Thoughts

04
Feb

2016

Look How Far Cable Cars Have Come In Six Years

Caracas Metrocable. Image by Steven Dale.

This website went live on December 1, 2009. In that time, a whole lot has changed (note: all numbers drawn from our own internal research, estimates and databases):

  • Back in 2009, less than 10% of the world’s ropeway projects were built in the urban market. Today more than 20% of cable cars are built in cities.
  • Back in 2009, only six 3S / Tricable Detachable Gondola cable cars existed in the world. Today, 15 are operational — a growth of 150% in just six years.
  • Back in 2009, only three urban cable cars existed in Latin America (not including tourist systems). Today, more than ten are now operational with approximately another two dozen in the various planning and implementation stages.
  • Back in 2009, American interest in cable cars was limited to the occasional private sector tourism play. Today, there are several government-led cable car projects in various stages of research, planning and development with more popping up seemingly by the week.

In no way are we claiming responsibility for that growth. Our role is tiny in the grand scheme of things.

Our role is to educate, to enlighten and—most of all—to provide the fastest, easiest place on the internet for people who want to learn about cable cars to be able to do so.

Knowledge that’s easy-to-find, easy-to-access and easy-to-understand spreads quickly. That, perhaps, has been the biggest lesson of this entire experience—at least for me.

Wanna’ spread an idea? Don’t assume that the idea is your property and try to protect it. Just give it away.

The rest will take care of itself.

22
Dec

2015

Thoughts for another year up in the air

IMG_7887

It’s not a holiday traffic jam. It’s ‘me time’.

We can’t believe it’s almost the end of 2015. It’s been a good year for urban gondolas as public transit. We at the Gondola Project thank all the members of the community who contribute regularly, helping to keep this site current and correct. Learning is a lifelong activity.

For those stuck in hellish holiday traffic, we wish for a ropeway to come soon to your city, to whisk you above the congealing immobility that typifies so many of our daily commutes. Next time some bonehead cuts you off to advance three meters, breathe deeply and think of those you love most.

For those lucky enough to be riding cable cars above those of us stuck in traffic, we wish you another great year of movement — but Prospero Año may be more appropriate, given where so many urban gondolas are being built these days.

And for those who are riding gondolas into the mountains right now to enjoy some skiing or boarding during this holiday season, we’d like to wish you a safe and enjoyable few days of clear weather — but without using that popular English expression ‘break a leg’. (Maybe just put the phone away, then enjoy the view and ride.)

Happy holidays to you in whatever way to celebrate them.

21
Dec

2015

The Grandmother Test

I recently met someone who disapproves of this whole Urban Gondola concept – which is fine, you’re entitled to your own opinion. He said it’s hard enough to get his grandmother to ride the subway (because she finds it terrifying), let alone a gondola.

According to The Grandmother Test (yeah, it should be called that) we should therefore stop everyone from building subways entirely. Probably not going to happen.

Yet when I pointed out the logical problem of The Grandmother Test, he basically just said urban gondolas are stupid. He wasn’t a skeptic; he was a cynic.

Whether it’s urban gondolas or any other great idea, if you spot someone who fails (passes?) The Grandmother Test, just walk away and don’t waste your time. There’s nothing you can do there.

17
Dec

2015

Is Public Transit Merely a Means of Mobility?

Post by Charlotte Boffetti.

Undoubtedly, one of the primary reasons for building subways, streetcars, and cable cars is to improve urban mobility. These systems are designed to transport passengers from one destination to another. And in the minds of many transit planners and engineers, this unfortunately tends to be the sole motivation – however, I feel that public transit is much more than a simple means of transport.

Around the world, through planned and/or spontaneous efforts by passengers and cities, surprising, beautiful and unconventional uses of the transit network often emerge.

The transport network can be a place of expression, of art and even fun. As an element of an urban space, people find many ways to reappropriate a public transit system.

