live in a rural area more than I do now.
    .
    I’m wondering if anyone has proposed relocating 500,000 democrats from California to PA, WI, NC, and other close-to-call states to create an electoral college majority.

  3. LazyReader

    “It has gotten to the point where the country is building rail solely for the sake to stimulate the economy by just putting people to work building it, not to improve transportation.”

    And building infrastructure that few people use while ignoring infrastructure that really matters is a recipe for disaster.? China has a water infrastructure crisis and could have spent the billions on updating and building it’s water treatment plants. For the last few years all anyone could talk about was Chinese air pollution; smog so thick, you can barely see the streets of Beijing. But what you might not know is that China is facing a major water crisis. Rivers are drying up and there’s not enough water to go around. And what little water there is has been so polluted by chemical and industrial run off, it’s undrinkable. Over 80% of China’s water is “Undrinkable” according to sources including those in the WHO an UNESCO. Half of it’s rivers have literally disappeared and severe water shortages means that by 2030, China will reach Peak water meaning it will exhaust water faster than it’s current rate of regeneration.? That’s right….China will run out of water…in 13 years. And if the Three Gorges Dam didn’t cause enough trouble, the next great public work sure will. It’s called The South-North Diversion Project, and will link up the Yellow River with the Yangtze River, hopefully funneling water from the south to the water starved North. All it takes is drilling through the Himalayas. No matter how big the oppression is, a government that cannot deliver drinkable water, edible food and non-poisonous air to breath is facing a serious problem, for these are the basic needs of every individual. If China fails to address this challenge, this will cause the fall of the CCP. Sooner or later. ….

  4. P.O.Native

    Your comment brought a comparison Mark Levin once made. Liberalism is like a cancer. It has brought blight and stagnation to many a once bustling N.E. city where folks can no longer afford to live after they retire for the high taxes and cost of living. So, they move to conservative states where things are so much better. Problem is they bring their destructive liberal votes with them and the cancerous liberal destruction spreads.

  5. Sandy Teal

    It is so cute how high speed rail is the measure of national pride for so many countries as they still live with 18th and 19th century imperial dreams and standards. China and Japan and other emerging countries of course measure themselves against the UK and Europe that so influenced their development goals.

    But by any rational measure, high speed rail is just a vanity project. Obviously it is only for the rich as any person limited by money will opt for slower and far less expensive trains. Obviously the high speed rail only makes rational sense for a small window between slower trains and air travel distances, and even that at huge capital costs that can’t be moved or shared. Plus the impact on the areas the high speed rail travel through must be immense in noise, danger, and drastically limiting access.

    I can actually see why China invests in huge infrastructure that doesn’t pay for itself — they have huge populations to employ and inefficient infrastructure is better than welfare, especially if the infrastructure is largely low-tech moving of earth and constructing fencing and tunnels and rail lines.

  6. prk166


    If China were to allow cities to expand so that traffic is not so choked, urban areas might cover 10 or 12 percent of the country, leaving plenty of land for farms and other rural uses.
    ” ~Antiplanner

    China has issues with water and arable land. It has about 10% of arable land in the world and nearly 1/4 of the World’s population. The security, the future of the national government is highly dependent on maximizing the output of that farmland.

    The arable land is largely where the water is in China. The problem is that 2/3 to 3/4th of Chinese citizens want to live in the same area. One of many Ag maps to help illustrate this, http://www.trynutrition.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/China_agricultural_1986.jpg along with a population map http://www.china-food-security.org/images/maps/pop/pop_1_h.jpg.

  7. prk166

    The age old problem, a problem that has been around for not hundreds but thousands of years,, for the Han controlling and uniting China has been the interior versus the coasts. Even today with all this infrastructure building the interior is far less developed and wealthy.

    As a result those that migrate — and the Anti-planner is correct to point out that China is only 50% urban — migrate to the east and north east, along with the Shenzen / Hong Kong megapolis. Until conditions change in the interior – and there is no sign of this yet – the problem is that economic and population will continue to grow in the small part of the country that has both arable land and water.

    Combine the above along with the huge numbers of people involved, I have a hard time believing that China can afford to become less dense. A 20% reduction in density for 1/2 billion people would wipe out large swaths of arable land in China. And Chinese farming is far less efficient than that in the US.

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