Suspended Animation: Gondolas Lift the Commuter Experience

HYPERLOCAL

Cities are living things. They grow and they change. Sometimes they even seem to hover on the verge of death before surging back to life. They beat with the vibrancy of the people working and living there. And much like you can count the age of a tree by its rings, you can see the age of a city in its buildings, its budding neighborhoods and its transportation system.

Many cities around the world, in order to keep up with a growing, shifting populace, are supplementing their mass transit systems with newer technologies. And it seems, an option growing in popularity in cities around the world is gondolas, which are apparently swinging free of their ski resort image to form a solution to stressed and often aging mass transit.

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The Roosevelt Island tram can carry 110 passengers to and from New York’s Manhattan.

A NEW CAN OF TERMS

But don’t call them cable cars. “We use the term cable car as a generic catch-all term for the technology, but it’s actually not right,” says Steven Dale, president and founder of Creative Urban Projects. “A cable car specifically refers to a bottom-supported vehicle on rails and pulled by a cable, like some airport people movers and the San Francisco system. The term gondolas refers specifically to a suspended cabin.”

In fact, much like the systems it advocates, Dale’s firm has a variety of personae. In addition to CUP, the urban planning firm, there’s Cable Car Consultants, a systems-design and planning firm. And there’s the Gondola Project, essentially a site to help alleviate some of the mysteries surrounding the technology.

And there are mysteries. When Dale started out in 2007, “Essentially no one in urban planning knew anything about gondolas or cable transit. And what they did know was fundamentally wrong,” things like capacity, speed and cost. “They also believed the systems couldn’t turn corners.”

“Essentially no one in urban planning knew anything about gondolas or cable transit. And what they did know was fundamentally wrong.”

But an increasing number of cities are proving those old fears wrong—cities like Koblenz, Germany; Medellín, Colombia; and La Paz, Bolivia. Proven success in these cities is opening the eyes of places like Chicago and Austin, TX, both of which are currently considering gondola systems.

But what about the skeptics? Dale says that a double-decker gondola in a French Alps application can carry 200 people. “It’s incredibly robust and flexible,” he tells Blueprint, presented by CBRE. Plus, some systems can travel as fast as 12 meters per second. And yes, they can also turn corners.

And while Dale admits that cost comparisons aren’t fair, given the greater number of passengers a subway can carry, “On an apples-to-apples basis, gondolas or cable cars come out to a third to 50 percent of the price of a comparable light rail or subway system.”

Now here’s a riddle designed to enrich our definitions: What do the Alps have in common with New York’s Roosevelt Island? Both systems there, says Dale, are technically trams, meant to “shuttle back and forth, rather than continuously rotate throughout a system.”

Dale says he can’t imagine a city where gondolas wouldn’t work, but they work best when they’re integrated into the existing public transit system, both in terms of proximity of stops (“so you don’t have to walk vast distances to get from the subway to the gondolas”) and fare structures.

“We advocate on behalf of a dual-fare structure where tourists pay a premium,” says Dale. “Tourists typically end up riding the cable cars just for fun, and a tourist dollar is different than a commuter dollar. They’re more willing to reach into their pockets. Why leave that money on the table?”

“You also don’t want a system that tries to cover vast distances or too many stations,” he adds. “You’re looking for a nice feeder system into a larger metro system. It’s like every other transportation system in that if you do it right, it can be amazing. If you do it wrong, it can be a financial burden and a white elephant.”

La Paz, by the way, is breaking all the rules, building the entire backbone of its mass transit system with gondolas. “Right now they have 12 kilometers built, and another 23 kilometers will be completed in the next two years,” says Dale. “But this is the wild exception to the rule. We’ve never seen it before.”

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La Paz, Bolivia, has built its mass transit system around the use of gondolas.

GROWTH BEGETS GROWTH

Gondolas are also a practical way to solve the last-mile problem of access to an up-and-coming area of town. “In New York City, Paris, London or Chicago, the rail lines were developed along what was then the current population and work patterns,” says Tim Sheehan, senior vice president in CBRE’s investment properties group. “It’s a familiar story that the extension of transportation leads to and facilitates residential and commercial development.”

And vice versa. In Sheehan’s own backyard, he sees the need for supplementary mass transit. The past few years have brought great residential and business growth to two of New York City’s hottest areas, “Brooklyn and Long Island City,” he says. “Both have great subways, but the areas between those two points have very limited access. There are no lateral connections.”

“The future is some system like gondolas or ferry service that are somewhat less capital intensive than a subway,” he continues. Even a light rail requires buying the right of way. “You might have easements with a gondola, but you’re not taking away the surface land. You’re flying over it. This is growth, and in non-traditional ways.”

Not surprisingly, Dale agrees: “There are modest changes that have taken place with subway and streetcars over their 100-year history. But we’re talking about a new transit technology that’s evolving so rapidly, and as in La Paz, is being used in ways we never anticipated.”

But there is one possible flaw in the gondola concept that subways or ferries don’t have to face: People who are afraid of heights. “There’s always going to be a percentage who are,” says Dale. “But there’s always a percentage of people afraid to go down into a subway. You can’t please everyone.”

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