What Changed?

Post by Steven Dale

(Check out this fascinating video of a San Francisco Cable Car in action, days before the 1906 earthquake. Tnanks to Ron Wm. Hurlbut for pointing it out!)

Lot’s of people have asked of me a variation of the following question:

If cable’s so great, why did we change all our cable cars to electric ones 100 years ago?

It was a question I wrestled with because it’s valid. Not many people know this, but prior to the electric streetcar, North America had hundreds of miles of cable car systems running throughout their cities. They were eventually abandoned in favour of electric streetcars.

So again, the question is this: If not then, why now? Why is it that cable cars proved less economical than streetcars 100 years ago, but today we’re finding cable to be more economical?

I have some ideas and I think it comes down to the simple fact that things change. What things? How about these:

1. The price of labour has gone up . . . a lot.

2. Cable transit is now automated, streetcars and light rail typically are not.

3. Fully dedicated rights-of-way allow cable to exploit that automation and become safer in the process which they could not do historically (see above video).

That’s just a guess, mind you, but it’s not a wild guess. What do you think?

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Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.


  1. Hi Steven, I'm glad that you enjoy the video. Just to clarify the contents of this video regarding your comment #3. The video posted here does NOT illustrate A FULLY DEDICATED RIGHT-OF-WAY!!! There are people, horse carts and automobiles criss-crossing the Cable Car Tracks constantly. The only reason that this is relatively safe is: Because it is a very wide roadway with a lot of capacity. Because the amount of traffic on the roadway is no where near that total capacity. Because all of the traffic, people, horse carts and automobiles, are not moving more that a few kilometers per hour. Equal to a quick paced walk or easy jog.... A FULLY DEDICATED RIGHT-OF-WAY [ROW] CAN NOT be achieved AT GROUND LEVEL within the city of Toronto. When you have to build bridges for over/under passes, create embankments, cutting and filling, you might as well create a Subway. Tunnelling for Subways is prohibitively expensive and Elevated LRT's and Subways are unsightly and expensive too. The most affordable and attractive FULLY DEDICATED ROW is elevated Monorail and/or Cable-Gondola.
  2. I understand that Ron, I was indicating that the development of the fully dedicated right-of-way is much safer (as compared to the above video). I'll change the post to make that a little bit clearer.
  3. Checked out web site for Caracas tramway. Seen it but wouldn't take it. It goes into a park. Stick a big 7,000ft mountain at Steeles and put a park around it. Built to get people to a top price hotel. Tunnel and 3,000 ft elevator too expensive to build. Expensive to build and maintain. Mostly built and assembled by Swiss manufacturers. Little employment for Toronto workers. See special on Jackson Hole tramway rebuild. Forget about to the island airport as it should be mostly closed down. A plane smashing into a building by a private pilot will shut it. Keep it open if NYC builds the Battery Park airport. Pearson is just as close and faster from downtown, as La Guardia. A streetcar line on the island would be best. To exhibition Place for what 2 weeks, bankrupt in a year. A big icestorm would shut them down for months. Subway is best. Faster higher capacity, safer, won't shut down in a storm or highwinds. Jobs for Canadians vs exporting the jobs.
  4. Matt the Engineer
    That's a lot of negativity for one comment. Are subway cars built in Canada? Canada would actually be a great place to start a gondola industry - there's more than a little bit of snow and mountains in the country, after all. Most of the cost in a gondola system isn't the machinery or the cars - it's the architecture at the stations and the land itself. All of that money stays in town. How would an ice storm shut down the gondola? They run these things on mountains.
  5. The question , that seem the same ALL AROUND THE WORLD is : - Since increase in car traffic are REALLY not sustainable (even in third world), Mass public transport should be improved and increased. One of the solution (best where we have lot of people to move) is a subway; others are Trams , LRT or Trolleybus ; but can we afford the money and time to build the definitive solution ? I doubt that in the near future we will see many big-money urban projects, since cities everywhere are running on empty (=debt) a solution could be a new deal of light & reversible engineering, of thus gondola are one of the best options
  6. I believe, you should ask Joe Thompson: http://www.cable-car-guy.com/
  7. Um . . . you do know that Doppelmayr has factories in Canada and the United States, right? Furthermore, Poma has factories in the US too.