The golden age of gondolas might be just around the corner

The Atlantic Cities
The golden age of gondolas might be just around the corner hero
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Gondolas traveling up the hillsides of Medellin, Colombia.

Laugh all you want (or cower in fear), but cable-drawn aerial transportation just might be the next big thing.

To hear the evangelists tell it, the skyborne pods that have ferried skiers through the Alps for most of the last century are an integral part of the future of urban transport. Cheaper than terrestrial fixed guideway transit and quicker to build, the gondola is finally taking its rightful place in the urban landscape.

"Depending on how you measure it," says Steven Dale of the Gondola Project, "it is the fastest growing transportation method in the world."

The gondola renaissance began, more or less, with Medellín.

Comparatively, that is. Until the last decade, the idea of relying largely on gondolas for mass transit was considered comical, if it was considered at all. Into the 1990s, Dale says, "there was no literature. There was nothing."

Today, as gondola construction accelerates, Dale's Gondola Project is probably the single most valuable database on the subject. And yet when the talk turns to gondolas, there are still two kinds of people in the world: those who think the gondola is the answer to a city's short-range transportation needs, and those who can't understand why everyone is talking about those tippy Venetian boats.

It's a strong dichotomy, and one that seems to imply that the gondolistas are either members of a insular transit cult or miles ahead of the rest of us.

Perhaps it's a little of both.

The gondola renaissance began, more or less, with Medellín. In 2004, the Colombian city built a gondola to connect one of its sprawling hillside neighborhoods to the trunk line of the Metro, which runs along the fold of the valley. The success of that project inspired the construction of two more lines, which in turn helped make the city an international destination for mayors and urban thinkers, and the winner of the Urban Land Institute’s Innovation City of the Year last month.

Medellín had imitators. In 2007, Portland, Oregon, built a tramway to connect a university campus to downtown. New York City renovated its Roosevelt Island Tram in 2010. In 2009, Manizales, Colombia, installed a gondola system in imitation of Medellin. The next year, Caracas built one; the year after, Rio de Janeiro did too.

Last year, London built an aerial cable crossing the Thames, and in the fall, La Paz announced it will build the world's largest gondola transit network, with eleven stations and over seven miles of cable. The French cities of Brest and Toulouse will complete cable transport in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

So why is this only happening now? Cable-drawn transport has existed for thousands of years, and was widely used during the 19th century in mines and at mills. Like industrial technologies before it, the machinery slowly crept into city life nearly 150 years ago. 

Well-known to Americans are the cable cars of San Francisco, the first of which was developed in 1873. Despite their resemblance to the common streetcar, these vehicles have more in structural common with gondolas and trams. Alpine cities like Grenoble installed aerial cable transport as early as 1934. Cable transport was an early proposed alternative to the project that became the Paris Métro.

But as the 20th century progressed, the technology retreated to the mountains. Most of San Francisco’s cable cars were replaced with streetcars and later buses. The two companies that manufacture cable systems, Leitner-Poma and Doppelmayr, seemed little interested in hawking their wares to cities, and few planners came a-calling. Advances like two-speed cables were developed for skiers, and their potential as urban people-movers was largely overlooked.

The technology never entirely disappeared from cities, of course. The Roosevelt Island Tramway was completed in 1976 (albeit as a stopgap while subway service to the island was under construction). As transportation to hilltop monuments around the world, aerial transit continued to be popular: the tram to Rio's Sugarloaf opened in 1912; to Bogota's Monserrate in 1955; to Jounieh's Our Lady of Lebanon in 1965. The mountainous cities of Algeria are threaded with gondolas that serve both tourists and commuters.

As the 20th century progressed, the technology retreated to the mountains.

But until the last couple decades, there was very little information on gondolas and trams as a transit device.

"In the late '80s and early '90s," Dale says, "the planning profession's understanding of the technology was 180 degrees inaccurate – they thought the technology was expensive, dangerous, slow. They thought it wouldn't move enough people. Difficult to procure, difficult to implement – everything you know if you're familiar with the technology is demonstrably false."

