Private Gondola Transport: A Sign of Things to Come?

Kadenwood Gondola. Canada’s first exclusive neighbourhood gondola. Image from Kadenwood.

Ropeways are built for many reasons: skiing, sightseeing, amusement, public transport, and private transport. Yes, that’s right private transport. It’s actually more common than you might think.

We’ve reported examples on the Gondola project before – like the Kriens funicular, Terra del Mar funicular, and of course, some of the rich and famous have their own personal systems.

Recently reader Evan J, sent us a video of Canada’s first exclusive neighbourhood aerial cable car, the Kadenwood Gondola.

Built for $3.5 million in 2008/2009, it serves the 60 home-sites in one of Whistler, B.C.’s wealthiest communities (lots start at $1.0 million, home not including).

A testament to the ski-in/ski-out lifestyle promise, the pulsed gondola transports residents from their doorsteps to the Whistler Creekside Village and the base of the Creekside gondola in 6 minutes flat – pretty useful to grab a pint in the village in case you didn’t want to call your chauffeur or get pulled over drinking and driving your Ferrari.

Astute readers will note that private gondolas are common in Europe and nothing to fret over. (You could even argue the people movers in airports and casinos are private ropeway transport.) Still, to us here in frozen old Canada, an exclusive gondola seems pretty special.

Aria Express (aka City Center Tram) is a bottom supported CPT system connecting the Bellagio and Monte Carlo casinos. Image from Wikipedia.

This got me thinking: do private gondolas have a role in society? Absolutely.

What implications could cost-effective private gondolas have for master planned communities around the world? Perhaps the future is one where governments pay for high-speed long distance trunk lines connecting different nodes while local developers pay for the internal circulators within.

Given the burgeoning income divide, great urban migration and increasingly broke governments, ropeways could behave like the entry points do now in privately owned, master-planned neighbourhoods.

We already see this today when it comes to roads.

Governments construct highways and major arterials while local developers pay for local roads in a development. Meanwhile, in dense urban environments, governments pay for transport infrastructure surrounding office and condo towers but don’t pay for internal public transit circulation within buildings.

That is, elevators — arguably the largest private public transit technology in the world, but so common, they’re rarely considered.

Should we be thinking about our public transit systems in a similar fashion? To do so, a low-cost and virtually on-demand system is essential. Subways and LRT are attractive but cost prohibitive to most private groups.

A lightweight and cost-effective gondola could fill this niche.

In fact, this trend seems to be already happening in many communities around the world. Developers in ski towns such as Breckenridge and Beaver Creek have already discovered the immense advantages of building gondolas around master planned communities.

Perhaps then it’s just a matter of time before others in the private sector catch onto the technology as cities did not too long ago.



Gulmarg Ticket Scam: An Expensive and Cautionary Lesson

Gulmarg Gondola. Image from Wikipedia.

A huge system of rip-offs was recently exposed in the Jammu and Kashmir Cable Car Corporation. This sophisticated and carefully organized scam sold cheaper, fake tickets to the public for the Gulmarg Gondola, one of Asia’s most scenic cable cars. The tickets looked so genuine that, according to the news story, management believes the scam could only have been an insider job. Authorities believe the fraud has been going on for a long time.

The scam was revealed when passengers were overheard speaking of cheaper but identical looking tickets. When their tickets were scanned for authenticity, it was only their bar codes that proved false and gave them away.

The entire affair is an expensive and painful lesson for the corporation and its shareholders. Gondola systems provide inexpensive infrastructure, but builders should not skimp on any necessary elements.

Had they used the cable car industry’s leading ticketing control systems, this scam would have been far harder to execute. We’ve always believed that it’s worth the investment to do things right. Paying for quality at the start means fewer hiccups later on. As the old saying goes, “you get what you pay for.” And in this case, they truly paid for what they got.



Would You Call This An Eye-Sore?

After ugly mobile homes die they could become ACTV vaporetto stations, but no one is calling this transit system an eye-soar. Image by Steve Bochenek.

After ugly mobile homes die they could become ACTV vaporetto stations, but no one is calling this transit system an eye-soar. Image by Steve Bochenek.

If you’ve ever been to Venice, you know that it is always busy and getting around is never easy. There are no roads, just canals and walkways between buildings which can suddenly shrink by 80%, courtesy of the unique and quaint if frustrating urban planning. If you’re in a hurry, learn to say ‘Permesso’ while gently pushing your way through the crowds — or travel by water on the vaporetto.

A vaporetto is a waterbus, part of the ACTV transit system. It boasts 19 lines and is well loved by locals and tourists alike. Venetians carting bags of groceries on vaporetti sit cheek by jowl with international visitors. You are continually reminded that, though this town’s biggest industries are tourism and art, people do live here and Venice is not just some huge wet marble museum.

Great views, mildly interrupted by cheap and practical infrastructure (on the left). Image by Steve Bochenek.

Great views, mildly interrupted by cheap and practical infrastructure (on the left). Image by Steve Bochenek.

Like any public transit system, you have to buy tickets, struggle with complicated route maps and endure advertising. Unlike many systems, this one’s infrastructure is simple with tiny costs, yet is a huge draw for locals and visitors alike.

For travelers on a budget, vaporetti are the best way to see Venice on the cheap. (Gondolas — the kind not typically promoted on this site — may be romantic and famous but they’re slow and instantly impoverishing.) The babble of languages I heard included French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Tagalog and of course English in American, Australian, South African, Scots and English varieties.

A rhetorical question: Do you think this highly practical form of public transport is an eye-sore and destroys views of Venice? Probably not, even though those diesel engines spew fumes and blast harsh noises that carry over the water and bounce against the marble palazzo, back in your ears. Imagine titanic bolts rolling around in a massive dryer. The vaporetto stations, squat yellow boxes of Plexiglas and metal, look like what mobile homes become after they die. And heaven knows the advertising for cosmetic dentistry and health insurance can be annoying.

Enjoy the view while waiting for your stop  — or read the ads! Image by Steve Bochenek.

Enjoy the view while waiting for your stop — or read the ads! Image by Steve Bochenek.

Quick, spot the eye-soar! (A vaporetto is on the right.) Image by Steve Bochenek.

Quick, spot the eye-sore! (A vaporetto is on the right.) Image by Steve Bochenek.

None of these annoyances were here hundreds of years ago and they do regularly interrupt a lovely vista — but clearly they’re not harming tourism.

In fact, the ACTV and its vaporetti are a vibrant and living case study of how interesting yet low-cost transit can also become a crowd-pleaser and moneymaker.

A mode of transportation loved by tourists and locals. Image by Steve Bochenek.

A mode of transportation loved by tourists and locals. Image by Steve Bochenek.

The word ‘eye-sore’ is a common complaint we hear in NIMBY meetings when the gondolas we do promote here are proposed — especially in North America. We think they’re practical with simple low-cost infrastructure and, drawing tourists and commuters alike, a boon to the economy. Just like Venice’s vaporetti.

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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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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”.

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