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Gondolas Could Be the Next Great Urban Transportation Device (wired.com)
71 points by sardonicbryan 1759 days ago | hide | past | web | 54 comments | favorite

A Siemens S70 LRV such as the ones used on the LYNX Blue Line in Charlotte, NC, can hold 68 passengers sitting, 230 including standers. One train comes every ten minutes peak, fifteen minutes off. This means we have a max capacity of 1380 pphpd (passengers/hour/direction) peak, 920 pphpd off.

These gondolas look like they can hold a max of about six passengers, but there's also a lot more of them. The article offhandly mentions a peak headway of thirty seconds. This implies a max capacity of 720 pphpd peak. For the same max capacity as current Blue Line service, we'd need to land a gondola every 15 seconds. The catch is that the Blue Line still has room to add trains, but landing a gondola every 15 seconds is probably pushing it.

I was expecting this to turn out rather poorly in the gondolas' favor, but considering the major advantages in capital cost, this actually doesn't look too bad. And they do have a point about high-frequency services attracting ridership. The main question is whether they can actually pull this off for the stated capital costs, and whether the operations and maintenance costs will come back to bite you later.

Gondolas, like elevated monorails and trains, have an unfortunate failure mode which is 'stopped and trapped' so in the event the system has to stop, everyone is 'trapped'. Back in pre-historic times when Disney ran their 'people mover' (which finessed the load/unload option quite well with the moving platform, one load/unload every 10 seconds) they talked about systems with excess cable such that in an emergency the gondolas could all lower to the ground. But that is impractical in longer runs (the wire buffer needs to be too long) and has its own issue if it lowers the gondolas in a non-emergency situation.

The best things they have going for them are that you can easily re-use existing right of way, and the per-mile implementation costs can be lower than conventional light rail or subways.

My favorite system that was spec'd but never built was the Chicago PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) which had four person 'cars' on a track that worked like elevators. You pushed a button at the track and an empty car arrived, you got in and punched your destination. It didn't have to stop until you got there. That particular system had issues with the amount of computer power it needed, although today it would be trivial to implement. If you can imagine autonomous vehicles on a track with 'smart' switches, its a lot easier than a self driving car.

What if we added a rolled-up rope ladder inside each gondola? Also, if they are laid over the existing road network, in the case of major failure you could have the fire department rescue the people who can't climb down a ladder on their own.

> What if we added a rolled-up rope ladder inside each gondola?

Many would find that terrifying, so would still be trapped.

The way the "trapped" situation is solved for large Ferris wheels is a secondary spool of cable that you can attach to a truck and propel the system for long enough to evacuate it. That strikes me as applicable here.

In ski resorts, having to rescue people in stopped gondolas is an extremely rare event. I wonder what the fatalities per kilometer per passengers are, but I wager they are lower than urban bus transportation.

Looks like you have not been in a large ski resort lately - throughput of common cable transportation is at least double the 720 pphpd you estimated. There are now 40 years of experience in increasing cable car throughput. As urban transportation, Medellín and Caracas put 3000 people through per hour in each direction. The Rheinseilbahn in Koblenz gets 3800 people per hour across the river in each direction. 6000 people through per hour in each direction is nowadays considered within reach of the current technology.

From a comment on the article:

"the Rheinseilbahn ("rhine ropeway") can move 7600 people max. per hour in both ways, that's a world record at the moment. It connects two parts of the city across the river rhine. "

I have personally used gondolas which fit far more than 6 people, so your max throughput is actually quite high.

As the transit planner Jarrett Walker regularly reminds readers on his blog[1] and book of the same name, the real things that make a mass transit project effective are not about the particular technology being used to do the moving. The geometry of the network, its connections, and its schedule of service are what actually make it usable.

[1] http://www.humantransit.org

Getting it built should be added to that list. Gondola has an edge there.

The advantages that gondolas would have in Austin is the ability to easily cross the lake and climb the hills. All without expensive rail lines (limited to 2-3% grades) and eminent-domain seizures.

Although - having drunk people flying over your house during SXSW or Formula-1 weeks might not be attractive, because of uhh, biological contamination reasons...

