Thoughts

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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01
Apr

2016

The Irony of Cable Car Pranks on April Fools

For those who haven’t noticed yet, it’s April Fools today.

Of course, this means that a few media outlets have gone to great lengths to have a little fun and punk their audiences.

Hey look, it's a proposal that might potentially improve transportation. Ha ha. Jokes on you. Image from Isle of Wight Radio.

Look! It’s a proposal that might potentially improve transportation. Ha ha. Image from Isle of Wight Radio.

For gondolas, we’ve found two great stories so far: 1) A “green-lit” water-crossing cable car for the Isle of Wight, UK; and 2) A city-wide gondola network in Victoria, Canada.

The massive cable car proposal in Victoria is obviously ridiculous in that environment. But could maybe one or two strategically placed lines in the BC capital help improve transport and tourism? Of course. I see several interesting opportunities already.

As for the Isle of Wight prank, I honestly know nothing about the island. But from 30 seconds of Googling, it seems the island’s ferry system made 4.3 million trips across The Solent (strait) in 2012/2013.

Ferry routes. Image from Wighlink.co.uk.

Ferry routes. Image from Wighlink.co.uk.

There appears to be 3 ferry routes which range from ~6km (Lymington to Yarmouth, 40 minutes) to ~8km (Porsmouth to Ryde, 22 minutes) to ~11km (Portsmouth to Fishbourne, 45 minutes). The shortest distance between the island and the mainland is about ~4-5km.

For simplicity sake, we did a quick comparison between the Lymington to Yarmoth ferry route and a theoretical 3S system.

  • Frequency: Ferry @ 1 hour wait / 3S Gondola @ 35-person cabins every ~30 seconds
  • Travel Time: Ferry @ 40 minutes / 3S Gondola @ 12.5 minutes (assuming 6km, 8 m/s)
  • Capacity: Ferry @ 360 pphpd / 3S Gondola @ 4,000-5,000 pphpd

Judging solely on these three basic parameters above, a cable car can be designed to operate at a much superior level of service than the ferry. Furthermore in terms of environmental factors, average wind speeds of 27km/h may have little effect on a cable car’s performance.

Vietnam's Vinpearl Cable Car transports passengers

Vietnam’s 3.3km Vinpearl Cable Car is built with 9 towers (7 offshore towers in a seismically prone South China Sea) and transports passengers at heights of 115m. The cable car was actually built to replace the inefficient ferry system. Image by Flickr user gavindeas.

While it’s not possible to tell if a cable car can be economically viable at this time (depends on fare structure and volume), I suspect that adding another cross-strait transportation option may help drive down ferry ticket prices.

And this coincidentally might be important to locals and visitors since the strait is considered by many online commentators as one of the world’s most expensive stretches of water (single adult ticket costs US$14.25/£10).

I suppose the irony about this “joke” is there’s a good potential that there is significant technical and economical validity behind the idea. Despite the prank, this idea might actually deserve more analysis and attention.

Laughs and giggles aside, perhaps what is the most unsettling is this: while many of us in so called “developed” nations continue to mock and ridicule ropeways, many of those in “developing” nations have fully embraced the technology (see urban gondola map) and have decided to assess it based on its merits (rather than one’s preconceived notions).

For those who think a cross-Solent cable car is impossible, they might wish to take some inspiration from Vietnam’s 7.9km Hòn Thơm – Phú Quốc Ropeway. Best part is, the system has broken ground and scheduled to open in early 2017.

3S / Infrastructure / Innovations / Technologies / Thoughts
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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.

Thoughts
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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.

Thoughts
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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.

Thoughts
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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!

 

 

 

 

Thoughts
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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.

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