Research Issues



We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know – Revisited

There are somewhere around 20,000 cable systems installed and operating around the world at this very moment. Most of the have no implications or ramifications for the urban environment whatsoever.

But some do – and there’s virtually no way to find out. That’s daunting to think about.

While I’d like to think The Gondola Project has established itself as an excellent specialist resource for the field of Cable Propelled Transit and Urban Gondolas, the simple reality is there are too many systems spread across too wide a geographic region to know everything about every one of them. Want proof?

Consider the five days (one, two, three, four and five) we spent exploring the Algerian Gondolas: We learned a lot, but are we fully comprehensive yet? Not really. That was one week’s work to learn about roughly 23 gondolas – of which we learned deep information about maybe 6 of them.

Divide 20,000 by 6. That’s 3,333 weeks. Or 64 years. Daunting indeed.

How then do we discover useful, fascinating and interesting systems like that in Livigno, Italy?

This ski system built a few years ago has two terminals and one intermediary station. One terminal is underground and the intermediary station is partially underground. That has dramatic implications for the urban environment, I don’t need to tell you why.

An artists' rendering of the underground terminal of a gondola lift in Livigno, Italy. Image via Alpinforum.

This was a system Nick Chu (he of the wonderful Sunday Morning Stats) stumbled across six months ago purely by chance. He wasn’t looking for underground gondola stations, it found him. It seems like a bad idea to rely on chance encounters to build a research base, but I suppose that’s what Louis Pasteur meant when he said “chance favours the prepared mind.”

So how many other such systems exist in the world? Simple: We don’t know. Why? Because we don’t know what we don’t know. We discussed this a long time ago in a post discussing how not knowing about cable solutions had dramatic implications for a project in Hamilton, Canada.

The same thing holds here on our end. When we don’t know something exists, we can’t discuss it. We can’t learn about it. We can’t spread it. We can’t inform people about it.

It’s an issue we wrestle with continuously and have no good answer for. How do we solve this problem?

We’d deeply and seriously love your ideas and suggestions.

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Vapour Research (Or, for the Americans, Vapor Research)

I want to build upon the concept I described yesterday of ‘Vapour Literature.’

You could also call it Vapour Research or Vapour Evidence but they’re all the same thing: Empirical evidence of a fact that was never meant to exist as evidence in the first place.

The example I used was the photo-sharing site Flickr.

At the risk of exaggeration, I’d have to say that Flickr is one of the single greatest research tools the world has ever known. And it’s 100% pure Vapour Research.

Think about it . . .

Flickr is not a place for research. Instead, it’s a place for amateur and professional photographers to market themselves; a place for the vainglorious to brag about their vacations; and a place for elderly relatives to post photos of their grandchildren, community luncheons and overweight cats.

Single greatest research tool ever. Image by flickr user Brian Cook.

But it’s also a means to attain a pan-opticon snapshot of the entire world at every degree of scale. One gains knowledge through Flickr by pick-pocketing the photographic memories and legacies of people who bore witness to whatever phenomenon you happen to be interested in.

You may not have been there, but someone else was – and they’ve got a photo of it.

The people who took photos of the Ocean Park Gondola weren’t trying to demonstrate the fact that you could run two gondolas in parallel to each other side-by-side. They were just taking a photo of something they thought was interesting, neat or cool.

Interesting, neat or cool but certainly not research. Image by flickr user Jennifer Boriss.

But to someone who is trying to demonstrate the fact that you can run two gondolas in parallel to each other side-by-side these photos become invaluable.

Right now we’re caught in a transition phase between the established order of peer-reviewed, academic “White Literature” and some newer form of literature that’s going to include more and more Vapour Research and Vapour Evidence, much of it coming from amateur sources such as flickr, blogs and chat rooms.

The vetting process of peer-review is essential and respectable but it is slow and lumbering, often out-of-date by the time it reaches publication. Like the paper it’s printed on, it’s basically dead the moment it leaves the presses. But the permanence of that death lends peer-reviewed literature a degree of credibility and cache that Vapour Research simply does not possess.

And let’s be honest – no one’s going to respect flickr as a source of research any time in the near future.

So the question is this: How do we integrate the speed, cost-effectiveness and the breadth of scope Vapour Research provides into the accuracy and disinterested objectivity of the peer-review process?

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The London Thames Cable Car / Aerial Tram / Gondola / Whatever

Alright. I know I complain about the nomenclature issue a lot, but this is getting ridiculous.

