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Subways? Nah. Let's get some air

Monorails cost as little as LRTs, can be built more quickly
and offer almost as much capacity as subways

by Ron Banerjee

For Mayor Rob Ford, it’s subways or bust. But why?

Subways are good at moving large numbers of people quickly, but are expensive. Many large and dense cities have spent enormous funds to construct huge subways, but we can’t afford to.

Buses are cheaper, but move fewer people and get stuck in traffic. Segregating buses in separate lanes (bus rapid transit) takes away lanes from cars.

Streetcars, or modern LRTs may be a good intermediate solution. Current streetcars impede other traffic and are themselves impeded by cars, creating chaos on the roads. This frustrates car drivers and TTC passengers alike.

Former mayor David Miller’s solution, Transit City, involves segregated streetcar lines with new LRTs.

Large and dense cities like Paris have first built huge subway systems, then selectively deployed small LRTs as supplements. Only smaller and less dense European cities have relied solely on LRT systems.

Washington and Chicago have subways almost three times larger than Toronto’s, with no LRT. Portland and San Diego, whose population is a third of Toronto’s, have LRT systems but no subways.

There is another option which has not yet been widely adopted globally, but is perfect for Toronto’s unique circumstances.

Monorail systems in Europe and North America have only been used as airport terminal transfers and theme park attractions.

This is because big, dense cities have been able to afford higher-capacity subways, while smaller, less dense areas have been able to get by with LRTs. There was little need for a system with capacity and speed between an LRT and subway.

Japan, however, has deployed several successfully in urban areas. For instance, the Tokyo Monorail is 18 km long and serves more than 125,000 passengers daily. It has operated reliably for 40 years.

Anticipating Brazil hosting the World Cup and Olympics, Sao Paolo just contracted with Bombardier to build a 24-km monorail to supplement their modest Toronto-sized subway. Mumbai and Bangalore, India, are also building monorails along with subways.

Monorails cost as little as LRTs, can be built more quickly with minimal disruption, and offer almost as much capacity as subways.

They operate on skinny pillars and can be used on somewhat narrow streets. They negotiate tight turns and run quietly on rubber tires, carrying 500-750 passengers per train. They are completely segregated from other traffic.

All pillars and infrastructure are pre-fabricated off-site, meaning quick deployment and minimal disruption.

We have to think outside the box. We have a city that requires more capacity and less disruption than LRTs. But we also need a system cheaper and more quickly deployed than subways.

Relatively few cities have deployed monorails because they have not faced the same circumstances as us, not because of any inherent deficiency in the technology.

We flounder and stagnate partly because no one has done serious analysis of such creative solutions.

Banerjee is director of the Canadian Hindu Advocacy