Urban Planning & Design

14
Jan

2016

Hamilton Gondola — We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

NOTE: An earlier version of this post originally appeared on December 4th, 2009 (yup, that’s over 7 years ago, kids). At that time, the report “City of Hamilton Higher Order Transit Network Strategy” was available online. Unfortunately, it is no longer available. 

Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know and that’s really nobody’s fault.

For example:

In the spring of 2007 a working paper by IBI Group called City of Hamilton Higher Order Transit Network Strategy came out. For those who don’t know, Hamilton is a city in southern Ontario that is cut in half by a 700 kilometer long limestone cliff that ends at Niagara Falls. It’s called the Niagara Escarpment and has made higher-order transit connections between the Upper and Lower cities difficult.

You See The Difficulty

You See The Difficulty

In the IBI paper the writers conclude that a connection between the Upper and Lower cities is “physically impossible” and that the Niagara Escarpment Commission might “strongly resist” any new crossings of the escarpment. As such, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) became the focus and preferred technology of the report. That’s because streetcars and Light Rail can’t handle inclines of more than about 10 degrees. The only way for a rail based technology to work, IBI concluded, was if a tunnel or viaduct was built.

No where in the report, however, was Cable Propelled Transit (CPT) even mentioned, despite cable’s ability to resolve most if not all of the issues IBI highlighted.

It’s no real surprise. Back in 2007 there was virtually no publicly accessible research available on cable. Believe me, I know; I had just started my research in 2007 and it was incredibly difficult to find anything.

Should IBI have considered cable? Should they have known about cable? I don’t know . . . and furthermore, I don’t think it’s relevant to this discussion. What you don’t know, you don’t know and that’s all there is to it.

What is, however, relevant to our discussion is this:

Hamilton Gondola

Photoshop of a gondola traversing the Hamilton Escarpment. Image via Hamilton Spectator.

The City of Hamilton is now updating their Transportation Master Plan and they’re surveying the public on their opinions. And the survey includes a question on gondolas. Last summer, meanwhile, around half of the people that responded at Hamilton’s Transportation Master Plan public meetings said they liked the gondola concept.

So why does that matter?

Because in less than 7 years’ time, a large North American city made a complete about-face on this matter. They went from a place where they thought (incorrectly) that a specific transit problem could not be solved with a fixed link solution due to their topography; to a place where they are actively soliciting the public’s opinion on using a gondola to solve the very problem they previously thought couldn’t be solved.

I know people in the cable car industry think seven years is a lifetime. And it is. But not to a large municipal bureaucracy. To a city, seven years is a heartbeat. In a heartbeat, Hamilton went from basically not even knowing cable cars exist to considering it as a part of their overall Transportation Master Plan.

That’s progress no matter how you look at it.

Creative Commons image by John Vetterli

Analysis / Hamilton / Research Issues / Urban Planning & Design
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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.

13
Oct

2015

The 10 Most Beautiful Examples of Elevated Transport Infrastructure – Part 2

As I said yesterday, elevated transport infrastructure don’t get no love.

In this, the second of two posts, we wrap up our list of the 10 most beautiful examples of elevated public transport infrastructure from around the world.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

 

5. Station Square, Forest Hills Gardens – Queens, New York

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Forest Hills Station. Image by flickr user Peter Dutton.

As one of the first stops along New York City’s Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) commuter rail system, Forest Hills station is something to behold. Or not . . .

After all, the station itself is somewhat invisible, playing second-fiddle to the rest of the square. It doesn’t announce itself the way the rest of the plaza does, but instead acts as a curious Northern gateway into the square for daily commuters. Built in 1906 for the wealthy residents of Forest Hills Gardens of Queens, New York Station Square, understands the importance of vistas and viewsheds. It harkens back to old Europe, a place where enclosed public plazas are as common as parking lots are in Texas.

Read more

05
Oct

2015

Medellin/Caracas, Part 1

Last week I travelled to Medellin, Colombia and Caracas, Venezuela to tour five of the most important CPT systems in the world. This is Part 1 of a photo essay on those systems. In this part, a brief overview of the history of cable transit in this part of the world will be explained. Image by Steven Dale.

