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Searching for Interest in the Daily Commute

» As gondolas catch on in South America, should other cities search for ways to make transit trips more interesting?

When I lived in New York, I took the subway from Atlantic Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn to my office at Union Square everyday. It’s easy to get between the two — there are several different lines that make the trip in about fifteen minutes — but I would inevitably choose to walk out of my way to take the N Broadway train rather than the closer 4 and 5 Lexington Avenue lines.

There’s a simple explanation: whereas the N soars high above the East River along the Manhattan Bridge as it leaves Brooklyn, the Lexington Avenue lines run underwater. The three minutes it takes to cross that bridge brought to my mornings the light of the sun and magnificent views of New York’s skyscrapers, parks, and riverfront. I’m not sure how much the other people riding with me cared, but it certainly woke me up.

The experience of riders on the subways that run across the Manhattan Bridge — the B, D, N, and Q trains do so — is a rarity. Few typical commutes on transit include aerial views of the city or the natural environment. Most transportation rights-of-way in central cities are either hidden below ground or surrounded by ugliness. Most daily transit commutes, if they aren’t downright sad, certainly aren’t particularly inspiring. Should that change?

Steven Dale, who publishes the Gondola Project, a year-long exploration of cable-propelled transit, toured South America earlier this year to gain insight into efforts to connect often out-of-the-way neighborhoods with broader transportation networks. In Medellin, Columbia, the local transit system wanted to connect isolated barrios on mountaintops to the metro lines below, so it built a two kilometer initial line that hovers above the city and now carries 40,000 riders a day. What began as a bit of an experiment has expanded into an eight kilometer network at a much cheaper price than would cost an equivalent rail system. Caracas, Venezuela, among other cities, has begun developing similar technologies.

Dale has proposed a series of gondolas for his home city, Toronto. Gondolas — like the télécabines found at ski resorts — and aerial tramways — such as New York’s Roosevelt Island tram or the Portland Aerial Tram featured in the image above — are different technologies, but they offer the same advantages of carrying commuters above instead of through the city.

What Dale describes as a “Disruptive Technology” — a “simple, convenient-to-use innovations that initially are used by only unsophisticated customers at the low end of markets,” a result of difficult geography and limited local funds — is to me a prime example of cities thinking differently about how to make the daily lives of their inhabitants more interesting. Wouldn’t you like to be able to glide above the city on the way to work?

There are of course major limitations to aerial vehicles like the gondolas Dale has highlighted; their maximum running speeds are relatively slow and they lack the ability to handle anywhere near the capacity of traditional train systems. But those issues are besides the point: the issue here is that these South American cities are improving public transit in a way that brings an element of joy to the daily lives of their users. How frequently can you say that about most bus lines?

Earlier this year, Jarrett Walker pointed to what he refers to as transit’s “Zoom-Whoosh Problem.” Noting San Francisco’s BART regional rail system, he suggests that transit benefits when it feels fast, modern, powerful — qualities it too often lacks. But that sensation is ephemeral — once you know the BART sensation, it loses some of its excitement: It becomes mundane. Washington’s Metro, designed in a similar era, is an underground architectural monument — a fantastic play on the use of concrete and light — but after a while, it begins to feel a bit gray and boring. Indeed, that’s the problem with any form of transportation that generates interest as a result of its newness; at some point, that feeling wears off.

The efficiency of urban subways, after all, does have its downsides.

That’s why the perspectives offered by South America’s aerial gondolas are so marvelous. They suggests that modern public transportation can be made interesting not so much because of its technological advancement, but rather because of the views it offers onto the beauty of the human and natural environments that surround our cities. The mountains or river in the distance will never grow tiring; nor will looking at the people staring out from their balconies or the stores hawking their wares.

It’s true, of course, that it makes little sense to build a gondola in many cities — many places lack major elevation changes or large natural obstacles that preference an investment in a mode of transportation that simply goes over everything that’s around it. The two North American examples I cited above — in Portland and New York — are both responses to geographical difficulties.

But you don’t need to build aerial trams to give people a more interesting, joyous experience when they’re making their daily commutes to and from work — you don’t even have to have that great of a view. To coincide with the complete renovation of Philadelphia’s Market Street Elevated, artist Stephen Powers created dozens of beautiful murals on the sides of decrepit surrounding buildings in a series entitled A Love Letter for You visible primarily by train riders.