For example, subways are often playgrounds for street artists. It offers a huge platform for expression and diffusion. Sometimes the goal is just to create a nicer environment and sometimes it is to convey a political message. I, myself, am really sensitive to all forms of expressions found in the transport network that makes my travel more interesting.

In my city of Lyon, France, street art can be found adjacent to more conventional art. Since the subway was opened in 1978, it has displayed many different types of artwork. Unfortunately, over the years, many of these displays have been neglected. So last year, the director of transportation started an “Art Metro” initiative to upgrade the artwork and make it more noticeable for passengers.

On one hand, one of the goals was to take art out of museums and make it accessible to all members of the public, while on the other hand, it was to improve the subway’s overall design and enhance passengers travel.

Public art in Hotel de Ville Station on Lyon’s Metro Line A. Image from Systral.

Many cities have taken similar kind of initiatives which sought to improve the transport network’s appearance, and thereby in hopes of improving the overall travel experience.

Stockholm T-Bana

Station T-Centralen on Stockholm Metro. Image by Flickr user Kotka Molokovich.

Subway Munich - Germany

Candidplatz Station on Munich Metro. Image by Flickr user kleiner hobbit.

But does this really change anything for the users taking transit? In my opinion, art really does enhance the travel experience. But moreover it changes a transport system’s representation and perception. A subway’s representation can be changed from a long, cold and grey tunnel to a colourful and welcoming place.

In turn, the transport network becomes so much more than a simple place of passage, it becomes a place of life. And this becomes especially important, if you’re like me, where I find myself spending more than 2 hours each day on a train.

London Subway, 1970s-1980s. Reading, sleeping, talking, the transport network is a place of life. Image by Bob Mazer from Telegraph.co.uk.

Aside from art, a transit network is also a social gathering space.

For instance, a few years ago the London Tube hosted events called the “Circle Line Party”. Participants would decorate a subway train, bring musical equipment, food, alcohol and party into this unconventional space. The participants claim that these parties are not meant to disrupt travel, but to “reclaim the public space from advertisers and give it back to the people to whom it belongs”.

Circle Line Cocktail Party

Last Circle Line Party. Image by Flickr user David Elstob.

In 2008,  Mayor Boris Johnson banned drinking alcohol on public transport and on the eve of the ban, thousands of people joined in the subway to celebrate the last night of legal drinking. Unfortunately, when the celebrations came to a close, several passengers and staff were injured along with several arrests.

I feel that most people have enough self-control and self-discipline to be afforded this privilege should they remain respectful to other passengers.

Two ladies drinking responsibly on the London Tube – 1970s-1980s. Image by Bob Mazzer from Telegraph.co.uk.

My point is not to encourage drinking in public space, but to question how we should use public transport and how certain activities should be regulated.

What is important to understand is that the transport network is not merely a neutral place with just one simple function. Of course a transport system is used for mobility, but as we can see from the examples above, it is also a place of expression, of creation and sometimes of recreation.

Integrating art, colour and unconventional elements in the transport network can improve the travel experience for passengers, and thus alter its perception and its role in the eyes of the public.

If you can think of any other unique and/or interesting examples/project that has enhanced and altered a passenger’s  journey on public transit, please feel free to share!

 

 

 

 

16
Dec

2015

How Not to Build an Urban Cable Car: Mississippi Aerial River Transit

The ill-fated Mississippi Aerial Rapid Transit (MART). As an aside, it ranks as one of the worst names you can have for a transit line. Image from Wikipedia.

Last week, Baton Rouge become the latest American city to announce plans to explore an urban gondola. This adds to the growing list of US cities such as San Diego, Seattle, Buffalo, Georgetown (Washington DC), and Staten Island (New York) who are actively considering/planning a Cable Propelled Transit system.

In typical fashion, the public reacted with a mixture of excitement, disbelief and and skepticism. Naturally, with Baton Rouge so close to New Orleans, the ill-fated Mississippi Aerial River Transit (MART) was oft-quoted.

