Subway Construction Has a History of Stalling

Would you rather float past this view with a gentle breeze blowing or melt for hours in a static taxi while the meter runs? Image by Steve Bochenek.

Would you rather float past this view with a gentle breeze blowing or melt for hours in a static taxi while the meter runs? Image by Steven Bochenek.

This may sound obvious but a major benefit of planning cable car infrastructure for cities is you can see where you are building. Such cannot be said for subways and, especially in historical cities like Rome, it is a major problem for urban planners and commuters.

In 2014, the first section of Rome’s Line C subway finally opened, years late. The extensions are delayed too. Line B, which opened in 1980, took 20 years to build!

The problem? It seems like whenever and wherever they dig, they find archeological curiosities. These may be treasures or trash. Either way, the discoveries demand that all digging stops — sometimes for years — until experts can determine the historical value. Then, if the site is deemed important, planners and builders have to find a way around the problem. And city councils have to dig for new funds.

Meanwhile grumpy voters choke on car fumes waiting sometimes decades for traffic solutions and public transit.

Cities like Rome have been built on top of themselves. That is, builders constructed new buildings atop the remains of the old. You can discover remnants as far down as 30 meters. Subway tunnels and stations are not a huge problem because they can be built deeper than that. The problem is access: the stairs, egresses and ventilation shafts. In Rome, some carefully planned stations ended up being scrapped altogether.

They say history repeats itself. How appropriate, then, that Emperor Hadrian’s Athenaeum halted the progress of a major Roman station. Hadrian was one who halted the expansion of ancient Rome itself, building a massive wall clear across northern England.


Buried surprises are not a problem only for the world’s few millennia-old cities. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority was constructing a subway beneath Battery Park and had to stop because diggers found the remains of the city’s original wall from colonial times. Mexico City’s subways unearthed priceless Aztec artifacts. Even relatively young Toronto has mandated that major developments be preceded by archeological digs in case of significant historical finds — and no wonder.


Halting construction puts people out of work. Temporary traffic detours take on an air of permanence. Budgets are blown. Costs skyrocket.

We wonder, why fight history at all? Surely cable car technology is the way of the future. Smart designers have proven that stations can be built nearly anywhere. (And at the risk of sounding obvious again, there’s no need for egresses or air-shafts!) Imagine a cable car route through central Rome. Picture yourself being whisked by the Coliseum, over the Forum and above congealed Roman traffic. What tourist and commuter wouldn’t pay for that?

The great city builders of the past always looked forward to the future. We believe that modern ones should be looking up.


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Why Commute When You Could Be Transported?


The Passo Salati, nearly 3,000m above sea level in Italy’s beautiful val d’Aosta, made easily accessible by Leitner’s uplifting cable car technology. Image by Steven Bochenek.

Oddly, one of the simplest but greatest joys I’ve experienced as a parent were Saturday morning subway rides with my daughter when she was between 3 and 6 years old. She loved the whole experience, from giving a ticket to the attendant in the booth, to looking out the window as the tunnel lights rushed by. “Thank you, daddy!” she’d openly gush, unaware how workaday the experience should be. Later, she took the same view of chairlifts and gondolas when she began skiing lessons at 7. “Look at the view! What a ride!” She found the actual skiing a fairly enjoyable bonus but, in those early days, looked far more forward to each exciting ride into the sky.

All kids are enthralled with all forms of transportation, be they buses, trams, cable cars or subways. The ride itself is the destination and we grownup commuters could learn a lot from our kids’ simple untainted wisdom. Luckily, when we ride with these tiny newcomers, we get to experience it anew through their eyes.

These days, a subway ride in any city in the world but my own can awaken some of the vicarious enthusiasm I felt on those Saturday mornings. But a ride in a cable car can immediately put me in her tiny ski boots! A subway ride is a commute. A gondola ride is transporting.

This past winter I was fortunate enough to spend a few days skiing in the Italian Alps, a top-ten bucket lister (now I just have to walk the Great Wall of China, run an ultra-marathon, and invent a time machine, then I’m done). The thrill of being dragged into the air and spoiled with gobsmacking views for the next 10 minutes practically pays for the cost of the lift ticket. Like my daughter during her first ski lessons, I almost found the ride down the slopes a pleasant bonus.

