Greater City Providence

Why a Monorail is Better than a Streetcar

This post was submitted Greater City Providence reader Peter Brassard. If you’ve written something you’d like us to consider posting, please contact us and let us know.

A monorail is a better choice than a streetcar. The construction costs for a light monorail are similar to streetcars, but operational costs would be roughly 70% less. It is true that both conventional bus transit and Bus-Rapid-Transit (BRT) have the least expensive upfront costs with operating expenses roughly 30% less than that of streetcars. [Comparison] Streetcars as with other rail modes (light-rail or commuter rail) will bring new jobs and new real estate development, which conventional buses will not.

portland streetcar

Portland, OR streetcar, Photo (cc) Adams Carroll from Flickr

RIPTA and the City of Providence will be holding public hearings, during the week of September 19, to get community input on the Providence Core Connector Study. The circulator project is intended to improve traffic movement throughout Downtown to better integrate the Jewelry District, the 195 surplus land, and Downcity. It would also facilitate the implementation of the “starter streetcar” system that will connect College Hill, the train station, and the South Providence Hospital District.

Due to the ongoing physical expansion of Downtown and the continued development of the medical biotech industry in the city, a new internal Downtown transit system is becoming increasingly necessary. When commuter rail service is re-established from points south, parts of Downtown will be too distant from the train station. It’s unreasonable to expect commuters to walk to jobs in the Hospital or Jewelry Districts from the train station. Along with a connection to College Hill, the proposed starter streetcar system will begin to address Downtown’s current transit deficiencies.

One of Mayor Cicilline’s original reasons for proposing streetcars is that they would demonstrate a serious commitment to transit and the city’s development. His assertion can be backed up by decades of data that confirms when U.S. cities have installed rail transit it acts as a catalyst to increase jobs, real estate development and values, and tax income, as well as, attracting new businesses and increasing population near stations. [Transit 2020 Economic Development (.pdf)] Conventional bus systems don’t have that impact. Capital Center where the majority of Downtown development has occurred over the last 10 years was due in large part because of its adjacency to Providence Station with commuter and intercity trains, is a local example of this positive rail-economic effect.

Is RIPTA’s and the city’s choice of streetcars simply following a national trend? Just about every city in the country right now is enamored with and attempting to build streetcars or light-rail systems. Many of these cities are the same ones that so enthusiastically dismantled their preceding streetcar systems in the 1940s and 50s, another trend. What other transit methods might be available to provide affordable high-quality service beyond traditional buses that will have a positive economic effect? Over the last several years this website and writer have advocated for the re-introduction of streetcars in the City of Providence. With the upcoming hearings it might be worth examining the proposed streetcar choice by comparing it with other transit modes along with potential costs.

Developing a series of new bus routes or loops could almost immediately be put in place to cover for Downtown’s transit limitations before allocating resources for an alternate system. Buses might be a good transition to another transit mode. There are several difficulties with buses including a psychological barrier from segments of the public. Buses are often stigmatized as being the transportation mode of the poor, young, and elderly. The lack of obvious infrastructure does little to reassure people or the development community that the system will always be there. Bus capacity is significantly less than with other modes and must compete using the same travel lanes with cars and trucks. The boarding and fare collection process is clumsy and slow, though much of that could be alleviated with low floor vehicles and prepaid or free fares.

Museo del Oro

Bogota, Columbia TransMilenio BRT, Photo (cc) bigMancho from Flickr

Bus-Rapid-Transit (BRT) is similar to conventional buses in that it’s a relatively inexpensive option. The basis of a BRT system is to provide dedicated or exclusive travel lanes for BRT vehicles, have dedicated stations along routes, and provide elevated platforms with wide multiple door openings on buses to ease entering and exiting similar to subways. Fares are paid prior to boarding. A disadvantage for Providence is that BRT requires wide streets or right-of-ways, which are few within the city. RIPTA is planning a BRT or “Rapid Bus” along the 11/99 bus routes, which will operate along North Main and Broad Streets. Not knowing the specifics of RIPTA’s plan the line could be more of a hybrid between conventional buses and BRT. Other than the 11/99 or perhaps one or two other potential routes, because of limited street widths, a better application for BRT might be to connect other parts of the metro area to the city. BRT was first developed in Curituba, Brazil and the largest most sophisticated system in the world is in Bogota, Columbia, which is known as the “Surface Subway.”

