Analysis

09
Jun

2016

Urban Gondolas Take Centre Stage in American Media (Again)

Bloomberg and Wall Street Journey explores the urban cable car industry.

Bloomberg and Wall Street Journey explores the urban cable car industry.

This past week, urban gondolas once again took the centre stage as two major US media outlets — Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal — each wrote a piece on the rapid growth of cable transport systems.

As more than a dozen proposals are now active in the US (from San Diego to Baton Rouge), city-builders from across the world are now starting to pay serious attention to ropeway technology.

There are many reasons why this is happening but it is due in part to the internet and the many successful urban gondolas now being built worldwide. Sooner or later, even the toughest anti-gondola cynics may have no choice but to hop onboard the cable car bandwagon.

For the doubters, they should understand that for most parts, ropeways are not here as some sort of “silver bullet” that solves all urban transport woes — rather, as we’ve discussed many times in the past, they are often designed as complementary transit modes to enhance existing transport lines.

However with that said, given the right context, cable transit can undoubtedly function as the backbone of a city’s entire rapid transit network.

For instance, look no further to the recent triumphs aboard the Mi Teleférico in La Paz-El Alto, Bolivia.

  • ~50 million passengers in ~2 years of operations
  • time savings of 652 million minutes
  • >100% farebox recovery

Transportation practitioners are often amazed at how the Bolivian city added 10km of cable cars in just 2 years time and is now scheduled to add another 7 lines!

The achievements made by cable technology in these few years in incredible to say the least. Six years ago, skeptics would have likely laughed a proponent out of a room when a gondola was proposed. Nowadays, ropeways are met with fascination and intrigue.

Given the speed of change in the urban transport industry, perhaps it won’t be too long before gondolas, like other transit technologies, are met with a casual shrug.

 

Analysis / Public Transit / Research & Development / Thoughts
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14
Jan

2016

Hamilton Gondola — We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

NOTE: An earlier version of this post originally appeared on December 4th, 2009 (yup, that’s over 7 years ago, kids). At that time, the report “City of Hamilton Higher Order Transit Network Strategy” was available online. Unfortunately, it is no longer available. 

Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know and that’s really nobody’s fault.

For example:

In the spring of 2007 a working paper by IBI Group called City of Hamilton Higher Order Transit Network Strategy came out. For those who don’t know, Hamilton is a city in southern Ontario that is cut in half by a 700 kilometer long limestone cliff that ends at Niagara Falls. It’s called the Niagara Escarpment and has made higher-order transit connections between the Upper and Lower cities difficult.

You See The Difficulty

You See The Difficulty

In the IBI paper the writers conclude that a connection between the Upper and Lower cities is “physically impossible” and that the Niagara Escarpment Commission might “strongly resist” any new crossings of the escarpment. As such, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) became the focus and preferred technology of the report. That’s because streetcars and Light Rail can’t handle inclines of more than about 10 degrees. The only way for a rail based technology to work, IBI concluded, was if a tunnel or viaduct was built.

No where in the report, however, was Cable Propelled Transit (CPT) even mentioned, despite cable’s ability to resolve most if not all of the issues IBI highlighted.

It’s no real surprise. Back in 2007 there was virtually no publicly accessible research available on cable. Believe me, I know; I had just started my research in 2007 and it was incredibly difficult to find anything.

Should IBI have considered cable? Should they have known about cable? I don’t know . . . and furthermore, I don’t think it’s relevant to this discussion. What you don’t know, you don’t know and that’s all there is to it.

What is, however, relevant to our discussion is this:

Hamilton Gondola

Photoshop of a gondola traversing the Hamilton Escarpment. Image via Hamilton Spectator.

The City of Hamilton is now updating their Transportation Master Plan and they’re surveying the public on their opinions. And the survey includes a question on gondolas. Last summer, meanwhile, around half of the people that responded at Hamilton’s Transportation Master Plan public meetings said they liked the gondola concept.

So why does that matter?

Because in less than 7 years’ time, a large North American city made a complete about-face on this matter. They went from a place where they thought (incorrectly) that a specific transit problem could not be solved with a fixed link solution due to their topography; to a place where they are actively soliciting the public’s opinion on using a gondola to solve the very problem they previously thought couldn’t be solved.