I was hoping they meant this kind of gondola: http://www.gondolas.com/images/gondola_main.jpg

Indeed, before clicking the link I assumed it would be an op-ed covering climate change and rising sea levels, which then goes on to argue that in the future, flooded coastal cities would enlist gondolas (the waterborne kind) to replace buses, like Venice.

similarly, I expected a lengthy discussion of how water transport is more efficient than ground one in terms of pollution and energy consumption (I don't know if it is, I'd reckon it's not) and cities would be building water canals everywhere.

Yeah, I was going to comment that real inhabitants of Venice (about 40km from here) don't use those things to get around: they have motorboats, and public transportation boats.

Here in Providence they're just used for tourists during Waterfire. Imagine, a form of transportation that makes RIPTA look efficient! :)

I fondly remember being able to go many places in Manila, Philippines, in the downtown shopping/restaurant core, using only my feet - they had elevated walkways to take you over the busy traffic and the malls were inter-connected.

You could walk for quite some time and never be at ground level. Most people can walk 1 km extra per day and never notice losing any time, given the savings in waiting for transit or getting into and out of a car.

Same kind of thing in Hong Kong, you can cover large parts of Wan Chai and Central without ever touching the ground. But I remember the opposite in Japan, you could seemingly traverse long distances underground by going from Subway station to Mall to another mall all underground.

You can do the same in Hong Kong - Tsim Sha Tsui is connected underground.

Very useful! Have a star of walkways at each elevated gondola station. Avoid congestion, get you the 'last mile' speedily.

The article only briefly mentions the major prototypes for gondolas as real urban public transport. Medellin (Colombia) and Portland. Both were finished 2006. Before them, nobody considered gondolas as a real urban public transportation option. Now they do, and there has been a proliferation of interest (the recent line built in London, for one [not that it goes anywhere]).

The advantages often mentioned by transport planners are their cheapness to build and ability to traverse terrain easily (where trains and trams cannot). More importantly perhaps - people like them. Its a much better ride to work than on a subway or bus - thats for sure!

What about privacy issues?

Vancouver's transit authority has been discussing the possibility of replacing the bus service to Simon Fraser University, which is on top of a mountain, with a gondola, as in heavy snowfall conditions the bus can't handle the roads. The main criticism of the scheme has been from property owners that would be under the gondola line, as they would no longer have any privacy in their own back yards.

Similarly if one had a downtown scheme, there would be the possibility of a full gondola moving by your 10th floor window at all hours of the day.

You could design them with frosted windows or blinds that obstruct passengers from looking at downwards angles, so they could still see the horizon and the sky.

I think I've read about a train being build through a city somewhere, where it'd pass close by residential buildings, but only briefly. This was solved by installing "Smart glass" so they windows are obscured temporarily when going past the buildings.

Even only 15-20 feet off the ground, my instinct is that there's a fear factor in riding aerial gondolas unlike any in urban rail.

I'm sure you're right that some people will find them unusably terrifying, but my experience is that most people with a typical level of fear-of-heights can handle gondolae just fine. A friend of mine, for instance, refuses to ride on a chair lift, but has no problem with a gondola.

I've spent a lot of time on ski lifts over the years and I've had one occasion where people had obvious problems with the height - we were on the Vanoise Express between La Plagne and Les Arcs in the French Alps, which is a very long, very large gondola. When we set off from the La Plagne side it was misty so you couldn't really see how high up we were. However, half way across the car emerged from the mist and the fact that the car was 380m up became very clear - one person fainted and another had a very loud panic attack.


From the Wiki page: "This closure effectively shut down Paradiski for that season."

I skied in Vallandry that season staying right near Peisey-Vallandry where the cable car station was.

If anything it made my skiing experience all the better as the resort was so much quieter than normal. We still had a large ski area to use (Vallandry and Les Arcs aren't small). Didn't care that we couldn't get over to La Plagne, Vallandry/Les Arcs was still as popular resort before the Vanoise Express existed.

Most elevated freeways (like 280 in sf) are similar in situation.

Elevated freeways sway back and forth noticeably when it's windy?

OP mentioned height. Gondola service in high winds are typically shut down, eg in the Alpine, etc. So thats not the normal fear associated with such [1]; which is more ~vertigo. But 20 ft is like a second floor aprtment or office--in other words, its an inherently normal-sort-of-height for most urban dwellers. But you raise a good point: chronic wind exposure in many places (eg, urban canyons, sf/bay, midwest, chicago etc) can be a significant hazard to this type of service in situ.

