Could floating monorails be the transport solution the world’s been searching for?

Suspended monorail cars trundle along merrily above the River Wupper in Wuppertal, Germany, in 1913. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The story starts, of all places, in Deptford. 

In November 1821, an engineer by the name of Henry Palmer registered a patent for a horse-drawn (yes, really) suspended railway. He built one in 1824, in the dockyards of Deptford to transport goods across factory work sites, and another in 1825 at the brickworks in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. His second launch was a bit of a coup – passengers rode the line, making it a fairly big deal as the world’s first proper passenger railway only came along a few months later. 

Deutschland, Deutschland, über a river

It was in Germany, however, that the idea really got off the ground (appalling pun intended). Eugen Langen designed a suspended system similar to Palmer’s, which he had intended to sell to the city of Berlin. Instead, it was built in the north-west German town of Wuppertal, in the industry-heavy of the Rhine-Ruhr region that today is Europe’s largest conurbation. A trial run in 1900 saw Kaiser Wilhelm II – yes, that one – take a seat before the line came into operation in 1901, making it the earliest passenger monorail.

The line is still going strong today, and it’s probably the world’s most famous suspended monorail  which, given you’ve probably never heard of it, isn’t saying much. 

It carries around 80,000 passengers a day along its 13km route. Extraordinarily, it dangles over the River Wupper for most of its length, and a full trip would take you about 30 minutes. Although the trains can reach a top speed of 60kmph, they mostly dawdle along at just under 30kmph. There is a certain poetry to it, though – honest. Watch. Just me? OK.

But mommy I can't swim! Image: Roel Hemkes.

The Germans, at least, seem fond of the system. Between 1973 and 2003, two lines were built in Dortmund and Düsseldorf – both in the same region  and designated the H-Bahn. Dortmund’s line runs predominantly between the north and south campuses of the university, whilst Düsseldorf’s shuttles passengers back and forth between the airport’s various terminals and the long-distance Deutsche Bahn train station.

There’s also a rather bizarre system in Dresden, in the country’s east. It’s about the same age as the Wuppertal system, opened in 1901, and runs 274 metres up a hill between the suburb of Loschwitz and the top of the valley. Somehow it survived the bombardment of the Second World War unscathed, and was repaired extensively in the eighties and nineties, emerging triumphant as something of a minor national treasure.

But the Germans aren’t the only ones.

Ja-planning for the future

There’s the Shonan Monorail in Japan, running almost 7km between two satellite towns of the Tokyo super-blob, and the Chiba Urban Monorail not far away – the world’s longest, at 15.2km. Memphis, Tennessee, is host to a baffling specimen – a 518 metre, 7kmph crawler that runs rather tragically under a footbridge to an amusement park. But the less said about that, the better.

Tell me you aren't moved by Chiba's beautiful monorail. Go on. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

A little closer to the present day, and it’s obviously China that provides the most recent iteration. Chengdu – a whopping, giant megalopolis about the same size as London that we’ve obviously never heard of – is having a go. In September, the city ran a test trial on a 300m stretch of track. The system is, rather radically, powered by lithium batteries – supposedly with a mind to being more cost-effective and environmentally friendly  – and the dangling trains nipped along the single track at a formidable 60kmph. Though the system still has “tens of thousands of kilometres” of test runs to complete before it can open to the public, it’s a promising step.

Shanghai’s also been claiming it will build a transparent suspended monorail to open by 2019, but China’s largest city has always been a dreadful tease, so we’ll save the hype for when we see a real life test.

How to extract NIMBY tears

So that’s the tech – but what can it do? Well. Wuppertal and Chengdu offer hugely valuable lessons for what these systems might be capable of in future – if you’re brave enough.

Wuppertal’s system runs mostly over the river, and we all know how underused most city waterways are these days. Though bridging the Thames every few metres with gargantuan pylons to support an along-the-river line in London would likely prove problematic, there are – contrary to popular belief – other cities in the country.

Cambridge, one of the country’s fastest-growing places, has a beautiful stretch of river running through it.

Anger ALL the best-educated NIMBYs in one go. Image: Richard Humphrey.