Heavy metro rail, whether it is subways or elevated systems, due to the enormous expense and lengthy construction time are not reasonable possibilities. Even New York is having difficulty financing the Second Avenue subway and the #7 extension. The construction process alone is extremely disruptive to immediate neighborhoods for years. The mile long #7 extension with just one station will cost over $2 billion. [#7 Line Costs] With Providence’s experience with the sewer tunnel, costs would likely be lower than New York, but at least 50 times greater than any reasonable alternative.

Streetcars or light-rail as mentioned earlier would demonstrate a physical commitment to transit that would be obvious to everyone. The economic benefits would greatly surpass anything possible with conventional bus transit. Streetcar and light-rail typically increases rider-ship three to four times over conventional bus service. Limitations with streetcars are similar to buses, where generally the right-of-way is shared with private vehicles. The construction of Providence’s proposed four mile starter streetcar is anticipated to cost $66 to $86 million. [Transit 2020 Streetcar (.pdf)] The operating expenses are estimated to be roughly between $2 to $3.5 million a year, which would include power needs, maintenance, and train operators and maintenance staff salaries. An unknown cost is whether the existing trolley/bus tunnel ceiling height and shape can be used for modern streetcar components without any major modifications.

A conventional heavy monorail though cheaper alternative than a subway would be more expensive than streetcars. Seattle and Las Vegas have this type of monorail, which is a 1950s design. Massive concrete beams are used to support and track the vehicles and supply power. The beams require extremely wide radii for turning, since the vehicle wraps the beam on three sides, making it less applicable for Providence with its organic pattern of narrow streets.

Wolmido monorail Incheon City, South Korea, Photo courtesy of

An alternative might be a light monorail system that’s designed by Urbanaut a firm near Seattle. This system differs in that the rubber wheels only sit on top of a lighter smaller beam combined with a single high center steel rail on top of the beam that’s used to track the vehicle and supply power and control. Much tighter turns are possible with this monorail and track switching is simplified. According to Urbanaut estimated installation costs including stations and maintenance building are about $15 million per mile. [Urbanaut-costs] An at-grade installation would be in the $6 million per mile range, which could be used to retrofit the abandoned East Side rail tunnel. The Urbanaut monorail would be less expensive to construct than the proposed starter streetcar as estimated. An added advantage is that the system is completely automated eliminating train operator’s salaries significantly reducing annual expenses. Automation more easily allows for 24 hour a day operation, because operations are not determined by worker’s daily shifts. Urbanaut has an intermediate monorail now operational in Incheon City, South Korea. [Wolmido monorail]

Wolmido monorail Incheon City, South Korea, Photo courtesy of

abordaje del metrocable

Medellin, Columbia Metrocable Station, Photo (cc) medea_material from Flickr

Aerial trams are a more unconventional transit mode that might be worth consideration. This mode is usually associated with ski areas. American mass transit examples include Portland, Oregon; Telluride, Colorado; and New York’s Roosevelt Island Tram. It cost Portland $57 million to construct a tram route that was less than a mile long. [Portland Tram] However, Medellin, Columbia recently has developed more economically constructed aerial trams and has found ways to make the technology more versatile. [Planetizen] London is planning an aerial tram over the Thames. [] Aerial trams similar to monorails can be mostly automated. It’s intriguing to imagine an aerial tram originating in Wayland Square floating over the East Side stopping at Thayer Street then silently gliding past the face of College Hill to the train station followed with a stop above the food court at Providence Place then extending beyond to ALCO, the VA and Roger Williams Hospitals and terminating at Olneyville Square. Another line might start at Miriam following North Main to Downtown to the Hospitals and waterfront terminating at the zoo. However, more analysis would be required before this mode could be seriously considered because of the discrepancies between Portland and South American costs, besides its unclear how far the technology can be pushed for more complex transit needs.