I know people in the cable car industry think seven years is a lifetime. And it is. But not to a large municipal bureaucracy. To a city, seven years is a heartbeat. In a heartbeat, Hamilton went from basically not even knowing cable cars exist to considering it as a part of their overall Transportation Master Plan.

That’s progress no matter how you look at it.

Creative Commons image by John Vetterli

Analysis / Hamilton / Research Issues / Urban Planning & Design
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07
Jan

2016

Is the Emirates Air Line Cable Car a Failure?

Emirates-Air-Line

Emirates Air Lines. Image by Steven Dale.

Unfortunately, the Emirates Air Line Cable Car in London is once again attracting attention for all the wrong reasons. Most recently, a leading mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan commented that if elected, he would freeze transit fares, allow unlimited bus transfers in a one hour timeframe and terminate public funding for the aerial lift.

While this kind of statement makes for good electioneering, it’s a bit of a red herring. See, the thing is the cable car actually doesn’t receive any subsidies. In fact, as 853blog revealed in December, the cable car actually earns a profit. Since opening in June 2012, the cable car has amassed a surplus of US$1.5mm (£1mm).

Yes, this is a poor financial showing for Wall Street — but we’re not talking about Wall Street. We’re talking about transportation and public transit infrastructure and should analyze and compare this system within that fiscal context. By this measurement, the system is an unqualified success. Nearly all publicly built transportation systems in the Western world, whether it be highways, rail, buses or what not, lose vast sums of money. The Emirates Air Line, meanwhile is profitable.

Marginally so, yes, and likely wouldn’t be without the sizeable sponsorship money endowed upon it. But still, it’s profitable.

Could detractors argue that the cable car money be spent elsewhere? Of course they could. Or that the cable car was incorrectly marketed as a “commuter link” when it was clearly a Toy for Tourists? Definitely. Or perhaps they just don’t like cable cars in general? Sure why not.

But let’s not pretend the system is hemorrhaging money, because it’s not.

Despite annual operating costs of ~US$7.4mm (£5mm), the system is profitable and yet attempts to defame the system continue without end. Now some readers may accuse us of being apologists for the London Cable Car because we happen to be cable car specialists. Fair play.

But let’s remember — we were the first people to (accurately) declare this the most expensive cable car in history and predicted (also accurately) that no commuters were going to use the system. Our track record has been consistent on this system from the beginning.

Even still, Mr. Khan’s stance may be good politics, but it’s dishonest. That’s bothersome.

For us, cable cars happen to be a good idea that’s we’re pleased to see are now catching on worldwide. But as the technology spreads, there is a dire need for responsible and professional analysis that assesses the systems based on their own merits rather than one’s perceived notions of cable car technology — or whether or not you happen to be a fan of a certain Mr. Boris.

If anything, the Emirates Air Line is fascinating case study that offers many important lessons on how cities should, and should not implement urban cable cars and public infrastructure. Aspiring gondola-cities would be wise to pay attention to and learn from its successes and failures.

Given past precedence and the optics of the cable car, it is unlikely that the controversy ends here. But regardless of what happens, we’ll be as excited as anyone else to follow what other bizarre stories are uncovered in the future.

 

Analysis / Emirates Air Line
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05
Oct

2015

Medellin/Caracas, Part 1

Last week I travelled to Medellin, Colombia and Caracas, Venezuela to tour five of the most important CPT systems in the world. This is Part 1 of a photo essay on those systems. In this part, a brief overview of the history of cable transit in this part of the world will be explained. Image by Steven Dale.

HISTORY

Modern Cable Propelled Transit started in Caracas, Venezuela with the Mount Avila Gondola. This system was originally built in the middle of the last century to carry people from Caracas to the top of Mount Avila where the luxurious Hotel Humboldt had been built. Political and economic strife caused the government to leave for neglect both the hotel and gondola. The gondola itself was not reopened until 1999, after a successful rebuild.

The Avila Mountain Gondola In Caracas. Image by Steven Dale.

An Avila Mountain Gondola From Below. Image by Steven Dale.

A gondola passes over two original and well-preserved antique gondola cars at the Mount Avila Caracas Terminal. Image by Steven Dale.

