A Response to Streetsblog’s Gondolamania

Post by Steven Dale

With a title inspired by—one can only assume—this month’s WWE Wrestlemania spectacular, Streetsblog writer Angie Schmitt recently let fly an invective against all things gondola. The piece, titled “Enough with the Gondolamania Already” is the kind of fact-free op-ed column one expects from a lesser publication than Streetsblog. It’s the kind of piece that’s meant to provoke simply for the sake of provocation. It appears to exist for little reason other than to act as a counter-point to the growing interest in urban gondolas throughout the world. 
That, in itself, wouldn’t be a problem. 
I’d love to see a well-researched, reasoned and thought-out opinion piece on why American cities should stop exploring cable-propelled transit. That would be interesting, challenging and altogether thought-provoking. Unfortunately, Schmitt’s piece isn’t that. 
Schmitt’s column is a visceral repudiation of urban gondolas supported by three thin-as-wet-kleenex premises: That gondolas are only for complex topography, are a distraction from bigger transit problems and rarely get realized. 
Schmitt begins her piece by citing how interest in the technology may have been spurred by the “tremendous success” of Medellin’s Metrocable system. This is not controversial. While cable cars in urban environments predate Medellin, that city’s network of cable cars is generally seen as the urban inflection point for the cable-propelled transit industry. 
What is, however, controversial is her implication that the success of Medellin’s Metrocable is “an unusual case where gondolas make a certain amount of sense because of the city’s tricky geography.” In American cities, she states, they are nothing more than “a distraction from bigger problems.”
Schmitt makes two critical errors in thinking here: 
Firstly, by discounting cable car technology’s potential role in solving bigger transit problems, she subtly equates the technology as being useful in areas of difficult topography with being not useful in areas of simple topography. And yet the two things have nothing to do with one another. 
Just because a cable car is capable in challenging topography does not mean it is incapable in undemanding topography. By way of analogy — if a 4-wheel-drive Range Rover is capable in off-road safari environments, does that make it incapable in urban streetscapes? 

(Image via flickr user Dave Connor)

