Enough With the Gondolamania Already

Like almost all gondola proposals, this one for Austin, Texas, will never get built. Image: Texas A&M
Like almost all gondola proposals, this one for Austin, Texas, will never get built. Image: Texas A&M

Every week, it seems, there’s a new story about how gondolas are coming to rescue an American city’s transport network.

These credulous stories may be inspired by the tremendous success of Medellín, Colombia, where gondolas are a key part of the transit system and carry about 30,000 riders each day over a mountainous landscape. But — but! — this is an unusual case where gondolas make a certain amount of sense because of the city’s tricky geography. (You can learn more about it here.)

In American cities, gondolas have mainly served as a distraction from bigger problems facing urban transit systems.

In Washington, DC, local governments, Georgetown University, and the Georgetown BID paid $200,000 to study a gondola connecting Georgetown to Arlington over the Potomac River. The millions in annual operating subsidies didn’t sit well with Arlington County, however, which refused to fund the project — citing more pressing needs. At a time when Metro is facing a crisis of service cuts and fare hikes, it’s hard to imagine diverting resources to a gondola.

Likewise, in Austin, Texas, Capital Metro rejected a proposal for an 8.5-mile gondola system with three branches that would cost up to $555 million to build and $6 million to operate annually. The agency concluded that gondolas are suited for “niche” uses, reported KXAN.

The latest city to give gondolas a public hearing is Cleveland, where a tech entrepreneur has proposed a nine-station system serving the greater downtown area. Gondola booster Jon Stahl presented to the City Planning Commission last week hoping to get some approvals that would generate momentum for a $700,000 feasibility study, which he says private investors will pay for. The Plain Dealer’s Steve Litt called the planning commission’s reception “polite and noncommittal.”

For all his enthusiasm, it’s not clear what problem Stahl is trying to solve. The proposed gondola system would connect some of the area’s top tourist attractions, most of which are already mostly connected by free trolley buses run by RTA, plus a rail line that almost no one rides. With transit fares going up for the second year in a row and the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority facing 10 percent service cuts, the city has bigger transportation problems to solve than getting a gondola off the ground.

Projects like these have a certain appeal to media outlets. They’re new! They’re flashy! But too many cities are wasting too much time and money on gimmicky distractions instead of the meat and potatoes of running a functional transit system.

More recommended reading today: Greater Greater Washington reports that a new bus line didn’t deliver what riders in Mount Rainier, Maryland, were hoping for. And Copenhagenize explains how the Dutch have helped integrate bike infrastructure and transit to boost ridership for both.

47 thoughts on Enough With the Gondolamania Already

  1. I think you are basing your characterization of the Georgetown Rosslyn System on poorly researched media accounts. I’d love to give you the information we developed directly, and talk through why a gondola makes more sense than any other transit system in this corridor.

  2. If they just call it an Arial Tram does that make it better?


    Seems to be working great in Portland and probably is worth considering in hilly cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh.

  3. In Seattle we have a corridor which would be well suited for a gondola: Denny Way. Lots of congestion, extremely unreliable surface transit, steep hill, narrow ROW, and not enough funding to build a subway.

  4. Awesome low volume/high cost connection from one low density suburb to another one! And here I was bummed that Angie didn’t mention my local dumb L-Train Replacement Gondola…

  5. I am not sure this article gave any reasons that gondolas are a bad idea other than it is new and it might subtract from existing systems. That sounds like protecting the status quo rather than a breakdown of why gondolas are universally bad. Maybe gondolas are better than existing systems? Are Cleveland’s free trolley’s that great? Gondalas have a huge advantage over short distance rail and bus in that you don’t have to wait to be picked up and they can go directly and bypass intersections. Another advantage compared to subway is maybe people would prefer to travel in the sky with big windows vs. an underground subway. I regularly hear transit people put the gondola down, but I have yet to hear a great critique. I loved my gondola ride on a ski mountain and I would like to try it in a real city.

  6. Having made the long walk along the Key Bridge many, many times to reach the Rosslyn Metro station, walking next to traffic, in various forms of weather, I’ll just say that if there had there been a gondola across the scenic Potomac, I would have used it. That’s not to say it’s a good use of funds vis-a-vis alternative investments, but I think this one would have built-in base of riders (university students lacking cars, dependent on distant transit, with a river to ford).