We should see more of the same. One of the great advantages of riding transit is that you actually have the chance to take in what’s outside the window; you don’t have to pay attention to the “road.” We just need to give people something to look at.

Update, 15 June: Steven Dale responds on The Gondola Project to this post, arguing that gondolas “can exploit rather than just deal with natural obstacles” — they aren’t as limited as I suggest above. I think this makes sense: It is true that you can install an aerial transportation system much more easily than a ground-based one, and this means that barriers to transportation for other modes suddenly become opportunities. Dale also suggests that I underestimate the ridership potential of cable-propelled transit; I admit that it’s unfair to compare capacity of a gondola with a metro, since they don’t address the same markets. For more of his thoughtful discussion, check out his site.

Image above: The Portland Aerial Tram, from Flickr user

41 replies on “Searching for Interest in the Daily Commute”

The Washington Metro isn’t all boring underground stations. I live equidistant between the Red and Green lines, and when I go into the city, I often pick the Red over the Green because it’s entirely above-ground (and frequently elevated) between Silver Spring and Union Station, giving me an aerial view of the city, including the Washington Monument. Anyone who takes the Yellow Line in from Virginia would note that they get some dramatic views across the Potomac River as well. You should definitely check them out if you want to know about an interesting commute.

This is an important aspect of transit. Back in Berlin people really preferred travelling on the Stadtbahn, a sort of downtown surface metro on viaducts, vs using the subway. Jarret at Human Transit had a post about it a while back, mostly discussing how well it’s integrated into the urban fabric. But it also provides a real nice view of downtown and many of it’s sights.

The BART is primarily elevated outside of central San Francisco, and I enjoy the views that it affords of the suburbs around the trackway, especially the view across the bay on the distant San Francisco skyline as it travels south from Richmond and through El Cerrito. Of course, I could be crazy.

Dale’s blog reads like a sales site for a dead-end gadgetbahn. I am extremely skeptical about cable transit being capable of 6,000 passengers per hour, let alone 12,000.

Last time Toronto tried a wacky new technology, we got saddled with the noisy, slow, low-capacity Scarborough Rapid Transit line in a corridor that would have been perfect for light rail with higher capacity and lower cost.

forcing people underground like termites just to save road space for cars has always been wrong. humans weren’t meant to live underground — that’s why God gave us sunlight and Vitamin D and sunlight-deprivation-derived depression — she knew there’d be sadistic people among us, so wanted to give us a few extra hints.

i lived in DC for two years and never tired of the underground Metro stations. those places are definitely great-ish.

public transit should be pleasant — even uplifting. lots of folks want to force all poor people onto buses. i think that position speaks for itself.

gondolas are wack, except where they may actually be needed — but i have a better idea — how about, not building stuff on top of mountains? and if something is built on top of a mountain, then it should remain at the top of that mountain, as isolated as it wishes to be. the problem is not the lack of motorized transport to the mountaintop — the problem is that someone decided to live on the mountaintop. life is full of decisions.

In Rio de Janeiro, it is the poorest people who live in the mountaintop slums. For an idealized look at life in a mountaintop favela, check out the classic movie “Black Orpheus.” In the U.S. they say we work in the city and then drive until we can afford to live. The favelas that overlook the city and the beaches of Rio are a vertical example of that truism, except that in Brasil the poor walk up the mountainsides instead of driving.

You just described the reason why I love riding Skytrain in Vancouver. The view when you leave Nanaimo station – at the top of a hill, you can see the curve of the valley through central Vancouver, with downtown to the northwest and the hills, water and behind that the mountains to the north – is amazing. When you see it in the faint light of morning or evening, it’s even more breathtaking. There are several places like that I can think of, but even in the less exciting parts it’s always interesting, because there’s always something to look at.

Still, i don’t think that should necessarily be the deciding factor in how transit is built in a city (though it should definately be thought of, even when placing transit underground, as if given the choice I would choose Montreal’s Metro over the Canada Line in Vancouver any day).