HISTORY

Modern Cable Propelled Transit started in Caracas, Venezuela with the Mount Avila Gondola. This system was originally built in the middle of the last century to carry people from Caracas to the top of Mount Avila where the luxurious Hotel Humboldt had been built. Political and economic strife caused the government to leave for neglect both the hotel and gondola. The gondola itself was not reopened until 1999, after a successful rebuild.

The Avila Mountain Gondola In Caracas. Image by Steven Dale.

An Avila Mountain Gondola From Below. Image by Steven Dale.

A gondola passes over two original and well-preserved antique gondola cars at the Mount Avila Caracas Terminal. Image by Steven Dale.

The Avila gondola cannot, however, be truly classed as cable transit. It lacks integration to the local transit network and really exists more for tourists, not local commuters. It did, however, indirectly inspire the nearby city of Medellin, Colombia to pursue a fully-integrated CPT system to serve the impoverished and dangerous barrio of Santo Domingo. The system would take almost 5 years to open, from conception to fruition and would be the world’s first true CPT system. They would name it The Metrocable. The first line, consistent with the city’s existing Metro system, would be named Linea K.

A Linea K Metrocable Car in Medellin, Colombia. Image by Steven Dale.

The Metrocable over top the Santo Domingo barrio. Image by Steven Dale.

Gondolas depart a Linea J Metrocable station. Image by Steven Dale.

Metrocable Linea K would be an enormous success. Crime rates in Santo Domingo plunged and area investment skyrocketed. In the four years since Linea K opened, crime in Santo Domingo virtually disappeared, jobs have increased 300% and 3 banks have opened along the Metrocable route. With such an obvious success story, Metro officials had little trouble convincing decision-makers to open Linea J.

Unlike Linea K, Linea J would connect several smaller barrios in the western end of the city. These barrios suffered from similar economic conditions but did not have the population density that Linea K had. This was considered a good thing as Linea K suffered from overcrowding almost immediately upon opening, a situation not witnessed on Linea J.

A Linea J gondola. Image by Steven Dale.

Meanwhile, Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela was not to be undone. The opening of the second Metrocable line in Medellin made Chavez lust after a similar system in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. Within 2 years, Chavez’s dream would be realized with Caracas opening their own cable transit system in early 2010. It was also to be named The Metrocable.

Like the Medellin systems before it, the Caracas Metrocable would provide transit to under-serviced barrios with a history of crime and poverty. But unlike the Medellin systems, Caracas would feature enormous stations that included social facilities such as gymnasiums, police stations, community centres and markets. The Caracas Metrocable would also be the first in the world to feature extreme 90 degree turning radii at stations.

Gondolas enter and exit a station in Caracas. Image by Steven Dale.

The Caracas Metrocable. Image by Steven Dale.

The Metrocable loop between Medellin and Venezuela came full circle in early 2010. While Chavez was opening his first system in Caracas, Medellin was opening their third Metrocable line. But this time, the line looked more similar to the original Mount Avila system from Venezuela circa 1999.

While still fully-integrated into the Medellin Metro, the new Linea L services the Parque Arvi at the top of a nearby mountain in Medellin and requires an additional fare of 1,550 Colombian Pesos (roughly $1 US dollar). Linea L would give quick, affordable access to wilderness and parkland facilities that had previously only been accessible to wealthy land-owners in Medellin. This was a welcome change, given Colombia’s historically wide gap between rich and poor.

A Linea L gondola. Image by Steven Dale.

Medellin as seen from the Linea L, Parque Arvi nature preserve. Image by Steven Dale.

Both cities are engaged in major plans to expand their Metrocable offerings and cities throughout Latin America are embarking upon cable transit plans of their own.

Read Part 2.

08
Sep

2015

Reviewing Good Advice: Low Profile Urban Gondolas

This piece was first published on The Gondola Project in 2010 but it is still highly relevant and useful. It’s about keeping your head low to the ground being unobtrusive; useful advice from a Canadian.

There’s a story about Cable Propelled Transit, Aerial Ropeways and Urban Gondolas that only hurts the technology’s future. Unfortunately, the industry does little to stop the spread of this story.

The story is simple: If you build an urban gondola, you’ll have vehicles flying over tall buildings, hundreds of feet in the air!

This story is bad for cable. Here’s why:

Read more

02
Sep

2015

What Drunken Bicycling Means For Transit Planners

1024px-A_beer_bike_by_The_Party_Bike_at_Atek_Customs

Such a bad (good?) idea. Image via Wikipedia.

