Two weeks ago, a proposal for an urban gondola system along the Chicago River made the rounds as these things tend to do.
At first glance, it’s an ambitious and impressive proposal. Hugging the southern ridge of the Chicago river, the Skyline, as it’s been dubbed, would include three stations and around 2.5 km of length.
Onboard the 30-minute round-trip journey, passengers will be transported in customized shiny metallic cabins from the Franklin Street Bridge to Navy Pier and back again.
Map. Screenshot from Youtube.
As I said — it’s impressive. And with a $250 million price tag it should be.
At a per kilometre cost of $100 / km, it would compete with London’s Emirates Air Line as one of the most expensive cable car systems ever built.
Skyline rendering. Image by Davis Brody Bond.
One of the reasons, by my reasoning, for this significant price premium is because this would be the only cable car system I know of to deploy more angle stations than passenger stations.
What do I mean by that?
As regular readers of this site know, a gondola cannot turn a corner without first detaching and reattaching to the rope(s). That process has to occur within what’s known as a turning or “angle” station. There are some rare exceptions to that rule, but none of those would be relevant here. The Chicago Skyline configuration is the first proposed configuration that I know of that would have more angle stations (four) than passenger stations (three).
That’s a problem because the vast majority of a cable car’s costs are in the stations. And the costs associated with a turning station are essentially the same as the costs associated with a normal station used for boarding and alighting passengers.
Cabin rendering. Image by Davis Brody Bond.
And that’s just on the construction end of things.
Compounding difficulties downstream, system owners still have to staff, operate and maintain the angle stations even though they won’t be used by passengers to generate any additional revenue.
The annual operations and maintenance costs associated with the Chicago Skyline will therefore be well beyond that which we could reasonably expect for a system of this length. Those costs are going to chew deeply into system economics.
While the reported annual ticket revenue is impressive at $28 million (1.4 million riders at around $20 a head), the annual operations and maintenance costs are likely to be 1/3 to 1/2 of that number simply because of the sheer number of extraneous stations included within the design. And we haven’t even begun to talk about capital reserve funds and financing costs that would be over-and-above annual operations and maintenance expenses.
Additional revenue streams such as concessions, premium VIP features and advertising are likely to be necessary to make this system financially viable as currently envisioned.
This is not unheard of in the cable car industry, but it is also not common.
London’s Emirates Air Line, for example, is one of these exceptional systems. While it’s reported to be financially self-sufficient, it might not have been if not for a sizeable EU-backed grant and a generous sponsorship with the United Arab Emirate’s national airline carrier.
Notwithstanding the London system, most tourist-oriented cable cars are expected to make the majority of their revenue from the farebox. All that other good stuff is typically nice gravy — but it ain’t steak.
This is why best practice within the cable car industry is to minimize the number of angle stations and — if absolutely necessary — co-locate them at places where a standard boarding/alighting station would actually be useful to people and hopefully increase revenue.
The matter associated with the angle stations isn’t simply one of economics, it’s one of rider experience as well.
As this is explicitly a tourist-oriented system, the ride experience needs to be exceptional enough to justify the price tag. And while I suspect the ride will be exceptional, the plethora of intermediary/angle stations will have a drag on the journey.
Within every intermediary station, whether it be a boarding/alighting station or an angle station, the dwell times for the vehicles will be roughly 60-90 seconds depending upon a variety of factors. Riders of the Chicago Skyline would therefore be expected to spend up to 7.5 minutes within stations. Assuming the journey from end-to-end is roughly 15 minutes, that means up to half the journey will be spent inside a gondola station.
I don’t know about you, but if I’m a tourist I don’t want to spend twenty bucks to stare at the inside of a gondola station. I want to be, you know, riding a gondola.
Having said all that, I think the idea has sizeable merit and I have no doubts about the projected ridership nor the ability to change what they think they can charge. All the concerns I mention above—while legitimate—could be logically explained by better understanding more of the background behind the system.
There may be completely legitimate reasons for such a large number of turning stations. We just don’t know.
Online Infrastructure Punditry (dibs on that coinage!) may have the benefit of detachment and distance, but it suffers from not always having an insider’s perspective. What to an outsider may seem patently absurd, may be incredibly logical once the full story is understood.
So while I admit to having certain reservations about the Chicago Skyline, I’m not prepared to pronounce it ill-conceived in the same way I did with a proposal for Staten Island that surfaced last year.
The team behind the Chicago Skyline (Laurence Geller, and Lou Raizin — both of which are successful entrepreneurs) are simply too experienced and too entrenched within the Chicago tourism industry to have made the decisions they did blindly.
I’m betting on the latter here and look forward to watching this one develop.