I also don’t think the view had anything to do with the choice of gondolas in Medellin, rather it was because of the extremely steep topography, thin, winding streets that deny buses any easy access, and the cheap cost of the technology to operate in those areas. Really, I expect the view was a happy coincidence. In the end, how applicable a technology is will rule the day no matter what continent we’re on.

Totally agree about SkyTrain. My favourite, though, is after leaving Main and heading north with a view of the mountains. As it veers towards Stadium, there’s a sudden giddy dip and swerve as if the train itself is excited to be heading downtown.

i think the seattle subway stations a.k.a the downtown seattle transit tunnel are some of the nicest, spacious and most uplifting underground stations i’ve seen. each one is slightly different but all read together as a group. you have to make underground stations attractive, the worst thing is to make them cramped and dark from the start because once they age and get a little grungy they will be downright awful.

Best commute I know of was a friend in Hong Kong, living on car-less Lamma Island. Old-school passenger ferry to the skyscrapers of Central then a short walk to work. The return, he said, was even better – you could feel yourself unwinding as the boat trundled out to the island. (Reminds me of Wemmick in Great Expectations, whose post-office box mouth gradually relaxes as he gets away from the city and work). The other bonus with the boat was that if there was a typhoon warning, he got the day off work.

Haven’t experienced it, but it sounds like the Mid-Levels Escalator (photos) in HK would be another cool way to commute.

For me, I take the bus over the tube, if there’s not too much of a time penalty. Especially on a winter morning, it’s lovely to have that extra bit of feeble sun. Plus with a double decker you get to peer in to people’s windows and get a glimpse of their lives. (That said, I’ll also deliberately go out of my way to take the tube, so I can get half an hour’s extra exercise walking.) And as Anton said about Berlin, if I can get there practicably using the Overground, I’ll take that over the tube.

It’s kind of funny, but in London tourists almost always choose the tube over the buses. Simpler, less worries about where they’re getting off – but they miss seeing so much of the city itself. And if you choose the right route (such as London’s RV1 or more explicitly Berlin’s 100 (link is in German; they don’t seem to still be promoting it in English), you get a cut-rate tour bus to boot).

You link is not linking. But I remember taking banks of escalators designed to lift thousands of commuters from the bus lines near sea level Hong Kong to stops for other lines high on the hillside. It was thrilling to see the city and harbor spread out below.

Old South America had some interesting transit options, too. In Bahia, Brazil, an elevator carried the citizens from sea level to the newer area (at least 150, probably closer to 200 years old) on a plateau above the bluffs. The ride allowed a sweeping view of the old port, the harbor, and the islands in the bay. The elevator was crowded going up, had plenty of space going down; most residents were poor and walked down the 100 or so steps to save the half penny fare.

Valparaiso, Chile, is famous for having 12 or more working funiculars that slide up and down the mountains overlooking the sleepy port. Of course, you can find something like that still today in Pittsburgh, where the Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines carry some commuters from the Mount Washington neighborhood to connect to the light rail line, and takes tourists to restaurants with spectacular city views.

I’ve often thought about a couple of funiculars, or at least flights of escalators, to carry people from the Heights (Morningside, Hamilton, Washington) to water level Riverside Park on one side or to Harlem on the other.

Long stretches of the park are in effect off limits to elderly and other mobility-impaired citizens. If MetroNorth trains start service on the Empire Connection with stops in Manhattan, we may need to find a way to get people up the hill. Already on the eastern slope, when I’m riding my bike I’m always impressed to see so many people walking from low, flat Harlem up up up the hill to the City College campus above. (I’d go for at least one funicular on either side, because escalators can’t handle most users with mobility disabilities.)

Experience is indeed important.

I think Mr. Dale has done an excellent job of documenting gondolas and trams, but there are indeed some severe limitations of the technology. Multiple stops are difficult to implement and involve actual changes in the underlying infrastructure (unlike just adding a train stop – all you need is a platform, as opposed to an actual tram angle station or something along those lines).

It’s no surprise that for a technology best applied to journeys with no intermediate stops, as well as one that can scale great physical divides and heights is used in the way it is.

I can appreciate trying to push the envelope, but I just can’t see gondolas or aerial trams moving too far outside of their core strengths.

