Monorails for Penang? Slamming the door (once and for all on a very bad idea)

Monorail Malacca accident

As an old friend to Penang with a couple of decades of policy experience in sustainable transport and sustainable cities field in different parts of the world, I am trying to put to rest the latest STMP proposal to build not one, not two but THREE free-standing monorails as part of the long-term master plan. To set the stage for today’s closing piece, I would draw your attention first to two pretty definitive Op-Ed pieces on monorails posted here in the last day, which you will find at (Part I) and (Part II)

Building on that – and in the hope of burying monorail mania once and for all in Penang — let me offer a closing short strategic commentary on monorails and more generally in situations where high capacity carriers are called for to take pressure off the existing  transport infrastructure.

Note to the reader: This article as been cobbled together very quickly in order to complete the three part series on monorails for Penang. It will be the object of further thought, editing, and possibly new materials in the weeks ahead.

But before I do that, let’s step back briefly to consider the basic planning and operation situation for which occasionally monorails are proposed as eventual solutions. Which basically boils down to situations characterized by too much traffic, too many cars on the road with one or two people in them, and public and high capacity carriers doomed to share scarce street space with all traffic, including the least efficient of all SOV (single occupancy vehicles), i.e. where the only payload is the man or lady at the wheel.


no way like the american way

Now as we well know, the old mid-century (20th) approach to this class of traffic problems was to build more road infrastructure so that the cars would have more space.  That was, then, the American Way. On the surface this seemed like a natural enough solution. But beneath that apparently simple surface is a complex interactive system.  Oops!

Since the late sixties, just about anyone who has really thought about it and been faced with the realities of planning, policy and result, has long figured out that the project and build strategy does not work. You don’t just keep adding road (and parking) capacity because in land-scarce built-up areas that simply does not work — the famous rebound effects kick in (i.e., generated traffic that results from urban roadway capacity expansion).

So please, let us not fall into that elephant trap in Penang. The goal of the competent traffic planner and policy maker is to shift the overall system to high volume carriers – and to do this not by building more infrastructure but by taking away lanes from mixed motorised traffic. So just to be sure. That is one of the basic ABCs of transport planning in this 21st century. Any analysis that is not sensitive to this is simply not professional.

So OK, where do we go from here?  Basically this boils down to figuring out which sort of delivery system is best prepared to do the job in each specific place (the devil is in the details). We can for the purposes of this short introduction think in terms of six classes (with our beloved monorails toward the bottom of the list as we shall soon see).

Here are our main real-world high capacity options for Penang or pretty much any other city in the world:

  1. Reserved lanes for buses and other integrated high volume carriers
  2. Some variant of BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) – of which there are almost as many variants as there are working systems
  3. Tramway – preferably low floor, and if you are looking for some good models check out what the French have done over the last twenty years (after almost all of the many systems that existed in the fifties).
  4. LRVs (Light rail Vehicles). Now we need to bear in mind that these are not the same thing as a tramway. They are larger, heavier, higher capacity, often operating on separate guideways and are considerably more expensive than the tramway solution.
  5. Metros – We all know what they are.
  6. Railways – Ditto

Then too some may want to add monorails to this list. But I prefer not to on the grounds that they have been so widely disproven as completely inappropriate both as city transport and in particular for the three sites set out in the SRS plan that for Penang, they do not even merit consideration here.

Now what for Penang?

So what should Penang do in this case. It’s easy. I propose that you look for the Better, Faster, Cheaper solution, that can offer improved mobility for the greatest number. Namely Option 1, the reserved lanes strategy.  Which incidentally if one reader the Halcrow reports closely enough is what they clearly favor.

Where does this leave us today?

Well, we can see that the Halcrow recommendations and their strong emphasis on short (2012-2015) and intermediate (2020) term measures stress concentration on

  • Short to medium term proposals designed to make better use of the State’s existing transport networks; and
  • Policy based proposals aimed at reducing the future growth in private vehicle activity.

None of this has anything to do with monorails, cabins hanging in the sky, tunnels to bring yet more traffic to and through Penang, real estate speculation and accommodation, etc., which is the wondrous domain of the current SRS proposals and project.

It’s time to get back to basics, take pressure off the system and provide a better mobility deal for Penang.  You will see. It simply is not that hard.  But it does require wise leadership, flexibility and the inclusion from top to bottom of civil society, of which fortunately there is plenty of that in Penang, and often of very high quality indeed.

# # #


What’s the problem with monorails? (Again)

Someone tell me that I am wrong — but among the many flagrant disadvantages/absurdities of the monorail concept for cities that come to mind immediately, I would point to the following:

1. They cost far too much money given the level of service they provide

2. They don’t (really) go anywhere (i.e., where they are needed in a many-to-many world)

3. Good transportation is supposed to be as close to seamless as we can make it – and monorails are anything but, cut off from the rest as they are by definition

4. Limited capacity (per buck spent)

5. They are a visual intrusion (scar) on the city scape

6. The ignore, they actually degrade the street in many ways – the street which is the very heart of the city

7. They are — to a pylon, to a track, to a car, to a station, to a switch, to a shadow — ugly as sin (my old grandmother’s expression).

8. If they need switches, the space requirement becomes complicated.

9. Emergencies are very messy.

10. They saddle the city with debt.

11. To be “cost effective” (ho ho), they cannot provide affordable service for the majority

12. They are often the project of industrial-financial-political interest alliances and even, if one digs deep, corruption. (As so often is the case with big-ticket transport and other public investments.)

13. They are not sustainable by any measure.


# # #

More to follow here, but can we say that we can now once and for all slam the door on the concept of monorails for Penang?

# # #

About the author:

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at and @ericbritton

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