Fair Fares – Maokong Gondola

Post by Nick Chu

Image by Flickr user Jan.

The Maokong Gondola (Taipei, Taiwan) announced last December its intention to raise fares in the new year. These plans were officially confirmed by the city government in a news release this week.

Depending on the number of stations a passenger travels to, fares will increase by 130-150%. This might sound like a lot, but in reality the fares for a 1, 2 and 3 stop ride will be raised to US$2.10, US$3.00 and US$3.60 from US$0.90, US$1.20, and US$1.50 respectively.

While the gondola is owned and operated by the Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation (TRTC), the system is hardly a commuter system. Rather it’s ranked as one of the top tourist attractions in the Taiwanese capital and therefore, in our opinion, a fare hike was justified.

To perhaps curb local backlash, the TRTC offered a ton of discounts clearly aimed at dinging the tourists while saving locals money (1. EasyCard holders receive US$0.60 discount; 2. seniors, children, physically challenged, Taipei residents, and indigenous people receive US$1.50 discount; 3. local residents from nearby boroughs of Zhinan, Laoquan, Zhengda, and Wanxing can enjoy unlimited rides at US$1.80).

Related new articles appears to indirectly confirm my suspicions as operators realized that >60% of passengers were foreigners/non-Taipei residents! However, from a purely economic standpoint, the fare hike makes sense since the system lost US$3.0 million last year despite a ridership of 2.66 million. Readers would be hard-pressed to find another cable car in a similar money-losing situation.

For us that live in the West, a publicly-owned transport line that loses a couple million a year might not be a big deal (i.e. transit is supposed to be a social service), but this mentality does not hold true in many countries where transit is regarded as a profitable service. If we were to use TRTC’s farebox recovery as a barometer to gauge the city’s tolerance to a perpetual money pit, there likely isn’t much more patience for the gondola’s financial failures.

Glass floor cabins appear to be provided at no extra charge for passengers on the Maokong Gondola. In comparison, this feature on other cable cars can cost as much as 2x the regular ticket price! Image by Flickr user Yu-Chan Chen.

While some critics still worry about the effects this will have on ridership, my guess is that its impacts will be limited. Price conscious visitors will quickly learn just how much of a bargain the gondola is once they compare it to other attractions.

In fact, if you look at other comparable cable cars in the world, a 4.0km, 35 minute aerial gondola ride at US$3.60 with sweeping views of lush greenery might very well make the Maokong Gondola the “best valued” cable car in the world.



Photo of the Week: Portland Aerial Tram

Post by Nick Chu



A Reminder on Cable Car Safety

Post by Nick Chu

In the past weeks, a few lift incidents made headlines across North America. Dozens were evacuated after a chair fell down at Heavenly Mountain Sky Resort (Nevada), while a stranded passenger captured some incredible footage of his own rescue at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort (British Columbia).

Naturally since safety on Cable Propelled Transit is always a top concern, we thought it was important to provide readers not only with a refresher on this topic, but with a few updated stats to help keep discussions grounded in reality and not just perceptions.

To begin, a few years ago we came across data from Switzerland. In short, when compared to rail, trolley buses, auto buses and trams, funiculars and gondolas/aerial trams ranked the first and second safest amongst the transit technologies.

This of course, is quite significant since Switzerland is home to the highest, if not one of the world’s highest per capita use of cable transport systems.

For those that live in the USA, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) keeps a fantastic database on lift safety. In their latest 2015 report, they found that there has been zero fatalities related to ski lift malfunctions since 1993. In fact, since record keeping began in 1973, only 12 deaths are attributable to lift malfunction. Compared to fatalities per 100 million miles transported, ski lift passengers are five and eight times less likely to suffer a fatality than riding an elevator or driving.

However, these stats are slightly misleading for urban cable transit since this NSAA report included only chairlifts. And because cities never build open-air chairlifts, parsing gondola/aerial tram (that have fully enclosed cabins) systems from the dataset is important.