However, when slopes are not so steep, it is possible to run light rail track on suspension cable with gondola light rail vehicles beneath, which allows for multiple stops as well as switches similar to a monorail switch, allowing multiple branch lines to merge into a trunk.

35mph means its more for water hazards or inner urban areas and not for cross-metro transport, but it would, for instance, make a useful way of linking originally sprawl-developed office and industrial parks into a cross-metro rail network.

On a down to earth level, I’d like to see efforts to get natural light into more subway stations in NYC, which are gloomy, even scary at worst, and glow with some otherworldly artificial light at best. Along the #1 train, a.k.a. the Broadway line on the West Side, and some other cut-and-cover lines, it should not be hard to create skylights in the median strip to brighten the stations below with indirect and diffused natural light. I know, a luxury.

OTOH Many of the elevated stations, like 125 Street on the #1, and most of those in the Bronx on the #4, 5, 6 lines, the station platforms are partially enclosed with wood or metal sheeting. It would be nice to replace some of the those solid panels with glass windows so we could enjoy the views. Do that as soon as they figure a way to keep the juvenile delinquents from scratching graffiti on the glass, I guess.

One advantage that gondolas have (but not aerial trams; the latter are limited to two cars per line) is an absurdly short headway–often in seconds. Of course, the low per-vehicle capacity may extend the effective wait time at the platform as there may well be a long line waiting to board.

As a general-purpose transit technology, aerial trams or gondolas are probably not terribly useful–but in special applications, they can be very useful. I wouldn’t label them “gadget-bahn”, as the reasonable uses have been demonstrated and implemented.

I love biking to work in New York because the views of Manhattan from the Queensboro, Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges are amazing, and make the sweatiness and danger worth it.

Gondolas in New York would be very useful and a wonderful way to get to work. Much cheaper than building rail tunnels under either river, these could do wonders to link communities along the western bank of the Hudson, in Greenpoint, Red Hook and Astoria to Manhattan. Unlike ferries, they could go further inland and connect directly to subways.

If they can move 40,000 people/day as some of these Latin American metrocables do, that would be a very effective way to get people around the city. How long could these go? Could you do Flushing to Parkchester, and create entire crosstown routes?

OK, but you’re holding the map upside down. Astoria, Long Island City, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights, and Red Hook are all on the east bank of the East River.

Your mention of connecting those Queens and Brooklyn neighborhoods to Manhattan by gondolas made me think about using them to connect to Governor’s Island. And could we look at gondolas to connect the northern terminus of the Second Avenue Subway, or even the Lexington line, to La Guardia Airport? I’d be surprised if the Port Authority’s extravagant AirTrain boondoggle to JFK carries more than 40,000 a day from Jamaica.

@Woody, I was saying gondolas would be useful to all the neighborhoods west of the Hudson, plus the neighborhoods on the east side of the East River without subway access: Red Hook, Greenpoint, Astoria. By “without subway access,” I mean without east-west subway access. For example, it would seem logical to me to connect Greenpoint Ave to 23rd St, Broadway in Astoria to 86th St and Red Hook to the South Ferry. Considering the limited reach of the PATH, I would think a gondola over the Hudson would be useful pretty much anywhere.

BTW, the Airtrain carries 11,384 people per day according to Wikipedia. 40,000 is quite a lot of people. There are only a handful of bus routes in NYC that carry more than that.

One view that I enjoy everyday on the redline on the T, is going over the Charles on the Longfellow bridge from Cambridge into Boston. You can’t help but look up every day and look at the skyline and the Charles. It’s a great view when you manage to escape from the tunnels in Cambridge and Boston for just a minute or two.

“I just can’t see gondolas or aerial trams moving too far outside of their core strengths” Alex.

