All Movements Begin With A Small Step

The Clay Street Hill Railroad

Two arguments against the current state of cable transit are the rather short line lengths of existing systems and the relatively few systems that actually exist. Both arguments suggest that urban gondola transit is not yet ready for ‘prime time.’

Fair enough.

It is, however, important to remember that all technologies start out modestly. No matter the rate of eventual uptake, all technology begins – in effect – in someone’s basement.

For example:

In 1873 Andrew Smith Hallidie opened America’s first commercially viable cable-hauled railway; San Francisco’s Clay Street Hill Railroad – the precursor to the beloved Cable Car.

It was less than 1 km in length.

By the end of the century there would be over 800 kms worth of cable lines in cities throughout the United States and dozens of other cities outside North America had their own systems, too.

Yes, the Cable Car became a relic of a bygone era – replaced by self-propelled streetcar – but the point still remains: What was a legitimate revolution in transportation started with one modest system of less than 1 km in the far away land (at least at that time) of San Francisco.

The parallels to what is going on with Cable Propelled Transit in Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and South America in general should be obvious to anyone.

We should remember that when we scoff at the modest gains of all technologies. Even the beleaguered London Heathrow Ultra PRT, may be a precursor of things to come.

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1934 Chicago World’s Fair

For your amusement (at around 2:25) . . . In Technicolor!

And for the record: When I talk about Cable Propelled Transit, this is not what I mean.

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Von Roll Sky Rides

The Von Roll Company of Switzerland's nameplate. Image by vonrollskyway1.

Von Roll Seilbahn was a prolific Swiss builder of ropeway systems in the 20th century. While Von Roll itself lives on as a supplier of industrial and electrical components, the ropeway division was acquired by Doppelmayr of Austria in 1994.

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Foresight & The Bloor Street Viaduct

Construction of Toronto's Bloor Street Viaduct in 1917. Public Domain image from the Toronto Archives

Toronto’s Prince Edward Viaduct (most commonly known as the ‘Bloor Street Viaduct’) is one of my favorite pieces of infrastructure in all of my hometown.

This 1918 Art Deco masterpiece was the cornerstone of the city’s plans to connect the growing metropolis with disconnected suburbs across the Don Valley River system.

Is it functional? Yes. Is it beautiful? Absolutely. Most importantly, it’s one of the best examples of transit planning foresight I can think of.

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History / Urban Planning & Design
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Urban Gondolas Should Thank The Internet

There is a story of the scholar who, years ago, produced a dissertation that was loudly hailed as the best written and most valuable in a generation. A copy was reverently placed in the library files and the scholar, as an experiment, placed a crisp $20 bill among its pages. Every year he returned to the library and took down the dissertation. Every year, it fell open to the stuffed page. Every year, the $20 bill was still there, untouched.

Isaac Asimov, 1992, Asimov Laughs Again

Twenty years ago, a few people (Neumann & Bondada in particular) made an attempt to popularize cable transit and urban gondolas. The push was made by a few scholars who published papers in journals that were read only by people who followed the cable industry . . . hopefully.

More likely, no one read them at all.

Occasionally they’d make presentations at conferences that were attended almost exclusively by members of the Automated People Mover (APM) and cable industry. The associated papers would later be published in compendiums read by cable industry veterans and cable engineering scholars . . . hopefully.

PhDs wrote dissertations. Masters candidates wrote theses. Hopefully more people than just me read them. Hopefully.

More likely, these compendiums, presentations, dissertations and theses languished on library shelves around the world, collecting dust and taking up space. Some have been collected, digitized and made available to the general public. Most are just footnotes.

That’s not to say they weren’t important contributions. They were. I use them in my practice constantly. But just because something’s important doesn’t mean it’s relevant.

Twenty years ago these documents weren’t relevant because cable didn’t have a shot at the big time. Nobody cared because it was a hopeless cause.

It didn’t matter that it was a good idea then (a better idea now), the friction of distance and the transmission of knowledge was just too great to allow the obscure idea of urban gondolas to spread. Today, however, things are different:

  • Today we have Skype. Twenty years ago we had extortionist long distance charges.
  • Today we have easyJet. Twenty years ago we had air travel that was affordable to only a few.
  • Today we have Amazon, Lulu and PDFs. Twenty years ago we had to courier books around the world at an astronomical cost.
  • Today we have teleconferencing and email. Twenty years ago we had high-priced week-long conventions in far-flung exotic locations.
  • Today we have WordPress, Twitter and Open Courseware at MIT. Twenty years ago we had hard-bound peer-reviewed journals vetted by a few gatekeepers who chose what information thrived and which died.
  • Today we have flickr. Twenty years ago we had expensive site visits and professional photographers.

Twenty years ago cable transit was hopelessly dead in the water because it was too expensive and difficult to spread such a strange idea. Now the industry is growing, exponentially year-upon-year. There’s hope now, big hope because the cost to communicate is miniscule compared to what it was. The internet enabled that.

Want proof?

Where’d you first hear about the Medellin Metrocable?

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Zombie Streetcars & Transit Bling

One of San Francisco's Fleet of Classic Streetcars.

I am decidedly against the City of Toronto’s decision to purchase almost 2 billion one-and-a-quarter billion dollars worth of new streetcars/light rail. And my problem with the decision has absolutely nothing to do with my position on CPT. I recognize that CPT is not a technology for all environs and I recognize that streetcar technology has its place.

My position on CPT is that it should be included as one among many transit technologies including bus, streetcar/light rail and subway. So let’s leave it at that. Back to the streetcars . . .