Secondly, while it isn’t entirely clear what Schmitt is referring to when using the phrase “tricky geography,” one can presume she is talking about the natural environment and topography by way of her reference to Medellin’s “mountainous landscape” in her preceding sentence. 
Yet this is a misunderstanding of what geography and topography is.
Topography is not just the natural landscape, but the man-made built urban environment as well. And remember — man-made topographical complexity includes such things as stop lights and rush hour traffic. I would argue that man-made topography is far more challenging than natural topography. It moves, it changes, it adapts. Mountains, meanwhile, stay put. 
In our work over the years this is something we see people repeatedly misunderstand about Medellin. The Metrocables were not just about the mountains. They were as much about navigating complex man-made topographical challenges as they were about ascending hillsides. 
Linea K (Medellin’s first Metrocable system which is emblematic of its other systems), for example, is only 2 kilometres long and acts as a feeder into the wider transportation network. The difference in elevation from top to bottom station is only 400m – hardly mountainous. In fact, the difference in elevation is less than the the difference in elevation between Los Angeles’ Venice Beach and some of the more developed areas of nearby Bel Air. 
We ain’t talking about K2 here, folks. 
Granted, in the Linea K context, the degree of inclination is an average of 20%. While this is a degree of inclination that no self-propelled rail technology could handle, it is an inclination that is easily handled by buses, particularly given Medellin’s favourable climate. 
What the buses could not easily handle, however, was the complex arrangement of man-made streets, buildings and all of the traffic those things cause. This, in combination with the natural topography was the real motivation behind the Metrocables. In past interviews with the designers of the system I’ve had, some even stated that it was the man-made complexities that presented more of a challenge than the natural ones. 
And man-made topographical complexities exist in every city on earth. 
Yes, the number and degree of man-made topographical complexities varies from city-to-city, but they all exist on a continuum — and that continuum applies to all cities. There is not a single transit technology or system in the world that does not have to contend with man-made topographical complexity, full-stop. 
When Schmitt discounts a cable car’s capabilities as something only appropriate to natural topographical features, she entirely ignores its capabilities at navigating man-made topography as well. And while I don’t wish to get into any modal comparisons here, it’s useful to point out that a cable car’s ability to operate without regard to man-made topography is matched only by under-or-aboveground railroads but at a fraction of the price. 
The author’s erroneous perspective basically boils down to oh sure, if the mountains are a problem, then yes, of course — of course, I know that! — gondolas, but otherwise this isn’t serious transit for cities without hills. 
Schmitt’s second premise is that gondolas are a distraction from bigger transit problems. 
The appropriate response then, is this: How does one define a transit problem? Seriously. That isn’t a rhetorical device, it’s an honest question. And who arbitrates on the matter of the problem’s scale and size? 
More problematic is Schmitt’s contention that gondolas as a whole are a distraction from bigger transit problems. It’s as ridiculous a statement as saying that steaks have served mainly as a distraction from world hunger. One has nothing to do with the other. 
Were Schmitt to have opened debate about specific gondola proposals in specific cities with specific transit problems that would be a different story altogether. Let’s debate the respective (de)merits of the various proposals across the continent. Let’s see which ones are good, which ones are bad and which ones are, indeed, a distraction from bigger problems.
But shouldn’t that level of discourse exist with all transit proposals, instead of just gondolas? Are there not streetcar, light rail, driverless car and subway proposals that are as much, if not more of a distraction from so-called bigger problems? In Schmitt’s world it would seem so. 
Schmitt paints the entirety of cable car technology as a distraction by cherry-picking a handful of ill-conceived proposals. That’s disingenuous at best. That’s like saying streetcars as a whole are a distraction from bigger transit problems because Cincinnati’s Bell Connector is experiencing ridership that’s short of its target by almost 50%.
What these “bigger transit problems” are is never defined. Following on that — once one defines a transit problem, how does one go about solving it? 
Generally, transit problems are solved by way of some technology — whether that be bus, light rail, streetcar, subway, bike share, gondola, skateboard or whatever. Even pedestrian transit solutions require technology. Shoes, sidewalks, crosswalks and the like are all technological solutions we’ve developed over the centuries to solve the most basic need of getting people from here to there. 
Schmitt’s comment that gondolas “have mainly served as a distraction from bigger problems facing urban transit systems” implicitly excludes gondola technology from being in a position to actively help solve those bigger problems. By discounting an entire technological category before even defining what the transit problem is speaks to a modal bias on Schmitt’s part that most transit agencies got over a generation ago. 
If Schmitt thinks the dozen or so urban gondola proposals in North America that are meandering through various stages of analysis and planning are distracting from bigger transit problems, she’s giving urban gondolas far too much credit for their ability to garner people’s attention. Maybe she’s right. But if so, perhaps it’s because these systems are successful. 
The idea that gondolas have mainly served as a distraction is insulting to the millions of riders who utilize the Roosevelt Island Tram, Portland Aerial Tram and Telluride Gondola as a means of public transit every day. Those cable car systems aren’t distractions to those commuters, they are an essential link in their daily commute. It’s also insulting to the dozen or so systems operating around the world as public transportation that move hundreds of thousands of people a day. Are those a distraction as well? Or are they successful case histories that transit agencies are increasingly looking at so as to address their bigger transit problems in a different light? 
In La Paz, Bolivia, their urban gondola network moves an average of 60,000 riders per day. It transports more people per day than 72% of all Light Rail/Streetcar systems in the US. It has a 0% operating subsidy. 
I want to repeat that — Zero. Percent. Subsidy.  