As it reaches its tendrils southwards with vast housing developments and northwards with a new train station, why not string a suspended monorail over the river? It would never happen, because NIMBYs will out, but it’s a thought. More plausible options include the canals of Birmingham; the River Irwell and Rochdale Canal in Manchester; or the creeping tendrils of Marina Bay in Singapore.

Chengdu’s system, meanwhile, hovers over large roads and highways in a nifty way. Its supporting columns are so narrow that they can be built on the green verge in the middle of the carriageway, at just 80cm in diameter. The list of cities in the world that are low on public transport but high on chokingly enormous highways is a long one indeed.

You can help end this horror by donating just one suspended monorail. Image: Wikimedia Commons,

You could ease congestion on the Hong Kong subway with a line above Connaught Road Central in the city’s heart; give Los Angeles the public-transport boost it craves with lines above each and every freeway; help São Paulo tackle its choking traffic-jam problem with strategically-dangled lines above the metropolis’s crucial thoroughfares.

In short, as we were taught in those devastatingly cringey noughties adverts: the possibilities are endless. Do suspended monorails have all the answers to all the world’s ills? No. Are they an under-considered, undervalued, and under-loved way to top up transport networks without spending billions boring tunnels? Almost certainly.

And that’s good enough for me. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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Ducks and the City: how birds thrive in urban spaces

A mandarin duck, possibly a distant relative of New York’s Hot Duck. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

New York may be well known one of the most diverse, cosmopolitan places on Earth, but the arrival of one East Asian migrant in October 2018 still managed to surprise and delight the city. One lonely male mandarin duck – a gorgeous rust-red duck streaked with white and blue, native to Japan, Korea and East China – somehow found its way to Central Park and settled down on one of the ponds among the mallards and wood ducks to become the media sensation “Hot Duck”. Although not strictly wild in the birdspotting sense as it likely escaped from someone’s collection, the duck lives as free as, well, a bird among the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

A few months later, the mandarin’s native territory was graced by a rare visitor of its own when a European robin ended up in the heart of Beijing. Having shown up just when Britain was falling deeper into political crisis, Chinese birdspotters nicknamed it “Brexit refugee” and raced in from across the country to see what Brits would probably consider an incredibly ordinary bird.

A rash of unusual birds have hit the headlines after landing in cities lately – other recent examples include Melbourne’s “Goth Duck” (a tufted duck, a mainly northern European species never before seen in Australia) and the eagle owl that divebombed bald men in Exeter – but when they do, it’s always their rarity that makes them newsworthy, along with the incongruity of seeing a beautiful wild animal among concrete and litter. Normally cities aren’t home to anything more interesting than a dirty pigeon or a bloodthirsty seagull.

Right?

Moving in

Popular myth says London’s first ring-necked parakeets were released in Carnaby Street by Jimi Hendrix. It’s probably not true, but it’s one hell of a story. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor was any other city. Thousands of years ago, wild birds discovered new opportunities on the edges of the first villages. Today the house sparrow is ubiquitous in just about every urban area in the world, but before the first house was built it lived in the dry grasslands of the Middle East, picking seeds out of the sandy soil. Then humans came along and started farming wheat; and whenever a grain fell from a mill or blew from a market stand, a sparrow was there to pick it up. As the technology of farming spread around the world, sparrows came along, too.

Other birds didn’t come by choice but were dragged in by humans. Thousands of rock doves, plump grey-striped birds that nest on cliffs, were caged up and brought into the new cities for their eggs, meat and uncanny ability to find their way home. Naturally, a few of these escaped, but quickly discovered that the walls of buildings were just as good for nesting as natural cliffs. The familiar pigeon was born.

More recently, many species of ducks and geese found a home in cities for the same reason, as have pets-gone-wild like the Indian ring-necked parakeets that brighten up London’s parks and the Javan mynas that chatter in Singapore’s streets.

Bohemian waxwings mainly live in the forests of Scandinavia, but in cold winters they will fly across the sea to British parks and gardens to feast on garden berries. No prizes for guessing where this one is. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

As cities have changed, so too have the birds that lived there. Back when most meat was butchered in shops and markets, piles of skin and bone attracted huge flocks of scavengers like ravens and red kites. Now city streets are mostly free of scrap meat thanks to bin lorries, supermarkets and industrial meat processing; both species fled into the countryside, where they found themselves persecuted by farmers and gamekeepers, the red kite almost to the point of extinction. Now both birds are making a slow comeback.