[1] The other is clausterphobia.

I saw the Rio de Janeiro gondola system [0] on Brazil with Michael Palin [1] a couple of days ago, and spurred on by the fact I've always enjoyed travelling on these systems, I began searching out more information about them around the world. I found a fantastic (for transport wonks :-) website called the Gondola Project [2] which has a vast amount of info (there's a link to it buried in the OP Wired article) about all the different types of systems and which circumstances they fit best. It also mentions the several aerial ropeway urban transport systems that are in successful operation around the world, such as Medellin, Colombia; Caracas, Venezuela [3]; Constantine, Algeria [4]; and Villa Nova de Gaia, Portugal [5].

To the commenters here saying "why can't they just make huge suspended buses", apart from the obvious engineering loads that entails, the problem is mostly that this means the gondolas have to stop at each "station" so that a decent amount of people can embark/disembark.

The most common modern gondola systems are built with MDG (monocable detachable gondola) technology, though the state of the art is the 3S (or TDG - tricable detachable gondola). More cables makes a 3S system more expensive, but makes the gondolas much more stable in higher winds, and allows them to travel faster along the line as well.

In these systems, many small gondolas flow in a continuous system, but are detached from the cable and slowed at stations so people can embark/disembark. This allows the main pull cable to always run at the same speed, which conserves energy and keeps all other attached gondolas moving. It also allows for corners (!) in the line (though a station must be located at the corner), as gondolas can be detached at a station, moved around by the required angle as they load/unload, and then reattached to the new cable which takes them off in a new direction. For a good example of this, see the Rio de Janeiro system mentioned above. Junctions can even be implemented this way if required (though the logistics would be interesting).

Rescue issues – most of these urban systems are designed to run over accessible areas, and no higher than 2-4 storeys from the ground, so if rescue is needed Fire Department crews can use standard equipment to reach the stranded gondolas.

Some commenters on the Wired article mention the Portland Aerial Tram system, and various disappointments around it. Aerial trams are different from gondolas in that there are normally only two cars, which move in opposite directions simultaneously, so each must be stopped at the same time, and any mid-point stations must be equidistantly located, unless you are happy having one car stopped in mid-air while the other is at a station. For examples of this with funicular railways, see the Innsbruck Hungerburgbahn [6] or the Wellington (NZ) Cable Car [7]. The main limitations on this kind of transport are slow load/unload times (hence longer passenger wait times), inflexible station layout requirements, non-detachable gondolas means no cornering etc.

Someone mentioned the "scared of heights" issue – my partner is scared of heights, but she was fine travelling on a gondola system similar to all these at Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney, as well as on the Nordkettenbahnen, the aerial tram in Innsbruck that takes off from the top of the Hungerburgbahn. Of course, YMMV. A system that probably _isn't_ good for people with a fear of heights is the new Stanserhorn Cabrio (stunning pic [8]) [9].

For (even more) info, The Gondola Project website has a big section called "Learn about cable transit" - fascinating stuff [10].

[0] http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/02/st_riogondola/

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazil_with_Michael_Palin (Episode 3: The Road To Rio)

[2] http://gondolaproject.com/

[3] http://gondolaproject.com/2010/03/11/medellincaracas-part-1/

[4] http://gondolaproject.com/2012/07/19/constantine-telepheriqu...

[5] http://gondolaproject.com/2011/04/08/new-urban-gondola-opens...

[6] http://www.nordkette.com/en/cable-railways.html

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wellington_Cable_Car

[8] http://dl.dropbox.com/u/24956/stanserhorn_cabrio-opening_day...

[9] http://www.stanserhorn.ch/en/travel/cabrio/

[10] http://gondolaproject.com/learn-the-basics-what-is-cable-pro...

[...] most of these urban systems are designed to run over accessible areas, and no higher than 2-4 storeys from the ground, so if rescue is needed Fire Department crews can use standard equipment to reach the stranded gondolas.

This sounds like a design challenge for a built in rescue system. Rope ladders, only somehow made much safer.

Chutes can go that far? You sit down, and scoot into a hole int he floor - the tube-like chute extends from the car to the ground and provides drag

I think Gondolas would be great, but accessibility seems problematic, and that would likely kill it for any US public transport system. With constantly moving cars, getting a wheelchair or a person who has difficulty walking on would be quite a challenge. Do you know how that gets addressed?