My problem with purchasing new vehicles to replace the old fleet is this: It’s nothing more than wasteful Transit Bling. In times of economic trouble, it seems irresponsible to replace that which could be rebuilt. Are Toronto’s existing streetcars decrepit?  Sure.  Are they falling apart?  Probably. Are they comfortable to ride? Not on your life. But none of those issues are unresolvable.

Havana is well-known for its plethora of 1950’s and 1960’s classic American cars.  These cars are at least a generation older than Toronto’s current aging streetcar fleet, but are in good condition, having been well-maintained and rebuilt several times.  These never-dying  zombie cars, have in fact, become something of a tourist attraction themselves.

Classic American cars crowd the roads of Havana to this day. They have even become an unofficial tourist attraction. Despite their age of 50-60 years, they are in good working condition due to ongoing maintenance and rebuilds.

So why then rush to abandon the current fleet of streetcars in Toronto?  Surely there must be some experienced mechanics, engineers and designers capable of creatively rebuilding the fleet at a fraction of the cost of buying new vehicles (around $5-6 million each). I’m even more certain there’s some inexperienced mechanics, engineers and designers in university who could do it. And if they did, it would be a testament to Toronto’s ingenuity, fiscal prudence, dedication to the environment and history.

San Francisco did just that with a fleet of Zombie Streetcars they purchased on the second/third hand market. The great irony is that many of those streetcars were never part of that city’s historic fleet. Instead, they were vehicles that had once serviced cities as far and wide as Kansas City, Philadelphia, Cleveland and . . . Toronto.

And just to one up those cities further, San Francisco painted these cars in colour schemes that replicated those of their original city of operation. The city positioned them as “Commemorative” streetcars, in effect celebrating that which other cities chose to dispose of. This was brilliant marketing to locals and tourists alike. (The streetcars are not a Toy for Tourists, they are instead an integral part of the San Francisco Muni system.) San Francisco took other cities’ “junk” and put it to good use because they recognized the inherent value these vehicles possessed when others didn’t.

It’s like being savvy enough to spot a Picasso at a yard sale whose owner is selling for $1.

Streetcars in San Francisco are not accessible, but redesigned platform ramps provide the same level of accessibility.

The one argument you could make in support of new purchase over rebuild is the issue of accessibility, which is a 100% legitimate agrument. Sort of.

Are San Francisco’s zombie streetcars accessible? No. But is the system itself accessible? Yes. All streetcar platforms were equipped with simple and cost-effective ramps that, in effect, give the streetcars complete accessibility.

Most amazing is that the San Francisco streetcars date from the early part of the last century. Many of them are 2-3 times older than the streetcars Toronto plans to replace. They’re also stylish to no end with a story that capture people’s attention and imagination.

Ironically, Toronto knows this. The city maintains a couple of these very same Zombie Streetcars for private charter operation and special event rental.

Infrastructure is part of our collective civic imagination and history. Merely replacing this infrastructure every 20 or 30 years robs us of something innate and valuable.

Maybe using Zombie Streetcars doesn’t play as well in the media as spending billions of dollars on brand new Transit Bling. But in the long run, it seems like a far more logical and stylish investment.

At the very least, San Francisco knows where to get a new lot of vintage Toronto streetcars for a very good price.

Creative Commons images by bstoragegj_theWhite and tibchris.

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Toys For Tourists

You can classify urban Cable Propelled Transit systems in three ways:

The first category are those lines that are integrated into public transit systems. These may be used by tourists, but tourists are not the target market; local weekday commuters are. The Portland Aerial Tram, Roosevelt Island Tram, Medellin Metrocable, Perugia MiniMetro and Caracas Metrocable, for example.

The second category are those lines that are clearly used for non-leisure purposes, but service a more specific subset of tourist and business traveller, both local and foreign. Airport people movers, the Innsbruck Hungerburgbahn and the Mandalay Bay Cable Car are excellent examples of these types of systems.

With this kind of promotional movie tie-in, how could the Mississippi Aerial River Transit not succeed?

The third and final category are Toys For Tourists (TFT) lines. These lines, more often than not, are never actually realized and if they are, rarely survive for very long. TFT lines are never integrated into the local transit network, typically have high (predicted) fares and exclusively target the tourism market.

The Windsor-Detroit Freedom Gondola; the Montreal Telecabine; the Camden-Philadelphia Skylink; the Baltimore Lift; and the terribly-named Mississippi Aerial River Transit system in New Orleans are sad reminders of how not to go about implementing Cable Propelled Transit.

None of the previously mentioned systems were transit. They were, instead, means to generate private sector profits by externalizing at least part (if not all) of the costs onto the public sector. They were rides.

The real shame of these systems was the hubris associated with them. Without fail, each imagined a huge increase in tourism due to the creation of the gondola itself. In other words, predicted revenues were based upon the increased number of tourists the systems’ promoters imagined the gondolas would cause, rather than on the actual number of tourists that actually visited the city.

For years Camden, New Jersey has been one of the poorest, most violent and dangerous cities in all of North America. Ditto Detroit. Ditto New Orleans. With the possible historical exception of New Orleans, how lush do you think the tourist market is in these cities? Do you want to travel there? Does the existence of a gondola change your mind?

The strength of the Portland Aerial Tram, the Roosevelt Island Tram, the Telluride Gondola and any other successful urban CPT system is that the primary users of the systems are locals, not tourists. Tourists should be considered gravy; a nice bit of additional revenue during off-peak hours. But the majority – the meat – of the users need to come from local demographics.

Why this phenomenon only seems to occur in urban, rather than rural/resort regions is a mystery to me, but it nevertheless seems to hold true.

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