The Avila gondola cannot, however, be truly classed as cable transit. It lacks integration to the local transit network and really exists more for tourists, not local commuters. It did, however, indirectly inspire the nearby city of Medellin, Colombia to pursue a fully-integrated CPT system to serve the impoverished and dangerous barrio of Santo Domingo. The system would take almost 5 years to open, from conception to fruition and would be the world’s first true CPT system. They would name it The Metrocable. The first line, consistent with the city’s existing Metro system, would be named Linea K.

A Linea K Metrocable Car in Medellin, Colombia. Image by Steven Dale.

The Metrocable over top the Santo Domingo barrio. Image by Steven Dale.

Gondolas depart a Linea J Metrocable station. Image by Steven Dale.

Metrocable Linea K would be an enormous success. Crime rates in Santo Domingo plunged and area investment skyrocketed. In the four years since Linea K opened, crime in Santo Domingo virtually disappeared, jobs have increased 300% and 3 banks have opened along the Metrocable route. With such an obvious success story, Metro officials had little trouble convincing decision-makers to open Linea J.

Unlike Linea K, Linea J would connect several smaller barrios in the western end of the city. These barrios suffered from similar economic conditions but did not have the population density that Linea K had. This was considered a good thing as Linea K suffered from overcrowding almost immediately upon opening, a situation not witnessed on Linea J.

A Linea J gondola. Image by Steven Dale.

Meanwhile, Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela was not to be undone. The opening of the second Metrocable line in Medellin made Chavez lust after a similar system in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. Within 2 years, Chavez’s dream would be realized with Caracas opening their own cable transit system in early 2010. It was also to be named The Metrocable.

Like the Medellin systems before it, the Caracas Metrocable would provide transit to under-serviced barrios with a history of crime and poverty. But unlike the Medellin systems, Caracas would feature enormous stations that included social facilities such as gymnasiums, police stations, community centres and markets. The Caracas Metrocable would also be the first in the world to feature extreme 90 degree turning radii at stations.

Gondolas enter and exit a station in Caracas. Image by Steven Dale.

The Caracas Metrocable. Image by Steven Dale.

The Metrocable loop between Medellin and Venezuela came full circle in early 2010. While Chavez was opening his first system in Caracas, Medellin was opening their third Metrocable line. But this time, the line looked more similar to the original Mount Avila system from Venezuela circa 1999.

While still fully-integrated into the Medellin Metro, the new Linea L services the Parque Arvi at the top of a nearby mountain in Medellin and requires an additional fare of 1,550 Colombian Pesos (roughly $1 US dollar). Linea L would give quick, affordable access to wilderness and parkland facilities that had previously only been accessible to wealthy land-owners in Medellin. This was a welcome change, given Colombia’s historically wide gap between rich and poor.

A Linea L gondola. Image by Steven Dale.

Medellin as seen from the Linea L, Parque Arvi nature preserve. Image by Steven Dale.

Both cities are engaged in major plans to expand their Metrocable offerings and cities throughout Latin America are embarking upon cable transit plans of their own.

Read Part 2.

22
Sep

2015

Reviewing the Five Most Cynical Arguments Against Gondolas As Transit

Four years ago, Steven Dale assembled the most popular themes he notices when people dismiss the idea of cable car technology as an accompaniment to urban transit. It culminates in the famous Simpsons parody of The Music Man. The following was first posted in 2011 and the arguments haven’t evolved since. Take it away, Steven …

One thing I love about cable is the questions and discussions it creates.

Generally speaking, people are curious creatures and when confronted with the strange, bizarre and not-so-everyday, they want to know more. They ask questions, ponder and – for better or for worse – they come to their own conclusions.

Those people are amazing because, as I’ve discussed before, they’re skeptics not cynics. And skeptics are amazing. The cynics, not so much.

But what does one do about the cynics? Not much, I guess. These are people who’ve already passed judgement on something the moment they hear about it despite knowing virtually nothing about what they’re passing judgement on. Just look at the comments here about the potential for an Urban Gondola in Toronto and you’ll see what I mean.

They’re cynics not skeptics.