Medellin, Comuna 13, Metro Cable 2009

Medellin, Columbia Metrocable, Photo (cc) Omar Uran from Flickr

Which transit system should Providence choose? Any of the alternatives outlined would provide the city with significant additional economic benefits that are not possible with conventional bus transit. Construction and operational costs should be considered with any selection. Until the General Assembly devises a formula to adequately fund RIPTA and since the federal government does not fund transit operations, serious consideration should be given to a transit system that provides service with the least annual operating expenses. An automated light monorail is the best choice.

Peter Brassard


  • Thanks for the great article, Peter. Are you concerned about any “stigma” that might be attached to a monorail: that its retro/futuristic, it only belongs in Disneyworld, that Detroit has one, etc.? Does it give ammunition to transit opponents in spite of its lower installation costs (and perhaps operating costs, though I doubt a street-grade monorail could be automated)?

  • Elevated monrail has so many advantages over BRT and light rail as presented in the article it should be built and used to provide safe unobstructed connecticity instead of BRT and light rail.
    Elevated cantilevered monorail ( should be considered as the next generation monorail technology since it is less obtrusive (two-way simultaneous travel on a single beam). It uses flat steel wheels on flat cushioned rails to provide quiet rapid rail tranit speeds up to 70 mph (115 km/h). The higher speed version (200+ mph) should be used for intercity travel.
    Regards, Stan Doore

  • except it completely ruins all 2nd and 3rd story offices and apartments.

    anything you build over the narrow streets will darkens them (regardless of how minimal the supports and trackway are)

  • The only pictures I see are are of monorails with large expanses of space on either side and very large turning radii (even the light-monorail systems). Are there any examples of monorails running in a city like Providence with narrow streets and sharp turns.? While it might work on streets like North Main, Broadway or Elmwood would you have space to run it downtown or on the East Side? The stations alone require a very substantial footprint.

    The other nice thing about a streetcar system is the ability to get on and off quickly and close to where you want to, in essence more stops because the platforms will have a small footprint. Portland’s has stops every two blocks. With a multistory platform as well as the space for stairs or escalators and an elevator, monorial stations would have to be farther apart.

    I know Portland has a tram that connects its street car line to a development area that is situated across a major highway. I think that kind of point to point use is good. Are there any examples of tramways that use multiple stations along a linear footprint?

    And if they do build a monrail, I will never get that Simpson’s song out of my head.

  • I say streetcar. Make it a no-park zone where the track is laid. And while we’re at it, a piddling $86 million? When we just spent close to a BILLION dollars relocating I-195.

    I’d like to know where our political leaders are on this. I say a few hundred million to lay streetcars is easily within reach. The federal government loves to fund capital projects like that.

    So in addition to the line that will mostly benefit Brown University, there should be a line out to to Olneyville too. Maybe one down Broad St. too.

  • How are monorails awful? Let me count the ways.

    1) Low public acceptance of elevated structures
    2) Elevated structures fall down in earthquakes, LRT doesn’t have this problem (True, earthquakes are not a consideration in Providence)
    3) Elevated structures dominate the streetscape and block out light. Due to this they have low public acceptance.
    4) Monorails are just light rail trains with one rail and smaller cars.
    5) Monorails are harder to upgrade for additional passenger carrying capacity.
    6) Switches on monorail tracks are unweildy and HUGE!
    7) Monorail stations are HUGE! Check out the above picture of the Wolmido monrail you posted youself. Dominates the streetscape and blocks out light. Streetcar stops are little more than slightly larger bus shelters.
    8) Cars/trucks can crash into and damage elevated structures. (If trucks/car crash into LRT streetcars, they only damage the car itself, not the infrastructure.)
    9) If monorail trains break down between stations, THERE IS NO WAY FOR PASSENGERS TO GET OUT OF THE CARS. Fire trucks with cherry pickers have to be brought in to “rescue” all passengers. If streetcars break down, passengers just pull the emergency door release, exit each car and wait for the next working car or walk to their destination.

    Shall I go on?

  • I can -sort of- understand replacing the really heavy-duty bus routes with streetcars, but a monorail is totally overkill for a city like Providence.