On the other hand, parks and gardens have lured new species out of the woods and into the town with their sweet berry bushes and seed-filled bird feeders. Blue tits – tiny birds that in the forest prefer to pick spiders off oak trees – adapted especially well to garden life: in the days of milk rounds, the birds learned how to peck open bottle caps and sip at the cream inside. The birds’ behaviour has recently changed again because of the rise of supermarkets and the fall of dairy delivery, and it certainly won’t be the last time.

What do city birds think of us?

Herring gulls are as happy in a Latvian bus station as they are on a windswept beach. Happier, maybe. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

If you walk in a forest you might well find yourself absolutely surrounded by bird song but unable to see where it’s coming from. Birds are shy and, unless they grew up on a desert island, they will fly away and hide at the slightest hint of a threat. They almost behave like programmed characters from a video game – they draw an imaginary circle around themselves (known as the “flight zone”) and if anyone enters that circle, they flee.

Urban birds consistently have a much smaller flight zone and will tend to let humans get much closer to them; and the longer a species has been urbanised, the more this radius shrinks. In the most extreme instance, urban birds will hop right up to someone who might feed them and even land on their hand. (In one of the best birding moments of my life, a parakeet in Hyde Park snatched a peanut from a tourist then landed right on my shoulder to eat it, staying there long enough to pose for a selfie).

If one bird invades another’s territory, things can get messy. Here, two magpies chase off a buzzard as its partner watches. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Then again, not all birds are that friendly. Many are very territorial, especially in the nesting season. Even medium-sized birds like vicious Australian magpies can cause eye injuries to people passing their nests; really big birds like swans can seriously injure people who get too close. Others, like the larger species of gulls, are just greedy and will attack people to steal their food.

Most birds aren’t quite that bold, but living close to humans has still affected their behaviour. Many species of birds are very intelligent – European magpies might be the cleverest non-mammal on the planet – and they’ve worked out how many of the systems of the city work. Pigeons can hop on-board trains for a lazier way to travel between feeding spots. Seagulls understand how to open automatic doors in order to raid branches of Greggs. Crows use passing cars to crack tough nuts, and will even wait at traffic lights to swoop in when the cars stop.

What do we make of city birds?

The robin was voted Britain’s favourite bird in a recent poll, which just goes to show what being small, cute and surprisingly aggressive can do for you. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Although we share our cities with a whole menagerie of wildlife, most of it is either shy and nocturnal, or prefers the dark, dirty places where humans rarely venture. Birds by contrast are inescapable – on any day on any city street you can expect to at least see a few pigeons flying overhead, or hear something singing from a nearby bush. For some people, this constant awareness has morphed into affection; for others, jealousy at sharing urban spaces with other species.


Even setting aside the risk of attack, birds can come into conflict with humans. Their droppings are not only unpleasant, but they can damage buildings and cause nasty lung diseases. Not every bird has a beautiful song either – a great tit squeaking away outside your bedroom window at 5am is bad enough, but spare a thought for the Australians who have kookaburras scream-laughing on their balconies. If waking you up wasn’t antisocial enough, big birds like herring gulls and Australian white ibises (better known as “bin chickens”) will rip open bin bags and fling the rubbish across your garden. The birds guilty of these indiscretions are generally classed as pests and many cities are fighting back – either by killing the birds or by taking eggs from their nests.

Herons eat fish from ponds and occasionally birds of prey will attack small pets. Urban pigeon keepers, angry after having a prize bird attacked by a sparrowhawk, occasionally try to poison or set cruel traps to kill hawks; but in general cities actually provide a safe haven for birds of prey. Scottish sparrowhawks seem to breed significantly better in cities, likely because there are so many other birds there to hunt.

In fact, many city councils are encouraging birds of prey as a natural way to control the population of pigeons and rats. Peregrine falcons – the fastest birds on the planet – are given protected nesting sites on church spires and skyscrapers and their every move is streamed on webcams. Harris hawks – native to American deserts – have been brought across the Atlantic to scare birds away from the tennis courts at Wimbledon.

