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.

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.

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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.


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 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.

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.



Something happening here? (Musical Musings on a Monday Morning)


As Bob Dylan once sang, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”. Photo by a bored and frustrated Steven Bochenek.

Recently I was at dinner with some good friends and, being a transit geek, began talking about urban gondolas as one way to ease urban traffic. My pal, who once believed gondolas would “never catch on in North America”, admitted how surprised he was to notice the Roosevelt Island Tramway on a recent visit to New York City. He was doubly surprised to learn it’s been there for almost 40 years.

New York has known congealed traffic for decades longer than most cities. It turns out, too, that New York never sleeps. So it should come as no huge surprise that their leaders would use some of that energy to try different solutions to bypass jams.


There’s hilarious footage at the beginning of John Lennon’s Live Peace movie from 1969. Just after the opening credits, the smart Beatle is being driven into town from the airport and the 401 highway, recognizable by us 2015 Torontonians, is utterly bereft of other vehicles, prompting the question: where were all the cars? Later during the concert part of the movie, Yoko caterwauls down the decades to us a discomforting answer to that question — don’t worry — and yes, you’ve been warned, it’s terrifying! Perhaps, our need to get from A to B is more comfortingly summarized by Lennon contemporaries, The Byrds, singing Dylan’s You Ain’t Going Nowhere.


Others stuck in traffic on this continent are starting to make that leap. A plethora of studies into gondolas as urban transport are underway, which chief Gondola Projector Steven Dale recently observed here.  The Gondola Project is in talks with potential partners across the continent, looking at the idea and so are others. Considering the costs in lost productivity, the choking fumes and wear and tear on vehicles that work better at a steady pace rather than continual start and stop, plus the wear and tear on frustrated drivers’ physical and mental health (road rage is exhausting) . . .  it simply makes sense to at least investigate alternatives.


Highway 400, just north of Toronto, almost 3 years ago. Photo by soon-to-be-gondola-convert Steven Bochenek.

Just this past weekend, yet another urban transit gondola proposal was put before Branson, Missouri Aldermen. The more studies, the better, as Steven said, because soon enough one or two will be approved. Then we’ll have momentum.

And, before you know it, we’ll be saying “It’s been here for 40 years”.

So, is it just us, or do you sense it too on this musical Monday morning? As John Lennon’s other contemporary Stephen Stills once sang, it seems like “There’s something happening here.”

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.

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Public Transit: Safety Should Never Be Compromised

Sometimes you forget how incredibly awesome and safe cable systems are – especially when entire systems are supported by a single cable the width of golf ball.

Note: this is a repost from an original article in 2012.

Last week, guest blogger Ryan O’Connor, wrote a brief analysis on the state of HSR (high speed rail) and the potential implications and lessons cable can learn from China’s recent love affair with rail. If you haven’t been keeping up-to-date with transportation news in China, last Saturday a tragic accident occurred when two HSR trains near Wenzhou collided.

Having just recently traveled to China and experienced the comfort and convenience of HSR, I cannot imagine the pain and sorrow that the victims and their families are experiencing.

Built partly to raise national pride and joy, the entire HSR network is now under extreme scrutiny as members of the public are demanding immediate answers from the government. Unfortunately, as China continues to build and develop HSR at such an unprecedented and feverish rate, quality and safety most likely will continue to arise. Hopefully this recent tragedy will serve as a grim reminder and lesson that safety should always be the paramount priority.

While the pace of HSR and CPT development are not nearly on the same level, the fact is, cable will also continue to grow. Let us hope that the growth of CPT technology continues to develop and evolve without any major setbacks.

In fact (although I don’t have the official statistics on hand) the safety record of cable technology since its inception is  nothing short of a remarkable achievement – probably one that is neither praised enough nor one that’s given the attention it deserves.

Can you think of the last time someone died in a gondola accident as a result of mechanical failure? Last one that comes to my mind is the Peak2Peak Excalibur Gondola tower failure, but no fatalities resulted.