According to the Portland Aerial Tram’s website, daily ridership of their system is around 10,000. This system is only 1km long and requires an additional fare to use unless you are a student, staff or patient of the Oregon Health & Science University. That ridership number, meanwhile, is higher than all three individual Portland Streetcar lines and 75% of their combined total ridership.
New York’s Roosevelt Island Tram is the only economically self-sufficient part of the entire MTA network and moves 2.4 million riders per year. 
And then there’s Medellin which Schmitt herself calls a “tremendous success.” 
These aren’t distractions. They are inspirations. 
If we define gondolas (or any cable car for that matter) as a transit technology, then they are not a distraction to a transit problem; they are a potential solution. No different from subways, buses and light rail systems. The fact that they are being studied in much the same way as standard transit technologies is a cause for regard not scorn. 
Finally, Schmitt implies that we shouldn’t be studying gondolas because most gondolas don’t get built. Why bother, in other words.
She makes this point by beginning her column with an image of Austin’s Wire One proposal, captioned with the phrase “like almost all gondola proposals, this one for Austin, Texas, will never get built.” Okay. Fine and basically true. As was reported widely last month, that proposal is unlikely to move forward any further
Schmitt carefully phrases this in a way that it is 100% factual but leads the reader in a direction so as to believe that the fact that the majority of gondola proposals will never get built is somehow intrinsic to the technology. We saw this tactic used before in the case of the Sydney monorail and careful readers shouldn’t get fooled by the author’s attempt to reframe issues that are extrinsic to cable cars into intrinsic features of the technology.
Alternatively, Schmitt could’ve also easily written . . . 
“Like almost all public transit proposals, this one will never get built”
– or –
“Like almost all real estate development proposals, this one will never get developed.”
– or – 
“Like almost all screenplays, this one will never get produced.”
. . . and she would’ve been completely right. But transit still gets built, real estate still gets developed and screenplays still get produced.
Failure is the default of all human endeavours and yet we endeavour still. 
That the majority of gondolas do not get built is not intrinsic to cable car technology but is instead intrinsic to almost all urban infrastructure and development. You’d think someone who’d been writing for Streetsblog for six years would understand that distinction, but apparently not. 
The Western, Developed Nation model of urban planning is largely and generally built upon the following process:
1. Generate an idea
2. Convert that idea into a proposal
3. Test that proposal through research
4. Use that research to gain buy-in and approvals
5. Leverage those approvals to attract financing
6. Deploy that financing to build the project 
The majority of developments, pieces of infrastructure or transit projects will never make it past the first few stages of analysis. Yet we still have to study them because that’s how things get built in our world. Do we study too much and build too little? Perhaps, but that’s an entirely separate discussion for another time. 
And even when infrastructure projects do eventually break through and actually get built, a large minority of them won’t even see the results that were originally envisioned. Ridership will fall short, square footage will go unrented and costs will be higher than planned. That’s just the way it is. 
Urban infrastructure is like a professional baseball player — you can fail 70% of the time and still wind up in the Hall of Fame. 
Are the odds against you? Of course they are. But that doesn’t mean you don’t try. Our entire civilization was built on that mindset and I see no reason to stop thinking that way when it comes to gondolas or any other technological innovation. 
Ending her piece, Schmitt states that “too many cities are wasting too much time and money on gimmicky distractions instead of the meat and potatoes of running a functional transit system.”
Without a single hint of self-awareness, Schmitt then immediately follows her conclusion with a link to a report on “a new bus line that didn’t deliver what riders in Mount Rainier, Maryland were hoping for.”
Apparently Ms. Schmitt’s understanding of urban gondolas is roughly equivalent to her understanding of irony and editorial juxtaposition. 
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  1. The Other David
    Sadly, many pro-transit organisations have a total war mindset and would rather shoot the neutrals in the back than let their anti-transit opponents get there first and claim some kind of victory.
  2. Interesting . . . . Does that mean you see failed proposals such as Austin's as an opportunity for anti-transit opponents to claim a victory? Maybe you could expand upon the thought because I'm not sure I get what you're saying.
  3. The Other David
    In my experience pro-transit groups are often anxious to be taken seriously by the "mainstream" which means severing all ties with anything potentially kooky or woolly. A ferocious attack on gondolas or PRT drives the point home nicely.
  4. I agree completely with the "looking kooky" component, but with every new system that's built, it looks less and less kooky. At what point do you think pro-transit groups will stop seeking gondolas in that manner and just start seeing it as one tool among many?
  5. Matt the Engineer
    I think it depends on context. Here in Seattle when we were trying to build our first light rail line, people started using "PRT" and "BRT"* proposals to try to convince people to vote against light rail - when really they just wanted to kill light rail. That set up a lot of real transit supporters to be skeptical of anything different. But once the light rail votes were over most were pretty supportive of gondola ideas, especially as a way to expand the reach of light rail stations. * PRT = personal rapid transit, like cars but on rails. not a serious mass-transit solution BRT = bus rapid transit, buses in their own lanes with more doors. could be a real mass-transit solution, but generally a lower-quality one with the same cost (you need new expensive roads)
  6. So what you're basically saying is that there are a cohort of people out there who see cable cars as nothing more than a way to kill other public transit projects? I guess I'm not cynical enough to have even realized such a tactic existed. I suppose it makes sense though — not much different than splitting the vote.
  7. Matt the Engineer
    Yes, the tactic certainly exists. And it's pretty common, not just for transit. Listen for "yes, but" arguments - aka concern trolling. *Yes, our region needs transit! but rail's too expensive, we could just buy a bunch of buses...* *Yes, we absolutely need more housing. But let's not change our beautiful single family zones - let's just put that housing downtown.* This line of argument comes less harsh to those in the middle, and is a great way to pull a campaign off track.

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