Smaller, cuter birds don’t have any such image problems, and millions of Brits put bird seed in their gardens or feed the ducks at their local park. (I should add: if you do, please don’t give them bread, which lacks the vitamins birds need and causes a horrible disease called “angel wing”; seeds, vegetable peel or little bits of fruit are better.) Cities are increasingly recognised as places where you can spot interesting birds – right now, the bird tracking portal eBird lists no fewer than 289 species that have been seen in London – and the last couple of years have seen guides such as David Lindo’s How to be an Urban Birder and even scientific journals such as the Journal of Urban Ecology dedicated to the life of the town.

Save the birds

An American robin has a rest in Boston Common. American robins are in a completely different family to European robins, in case you ever wondered why the robin in Mary Poppins looked so messed up. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Although cities offer food and shelter, they also contain many threats. Glass windows are invisible death to birds flying at full speed – the exact number killed isn’t clear, but it might be as many as 30 million a year in the UK alone. Vehicles can also kill, especially in suburban areas where dense gardens meet busy streets.

Although city birds are protected from some of the predators that they would encounter in the countryside, there are still plenty of animals looking for a meaty meal – not least pet cats, which the RSPB estimates kill 55 million birds in the UK every year. 


These threats aren’t necessarily having an effect on bird populations as a whole – most birds lay more eggs than needed, and if one young bird is killed by a cat a sibling can take its place. The bigger risks come from changes to the environment itself. Pesticides, patios and over-neat lawns have reduced the number of insects crawling around, and therefore the amount of food available for birds like thrushes, starlings and sparrows.

In spite of how easy they are to observe, urban birds tend to be understudied compared to their rural cousins. The fact pigeons are so widespread means researchers often overlook them, but their ubiquity means that observing the birds can help scientists to track environmental changes and to compare cities that otherwise have little in common. Citizen science can help here – the bird tracking apps Birdtrack and eBird let anyone submit their bird sightings, and actually need more coverage of urban and suburban areas.

Thankfully, the idea of creating urban bird sanctuaries is now being taken seriously. Parks have a role to play, but many birds actually prefer the wild roughness of building sites and industrial land, where bare soil crawls with bugs and wildflowers grow gloriously high – ironically, brownfield sites can be as important to the ecosystem as pristine green belt. Perhaps the most spectacular example is the London Wetland Centre in Barnes. Just across the Thames from Hammersmith, this Victorian waterworks has been converted into marsh land and attracts huge flocks of water birds, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in London. In fact thanks to the reserve, a few birds such as the reed-dwelling bittern – which almost went extinct in the UK – are now easier to spot in London than in the countryside it.

Flying into the future

This blackbird probably doesn’t understand its rural cousins. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

In his book Darwin in the City, the biologist Menno Schilthuizen suggests that we’ve been looking at blackbirds all wrong. European blackbirds were originally forest-dwellers eating berries and bugs from the ground. For this, they needed long, probing beaks and the ability to migrate in the winter when the soil froze hard. However, a few blackbirds – possibly initially those living in the hills around Rome – made their way into cities and found plentiful supplies of food year round.

Since they no longer needed to pry into the earth or the bark of trees, their beaks started to get shorter. Because food was available year round, their migration instinct was switched off. And because they needed to compete with traffic and the other noises of city life, their songs got louder. The city dwelling birds became incompatible with their forest dwelling ancestors; the changes to their beaks meant that their songs changed too, until they were effectively speaking different languages. There is a compelling case to be made that there isn’t just one species of blackbird, but two: the forest blackbird, Turdus merula, and the city blackbird, Turdus urbanicus.

Where the blackbird has led, other birds are sure to follow. British great tits are evolving bigger beaks that help them dig around in garden bird feeders and many urban birds have started singing the dawn chorus earlier to avoid traffic and aircraft noise and to take advantage of artificial streetlighting. City-dwelling pigeons even seem to be evolving darker feathers, probably because the dark pigment captures the toxic elements pigeons accidentally ingest when they peck at paint.

Nesting in coated metal gutters like this exposes pigeons to dangerous chemicals in the paint, and this pigeon’s dark feathers are likely an evolutionary response to that threat. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Birds are no longer just accidental wanderers into cities, nor are they just greedy opportunists: they are an integral part of urban ecosystems. Not only do cities need their birds – Increasingly, birds need their cities.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets at @stejormur. Many of the birds mentioned in this article tweet in a tree near you.