Unless you’ve traveled extensively across South America, ascended Piyerloti Hill in Istanbul or had the pleasure of sailing above Singapore, chances are the only time that you’ve stepped aboard a gondola lift is at a ski resort or in a theme park.
This isn’t unusual.
In several dauntingly hilly cities across the globe where other forms of transport just aren't possible, gondola lift systems — often referred to interchangeably with but not to be confused with aerial tramways, which travel on fixed grips between two end points along a cable with no intermediary stops — aren’t an acrophobia-inducing novelty but just another part of the daily commute. In places like Medellín, Colombia; Caracas, Venezuela; and La Paz, Bolivia, urban gondolas boast multiple lines and are seamlessly linked to their respective city’s mass transit network. The daily ridership of these hardworking aerial lifts isn’t in the hundreds — it’s in the tens of thousands.
Just imagine this monotony-busting mode of commuting — whizzing through the clouds in a comfy, climate-controlled cable car in lieu of being confined to a stuck-in-traffic city bus or having an existential meltdown in a jam-packed subway train. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Indeed, leaders in numerous — and not necessarily hilly — cities with overworked, overcrowded public transit systems and traffic-clogged streets are considering — and have even approved — gondola lifts to complement existing ground transportation options. Because when your streets are gridlocked and your subways are stuffed-to-the-gills, there really is nowhere else to look but up.
New York City is already home to a clunky and old (but beloved) aerial tramway. The East River Gondola, a gondola lift system with multiple stations, is an entirely more ambitious — and urgent — creature. (Photo: East Riverskyway)
Aerial mass transit for the Big Apple?
In 2014, a starry-eyed New York City real estate entrepreneur unveiled the East River Skyway, a sleek, high-speed urban gondola lift system proposal that includes numerous stations along the densely populated waterfronts of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. Geared to alleviate traffic on New York’s interborough bridges while taking the pressure off woefully overcrowded — and just getting worse — subway lines traveling over and under the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn, the East River Skyway, as a concept, has garnered huge amounts of positive public support. And it’s easy to see why.
Built in three phases, the privately financed system is touted as being safer, more efficient and more environmentally friendly than bus and rail. Perhaps most important, cross-river gondola service would also really come in handy during the dreaded complete shutdown of the perpetually packed L train — slated to begin in 2019 and last, gulp, 18 months. The L is being put out of service to allow for much-need repair work on the Superstorm Sandy-damaged Canarsie Tunnel that carries trains under the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
“It’s very feasible from an engineering perspective that it can be built,” East River Skyway mastermind Dan Levy explained to Gizmodo's Adam Clark Estes earlier this year. “It can also be built quite quickly and inexpensively. Unlike building another bridge or tunnel which can cost billions and take decades, the gondola system can be built in as little as 18 months.”
Levy’s idea for the system was, naturally, largely inspired by the mass transit-integrated gondola lifts in South American cities such as La Paz and Medellín.
Initially viewed as more of a gee-whiz transit scheme and now regarded by many as most compelling and practical way to avoid an impending apocalypse, public enthusiasm — and investor interest — in the East River Skyway has grown significantly since the announced L train shutdown. Still, it’s still very much just a concept — an exciting, important, life-bettering concept — that may never achieve lift-off due to formidable regulatory hurdles. For the sake of the sanity of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, here’s hoping it does.
Gliding through Greater Paris
In other cities — cities, mind you, where massive subway shutdowns aren’t looming — urban gondola-centric transit proposals have received a decidedly warmer embrace from the powers that be.
A small handful of urban (read: not at Swiss ski resorts) aerial lifts are in operation across Europe. Most notable is Transport for London’s scenic yet flawed Emirates Air Line. The 36-gondola system, opened just weeks before the opening of the 2012 London Olympics, is capable of ferrying an estimated 2,500 passengers per hour across the River Thames. While there were early hopes that commuters would constitute a sizable number of Air Line’s ridership, at the end of the day, London’s gondola lift is viewed — and used — more as a somewhat out-of-the-way tourist trap than as a means of mass transit.
Paris is taking an entirely different approaching with its upcoming Le Téléval system by taking tourists out of the equation. Linked directly to a Paris Metro station in the suburban outskirts of the city, this five-station aerial lift system due to open in 2021 is being positioned as a real-deal method of public transportation in a commuter-heavy area that’s notably underserved by buses and trains. Both the lift’s location (southwest of Paris proper, just outside of the city limits in the ‘burbs) and the surrounding terrain (no sweeping views or climbs up mountainsides) don’t exactly scream “tourist hotspot.”
Calling Le Téléval a “genuine commuter route across relatively flat terrain," CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan notes this Parisian aerial lift’s tourist non-appeal:
No one is pretending Paris’ new gondola will attract visitors. If tourists have ever ventured near its site, they probably fell asleep on the subway. Starting at the metro terminus at Pointe Du Lac, the gondola will cross an area whose only tourist attractions are a smallish pond, a furniture warehouse and a Burger King. By not factoring in visitors, whose seasonal numbers invariably fluctuate, as possible passengers, Paris has succeeded in choosing a site where a gondola might actually be needed …
As O’Sullivan notes, the Téléval is just one of a dozen gondola lift systems being considered for the Île-de-France — or Greater Paris — region with the aim to better link public transit-starved suburban communities with the Paris Metro as well as commuter rail lines.
In Austin, a transit proposal that isn't so weird
An urban gondola proposal for Austin, Texas, straddles a comfortable line between touristy and commuter-friendly.