Try this, Alex.
Forget ‘gondola’ even exists. Now close your eyes and try to imagine a transit technology that was ultra safe (safest of all transit, safer even than commercial air travel); ultra reliable (most reliable of all transit); ultra-cheap to install (cheapest of all transit); didn’t disrupt surface traffic or local businesses during construction); ultra quick to install (1/3rd the time of any other transit); ultra-cheap to install (1/3rd the cost of streetcar or LRT), ultra cheap to operate (no drivers, no high maintenance); totally green (all electric); completely automated (one ‘driver’ could run 20 vehicles); had one engine/drive train (for those 200 vehicles); was handicap friendly; had no wear and tear on roads or other infrastructure; was the fastest of all transit modes; was unaffected by congestion; was virtually silent (noise footprint indiscernible over ambient street sounds; had a geographical footprint that required but 1/5000th of a typical roadway; was ‘mug-proof’ (who’s going to try to assault someone locked in a vehicle with a close-circuit camera watching the whole time – and a cop waiting at the next station?); served to reduce crime in high-crime neighborhoods; had intermediate station stops; had the switching capability of any railroad – and in a fraction of the space; had a longevity measurable in decades; could also handle curves, even 90 degree bends; was stackable (multiple lines in same corridor – one aside the other and/or above the other); stations could be integrated into existing buildings; could leap not just tall buildings in a single bound, but entire blocks, interstate roadways, even raging rivers and deep chasms, even scale the steepest cliffs). If the need arose, because it was essentially an erector set, the whole kit and caboodle could be unbolted and hauled off in a matter of days. Perhaps best of all, it had such an incredible view, people would flock from far and wide just for the ride. Now open your eyes. Do you see what Steven Dale sees?

So, then, just what is ‘the problem’ with gondola technology?
When someone mentions actor, Tom Selleck, who and what immediately springs to mind? Right, Magnum P.I. Red Ferrari sports cars, helicopters, scantily clad girls, shoot -em ups. Not long after the series ended, Selleck played the King of Spain in the film, Christopher Columbus. For me, and I’m sure for most others, it was the funniest thing ever. I can still hear the guffaws.
The point is, Selleck will always be ‘Magnum’ – or at least a P.I.-type actor. Certainly not the King of Spain.
The question is: Will gondola technology always be typecast as only suited for ski hills and theme parks? The answer is, No. For all the reasons just mentioned. And more.
The quarrel I have with Dale is his insistence at labeling gondola ‘disruptive’ technology. It is anything-but. In fact, it is the least invasive (disruptive) of any transit technology. Period.


I’ve taken more rides by chairlift, gondola, and tram than I can count. I’m well aware of the benefits of the technology. What’s missing from your comment here, however, is any discussion of the limitations of these systems.

You’re also not helping yourself with outlandish claims – gondolas will reduce crime in high-crime neighborhoods? Really? Will they also remove the crabgrass from my lawn and fix the leaky faucet in my bathroom?

I’d also argue with some of the ‘pros’ you mention. One is handicap-friendliness. That certainly applies to Aerial Trams like the one in Portland, but many of the other Gondolas are anything but handicap-friendly.

Somebody correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t Roosevelt Island in New York use a tram to get people from the Island to Manhattan (over the East River). It seems to use two cars to move about 1200 people an hour.

Seattle needs a high capacity east-west transit line along 45th St from U Village to Ballard. I’d like to see a study on what a gondola with intermediate stops could do there. What would it cost, is there enough ROW for stations and posts, would it harm views from the neighborhoods, could it accomodate bikes ?????

Hills and narrow roadways complicate surface level transit options here and tunneling is mighty expensive as we’ve discovered with the LRT tunnels currently being built from downtown to UW.

Of course, one of the best known transit options for excellent views in a daily commute is Seattle’s system of ferries. We also have a great train ride. Take the North Sounder from Everett to Seattle on a weekday morning. Views out over Puget Sound to Whidbey Island, the Kitsap Peninsula and Olympic Mountains are truly incredible (on a clear day). All the boats, houses, camps, trees and beaches make it ever interesting. You can sometimes see whales spouting or an aircraft carrier coming into port. There are only 4 train trips down to King Street Station in the morning and 4 back to Everett station in the PM, but the Sound Transit 510 bus will substitute at other times. Amtrak also runs the same coastal stretch.

So that’s why the planned California high-speed railroad line through Fresno is going to be built on a 12-mile elevated trellis. Who would have thought?!

I would love to see a gondola line setup somewhere around the San Francisco Bay Area. Perhaps as another bay crossing, or connecting the Oakland or Berkeley hills to the downtown segments. There are some great panoramas here.