Planetizen published the following update on the approved London Thames Cable Car (Gondola):

London Approves Aerial Tram Over River

An aerial gondola system will be built over the Thames River in London ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

“Expected to complete by July 2012, the cable cars would run 50m above the water and, according to Mayor Boris Johnson, would be ‘as good as a bus route with 30 buses on it’.

Johnson, said: ‘With permissions signed and sealed we are now a significant step closer to being able to cruise the east London skyline via an elegant cable car spanning the mighty Thames.'”

Officials estimate that the gondola system will be capable of transporting 2,500 people per hour over the river.

I’m not going to bother breaking it down for people. It’s pretty straightforward. A Gondola is this; an Aerial Tram is this and; a Cable Car is either this or this. They are different. This wasn’t my decision, it’s just the way it’s been for decades.

Gondola, Aerial Tram and Cable Car are not synonyms for the same technology. And every time they’re used as synonyms, it only complicates matters for people who are actually trying to understand the technology.

Planetizen should know better.

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The San Francisco Teleferico: Why Gondola Transit Nomenclature Could Be An Issue

The world famous San Francisco Cable Cars. Image via Muni Diaries.

San Francisco’s California Street Cable Car line is under-going a major rebuild. As such, Muni (the San Francisco Transit agency) felt the need to inform the public via signs, press releases, websites etc.

The Spanish translation of the press release, however, referred to the cable cars as “telefericos.”

As any regular reader of The Gondola Project knows, teleferico translates directly to gondola. Muni rider John A. spotted the error and whipped up the above image in an act of transit humour geekery so specific that it’s probably funny to only 3 dozen of the world’s entire population – and will simply confuse thousands of elderly tourists looking to ride the Muni Teleferico in the coming months.

And while the entire situation allows us all to have a lot of fun at the expense of a translator’s mistake, it does touch on a difficulty cable transit has as it begins to grow within the urban environment. That problem is nomenclature.

As I pointed out a long time ago there are dozens of names for cable technologies in English alone. Add in foreign languages, and the situation becomes positively absurd. Teleferico, telepherique, teleferik, seilbahnen . . . the list goes on and on.

That people insist on using erroneous terms to describe installations only frustrates the matter further.

The proposed London Thames Cable Car, for example, isn’t a cable car. It’s a gondola. Full stop. That complicates matters for researchers, planners, journalists and policy-makers. Why not just call the new gondola the “London Thames Underground”? It’s not accurate, but neither is the “London Thames Cable Car.”

After all, you wouldn’t call a Honda Civic an “SUV”, would you? Or how about calling a Macbook Pro a “desktop computer”? Imagine if you invited your family over to visit your brand new house in the suburbs and asked them how they all liked your new “condo.”

"This puppy is the cutest poodle I've ever seen." Image by flickr user Nick LoCiero.

Whether we like it or not, the reason we classify things is so that we can understand them. Yes, it can be annoying. And yes, it can seem ridiculously anal at times. But we as a species have agreed that to foster communication amongst us we must call things by their proper names.

Sure the concept of a “proper name” is subjective and slippery. Anyone whose formative years took place in the 1990’s was probably forced to debate ad nauseum the true meaning of the term “alternative music” and no one ever came to a clear consensus. How we choose to use the term “light rail” is equally debatable and problematic.

Yet when we have a collection of technologies such as cable that make explicitly clear their defining features and, therefore, their exact names, it seems ridiculous that such a situation persists.

I’m not sure the problem will ever be resolved (it won’t), but it’s important to point out the problem for what it is: An unnecessary irritant that only complicates the further spread of the idea.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



Aerial Rapid Transit (ART)?

The other day in the comments, Sean suggested using the term “Aerial Rapid Transit” to describe urban gondola transit technology.

Good idea.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard the term and I know of at least two different proposals floating around that are using it. I’m a fan because it makes logical sense.

While the term “Cable Propelled Transit” is common in engineering literature and very useful for grouping the entirety of cable transit solutions, it is quite poor at distinguishing between aerial and terrestrial systems.

As such, I suggest we subdivide Cable Propelled Transit into two sub-groups, one for aerial solutions and one for terrestrial solutions. Those two sub-groups can then be further sub-divided into detachable and fixed grip technologies:

A potential hierarchy for Cable Propelled Transit?

The only question is this: If we know that aerial systems will henceforth be known as Aerial Rapid Transit (ART) systems, what are we going to call the family of terrestrial systems?


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An Easy Way To Help Spread The Idea Of Urban Gondola Transit

The Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual

Published by the Transportation Research Board, the Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual is a kind of bible for the transit planning industry. I use it constantly.