Dubbed The Wire, this high-speed “urban cable concept” has generated so much positive interest from Austinites that a trio of agencies (the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the city of Austin and the Capital Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) have agreed to fork over a combined $15,750 for a preliminary nine-week feasibility study to determine if a 19-station gondola system linking Slaughter Lane in South Austin with downtown and the University of Texas would indeed fly.
As noted by the American-Statesman, if the proposal is indeed deemed viable city leaders would then have to decided whether or not to invest in the ballpark of $1.5 million for a more robust feasibility study. The system itself, which would whisk commuters along an 8-mile route via South First and Guadalupe Streets, would cost an estimated $290 million to $550 million to build.
Traveling The Wire from terminus-to-terminus in air-conditioned 10-person cars traveling 12 miles per hour would take roughly 44 minutes. This isn’t necessarily the speediest way to get across town but soaring across the city over both highways and the Colorado River is certainly the more scenic option. It also beats sitting in blood pressure-elevating rush-hour traffic when travel times could indeed surpass 40 minutes. And to be clear, the network of trolley cars-in-the-sky would be hoisted directly above roadways by bridged towers, allowing riders to indulge in the distinct pleasure of looking down at the mess below and saying to themselves: really glad I left the car at home today.
“It would make a meaningful impact if we could get the ridership we think we could,” Jared Ficklin a partner and creative technologist with Austin-based Argodesign, tells Community Impact. “It’s something that would be available to every person who lives downtown to south of the river. South First is a route they use every day.”
Ficklin and his team anticipate that the system — a “meaningful mass transit line in the middle of the city” that, like other urban gondolas, would be cheaper and easier to build than light rail, subway lines and bridges — could accommodate between 2,400 to 6,000 riders per hour. This, by Ficklin’s estimates, is equal to running 100 full city buses per hour. The continuously loading, schedule-free system, which would run 19 hours a day to accommodate Austin’s sizable population of queso-scarfing night owls and insomniac students, would be fully ADA compliant. Commuters would also be able to bring their bikes along for the ride.
Speaking to Curbed, Ficklin likens The Wire to a “moving sidewalk.” He notes that “people love the cultural aspect of Austin, but can feel threatened by traffic.”
The 19 stations along The Wire’s route would take three different forms: simple elevated platforms that also function as pedestrian walkways across two of Austin’s most congested streets; amenity-filled plaza stations; and, last but not least, so-called “Park & Fly” stations that cater to carpoolers and commuters coming into the city from further afield.
Argodesign explains the ride:
Riders wait on the platform above the street just a few seconds before the next car arrives, nearly silent. It slows as it approaches the platform, the doors part, and familiar faces from the neighborhood smile to each other. They step into the clean, cool car. It’s brightly-lit, with expansive windows offering a view of the neighborhoods below. Passengers stow their bags and grab seats. There’s an outlet for every person on the car. It’s tempting to browse the web, but most riders opt instead to watch the city pass by the panoramic view of Austin is spectacular.
Smiling people? Panoramic views? Outlets!? Sounds like public transportation heaven.
Gaga over gondolas
Beyond Austin and New York City, gondola lifts have been proposed in other American cities with varying degrees of interest. More tourist-centric is the Chicago Skyline, a $250 million urban gondola system — it’s envisioned by the same design team behind the London Eye Ferris Wheel and the British Airways i360 in Brighton — that would shuttle passengers between Windy City landmarks in glass-enclosed capsules.
Also tourist-centric and Ferris wheel-related: In 2014, the owner of the Seattle Great Wheel unveiled a concept for a privately funded “aerial urban transportation project” that would connect the hilly reaches of downtown Seattle with the city’s tricky-to-access waterfront area, which, naturally, is home to the Great Wheel, the Seattle Aquarium and other tourist diversions. That proposal, dubbed the Union Street Gondola, would span a half-mile and have three stations — that’s exactly one more station than Seattle’s iconic Monorail.
More extensive — and also skewed toward sightseeing out-of-towners — is the Cleveland SkyLift proposal, an urban lift system that would entail 14 stations doting the Lake Erie shoreline. Roughly 200 miles away on Lake Erie's northeastern tip, Buffalo-based Citizens for Regional Transit has pitched a similar waterfront gondola system. Earlier this year, a Potomac River-spanning gondola proposal that would link the swanky Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Georgetown with a Metro station in Rosslyn, Virginia, received funding — funding that is, for an initial feasibility study.
While these and a small handful of other (San Diego, Baton Rouge, Miami, etc.) aerial transit schemes are both commendable and compelling for now they remain just that: proposals.
In many cities, these proposals are dismissed by authorities and residents alike as as fanciful, far-fetched. Baton Rouge resident Eric Dexter described the scene at a public meeting hosted by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation regarding the potential for a gondola system: "When they started talking gondolas, the majority of the room was confused,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “We don’t have trains. Most people get everywhere in a car. So to talk gondolas sounds like a very far-fetched Jetsons-type of idea. A knee-jerk reaction was: We don’t have the money to pay for anything like that.”
So then, are there any urban gondola systems in North America that have been built in recent years?
Sure thing — in the suburbs of Mexico City.
Earlier this month, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto inaugurated MexiCable-Ecatepec, traffic-choked Mexico City’s very first aerial mass transit network. The seven-station gondola system, capable of carrying upwards of 29,000 passengers daily, spans a total of 3 miles across the sprawling and densely populated suburb of Ecapepec. The $87 million project kicked off in 2014.
Meanwhile, in New York City, the Metropolitan Transit Authority is just now beginning to test trains on the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway, a $4.5 billion project that’s been under construction on and off since 1972.