But for the sake of curiosity, I thought it might be fun to bring together in one place the 5 most cynical arguments I hear most commonly about urban gondola transit . . . and suggest a few ways of dealing with them. Enjoy!

 

FIVE – THE THIS IS WAY, WAY, WAY TOO EXPENSIVE! ARGUMENT

This argument is based purely on ignorance, nothing more.

I suspect most people who make the argument have absolutely no idea what a gondola system costs. How do I know that? Because it’s virtually impossible to actually look at the numbers and not conclude that cable is a cost-effective technology in comparison to standard transit technologies (bus notwithstanding). It’s just that overwhelmingly lop-sided.

Look closely when someone states definitively that gondolas are too expensive because there’s virtually nothing to back it up.

Easiest way to counteract that argument? Ask them how much a gondola costs and wait for the silence.

Variation on The Argument: Watch out! The Portland Aerial Tram cost $57 million and was only one kilometer long!

 

That’s true, Portland did go massively over budget, but that’s the exception, not the rule.

The reasons for this were due to unanticipated geological conditions; excessive customization; last-minute changes; and bureaucratic delay.

Portland also opted for an Aerial Tram rather than a Gondola-based technology – Aerial Trams have one of the poorest cost-benefit ratios of any aerial cable transit technology.

FOUR – THE CREEPY DUDE / AXE MURDERER ARGUMENT

The standard Creepy Dude Argument assumes that the world is positively littered with pedophiles, gang-bangers, mafioso, vagrants and pirates and they all want nothing more than to ride a gondola with you and your children!

It’s an argument built on fear and one that is unsurprisingly effective because, despite the fact that crime rates have been dropping throughout North America, people are hard-wired to mistrust strangers and to believe that everyone is out to get them.

The standard rebuttal is to suggest that one’s personal safety in a gondola is no worse than in other similar situations – like in an elevator, for example. But that argument doesn’t hold. Saying you’re no more dangerous than the other guy is akin to saying you’re just as dangerous as the other guy!

There’s a difference there. It’s subtle, but it’s there.

Instead, it’s best to be proactive about the situation and design in solutions like those ideas outlined in this previous post. Rather than just slough-off the problem, we suggested a series of tactics that should ensure personal safety on any urban gondola system.

Rather than ignore the problem, transit agencies should design around it.

Variation on The Argument: This Thing Is Going To Make a Wicked Hotbox!

As much as overly-ambitious potheads and stoners would like to posture on about using a gondola as a hotbox, remember the following:

  • There will be other people in the vehicles.
  • There will also be closed circuit cameras monitoring the vehicles.
  • There will be attendants at each station.
  • Each station will be no more than a few minutes ride away.

In other words: Using an urban gondola as a hotbox would be about as practical and effective as using a fish as a raincoat.

Go for it, Harold and Kumar.

THREE – THE THOSE CABINS ARE GOING TO BE TOO COLD!!! ARGUMENT

This argument is somewhat justifiable. Most people’s experience with a gondola comes in the form of a ski lift – and those lifts are rarely heated.

This is logical of course, as skiers tend to wear incredibly warm, thick gear and the nature of skiing is such that it elevates body temperature. Furthermore, the body heat generated by riders in a gondola has the effect of warming the interior of the vehicle just fine.

Regular skiers are all too familiar with having to open windows in a gondola as it’s simply too warm, even in the dead of winter.

But we’re not talking about ski lift gondolas, are we? No we are not. We’re talking about urban gondolas for public transit; and presumably there won’t be many people commuting to work in an Arcteryx snowsuit and a pair of Head ski boots – though I’ll readily admit to the comedic potential of such a situation.

So for those disbelievers out there, let’s make this explicitly clear: Heated chairlifts are already a common and standard technology in the cable industry and heated gondolas are becoming more and more popular. I can name two right off the top of my head – The Mont Tremblant gondola and Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak gondola.

Finding heated gondolas is about as easy as googling the words “heated” and “gondola.” Try it.

Variation on The Argument: Those gondolas will be too hot in the summer!

Similar to the heating argument, this one is somewhat justified as cooled gondolas are even rarer than heated gondolas – but they do exist.

