Gondolas to the rescue

Could gondolas be part of the solution to alleviating urban congestion? Urban gondolas are one of the fastest growing transportation methods in the world, according to Steven Dale of the Gondola Project. Much of the appeal comes from low-cost construction and the ability to use air space rather than scarce ground space. Many cities adopting this technology are in developing nations, likely due to the technology’s relatively low cost and quick installation.

Socioeconomic Benefits

Building a gondola can range between $3 million and $12 million per mile, compared to $400 million per mile for subways and $36 million per mile for light rail systems, according to Michael McDaniel, a designer from innovation firm Frog Design.

Benefits are also measured in the saving of time. Since the gondolas continuously run, there are no schedules or timetables. They slow down to a walking speed and allow passengers to get on or off.

These benefits have helped convince South American cities like La Paz that urban gondolas are a viable transportation solution. Rio de Janeiro, Medellin and Caracas have all introduced similar systems in recent years. When these projects have been successful, they have brought with them a wide range of social and economic benefits, such as increased economic opportunities and lower rates of crime.

Metrocable gondola in Medellin, Colombia. First gondola lift used for mass transportation purposes. Wikipedia, 12/14/2013.

Metrocable gondola in Medellin, Colombia. First gondola lift used for mass transportation purposes. Wikipedia, 12/14/2013.

La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz is currently building a new mass transportation system set to open in the second half of 2014. The La Paz system will be the world’s largest gondola transit network, with eleven stations and over seven miles of cable. At a reported cost of $235 million dollars, the system is projected to have a capacity of 9,000 passengers per hour.

Due to the dense population and steep, narrow streets of the city, bus trips of a few miles can take up to an hour during busy times. The new system can reduce a current trip of two hours down to 24 minutes.

Planned route of the La Paz gondola system. Graphic credit, cnn.com

Planned route of the La Paz gondola system. Graphic credit, cnn.com

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Similar to La Paz, the steep hillsides of Rio are difficult to maneuver. Simply getting from one point to another requires navigating stairs, switchbacks, and narrow alleys. In 2011, the government opened a six-station gondola line running above a collection of favelas (or slums) known as the Complexo do Alemão. 152 gondolas carry approximately 30,000 people a day along a 2.1-mile route over the neighborhood, reducing an hour-and-a-half walk to a nearby commuter rail station into a 16-minute ride.

Less Successful – London, England

London’s Emirates Air Line, the gondola built for the 2012 Summer Olympics, may be a lesson in urban gondola projects gone wrong, The Atlantic‘s Henry Grabar wrote in April. “Though the cable car registered over 1.5 million trips between June and November, exceeding expectations, it proved virtually incapable of attracting commuters: In the two months after the Games ended in September, only one in ten thousand journeys was a discounted commuter fare,” he wrote. It appears that the system was not built with commuters in mind.

Towers of the Emirates Air Line gondola in London. Wikipedia, 12/14/2013.

Towers of the Emirates Air Line gondola in London. Wikipedia, 12/14/2013.

Not a Comprehensive Solution

Dale is careful to remind people that urban gondolas are not the best. They are simply one tool in a planner’s toolbox. Transit technologies should be complementary, not competitive. When implemented and designed properly, urban gondolas are remarkably successful.

To see a list of systems in the planning, proposed, or construction phases, consult this page on The Gondola Project site. Whether these projects meet with the same successes as those in Medellin, Caracas, and Rio is too early to tell.

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