The intersting factor is why I think they should also run historical looking streetcars on modern rail lines on the weekends in cities that used to have streetcar systems to give them a more fun feel then the same boring looking light rail cars all the time.

That’s fine so long as the light rail system is fully compatible with historic streetcars. Portions of Muni’s light rail system are not compatible with streetcars (Pantograph vs. Trolley Pole).

To Alex’s question/comment.
“How will gondolas help reduce crime?”
I recently read that the Medellin gondola has been credited with reducing crime. Why? Traditional transit stops are known to be high-crime areas. I suggest that when someone has to wait alone for 45 long minutes at a late-night transit stop, the chances of getting mugged are much greater than if the bus came every 45 seconds (or less). Combine that with a secure vantage point 50 or more feet in the air and a cell phone (and especially one with a camera), and I suggest a scenario that has the crook taking his act somewhere else. I would be bold enough to extend the ‘zone of protection’ not just along the entire route of the gondola, but for a ‘zone of protection’ to extend in direct proportion to the height of the cabin.
As for “handicap friendliness”, you’re right, many gondolas are not. By way of example, when I took my wheelchair-bound mother on the gondola at SnowBasin, a few miles from my home in Ogden, Utah, they had to shut down the system and wheel in a portable ramp, all of which took several minutes. But I think that you’ll find the latest installations fully ADA compliant, meaning no problem with someone in an electric chair boarding themselves. Certainly, in any urban scenario, that would be the case. Note that the latest innovation has cabins actually stopping in-station.
As for your leaky faucet and your crabgrass…yes, a gondola will take care of both. In fact I’ve just made a suggestion to both Dopplemayr and Poma that they install lazy boys and kitchen sinks. No doubt you’ve heard about the sauna gondola in Findland
I hear someone wants to put a whorehouse in one in Denver – called the Mile High Club. What can I say: the sky’s the limit with these things.

Well, let’s just say the context of Medellin is quite a bit different than Toronto when it comes to crime. I have no doubt that a significant transportation investment has helped things in Medellin, but that’s hardly an endorsement of the specific qualities of a gondola as a crime reduction strategy. For example, put that same kind of system in Toronto, as Mr. Dale proposes, and somehow I doubt you’ll see similar drops in crime.

There have been proposals in the past for a gondola system connecting Alameda island with the West Oakland BART station. It would connect the Alameda Ferry terminal, and all of the future development at Alameda Point (Naval Base) with BART and would cross the Oakland Estuary, the Port of Oakland, the UP/Amtrak yard, and I-880. Views would be worth the ride alone. I haven’t heard anything about it for a few years though. Speaking of views, the platforms of the 2 El Cerrito BART stations have some of the best views anywhere – SF, SF Bay, Golden Gate Bridge, Mt. Tam, etc. Love my morning wait for the train staring out the Golden Gate to the Pacific…

I think Pittsburgh would be an excellent city for such a project with its rivers and dramatic changes in elevation in a small area that includes a significant portion of its population. Perhaps as a connection between the South Side and a revitalized uptown residential/entertainment area, crossing the Monongahela River and climbing over I376 and the Boulevard of the Allies (It could be extended North to a stop by the new Consul Energy Center and then over the Allegheny River to the North Shore Stadiums and other attractions). The city currently has poor parking and public transportation options, on the South side especially.

It appears that Laval (the island city/suburb immediately north of Montreal) is the latest to be thinking about a cable-car system. The information is mostly in French: this study (PDF) includes a good survey of aerial systems around the world; there’s also a video, which also shows the planned TOD around the metro stations in Laval with which it would be integrated.

Yonah – I think you should have a ‘wall of weird’ post, or similar. While looking into the Laval system, I came across one I’ve never seen before. It’s an elevated tramway but with the catch that the station platform ascends to meet the vehicle. (It’s a bit short on detail as to how it will deal with crushloads exiting and entering at the same time…). Anyway, I give you… Sky Trolley!

They reference Wuppertal’s suspended tram, dating from 1901, which I don’t think anyone’s mentioned yet in this thread. There are plenty of videos of it in action on YouTube (example).

That’s really cool, but it seems like a nightmare from a practicality standpoint – lots of maintenance at the stations and perhaps a crime problem depending on how the system was run.

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