Gadgetbahn: A Definition

Post by Steven Dale

In Saturday’s post, I was accused by commenter Justin Bernard of being a promotor of “gadgetbahn.” This isn’t the first time I’ve been accused of this, nor do I suspect it will be the last.

But let’s get to the core of the accusation; the real heart of what Justin is saying. In Justin’s mind, Cable Propelled Transit and Urban Gondolas are “gadgetbahn” and according to Wiktionary, we can define gadgetbahn thusly:

It is a portmaneau of the English gadget, and the German word Bahn… (slang, transport, pejorative) In public transport, transportation concepts which seem to be infeasible or unnecessary.

Now let’s just assume that this is the accepted definition (difficult, I know, as we’re talking about a wiki definition) of gadgetbahn.

The successful implementation of Urban Gondolas in Medellin and Caracas has proven the technology to be more than feasible. Linea K, the first CPT system built in Medellin is only 2 km long and moves 40,000 people per day, approximately the same number of people moved by Toronto’s 501 Queen streetcar line – which is over 25 km long! That Linea K was built for the bargain price of only USD $12.5 million per kilometer speaks to the technology’s feasibility.

As for the necessity of the technology: How else would you serve isolated mountainside barrios? Rail is incapable of inclinations above 10 degrees and these areas were so unplanned and disorganized, bus routes were scattered, haphazard and slow. After implementing the Metrocable in Medellin commute times were cut by half. Necessity here seems to be proven.

The irony of Justin’s comment turns on his desire to defend LRT, a technology often shown to be one of the most unnecessary (based on poor ridership numbers) and economically infeasible (based on high capital costs) technologies around.

That’s not to say LRT is not a strong technology. Like any technology (cable and gondolas included), when LRT is implemented properly and in the right environment it can be successful. Implemented incorrectly, it can become a fiscal albatross.

The Gondola Project is about opening eyes. Throwing around words like “gadgetbahn” just slams eyes shut.