Stephen Richards (via the Advocate) had this to say:

The worlds fair in New Orleans left us with a pretty nice gondola from New Orleans to the west bank. Seemed nice enough to keep, why didn’t that work? If that failed then why should we be so inclined, no pun intended, to raise these deals over Baton Rouge.

In all fairness, this is a legitimate question. Why a gondola and not another form of transport? If Baton Rouge begins studying an urban gondola, this and other questions will require some serious deliberation. For the city, I would recommend some time reviewing our FAQ.

But to specifically address the question of why MART was a failure, we need to step back and consider some of the factors that were present in New Orleans at the time.

 

1. Optimistic Projections

The New Orleans Historical reveals that during the 6-month long 1984 World Expo, the system was projected to transport 3 million riders (for a total revenue of $10 million to pay off a $8 million loan). However, due to low attendance actual ridership was only 1.7 million.

Now I’m not a banker but I’d imagine that the loans and associated repayment schedule provided to MART would be somehow aligned to the visitor forecasts. As a result, since both MART and the Expo both under-performed, MART was never able to repay their underwriters, Banque de L’Union Européenne of Paris.

Mind, 3 million riders is a lot of people.

Perhaps the world was different in the ’80s, and perhaps World Expos are historically busier than they were in New Orleans (some were and some weren’t), but 3 million riders in 6 months is still lofty.

In comparison to existing cable car numbers, very very few systems are able to break this mark. Even the Emirates Air Lines, whose opening coincided with the 2012 Olympics saw only 2.4 million riders in its first year (or 1.6 million riders in the first 6 months).

 

2. Marketing and Fare Model

After the end of the World Expo, system owners desperately tried to market the cable car as an alternative commuter transit line. While this sounds like a logical transition, in reality the system could never live up to its hype.

Once the higher-fare tourist line became a lower-fare public transit line, the system’s farebox recovery ratio plummeted to unrecoverable levels, thereby accelerating its demise. To highlight how ridiculous the fare model was for the average commuter, ticket prices were reportedly $25 for a monthly unlimited ride ticket or $50 for a monthly unlimited ticket which included parking.

Let’s pretend we’re commuters and purchased the $50 ticket. This means that you’re paying an extra $1.25/trip (40 trips per month) to drive to nowhere, park the car, hop on a (much slower) cable car, and land in what mostly was a transit desert with your office still miles away. While its demise was a given, the fact that it was able to last four months before it permanently closed is perhaps the most surprising.

 

3. Disconnected Transit Network

It might be one thing to market the MART for commuters, but ask any transport planner (or child) and they’ll tell you that the whole (in this case a transit network) is greater than the sum of its parts (individual lines).

In other words, when you build an isolated cable car which connects nothing to nothing, then, well, the results will be nothing. If you build something of value to people, whether it’s to provide an experience or to help them get to work quicker and cheaper, or better yet, both, then your system will naturally become a success.

Aside from the initial experience, the MART arguably has none of these qualities.

 

Will Baton Rouge’s Urban Gondola Be like MART?

From the information available online, it seems like the proponents are interested in improving transport connectivity to their Health District.

Since the concept is still in its infancy, it is difficult to say how successful or unsuccessful an urban cable car might be in Baton Rouge. But based on the initial thinking, there is definitely merit for further exploration.

Opened in 2002 at a cost of $10.9 million, the 580m long, 4 station Huntsville Hospital Tram transports 2,200 passengers each day. And yes, it doesn’t look like a CPT system, but the system is cable operated. Image from Wikipedia.

As much as some would like to bring up cases of unsuccessful cable cars to support their beliefs, it might be an useful reminder to note that a very successful (bottom supported) cable propelled system, the Huntsville Hospital Tram has been quietly operating in nearby Alabama for more than a decade now. And a little further to the north, the Indiana University Health People Mover is another interesting case study.