And beyond that, according to Assman Ekkehard, a marketing director for Doppelmayr, there was an image problem. "Most people — politicians, the public itself, architects, the people who are doing the plans for cities, traffic specialists — they also had, and still sometimes have this association: ropeways are good for tourists, they're good for bringing people up the mountain, but they're not a good means of transport."

That's beginning to change, Ekkehard believes. "People see cities with ropeways and they see it works," he says. "It’s a very reasonable means of transit – you don’t need a lot of infrastructure. They need very little space. They're very environmentally friendly."

But perhaps more importantly in an era of diminished public funds, they can be built quickly and cheaply.

"It's very low-cost compared to an alternative," says Edward Neumann, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and author of the paper “The past, present and future of urban cable propelled people movers.” In Toulouse, for example, the proposed gondola route will be two to three times less expensive than installing a streetcar.

Michael McDaniel, who is trying to convince Austin, Texas, to develop a transit network of gondolas, framed the costs like this in an interview with Marketplace:

"Running subway lines under a city can cost about $400 million per mile. Light rails systems run about $36 million per mile. But the aerial ropeways required to run gondolas cost just $3 million to $12 million to install per mile." It's not that boosters think aerial transit can or should render fixed guideways on the ground obsolete. Theirs is the more modest claim that in certain cases, cable-drawn is the best solution."

That doesn't just mean crossing rivers (as in New York) climbing mountains (as in Portland) or bridging gorges (as in Constantine). Perhaps more important than the plans for Brest and Toulouse is the scheme for Créteil, a suburban township southeast of Paris and the terminus of the Paris Métro’s Line 8.

Rather than argue for a costly extension of the Métro, the city plans to build a four-stop gondola connecting the terminus to the neighboring city of Villeneuve-Saint-Georges. Gondolas can carry up to 6,000 persons per hour per direction, a rate competitive with the practical capacity of light rail and for a fraction of the price. If the system at Créteil (2016-18) is a success, the gondola may prove the exemplary solution to the "first mile problem" of integrating commuters on the periphery of a mass transit system.

Theirs is the more modest claim that in certain cases, cable-drawn is the best solution.

There have been growing pains. Critics have called the Rio gondola an instrument of gentrification and "de-densification," intended to push out rather than serve residents of the favela it runs through. The Portland project cost nearly four times the projections, and the current round-trip fare ($4 for tourists) is more than twice the initial estimates.

Worse still has been the saga of the Emirates Air Line, the towering gondola inaugurated for the London Olympics last summer. Like cable-drawn transit in Portland, New York, Medellin, and Rio, it was framed as an addition to the city's transit network. It appears on the Tube Map, is accessible via Oystercard, and is run by Transport for London. But though the cable car registered over 1.5 million trips between June and November, exceeding expectations, it proved virtually incapable of attracting commuters: in the two months after the Games ended in September, only one in ten thousand journeys was a discounted commuter fare. Officials remain optimistic that number will grow as the area served continues to develop.

Dale thinks the London system was an unfortunate anomaly. Contrary to government marketing, he says, the route is plainly not intended to serve commuters.

Beyond that, though, gondola systems face an uphill battle in the public opinion. They look, frankly, silly and constitute something of a political gamble. Aesthetically, it's unclear if they will sit well with preservationists or neighbors. And they tend to unnerve commuters (and planners) much the way underground journeys did during the early days of subway construction. (Studies indicate that claustrophobia and acrophobia each affect approximately 5 percent of the population)

"You apply a stricter standard to new ideas than you do to old ideas," Dale notes.

And then, at least in the United States, there's the language barrier: we tend to associate gondolas with Venice, cable cars with San Francisco, trams with streetcars. Would you want to be suspended 100 feet in the air from a "ropeway"? If cable-drawn aerial transportation is going to catch on in U.S. cities, it will need to win over minds and mouths alike. And perhaps stomachs, too.

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