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Public Transit / Thoughts
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It’s a ‘Disruptive Game-Changer’ But Still There’s Much Ground to Cover

Last month, Dopplemayr made a big splash is the ropeway transit industry. They inked a deal worth nearly a half billion US dollars, for six new ropeway cable car lines in the neighbouring Latin American municipalities of La Paz and El Alto. Another 20km will be added to the existing ropeway system over the next four years. That will triple the system’s current reach, providing greater access for thousands of commuters. So it’s ‘a big deal’ for everyone.

In the public transportation sectors —where project costs routinely cost billions of dollars—this may not seem like a lot, but in the world of cable-propelled transit, it’s huge. Never has the industry signed a single deal of this size. “This second phase of the network in La Paz/El Alto is a milestone for urban applications of ropeways,” agrees Dopplemayr’s Marketing Director, Ekkehard Assmann.

Before the signing, Dopplemayr was already unquestionably the biggest player in the ropeway engineering industry. However you could have argued whether they dominated this specialized and uniquely challenging arena of urban cable transit. Now you cannot. This deal not only reinforces Dopplemayr’s market dominance, it positions them very well for the growing urban transit market.


This Is Good News For the Whole Sector, Not Just Dopplemayr

Make no mistake: a deal of this magnitude will create far more interest and growth in urban ropeways. Competitors are likely very envious at the moment, but they will benefit too. Remember the old saying, ‘A high tide floats all ships’. In other words, when a deal of this size goes through it’s good for the entire industry. Major contracts like this tend to increase momentum and the likelihood of future deals. Better still, all of us in the industry will learn a great deal from the next four years.

This deal is what the international business press would call ‘disruptive’ or a ‘game-changer’.

Note that we said ‘would’. A quick Google of the news revealed no attention from the major players, despite that it is the biggest deal of its kind, ever. So why is there this deafening silence?


“Next Stops, Europe and North America”

Currently this specialized industry is growing at a healthy rate. However that growth is almost exclusively in Latin American countries like Venezuela, Colombia and Bolivia. There is still ‘much ground to cover’ in prime markets — in the developed world. Cable-propelled transit needs to be sign as a solution for all congested cities.

The press has not picked up on the importance of the deal but should soon. Remember another popular saying, from Isaac Newton, “An object in motion tends to remain in motion.” With a project of this size on the go, congested and important cities in developed countries will start to notice. Indeed, they already are. This project positions Dopplemayr well to seize those prime opportunities on the near horizon. Ekkehard Assmann couldn’t agree more: “Many new business inquiries from cities worldwide underscore this point.”

For now, the whole industry is looking forward to answering those inquiries.



Assessing Intangibles in Transport Planning — Recreation, Chocolates & Proposals

Tourist riders on Medellin’s Metrocable. Image by Flickr user Juan Pablo Buritica.

As far as most transportation planners are concerned, urban transit systems should be evaluated based on major “function-related” items only (i.e. level of service, capacity, travel times, speeds, costs and etc).

Such an analysis is appropriate in transit applications if the only objective is to move users from point A to point B in the fastest and most cost-effective way possible. And in many instances, this is undoubtedly an important factor.

However, as astute readers know, debates on form vs function are often much more complicated than that — especially when “form-related” items are accounted for.

Factors such as experience and fun (novelty) are perhaps some of the biggest intangibles. For example, due to a cable car’s aerial nature, it often is a visible piece of infrastructure that provides passengers with panoramic views. In turn, this has the ability to improve ride experience, open up advertising partnerships and/or attract tourist riders.

While some of these items can be properly quantified in a study (i.e. sponsorship dollars), others such as the “fun” factor may be more challenging to address.

For instance, last week we reported that the Emirates Air Line cable car was offering romantic joint-ticket packages for Valentines Day. This week, we learned that the system transported over 25,000 passengers over the 4-day promotion period (nearly double the ridership over same period last year) while a marriage proposal took place in a private cabin.

Melanie, the lucky lady who was proposed to, was quoted saying:

“This was the most perfect moment just us, 100 feet up in the air surrounded by the awe of the London Skyline and with beautiful love songs serenading us. This moment we will remember forever. Waiting for sundown we took our return journey, now engaged and calling each other fiancé, the love songs continued to play as the sky went dark the lights of London came on and we enjoyed our chocolates absorbing the stunning scene. Richard pulled off a proposal beyond my wildest dreams.”

Something as simple (or as special) as the feasibility for a marriage proposal and dating event would be likely be lost in a traditional transport analysis because it’s beyond the purview of “transportation”.

But if you think about it, in many instances transportation is much more than simply getting from one place to another. Designed properly, it can be an integral part of a city that adds flavour and excitement to our lives.