These systems are definitely worthy of further exploration, however that remains a story better left for another day.

17
Nov

2015

Bumblebees Can’t Fly

Above: A bumblebee not flying. Image by flickr user cuellar.

There exists an almost century-old anecdote about a German aerodynamicist and a bumblebee.

Over dinner, the aerodynamicist remarked to a biologist that – according to his calculations and the accepted theory of the day – a bumblebee was incapable of flight.

This, of course, wasn’t true. Bumblebees could fly (still do, I believe) and it didn’t matter that the aerodynamicist and his calculations said otherwise. Delighted by the absurdity of the situation, the biologist spread the story far and wide.

Is the story true? Who cares. It’s a good story and that’s all that matters.

Whether the story is true or not is irrelevant because as a fable and piece of folklore it resonates with us as human beings (check out The Straight Dope for their take on the tale).

For better or for worse, it’s a story that feeds people’s willful distrust of experts, specialists and trained professionals.

Most of the time, I think, we should listen to the experts, specialists and trained professionals. The reason they’re experts is because they know more about something than the general population does.

But the same mechanism that makes an expert an expert can also blind him to anecdotal reality. Nine times out of ten the aerodynamicist will be right with his calculations. But because he knows nothing about bumblebees and their biology, his calculations were worthless in the above situation because no matter what his equations foretold, we’ve actually seen bumblebees fly.

It’s in those moments where it’s incumbent upon the non-expert to point out the error – and incumbent upon the expert to admit his shortcomings.

According to the accepted theory of the day you probably can’t use gondolas as public transit. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t doing it.

A good rule to live by for non-experts: Defer to the experts until they’ve demonstrated themselves no longer worthy of the name.

A good rule to live by for experts: You’re ability to remain an expert is dependent upon your willingness to admit what you don’t know and defer to those that do.

 

11
Nov

2015

The Transit Geek’s Assumption

I think it fair to say most transit geeks/advocates/aficionados/whatever start from the following rational, central assumption:

The role of transit is to move as many people as quickly, cost-effectively and comfortably as possible.

Obviously some might favor one aspect of that assumption more so than others. Jarrett Walker, for example, would favor speed over all others while Patrick Condon is likely to skew towards the issue of comfort (for a great debate about this issue, check out Is Speed Obsolete? over at Human Transit). But generally speaking I think the above assumption is the unstated jumping off point for most transit geeks and their analyses.

It’s also probably the worst assumption any transit geek can make.

Let me explain:

When transit geeks argue about things like speed, capacity, station spacing, route alignments and technology, they are starting from a place that begins with the Transit Geek’s Assumption; that transit is about moving many people quickly, cheaply and easily. However transit isn’t about moving many people quickly, cheaply and easily. At least not entirely.

Transit is also about . . .

  • economic stimulus;
  • vote-buying through infrastructure;
  • real estate development;
  • dividing communities into pro-transit and anti-transit camps;
  • providing jobs to those who would build and operate said transit;
  • ego-centric legacy projects;
  • consulting contracts;
  • political gamesmanship and brinksmanship;
  • city marketing;
  • attention-seeking;
  • lobbying, lobbying, lobbying;
  • media coverage;
  • environmental improvement;
  • a whole host of other things.

Transit advocacy comes in many forms. Image by Elly Blue.

When you start from the Transit Geek’s Assumption, you trap yourself into believing that your worldview about transit is shared by everyone else. But it’s not. Transit is a deeply political act that engages – quite literally – millions of stakeholders, each with their own agenda.

Conflict is assured and arguments guaranteed.

Argue for (or against) a transit plan from the position of the Transit Geek’s Assumption against someone who doesn’t share that worldview and you’ve already lost the argument.

After all, a proposed transit line being too expensive isn’t an argument to a politician who explicitly wants over-priced Transit Bling solely to boost his media profile and garner him a front-page quote.

In fact, to him, the more expensive the better.

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