I once argued that just because you’d never heard of Canadian prosciutto, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The same holds true for air-conditioned gondolas. Maybe you’ve never heard of them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

I know this issue invites some controversy – especially when systems such as the Sentosa Island gondola curiously lacks A/C – but in a past post we’ve shown A/C to exist. We also recently discovered that the Funchal Gondola in Madeira, Portugal is also equipped with A/C . . . Details to come.

We’d like to believe this will convince people that air-conditioned gondolas exist, but we know that’s nothing more than blind optimism. Maybe a United States birth certificate proving it will help.

TWO – THE THIS THING WON’T WORK IN WINTER! ARGUMENT

It’s a ski lift.

If you need further clarification, see this post.

Variation on The Argument: Algeria, Caracas and Medellin may all have urban gondolas, but all are warm weather cities. This therefore cannot possibly work in a cold-weather city such as (blank).

It’s a ski lift.

ONE – THE IT’S LIKE THAT MONORAIL EPISODE FROM THE SIMPSONS! ARGUMENT

Never buy transit from this guy.

For those not up on the last 20 years of pop culture, The Simpsons once broadcast a near-legendary episode about a traveling salesman / con artist who sells the good City of Springfield on a Monorail, which – of course – turns out to be a death trap and a money pit.

It is a lesson to policy-makers and transit planners everywhere: Never buy a transit system from a man in a boater hat and bow tie.

Bringing up this particular episode is such an amazingly common argument against urban gondolas and so exhaustingly predictable I thought it important to address – which I did a year and a half ago for The Gondola Project’s fourth post.

Don’t get me wrong, I love The Simpsons. But using a 20 year old musical number from a fictional cartoon show as evidence to back up a questionable stance is lazy, lazy  rhetoric.

Even worse: Everyone’s already made the joke, it’s completely unoriginal and not even your first year college dorm-mates find Simpsons references funny anymore.

Variation on The Argument: Singing A Part Of The Monorail Song!

See above.

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14
Apr

2015

It’s a ‘Disruptive Game-Changer’ But Still There’s Much Ground to Cover

Last month, Dopplemayr made a big splash is the ropeway transit industry. They inked a deal worth nearly a half billion US dollars, for six new ropeway cable car lines in the neighbouring Latin American municipalities of La Paz and El Alto. Another 20km will be added to the existing ropeway system over the next four years. That will triple the system’s current reach, providing greater access for thousands of commuters. So it’s ‘a big deal’ for everyone.

In the public transportation sectors —where project costs routinely cost billions of dollars—this may not seem like a lot, but in the world of cable-propelled transit, it’s huge. Never has the industry signed a single deal of this size. “This second phase of the network in La Paz/El Alto is a milestone for urban applications of ropeways,” agrees Dopplemayr’s Marketing Director, Ekkehard Assmann.

Before the signing, Dopplemayr was already unquestionably the biggest player in the ropeway engineering industry. However you could have argued whether they dominated this specialized and uniquely challenging arena of urban cable transit. Now you cannot. This deal not only reinforces Dopplemayr’s market dominance, it positions them very well for the growing urban transit market.

 

This Is Good News For the Whole Sector, Not Just Dopplemayr

Make no mistake: a deal of this magnitude will create far more interest and growth in urban ropeways. Competitors are likely very envious at the moment, but they will benefit too. Remember the old saying, ‘A high tide floats all ships’. In other words, when a deal of this size goes through it’s good for the entire industry. Major contracts like this tend to increase momentum and the likelihood of future deals. Better still, all of us in the industry will learn a great deal from the next four years.

This deal is what the international business press would call ‘disruptive’ or a ‘game-changer’.

Note that we said ‘would’. A quick Google of the news revealed no attention from the major players, despite that it is the biggest deal of its kind, ever. So why is there this deafening silence?

 

“Next Stops, Europe and North America”

Currently this specialized industry is growing at a healthy rate. However that growth is almost exclusively in Latin American countries like Venezuela, Colombia and Bolivia. There is still ‘much ground to cover’ in prime markets — in the developed world. Cable-propelled transit needs to be sign as a solution for all congested cities.

