Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Gondola Transit Gaining Fans

Yes, maybe it is time to take the lowly gondola seriously.  The obvious application is to link stations on a major transit line in a city to close by high density destinations that are not conveniently reached by the transit service itself.

In Vancouver, running a gondola from the nearby sky train station up the mountain to SFU is likely the only correct solution available.  The horizontal distance is less than two miles.

As stated and this is true for all transit solutions, it all comes down to traffic.  It is encouraging however that a temporary application proved popular enough to keep.

What is most interesting is that a gondola system just may be viable as an alternative to rail for high volume point to point transit.  In a city like Los Angeles which desperately needs point to point transit to overcome the disastrous decisions of the past, this may actually be a feasible solution.  It has long been proven that a train system is impossible to put together because of severe local resistance.  Besides, this is the one system that can obviously survive an earthquake.

Over the top: Transit planners look to gondolas to put an end to urban gridlock

Tristin Hopper  Mar 9, 2012 – 8:45 PM ET | Last Updated: Mar 9, 2012 8:52 PM ET


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The Roosevelt Island tram rides over New York on November 30, 2010. Transit planners suggest Toronto may benefit from its own gondola transit line.

Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre, the largest hospital in Alberta, suffers from what transit planners call a “last mile” problem. The city’s LRT line can get commuters within sight of the hospital at the University of Calgary, but the remaining two kilometres are a maddening jumble of freeways and suburbs. To close the gap, it is either a half-hour walk or a winding bus trip that stops at the hospital’s front curb. Annoying during the summer months, the trip is downright miserable in a minus 40 windchill.

Toronto-based urban planner Steven Dale came last month to Calgary with a pitch: Why not simply leapfrog over the road network? While buses and trains slip and stall in the slush below, a cable-suspended gondola could soar above the congestion, depositing commuters into a receiving area built right into the hospital building.


Lucas Jackson/Reuters
The Roosevelt Island tram

For years, gondolas have been dismissed as the purview of ski resorts and amusement parks. Yet, cleaner than buses, cheaper than subways and less intrusive than streetcars, modern gondolas are increasingly breaking out of their kitschy role and hitting drawing boards as the ideal way to close the gaps and relieve the bottlenecks of North American transit networks. “Just literally go right over top of it,” said Mr. Dale.

In the early 1970s, a new housing development was nearing completion on New York City’s Roosevelt Island when planners realized it would still be a few years before a subway link to the island would be finished. In its place, New York transit planners proposed an unorthodox solution: Ship in a couple of trams from Europe and temporarily winch commuters to Manhattan on a cable strung over the East River. The island’s several thousand residents soon became enamoured with their temporary tram, however. In 1989, when local authorities came to tear it down, the citizenry blocked their way.

“It’s safe, it’s smooth, it’s clean, it’s wheelchair accessible, it’s a great tourist attraction — we love it,” said Judith Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society. Forty years later, the iconic red tram remains one of only two transit gondolas in North America, the other being a $57-million aerial tram opened five years ago in Portland, Ore.

“For some reason, people see gondolas as science fiction, it’s just way too much to swallow,” said Bryce Tupper, a Vancouver-based engineer specializing in gondola transit. Every day, thousands of Vancouverites get to work on computer-controlled elevated trains and Montrealers board rubber-tired metro cars to speed underneath the icy waters of the St. Lawrence River. But amazingly, to the average city planner, the humble gondola remains in the same realm as flying cars and Jetsons-style pneumatic tubes. “The vast majority of people have never contemplated using a gondola as public transit,” said Mr. Dale.


Getty Images /ThinkStock

Along with the Roosevelt Island tram, the Portland Aerial Tram is the only other gondola transit line in North America.

Mr. Dale was a post-grad when his girlfriend invited him to spend a summer in her central Switzerland hometown. On a mountain hike one day, she suggested they cut the ascent time by boarding a gondola. Hesitatingly stepping aboard the “terrifying, rickety” Second World War-era gondola, Mr. Dale saw a truck cruising along a mountain service road directly below them. The mundane sight stirred the young urban planner. “I thought, ‘Oh, there’s no traffic 25 feet in the air,’” he said.

Cheaper than subways and less intrusive than streetcars, modern gondolas are breaking out of their kitschy role

Back home in Toronto, he began a secret file on transit gondolas and aerial trams. (A gondola features cabins suspended from a continuously circulating cable while an aerial tram consists of two counterbalanced cabins shuttling back and forth.) “I wasn’t telling anyone because I knew how ridiculous the idea was,” he said. Gondolas are high capacity, he found. A large, transit-ready gondola can carry 6,000 people per hour per direction (a standard measurement of transit capacity). By contrast, a Toronto streetcar at rush hour can only accommodate one-third that many. Most importantly, gondolas are a bargain. No tunnels, no tracks, no traffic congestion; all a gondola needs are a few towers, a power station and a length of cable. Direct comparisons are hard to make, said Mr. Dale, but generally a gondola is only a third to half the cost of a light-rail line.

Two years ago, Mr. Dale’s company, Creative Urban Projects, went live with, which he describes as the first English-language website disseminating gondola-related information. “It’s no coincidence that in the last two years since we’ve been doing this website, virtually every major market, virtually every major market within Canada has already begun to explore the technology.”