    Why not investigate replacing bus lines like 99 and 11 with streetcars and leave it at that?

    I was thinking that if streetcars could handle the busiest routes and maybe a few ‘loops’ of downtown, buses could service the outer areas. Right now the numbers I’ve seen just make it look like a colossal waste of loot.

  • Agreed elevated structures block out light, though the one suggested has a small profile. Heavy 1950s monorails are difficult to switch and add capacity, but a light monorail is no more difficult than a train. Stations could be designed with less impact than Wolmido, by using open screen-like vertical elements, minimal roof structures, and 8 or 10 foot deep platforms on opposite sides of the travel beams. Streetcars are routinely in accidents with cars causing service disruptions. Any monorail support structure would be engineered to take high impacts the same as it would be designed for seismic events, even in Rhode Island.

    Why would a monorail be any more overkill than a streetcar? Capacities and expandability are similar. A single modern streetcar has a capacity of 127. If a second car were added the maximum would be 254. A two-segment light monorail train has a capacity of 97 and a seven-segment train 242.

    RIPTA’s coverage of the city and metro area is reasonably comprehensive. Not the fault of RIPTA scheduling headways are at the most minimal of standards for an urban transit system. The only real way to get people out of cars is to offer the maximum amount of connectivity and the shortest headway service times. Waiting 20 minutes up to an hour for a bus won’t change auto usage. Cities with the most successful transit systems have daytime waiting times of 3 to 5 minutes maximum. To provide 5 minute headways, you need a lot of money to pay train operator salaries. To offer extended service beyond the workday or early evening more funds would be required.

    The point of the article is that if Rhode Island can’t afford its current bus system, how is the state supposed to afford streetcars, which cost more to operate? It’s been over a decade and the General Assembly has yet to develop a formula to support RIPTA adequately. Construction costs for an automated light monorail are about the same per mile as for a streetcar system. The monorail cost 70% less to operate. In Rhode Island fares cover 28% of operating costs. So an automated monorail system could almost be entirely be supported by fares.

    It would be a complete waste of resources to build a streetcar system that couldn’t be adequately funded that could end up underutilized. An automated monorail might not be a perfect solution, but it may be the only one Rhode Island can afford.

  • The big difference between a streetcar and a monorail is that to me a monorail feels like a detached transportation system. The reason streetcars are popular is because they are at street level and integrate with other transportation options with less seams.

    That said, it bothers me that we are not taking a more cautious approach here. Rather than investing in the infrastructure right away, why not actually run a couple of BRT lines (the 99 is close anyway) and see what ridership and usage is. I know the main reason is that people think of busses as being transportation welfare. Moving beyond that stigma is RIPTA’s biggest challenge and opportunity.

    Regardless, in terms of the monorail, I think an elevated structure is a non-starter. If you were talking about a monorail versus an elevated light rail I would be right there with you. I also think it is worth noting that in the worst case scenario, an abandoned streetcar line is just some track in the road. An abandoned monorail is 3000 tons of concrete sitting in the air.

  • You can minimize the size of a monorail platform but you cannot minimize the requirements to get on and off it. Stairs or an escalator and an elevator. You will not be able to get around that and the footprint has go somewhere at ground level. How do you accommodate that on some of our narrow downtown streets? You certainly could not have a stop every couple of blocks. Even bus shelters are a tight fit in the city. Monorails may be cheaper to build and operate but do they fit into the Providence environment?

    A monorail might be a better solution to heavy rail as a means of getting out to the suburbs. You can use the existing right of ways on 95, 195, 295 and 146 provide more service with shorter wait times. These ROW’s pass by the malls, the hospital complex, and most of the developed suburban business areas. It would also market itself to the ridership they are seeking. Imagine sitting in traffic (such as it is) and seeing the cars of a monrail gliding by you above. It would make a nice natural fit with RIPTA’s push for more park and rides. Local feeder routes with smaller busses to a park and ride with a monorail stop that connects to one or more hubs in the city where you have the option of transfering to an inner city line for additonal travel if needed.