Now Kittelson & Associates is preparing the 3rd edition of  the manual and they want your help.

By clicking here, you’ll be taken to a survey detailing what you want to see in the upcoming edition.

Why not tell them you want to see more information about Urban Gondolas and Cable Propelled Transit?

Kittleson already talks about CPT solutions in sections 2-27 through 2-35 of their second edition, so it stands to reason they’d talk about it in the third as well.

The second edition, meanwhile, was written in 2003 well before such things as the Caracas, Medellin and Rio Metrocables; the Algerian gondolas; the Portland Aerial Tram; and the rebuilt Roosevelt Island Tram.

Furthermore, the Kittelson Streetwise blog already has a pretty good post on CPT solutions called New Forms of Mass Transit Gaining Steam.

In other words, they’re receptive to the idea. Let’s not let them forget it.

The best part? It only takes 5 minutes to complete the survey.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



The Problem With “Literature”

Planners rely on Literature (capitalization intentional). It is the lifeblood of the profession. Problem is, Literature isn’t always right, accurate or current. It’s like that boss you have to seek permission from even though he knows absolutely nothing about what you’re asking permission for.

Consider the Hercules Aerial Tram Study by Reconnecting America. Written in 2007, the study was conducted by Reconnecting America for Hercules, California, a small burg about 40 km north-east of California San Francisco. As one of the only publicly-available pieces of Literature on cable, this is an essential document for anyone interested in the topic. It is also riddled with half-truths, misstatements and flat-out shoddy workmanship.

The following are direct quotes from the study:

  • Expandability is impossible or difficult at best.
  • … current technology makes it difficult to have systems consisting of more than two stations …
  • There are very few instances of a mid terminal for dropping off or picking up passengers …
  • Aerial ropeway literature suggests that midway stations are very rare, and expansion is difficult.
  • Alignment tends to be limited to a straight line.
  • Availability, while high, is not as great as for other technologies.
  • High winds and electrical storms force shut downs which would not occur with other technologies.
  • System capacity upgrades will require reconstructing the entire system.

As far as I can tell, all of the errors and omissions are due to outdated Literature cited. Much of the Literature cited in the Hercules report date from 1987 and 1988, twenty years before the Hercules study. Given those misperceptions, the study authors went on to analyze gondolas purely in a linear, two stop alignment. Meanwhile, the study was titled “Aerial Tram Study” when they were clearly studying Gondolas. Not to be sticky about nomenclature, but the difference between an Aerial Tram and a Gondola is enormous, a fact which the authors should have made explicit.

In 2007, the Medellin Metrocable was already 3 years old (Note: Previously, I’d said the Metrocable opened in 2006, a mistake I apologize for. It appears the Metrocable opened in 2004.). Shouldn’t Reconnecting America have made reference to that system? Yes and no.

As I’ve argued before, we don’t know what we don’t know and that’s really no one’s fault. At the same time, the Hercules study relied almost exclusively on 20 year old Literature and cites virtually no observational or empirical research. Back in 2007, a quick search of the net would’ve yielded information on systems like the Ngong Ping 360, the aforementioned Metrocable, and Funitels. Yes, internet research wasn’t as easy three years ago as it is today, but if the authors were able to find their way to the practically ancient research they cited in their study, they certainly could’ve found out that intermediary stations and corners were more than possible.

(Further evidence in support of this idea: The study explicitly references the 3S. That technology was virtually brand new in 2007. Learning about it would have had to come directly from the net, but I digress.)

Basically, the authors never took the time to look beyond the Literature. And if they did, they willfully ignored what they saw because there was no Literature in support of what was plainly obvious.

This isn’t a rant against elitism, academia, or scholarly pursuits. It is, however, to say that youtube videos, wikipedia pages and forum posts are now (as they were three years ago) essential clues to the world around us. And those clues come far faster and quicker than any Literature could ever hope to do. These clues may not paint the entire picture, but collectively they force us to question that which the Literature claims as historical fact.

In many ways Literature is dead the moment is published. It becomes archaic and set in stone. That’s both a blessing and a curse. After all, Literature has an authority which the net may never attain and Literature is useful at setting the record of the past.

But it’s useless at understanding the new, the rapidly changing and the misunderstood. The new form of internet-based research that’s only now emerging evolves, grows, changes and adapts at remarkable speed. It may get things wrong from time-to-time (or frequently), but the error can be quickly amended. Not so with Literature.

One model is dead, the other is very much alive. It’s a shame Reconnecting America didn’t opt for that model which was actually breathing.

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