Last week I had the good fortune to be in Madrid for one of my oldest, dearest friend’s bachelor party. Suffice it to say, hosting a bachelor party in Madrid—with its notoriously raucous nightlife—is roughly equivalent to putting Kanye West on stage at the MTV VMAs. Bizarre things are going to happen.

Our evening began in downtown Madrid with a few casual drinks . . . atop a mobile pedal-powered bar.

If you haven’t seen these contraptions before, I can assure you they are terrifyingly real. Whether you call them Party Bikes, Pedal Taverns or Beer Bikes, they are basically a series of tandem bikes welded to the sides of a mobile pub.

And as the word “pub” implies, these are fully-operational bars with working beer taps that allow passengers the ability to pour their own pints while cycling through downtown traffic.

Somehow these things are street legal in numerous jurisdictions around the world. The company we rented from operates from 10am in the morning till 10pm at night. The only restriction we were informed of was not to pour beer on passing cars or pedestrians. We had to sign a waiver.

(In our hometown of Toronto, Canada, it is illegal even to share a bottle of wine with friends at a picnic in a park, so I suspect we won’t be seeing any Trolley Pubs in the Great White North any time soon.)

Based upon various readings from our various personal electronic devices, our top speed in Madrid was somewhere in the 3-5 km/hr range. And again, we weren’t in some specially reserved “Party Bike Diamond Lane.” We weren’t in a park. We weren’t on the sidewalk. We were in the midst of thick, dense urban traffic in the most heavily-touristed part of a city of 6 million people.

We had to navigate this monstrosity through a multi-lane traffic circle while pouring alcoholic beverages for ourselves.

And here was the shocking thing — no one seemed to mind. We screwed up traffic along the way worse than a donkey-powered ambulance. But everyone we passed took pictures, cheered us on and just generally enjoyed the absurdity of what they were seeing (ourselves included).

The only people who seemed even remotely annoyed by our existence were the occasionally disgruntled bus and taxi drivers—which was ironic given the fact that they had the benefit of driving in a dedicated lane that avoided all other traffic disturbances.

Whether you believe that bicycling drunk with a dozen of your friends through downtown traffic at any given time of day is the worst idea in the world or the best idea in the world (it’s both), I think we can all agree on one thing — this is a transit planner’s worst nightmare.*

I don’t know this for certain, but I’d wager fifty dollars right here and now that there isn’t a transit or traffic planner’s model on the face of this earth that has a Party Bike variable. Not one. Such a thing is too outside the norm to bother. And yet I can 100% assure you traffic in Madrid was significantly and adversely affected by a bunch of inebriated idiots on a mobile tavern.

The company we rented the bike from appeared to have around three or four of these bikes in their garage. Logical reasoning tells us therefore that there could be up to four Beer Bikes circling around downtown Madrid at any given time.

Again, a transit planner’s worst nightmare.*

Here’s the thing: While the Beer Bike unquestionably causes a disruption to the rest of traffic, I want to live in a world where asinine nonsense like the Beer Bike exists. The very reason people choose to live in cities is because—as famed urbanist Jane Jacobs put it—“cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

In other words, asinine nonsense like Beer Bikes exist because there exists a contingent of people who want to ride it. It’s no different for artisanal mustard shops and cat cafés.

IMG_2442

A bachelor party in Berlin. Photo by (a gobsmacked) Steven Bochenek.

A transit planner cannot possibly plan for all eventualities. There’s simply no way a planning professional could anticipate the popularity of something so stupid, juvenile, yet unquestionably awesome as a Beer Bike. All that can be done is to plan around it. That’s why you separate public transit; so as to allow things like the Beer Bike to exist while inconveniencing as few people as possible.

We all know that transit works best when it’s in its own dedicated rights-of-way. Whether it’s in specific bus-only lanes, underground in tunnels or overhead in cable cars, transit can only truly function when separated from the unpredictably wonderful carnivalia of urban life.

Great cities—world-class cities—get that. Great cities don’t need to agree with the Beer Bikes, themselves. Great cities do, however, agree to their right to exist and simply plan around them.

 

*Editor’s note: Planners are a pretty clever bunch. Leaving room for the imagination, perhaps beer bikes are only the urban planner’s second-worst nightmare.

 

Urban Planning & Design
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13
Jul

2015

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.

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