The press has not picked up on the importance of the deal but should soon. Remember another popular saying, from Isaac Newton, “An object in motion tends to remain in motion.” With a project of this size on the go, congested and important cities in developed countries will start to notice. Indeed, they already are. This project positions Dopplemayr well to seize those prime opportunities on the near horizon. Ekkehard Assmann couldn’t agree more: “Many new business inquiries from cities worldwide underscore this point.”

For now, the whole industry is looking forward to answering those inquiries.

26
Jun

2013

Assessing User Experience on Urban Cable Cars via Social Networking (Yelp, Tripadvisor)

For many of us, we use social media and online review sites to make everyday life decisions. Websites such as Yelp or TripAdvisor can be great resources that help indecisive people, like myself, decide whether or not a restaurant deserves my Friday night patronage.

My personal experiences with crowd-sourcing websites has generally been quite positive — more often than not, a quick scan of reviews can paint a fairly accurate picture of the business.

And since we’re a transit blog built on fun and inquisitiveness, I decided to carry this notion to the world of Cable Propelled Transit. So a few days back, I asked myself: can we use social networking to assess the general receptiveness and desirability of urban cable cars?

Reviews of RIT on Yelp. Screenshot from Yelp.

Reviews of RIT on Yelp. Screenshot from Yelp.

My hypothesis, if you can call it that, is: if these systems are undesirable (i.e. unattractive, a rip-off, poorly designed etc.) in a city, as many detractors claim, surely this will be revealed in crowd-sourcing websites such as Yelp.

While the initial thought of compiling and analyzing user experience data from these websites sounds outright featherbrained, it occurred to me that the findings/implications might actually be the complete opposite. As regular viewers of Kitchen Nightmares know, online reviews can sometimes make or break a business (I won’t post the link here, but if you must know what I’m referring to, search Amy’s Baking Company).

So for my little back-of-the-envelope analysis, I decided to look at the a handful of city-oriented cable cars from across the globe which had reviews, namely: Portland Aerial Tram, Roosevelt Island Tram, Teleférico Madrid, Téléphérique de Grenoble Bastille, Singapore Cable Car, and the Emirates Air Line.

6 urban cable cars reviewed.

Six urban cable cars reviewed – Portland Aerial Tram, Roosevelt Island Tram, Teleferico Madrid, Téléphérique de Grenoble Bastille, Singapore Cable Car and Emirates Air Line. Images from Flickr – Creative Commons Commercial.

Before I began my research, I expected to find a mixed of reviews, both positive and negative. However, what I found was quite surprising — the average overall rating (out of 5) was 4.25 where the lowest was 4 and highest was 5. If you carefully read the reviews, there are very few 1 or 2 star ratings, with the majority of responses being praiseworthy. I quickly noticed that several common themes were emerging — most of which revolved around aerial views, price, and ride quality. A lot of the remarks are quite funny and appear indicative of the general issues surrounding a particular system. For example, my favourite one is from London’s Yelper Tom E. who had this to say about the Emirates Air Line:

Tom E's take on the Emirates Air Line. Screenshot from Yelp.com

I say that’s a fairly accurate assessment. Screenshot from Yelp.

 

Of course by this time, some of you are probably thinking, crowdsourcing reviews are inaccurate and can’t be trusted. While this is true in certain cases, I can’t honestly fathom why a user would take time out of his/her schedule to give a cable car system a fake review.

For the conspiracists out there, could a cable car operator potentially hire people to provide false accounts? Possible, but unlikely. Given the aggregate nature of Yelp where thousands of users write unfiltered reviews, it is likely that if a system is “problematic” in any way, shape or form, the amount of real reviews would counteract the fake ones. Also, I think most individuals are smart enough to weed out the garbage reviews.

So what does this little analysis mean for urban cable cars? My initial feeling is that online evidence reveals that user experience on the CPT system surveyed thus far are overwhelmingly positive. Even in situations where the initial system planning and design was controversial, once these lines become operational, most of these issues are forgotten.

Perhaps due partly to the novelty/rarity of these transit systems and the general “fun factor” of cable cars, CPT lines really do a great job in uplifting people’s spirits while offering them the opportunity to experience their city in a totally different manner.

 

In the future, for a more accurate and detailed assessment, it would be interesting to examine quality of the reviewers, analyze if opinions change over time, expand the sample size and analyze reviews from other websites like TripAdvisor. 

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