From my research online, the last deaths that I found on an aerial lift (with fully enclosed cabins) in the US happened in 1976 and 1978. These incidents occurred respectively in Vail (cause: frayed cable, maintenance negligence) and Squaw Valley (cause: act of god, high wind a likely contributor). This means that fully enclosed aerial lifts in North America have safely operated without a fatality in almost 40 years.*

So by any stretch of the imagination, these findings help reconfirm the incredible safety record of cable transport. At the same time, it is also a testament to professionalism and dedication of ropeway staff who work day in and day out to ensure that these systems are designed, and operated to the highest standards.


*Note: Fatalities were reported in Disneyland’s Skyway in 1994 and at the State Fair of Texas Skyride in 1979. However, these systems feature open-air gondola cabins. So for purposes of discussing safety levels of fully enclosed gondola systems (which are built in cities), these systems were not included in the analysis. 



New York Subway Shutdown: An Opportunity for Urban Gondolas?

Post by Nick Chu

East River Skyway

Conceptual rendering. Image from EastRiverSkyway.com

Brooklyn residents received some grim news this week as the governor announced plans to start repairs on the city’s L Train tunnels in late 2017. Officials estimate repairs taking anywhere from 1-3 years to complete. With this disruption, upwards of 300,000 -350,000 daily riders may be affected.

While this is terrible news for residents, this unexpectedly presents a massive opportunity for Cable Propelled Transit (CPT) to showcase its technological capabilities. Of course, a single urban gondola line by itself will not completely solve this transport problem.

However, the construction of any fixed link aerial transit system(s) can offer some degree of transport relief in comparison if nothing was done.


Roosevelt Island Tramway. Image by Nicholas Chu.


As farfetched as urban gondolas might still sound to some, there is in fact considerable evidence to suggest that CPT can build network resilience and offer reliable cross-river transport service. And for those (dis)believers, they need not to look any further than in their own city to the Roosevelt Island Tramway (RIT).

Since it’s commissioning in 1976, the RIT has had a colourful history. It was designed by visionaries from Lev Zetlin Associates who studied three separate transport systems (elevator, ferry and aerial tram) before cable technology was chosen. The tram was initially installed as a temporary transit line to provide instant transport connectivity prior to a subway stop on the island. However, heavy rail didn’t arrive until 1989 and by that time, the RIT had already become an icon of Roosevelt Island.

Before it was modernized in 2010 in just 9 months, the tram provided 2 million annual riders with 34 years of reliable service. While the tram suffered a few stoppages in the mid 2000’s, this was still impressive considering the system was only designed to operate for 17 years.


Unlike many mass transit technologies, we know from precedence that CPT systems can be built quickly and economically. As demonstrated by simple, cross-river city cable cars found in London and Koblenz, urban ropeways can be constructed in ~1 year.

In fact, the 1km Emirates Air Line, while ostensibly not built for the Olympics, was constructed in just 10 months time and was able open ahead of the Games’ opening cereomny. Moreover, even mega cable car projects such as the 4.4km Peak 2 Peak in Whistler took just 19 months.

Assuming decision-makers can expedite the development process for an urban cable car, a system(s) could theoretically be built and operational before the tunnels reopen.


Perhaps not surprisingly, other visionary city builders in New York have already proposed urban gondolas for improving transport between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Most recently, Daniel Levy from CityRealty, publicized his concept of the East River Skyway.

While the RIT was built to anticipate a subway opening, a theoretical “Brooklyn to Manhattan Cable Car” could be built to offer relief from a subway closure. These situations are not exactly the same, but it’s somewhat unreal to see how unbelievably comparable they are.

Who knows what kind of solutions the city comes up with, but if you ask us, it’d be somewhat irresponsible if officials didn’t once again seriously explore the feasibility of CPT.

Full Disclosure: Creative Urban Projects Inc. was retained by CityRealty as advisors on the East River Skyway Project. 



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

Post by Steven Dale

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



Photo of the Week: Linea Amarilla (Mi Teleférico)

Post by Nick Chu



Documentary: Cable Cars Designed To Transform Rio

Post by Nick Chu

Reader Ray W. shares with us a documentary of Rio’s Urban Cable Car (Teleférico de Alemão). While it’s a little dated (released July 2012), it is interesting to note how the country’s sense of optimism and economic conditions has waned so quickly in just a few years time.

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