I wondered about wheelchair/disabled access too, having never seen a wheelchair-bound person on one. Apparently it's a solved problem though – at least one gondola manufacturer (CWA [0]) explicitly states that their cars are wheelchair (and stroller) accessible, and their cars have been installed in the USA – the Texas Skyway at Fair Park, Texas [1], where I imagine it was probably a requirement. Another system which advertises its accessibility is the Seilbahn Koblenz – “all visitors can easily get in and out of cabins… including wheelchairs, pushchairs, bicycles and dogs(!)” [2].

As long as the doors open wide enough, and the car is able to have floor-level loading, it shouldn't be a problem. Cars are able to be brought to a complete stop if needed. AFAIK, the only reason gondolas currently slow to “crawl” pace inside stations at the moment is that keeping some momentum means they require less acceleration to get back up to travel speed.

[0] http://www.cwa.ch/en/ethos-_content---1--1049.html

[1] http://www.fairpark.org/index.php?option=com_content&vie...

[2] http://www.seilbahn-koblenz.de/buses-and-groups.html

This man knows his gondolas.

Austin is quickly densifying but still doesn't have any public transit other than buses.

This solution avoids all the pitfalls associated with conventional rails (street level and underground) and I see it very rapidly becoming very successful.

Austin is quickly densifying but still doesn't have any public transit other than buses.

I'm a little worried about new transit here in Austin for that very reason. Historically the city hasn't given me much faith to believe a new layer of transit would be implemented well enough to (A) get people riding it and (B) be remotely efficient.

Buses rarely sync up, you'll get off one bus just to see the transfer you need to catch on the other side of the road pulling off, missing your bus means getting to your final destination sometimes up to an hour late, the train only services downtown and north, meaning anyone south of the river is boned for rapid transit into the city...

I would absolutely love a new form of transit in Austin that was quick and easy to use, but I'm skeptical on our ability to actually deliver it, given our complacency with a rather poor and painful to use by system already in place.

Case in point: neither of you mentioned the Red Line, nor have I ever heard any of my family members in Austin mention the Red Line.

the train only services downtown and north, meaning anyone south of the river is boned for rapid transit into the city...

I didn't mention it by name, but there it is in my post.

That's because it's named "MetroRail", not "Red Line". It stops right behind my office. If it stopped anywhere close to home, I'd ride it all the time.

Are they going to run it down MoPac?

I wonder how they would fare in this litigious society we live in? Toss in that the not stopping part would instantly bring up complaints under the ADA (American Disabilities Act) in regards to the handicapped using them.

How do they fare in various types of weather? Are they heated and cooled? Would each car be camera monitored? This would be to monitor the safety of the people riding, for example if someone had a medical issue or was being attacked.

No, while I like the idea I don't see how you implement the cars which can be easily used by the handicap and that has caused all sorts of extravagant costs in our local bus lines.

If the cars are detachable, could there be a provision for wheelchair riders to get in their own car which could be attached to the cable?

See my comment above - there are several systems operating which advertise that they are fully wheelchair accessible.

In my hometown Wuppertal, they had this since more than 100 years:


Click on image search results.

The famous Wuppertal line is an aerial train - not gondolas on a cable. It is clever and I loved riding it though - but it is a different type of system.

Is there any reason that a gondola can hold only a maximum of 6 passengers? Can't you have a gondola the size of a bus?

Imagine all the crazy muni lines in sf turned into gondola wires. Would be pretty awesome to be "flying" 15ft above all the traffic. Not to mention the timing and schedule of service would be consistent.

The load/unload dwell time would impact the service's efficiency - sometimes it's better to have more low density vessels than fewer large ones. It's largely a function of the journey time, though.

Good article, but I had to use reader on Safari on the iPad. Wired should know better than to disable zoom.

And, lo, a thousand steam punk enthusiasts cried up with joy.

This is flat out one of the most ridiculous ideas I have seen here in quite a while.

This seems to come round every few years, and yet nothing ever comes of it.

See also Hypersonic jets that will fly at the edge of the earth's atmosphere and do London to Sydney in two years.

//edit//That will teach me not to read the article. I thought this was about airships.

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