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  1. I dunno Steven. If your local police inspector said "Go Go Gadget - Aerial Gondola" and your city had better public transport as a result it would be a good use of police resources.
  2. I think that just like PRT, cable transit is a bit of a niche product. It's doubtful that it can solve all sorts of transportation problems. It's probably best suited in environments where the distances are shorts, but the elevation differences are high. And because you appear to advocate gondolas as a one-size-fits-all solution (just like the PRT people), your readers may be skeptical. And if you additionally always point out just the potentials of this technology, and the flaws of other technologies (like LRT), then people will think you are being unfair in your comparisons. I think it's good to see what the limitations of the tech you are promoting are; and advocating it may involve slowly growing the niche.
  3. I think Dale has been quite clear about the dangers of seeing any one technology, including CPT technologies, as "one-size-fits-all". I think the case for devoting some extra attention to CPT right now starts with the fact that modern CPT is an emerging set of technologies that currently have very little penetration in North America. This has various consequences, including that: (1) many people who otherwise are well-acquainted with transit technologies may not be familiar with the characteristics and capabilities of these specific technologies; (2) there may be a large number of "low-hanging fruit" applications where CPT could be a particularly good fit; and (3) in a somewhat related point, CPT may make possible some projects that actually wouldn't be conceivable without it. To put the same thought in a slightly different way, if in say 30-40 years modern CPT technology has penetrated to a much higher degree, most people interested in transit issues are familiar with the technology, many of the most obvious cases for CPT have been fulfilled, and most of the relevant people are accustomed to contemplating CPT when conceiving of possible transit projects, then a blog focused heavily on CPT (we'll pretend blogs are likely to still be around in this future) might well seem to be taking an unjustifiably unbalanced approach. But as of now I don't think that sort of analysis applies. As a final thought: I'm not sure whether CPT will end up being just a "niche" technology (or maybe I'm not sure how that distinguishes CPT from any other transit technology, to the extent that just means it will be used if and only if it is the best available technology in a particular case). But I do think that result should not be pre-determined, meaning that it is a worthwhile goal to make sure that policymakers and interested citizens understand the technologies in question, and that when appropriate they are fully and fairly considered as an option. If with a complete understanding and a level evaluation process, CPT technologies do not end up being widely used, so be it. But again, I don't think we are at that place yet.
  4. Oh, and if I was going to give a one-sentence description of suspended CPT's "niche", I would say: Suspended CPT is promising where distances are not too long, and other modes of surface rapid transit are likely to prove very costly or otherwise not desirable to implement. Rapid elevation changes between service areas are one reason that could be true. Another is natural barriers, like ravines or rivers (indeed, I think the fact that suspended CPT can provide a cheap way to cross a river is just as important in conceiving possible urban applications as its ability to easily climb hills). Yet another possible reason is that the existing road system is already congested and adding road capacity would be very costly and/or not a long-term fix. Or maybe even more succinctly: suspended CPT may be a cost-effective alternative to tunneling. Tunnels have also been used to get rapid transit through hills, under rivers, under congested roads, and so on. But tunneling is also really, really expensive, and the end product isn't all that pleasant for riders. Tunneling, of course, is a pretty niche approach to transit routing, so you might think that means suspended CPT is also a niche approach. But I think the question to ask is WHY is tunneling such a niche approach, since it solves a lot of problems? And again, the answer in large part is that tunneling is really, really expensive (and the end product not that pleasant). So if you could provide some of the advantages of tunneling without all of the drawbacks, your possible applications might not be as limited.
  5. Someone informed me of this post devoted to me. I am touched. Cable transport, in the idea you wish it to be used(line haul, trunk service) can be considered gadgetbahn. It's is not feasible as a local service. Cable transport has been around as long as urban rail, it's not like it's some new technology. If cable is so great, why did cities replace their cable car systems with rail? Why did Glasgow replace their cable-hauled subway with electric trains? Why did urban rail flourish in the 20th century, while cable essentially stagnated to it's rightful role as a niche technology suitable for mountainous terrain where rail is not feasible due to costs(even then it can be argued India made a good choice with it's mountain railways). Now let's look at your "analysis". You are comparing a cable car system built in 2010 in a mountainous area with a streetcar line whose history dates back to the late 19th century traveling along a flat-highly built up area, using current ridership! Did you know the Queen Car used to carry over 90,000 riders per day? it's true! The Queen Streetcar is primarily a local streetcar line serving many stops, and destinations along a flat terrain. The Metrocable connects neighborhoods far in the mountains with the city centre. Two totally different technologies addressing different needs. And you question why I say you have bias? You could not resist attempting to take a job at LRT. The metrocable installation has shown cable is good for mountainous areas, of course I already knew that, along with every other rail advocate. It in no way proves cable is feasible for use in a urban setting where there are many people going to many places. You say LRT has proven to be unnecessary, due to cost, and poor ridership. This, of course that is an outright lie, and shows your lack of knowledge concerning LRT. If LRT is such an unnecessary waste why are cities around the world still building systems? Cities in France are building system for around $10-$15Million per km! You say the metrocable only cost $12.5million/km. Of course that is South American where costs are considerably cheaper than North America. In Bueno Aires, a light rail line was built for $10Million! This included 25 LRV's. I notice you did not use the Portland tram as an example. Why not? Is it the $57 million cost of the tram that runs only for 1000m, and costs $4 to ride? Many LRT systems in North America were built for less per km! ant6n is correct. Trying to highlight flaws in other technology, and saying gondolas can do the job better will leave many skeptical, and see your comparisons as being biased. That is exactly what brought me to this blog. If you pointed out what gondolas can offer rather than focusing on trying to point the flaws of LRT, I am sure this would be a different discussion. Backpedaling, and saying the technology is strong after you criticized it does not help you case either. I think Steve Munro said it best on his blog: 'I will consider the relative absence of cable systems worldwide as an indication of what the marketplace actually thinks about the technology." (Steve Munro) Just because a system only carries a certain number of riders does not mean cable can do the job better. There is a lot more than just the average capacity, and speed.
  6. An Economics student and his professor are walking down the sidewalk and they come across a $20 bill lying on the ground. The student says, "Look, a $20 bill!" The professor says, "That isn't a $20 bill. If it was, someone would have picked it up already." My point is that if there is an argument to be made about why using a given contemporary cable technology is not a good idea for a given application, that is the argument that needs to be made. I don't think you can reliably substitute looking at current market penetrations for such a detailed analysis, particularly not in a market which is capital-intensive, politically-determined, and so forth.