Are Gondolas the Ideal Urban Transportation Solution?

by Reihan Salam

Building light rail systems in cities that aren’t very dense is almost always a waste of money. Yet acquiring the right-of-way you’d need for rail systems in dense cities tends to be very expensive. Bus rapid transit (BRT) technology is a potentially attractive alternative, yet it requires shifting the allocation of surface road space from powerful incumbents, e.g., owners of private automobiles, which is the main reason New York city has a second-tier bus system. There is, however, an intriguing alternative to light rail and BRT: gondolas. Keith Barry of Autopia explains:

“We kind of got into an interesting discussion on why we have a fixation on rail-based transit,” McDaniel told Wired. “Jared used to work at ski resorts up in Colorado. He said, ‘Well, you could just use ski lifts.’” Suddenly, a side project was born. “It’s grown beyond that once people started crunching the numbers and seeing how feasible it was,” McDaniel said.

It just so happened that McDaniel and Ficklin’s home city [of Austin, TX] had just debated whether to install a little more than five miles of light rail at a cost of $550 million – around $100 million per mile.

“Putting in an aerial ropeway, we’re talking a fraction of that,” McDaniel said. “A gondola can be put in for $12 million a mile. It’s a fraction of the cost because you’re not looking at eminent domain or rights of way, and you’re not disrupting local businesses or cutting out vehicular traffic.”

A gondola, on the other hand, only needs a few aerial cables and air rights. Once installed, gondolas offer a unique method of transport, with cars relying on a moving cable instead of individual motors to propel them across long distances. Though most gondolas cross valleys between mountains, they don’t have to. In cities, they can float just a few feet over traffic.

“Rail is relegated to where real estate is available. If you look at light rail in cities, you’re talking about tearing out lanes that are currently used by cars,” McDaniel said. “Just 15 to 20 feet above the ground, you can start layering conduits through cities. Keep your surface level as is, and have a whole other method of transit on a different level.” [Emphasis added]

What an absolutely awesome idea. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.