Does Shanghai need a monorail?

Shanghai transport experts debate the city's transportation woes

Following recent media reports that Changning and Jiading districts are among the local authorities competing to build a monorail line in the city by 2015, Time Out asks two experts whether the project is the right answer to Shanghai’s transportation woes.

micah SittigYes
Michah Sittig, transport enthusiast

Google Glasses, Maglev trains, driverless cars, and monorails. These are some of the technologies that our minds wander to when we dream of the limitless possibilities of tomorrow. As residents of a city driven by innovation and a can-do attitude towards the future, we in Shanghai should be pioneering exciting new projects, not dithering over what-ifs. The current monorail proposal to link bustling commercial districts with residential neighbourhoods and public transportation hubs is worthy of citizens’ support.

The plans bring fresh thinking about public transportation, would lessen rush hour congestion, and spark the imagination after the cancelled Maglev to Hangzhou and the bland trolley line in Zhangjiang High-Tech Park. It would speed up commutes for thousands of residents and thrill tourists.

Monorail has a long history of reliability and safety, from the first tracks built in the early 1800s to modern versions in similar cutting edge cities, like Tokyo and Dubai, that Shanghai should keep pace with. Monorail systems are an innovative way to help take Shanghai forward into a more green, sustainable future, a complement to the extensive but overloaded Metro, and, incorporated properly, a new feather in the city’s cap.

Matt mayerNo
Matt Mayer, founder of ExploreMetro

China's congested cities certainly need innovative ideas for public transport, but a one-size-fits-all policy won't work. For the past ten years Shanghai has focused on extending its metro system and central areas of the city are now well served by subway lines. In less central areas, subways aren't likely to attract enough passengers to be cost-effective to build. So, what now?

While it's great that planners are thinking about new forms of public transportation for Shanghai, monorail doesn’t appear to be the answer. Although cheaper than subways per kilometre of track, elevated monorails are still expensive to build compared to other forms of transportation that run on the surface such as light rail, trams, and bus rapid transportation schemes (BRT). Not to mention there are few examples of successful monorails in other world cities, outside of airport shuttles. Most are tourist attractions rather than useful forms of mass transit.

There's also a real danger, since multiple districts are competing to install this first suspended monorail, that local governments want the line merely as a prestige project and won’t integrate it properly with other methods of public transportation. The last thing the city needs is another costly white elephant like the semi-aborted Maglev line.