So as transit plays a bigger role in everyday life for city residents, perhaps transport planners should start asking not only how public transport can move us around the city, but also how its intangibles can add character and open up opportunities for more “fun”.

Questions / Research Issues / Thoughts
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La Paz Announces 6 New Cable Car Transit Lines, Leaves Developed World in the Past

Linea Roja in La Paz, Bolivia. Image by Flickr user David Almeida.

Linea Roja in La Paz, Bolivia. Image by Flickr user David Almeida. (Creative commons.)

Forgive the pun, but with yesterday’s announcement of six new cable transit lines for La Paz, Bolivia, the developing world continues to show that it is actually capable of developing new transportation projects, whereas the developed world seems to be capable of little more than resting on the laurels of what was developed generations ago. 

Consider the Bolivian situation:

Not more than two years ago, the country announced three new cable car lines with a total distance of around 12 kilometres spread across 11 stations. Those three lines were all operational by the end of last year. This new announcement will add an additional 21 kilometres of lines distributed over 23 stations — all of which, presumably, will be built in the same speedy manner.

When completed, the system as a whole will offer a level of capacity beyond that of the average North American tram or streetcar, as well as wait times of seconds between vehicles — at a fraction of the price of other standard modes.

I have no desire here to get into a debate on the merits of cable propelled transit systems versus things like streetcars and light rail — pick whichever you like and built it.

But the key here is this: You’ve gotta actually build it. Read more

Thoughts / Urban Planning & Design
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Temporary Cable Cars: Where Are They Now?

Bundesgartenschau 2005 in Munich,. Image via Wiki commons.

Bundesgartenschau 2005 in Munich. Image via Wiki commons.

One of the biggest advantages of CPT technology, is that it’s relatively easy to relocate a system, or parts of a system, to another location — sometimes for an entirely different purpose. While it’s not unheard of to see decommissioned subway cars get recycled (the TTC in Toronto recently sent some cars to Nigeria), you can effectively decommission any CPT and then relocate it anywhere in the world

Here are a couple examples of this type of relocations.

Floridaebahn in TK. Image by Flickr user Jean Jones. (Creative commons.)

Floridae Bahn in Venlo, Netherlands. Image by Flickr user Jean Jones. (Creative commons.)

Floridae Bahn (Netherlands)
Built as part of the 2012 World Horticultural Expo in Venlo, Netherlands, this 1.1 km, two station system was dismantled that same year and shipped over to Silvretta Montafon, one of the largest Austrian ski resorts.

Rostock Sielbahn, 2003. Image by Arnold Schott (Wiki commons).

Rostock Sielbahn, 2003. Image by Arnold Schott (Wiki commons).

Sielbahn Rostock/Sielbahn Munich (Germany)
Another temporary construction for a flower show, the three-station Sielbahn system transported visitors around the site of the 2003 Federal Horticultural Show in Rostock, Germany. From there, it was moved to Munich for the 2005 edition of that same event. Over the course of the 13 total months that the Sielbahn was operational in both cities, the system moved close to 2 million passengers. After Munich, the system components were dismantled and sold for use in ski lifts in the US, Austria, and elsewhere in Germany.

Infrastructure / Thoughts
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Is Your (Gondola) Project Successful?

Dark Tunnel
Who knows. I certainly don’t.

It’s a question we get all the time. Is such-and-such a project a success? Is it going to be a success? Why was this project a success? Why was that project a failure?

Again: Who knows. I certainly don’t.

Success is one of those awful words that sounds great but means virtually nothing.

To measure success, one first has to know the intentions and strategic goals underlying the project. That goes not just for gondolas but any project.

That may seem blatantly obvious to some, but is too often completely outside of the debate when it comes to major infrastructure projects. Too often we focus on what we are building, instead of why we are building it. 

But that’s only half the problem. Another significant obstacle is that not everyone’s strategic goals are the same. Again — totally obvious to some but all too often missing from public debate about our infrastructure needs.

What’s worse is when the intentions are unintentionally miscommunicated or — even worse again — intentionally obscured. That’s why there’s such a debate about things like London’s Emirates Air Line. Everybody seems to think they know why it shouldn’t have been built, but know one really seems to know why it actually was built.

There’s a difference there, and an important one at that.

When you know the reason something was built, it’s far easier to measure whether it was a success or a failure.

In fact, there’s no other way.

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Thoughts / Urban Planning & Design
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