    Instead of making a heavy rail commuter line that you will eventually have to entice developers to build along, why not a more flexible and cheaper solution that would bring the line to where business already is.

  • A new system doesn’t have to monorail. The main issues are how will operations be paid for and how can service be provided that has the shortest headway times and greatest connectivity.

    The original streetcar system wasn’t built at one time. It evolved out of horse drawn street rail cars. Overhead electric lines and motorized streetcars were added later. Following those first conversions new streetcar lines were then added. Even as motorized streetcars were coming into use the primary transportation mode were horses, which were much slower. Today with fast automotive transportation, an incremental approach might not succeed as well at convincing people to use transit instead of cars.

    The first BRT in Curituba, Brazil was both incremental and highly controversial. Curituba actually closed streets. The main avenues that the BRT lines ran on were inconvenient for the people that lived on those streets and unpleasant due to the continuous drone and exhaust of high speed buses. If Providence were to adopt a BRT system instead of streetcars or monorail, a test run of BRT on the 11/99 and a line Downtown might be too a timid approach for a new system to succeed.

    Bogotá, Columbia’s BRT might be a better model. The city implemented a full system all at once. They utilize free feeder buses that bring riders to BRT stations to then gain access to the system.

    Providence may be more challenged with its more radial street plan, but a full blown BRT could be a good alternative. Providence’s population is around 170,000 and before the economic downturn 110,000 people worked in the city. If just half those people used BRT a couple time a day that would be roughly 280,000 rides per day, which might begin to justify bus driver’s salaries.

    Is the city prepared to close streets to private vehicles to get good transit service? Each transit type has tradeoffs. The challenge is how can Providence and Rhode Island provide the highest quality affordable transit service with the least environmental impacts that generate the greatest economic benefit.

  • Scott Mercer stated some alleged problems with monorails:

    “1) Low public acceptance of elevated structures” — This alleged problem has not prevented the building of numerous monorails recently in Asia, so maybe it’s cultural.

    “2) Elevated structures fall down in earthquakes, LRT doesn’t have this problem (True, earthquakes are not a consideration in Providence)” — Monorails are safer than traditional rail in an earthquake. Typically, in an earthquake, traditional trains are derailed. No monorail train has ever been derailed in an earthquake. Indeed, the Osaka monorail kept running during one of the worst earthquakes of modern times, the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995.

    “3) Elevated structures dominate the streetscape and block out light. Due to this they have low public acceptance.” — Monorails block out much less light than elevated conventional rail or roads (about 80% to 90% less).

    “4) Monorails are just light rail trains with one rail and smaller cars.” — Actually, they don’t necessarily have smaller cars. Have you seen the Tokyo Haneda monorail? Besides that, monorails (a) never collide with pedestrians or private cars, (b) never hold up traffic at junctions, (c) are much quieter in operation than light rail, and (d) offer passengers a more pleasant view.

    “5) Monorails are harder to upgrade for additional passenger carrying capacity.” — rubbish.

    “6) Switches on monorail tracks are unweildy and HUGE!” — Depends on the specific type of monorail. Alweg monorails have bulky switches, but not Safege monorails.

    “7) Monorail stations are HUGE! Check out the above picture of the Wolmido monrail you posted youself.” — not necessarily. Obviously, a platform is required, and usually stairs or elevator to the platform. Anything else is optional. The platform could be incorporated into a building.

    “8) Cars/trucks can crash into and damage elevated structures. (If trucks/car crash into LRT streetcars, they only damage the car itself, not the infrastructure.)” — This is a theoretical problem only. The structures are strong, and I’ve never heard of any actual case where a monorail system was disabled by a vehicle crashing into the structure.

    “9) If monorail trains break down between stations, THERE IS NO WAY FOR PASSENGERS TO GET OUT OF THE CARS.” — That’s not true. Passengers can be transferred to another monorail vehicle, either parked on the opposite-direction guideway, or end-to-end on the same guideway. Japanese monorails have special doors for this purpose. Some monorail systems offer walkways for passenger egress.

  • Well in the dumbest city Tucson we will spend $40.000,000 a mile for the 3 mile track plus millions more for a new streetcar from a maker that never made streetcars!!

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