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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 neighborhoods.org