As part of planning for Canada’s bicentennial, Ottawa mulled the idea of a gondola connecting Parliament Hill with the Canadian Museum of Civilization across the Ottawa River in Hull, Que.

In 2009, TransLink, Vancouver’s regional transit authority, commissioned a feasibility study for a gondola connecting the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby to the mountaintop campus of Simon Fraser University. Currently, the alternative is a steep, winding bus ride. “We burn a lot of diesel going up the mountain, and a lot of brake pads going down,” TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie told Postmedia in 2010. And if the rain falls too hard or the roads ice over (a four-times yearly occurrence), Translink suspends service, effectively trapping the student body.

But boutique solutions are only the beginning for the gondola. Once commuters are comfortable with the idea of getting to work about 12 metres above street level, then cities can really get serious about pumping up their transit grids with airborne cables. Although the average North American has only seen the technology used to bridge a pair of distant landmarks, gondolas can go over rivers, underground, over mountains and through buildings. “There’s a system in Singapore where the intermediary station is on the eighth floor of a skyscraper,” said Mr. Dale.


Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images
The Alemao shantytown teleferico (gondola) in Rio de Janeiro

One plan imagined by Mr. Dale on involves a cheap, four-station gondola line used to relieve pressure on Bloor-Yonge, the packed intersection of Toronto’s two primary subway lines. The concept of a “Downtown Relief Line” has captivated Toronto subway riders for decades, but has never achieved a go-ahead. Gondolas could be a quick fix. Then, once the technology has “proved its worth,” said Mr. Dale, the Toronto Transit Commission could string additional lines to the city’s notoriously hard-to-reach Exhibition Place and Toronto Island Airport.

In South America, multi-station gondola lines have already emerged as social tools to connect the continent’s hilly, crowded metropolises. In Rio de Janeiro last year, officials opened a six-station gondola line carrying passengers over the winding, dangerous streets of the city’s infamous favelas. In Medellin, Colombia, two full-length gondola lines have now been installed to bring people from the region’s marginalized neighbourhoods to the city’s business hub. The area “now has more dignity and the quality of life has improved. Before there was practically no hope; for me this is a miracle,” Luz Marina Giraldo, a community leader in the Comuna 13 slum, was quoted as saying in the Latin American Herald Tribune.

Of course, South American cities do not have to navigate the same issues of privacy. Subways operate unseen and even an elevated train can be blocked out with some shrubbery, but gondolas give commuters a bird’s eye view of the patios and bedroom windows of the homeowners below. Privacy “might be one of the biggest limiting factors out there,” said Mr. Tupper, who worked on the Burnaby plan and the Peak 2 Peak, a $51-million, four-kilometre-long gondola running between Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Mountain.

In April 2007, four months after the grand opening of the Portland Aerial Tram, commuters noticed a large “F––– THE TRAM” banner tied to one of the rooftops below — homeowner Justin Auld’s crude protest against the carloads of people suddenly peering into his backyard. The banner was easier than giving the middle finger to the tram every time it passed, he told a local TV station.


Dale de la Rey/AFP/Getty Images
A gondola over Hong Kong

In June 1956, on the invitation of Walt Disney, Los Angeles’ Swiss Consul General journeyed to the recently opened Disneyland to inaugurate the park’s newest attraction: the Swiss-built Skyway, a $300,000 gondola line. A Disneyland staple until its dismantling in the 1990s, passengers would get aboard a two-seat steel “bucket” in Fantasyland, climb through the Matterhorn, pass over the submarine lagoon and disembark three and a half minutes later at a terminus in Tomorrowland.

Just like the Disneyland monorail and the PeopleMover, Walt Disney imagined the Skyway as a taste of things to come. In an interview prior to the ride’s opening, the Disney founder described gondolas as “a transportation system of the future,” according to the 1995 book Disneyland: The Nickel Tour.

Instead of inspiring a new generation of urban planners, however, all the Skyway did was spur legions of Disneyland imitators. Soon, the Skyway’s Swiss manufacturer was filling orders for marina, zoos and amusement parks all across the United States.

In 2001, planners in Oakland, Calif., broached the idea of using a gondola to plug the city’s transit grid to a development taking shape across the harbour at an abandoned naval station. The proposal was greeted with eye-rolls. “At first I thought it was a complete nutty idea,” said Tony Bruzzone, a San Francisco-based transportation planner for planning firm ARUP, which would later work on the Portland Aerial Tram. “I thought ‘it’s an amusement park ride, it won’t stand up to real service.’”

Looking closer, however, Mr. Bruzzone and others were soon won over, although the development was derailed by land-use concerns and the 2008 financial meltdown. “When you research it, there are definitely advantages,” said Mr. Bruzzone.

Mr. Dale often fears that his clients see him as a real-life Lyle Lanley, the Music Man-esque character on The Simpsons who cons the people of Springfield into buying a monorail. Ironically, if gondolas are ever going to be criss-crossing the downtowns of Canada, Mr. Dale said he will need to frame the technology in terms that are as boring and utilitarian as possible; no more thrilling than buses, streetcars or subways.

“It’s just another tool — we’re not gondola nuts,” he said.

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