So to all the cable engineer dudes and dudettes that may read this blog and the supporting staff that work day and night to ensure the safety of CPT passengers, on the behalf of the Gondola Project and myself, my hat goes off to you.


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.



“Cleaner” Transit Tech: Opening Reactions to MIO Cable

New transit infrastructure has the ability to excite people in many different and surprising ways.

Case in point: the recently opened MIO Cable in Cali, Colombia. We came across a heartwarming quote last week and just had to share it on the blog. Here’s what local resident Erlinda Tenorio had to say:

English: “Here we are rationing water, so I had to keep it in tubs and buckets so I could bathe and be ready for the opening [of the cable car]… There! There it is! Look, that’s my ‘ranch’ he shouts excitedly from one of the booths pointing to a small house made of brick and covered with shingles rusted zinc, where he has lived for forty years.”

Spanish: “Aquí estamos con racionamiento de agua, por eso me tocó guardarla en tinas y baldes para poderme bañar y estar lista para la inauguración… ¡Ahí está! ¡Ahí está! Mire, ese es mi ‘ranchito’”, grita emocionada desde una de las cabinas mientras señala una pequeña casa hecha en ladrillo y cubierta con tejas de zinc oxidadas, en la que vive desde hace cuarenta años.”

Now we’re not here to start a transit modal war nor are we transit zealots, but let’s be honest here, we highly doubt a bus (or even a train) could elicit such a response.


Akron Metro Gillig #2128 CNG

Would you ration water so you can bathe before you ride the new city bus? Well…I might but it’s really because I’m germaphobic (and a transit nerd).


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.

MIO Cable / Thoughts
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In Victoria, Australia Sour Grapes Are A Certain Shade Of Blue


Process indeed! Protestors consider legal action against this cable car’s very colour. (Photo credit:

Last week the state government of Victoria, Australia signed a 50-year lease for a new tourist-oriented gondola on Arthurs Seat. It replaces a 1960 2-person chairlift that was shuttered in 2006 after a series of incidents. The process was long and arduous but necessary, following all the rules.

With the lease in place, the Arthurs Seat Skylift is essentially a go. Or is it?

The opposition group, Save Our Seat (SOS – get it?) appears hell-bent on delaying, obstructing and otherwise harassing a project that’s been in the works for years. Kyrie Greer of SOS said to the Mornington Peninsula News “it is shameful Parks Victoria and the state government have not gone with a more environmentally sensitive approach to revitalizing such an important part of Victoria’s heritage. Eco-tourism is the way of the future, not electricity-driven, high infrastructure-based developments.”

Apparently Ms. Greer doesn’t know that all transportation systems are electricity-driven. The cleanliness of a transit mode — or anything powered by electricity — is determined by: a) the fuel used to produce the electricity and b) how much electricity the transport system uses.

Ms. Greer never stated what the preferred alternative is (perhaps donkeys?) but vowed to continue the fight against the system, despite agreeing there’s “now little chance of stopping Skylift.”

SOS’s next tactic could be to challenge the system based upon it’s colour which is reported to be Pantone Process Blue. SOS is seeking legal advice about the council’s decision regarding the colour and may apply to the Victoria Civil and Administration Tribunal if there are “sufficient grounds to challenge it.”

Yes, the colour. Seriously.

Stuff like this is infuriating. Not because it’s about gondolas but because it’s about people incapable of swallowing sour grapes, attempting to subvert proper process because they didn’t like its results.

In life, sometimes things don’t go your way. In fact, most things won’t go your way. That’s just the way it is. Understanding that is part of being a mature person and a good local citizen.

Democracy may grant you the right to an opinion but nowhere is it written that your opinion has to be right. The democratic is also expensive and stuff like this needlessly increases costs. A good citizen doesn’t try to delay and subvert proper process by filing trivial grievances that waste everyone’s time and money.

I don’t know if the Arthurs Seat Gondola is a good idea or a bad idea and frankly I don’t care. It’s not my decision to make. It’s the decision of the State of Victoria, Parks Victoria and the local community council. And all parties have decided the gondola is a good idea.

I hope those parties also decide that Pantone Process Blue shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of proper process.

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.

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