  7. Gondolas have practical uses in practical places, as the article mentioned. In very hilly cities where buses and trains cannot do the job in a cost- or time-competitive manner, gondolas make sense. In pancake-flat cities like Austin or Cleveland, that’s just not the case. Lower cost and wider-reaching systems like bus rapid transit (and a high frequency grid of local bus services), stop consolidation, and transit signal priority would have a greater impact per dollar.

  8. Aside from Colombia, the article has little nice to say about gondolas or even doing some pilot projects. In the US, the “mania” is mostly limited to the planning/idea stage in a few cities. There was an idea to put one over the water and rush hour packed streets (where buses are in the jam too) in Baltimore and it got shot down. From what I could tell, more from entrenched interests than a great critique of the concept. There are no operable urban systems in the US to evaluate and few in the world. Maybe the article could have said gondolas should start in cities with water or hills, but that is not what the article says.

  9. I made the same Key Bridge Walk a zillion times and always thought

    what a perfect place to reallocate a motor lane for cycling since cycling is about 10x more efficient use of space than motor cars.

    If the goal is moving people a couple of miles – then cycling is the most effective solution

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/026ca84ba0a9e382fe225da7532ad59c29840f2eabb7cd296ef64123f85d4226.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/99fadaf88233f8563217c85434d85db514907833c4162a278c7106ccd748d1b4.png

  10. There are only two aerial trams that I am aware of on the West Coast: Palm Springs and Portland’s Pill Hill Aerial Tram. The former exists more for sightseeing and the latter as a combination of public transit for medical center patients and sightseeing for others. (It costs money to go up if you don’t have an appointment there, but it’s free to go down.)

  11. I’ve been on that bridge a few times myself.

    There has been some revisionist history that it wasn’t the snobs of Georgetown that kept out the metro, but rather the topography.

    But looking at things as a bike commuter, something I came to rather recently, who cares? In that small city and adjacent suburbs, one hell of a lot is accessible within bicycle distance.

    I once read of a federal DOT employee who had the greatest commute of all. He rode his bike to the Potomac, rowed his rowboat across, picked up his bike on the other side, and rode to work. We’ll by paying for that guy’s pension until he’s 110.

  12. Gondolas are kind of the Comic Sans of transit: fun but inappropriate for most serious applications.

  13. My understanding is that the Georgetown residents WOULD have said no to a Metro station had one ever been proposed, but that the engineering problems relating to the topography did in fact keep things from getting that far.

  14. i lived in Georgetown in the early 1970s and there was no way the residents would allow outsiders to use a subway in THEIR neighborhood.

    Everyone knew this. It was self evident

  15. True that distances in DC are trivial and perfect for cycling. I cycle commuted quite a bit in the 1970s and early 80s back when one still wore 3 piece suits to the office.

    even in July

  16. Agreed. It seems like “we cant do this here because we cant build anything” is the actual reason. Same deal with Monorails. Ho ho! Such a joke! And then you look at Sao Paulo building miles and miles of monorails, never mind the various existing systems in Asia.

  17. Just one factor to consider: In ski resorts and mountain elevations, heating and cooling are not an issue because people expect and are dressed for the weather. It would be very expensive and complicated to provide climate control to each pod in most climates and I think people would complain if it didn’t happen.

  18. I don’t think the right of way argument has gotten its due in this discussion. For cities that are built out, with little/no existing public transit, building dedicated right of way seems to be typically cost prohibitive. Except with a gondola system, no? I’ve ridden the one in La Paz, Bolivia (crazy topography for sure, typical gondola scenario) and was amazed how tiny the support footprints were – maybe 2 meters square. How many US cities can afford subways or even above ground light rail? Boston struggles to build out its light rail affordably *on an existing right of way*. Disclaimer – engaged citizen here, not a professional.

  19. This story doesn’t seem to have anything to say about aerial tramways as a mode at all; only about money for routine transit operations vs. money for new fixed-guideway lines. There are places where American cities need new fixed-guideway routes, and aerial tramways are a perfectly cromulent—and quite cost-effective—technology for those routes, no matter how flat or hilly.

  20. Some grandstanding politicians in San Diego who would never be caught dead on public transit want to build a gondola to connect Balboa Park and the convention center, never mind that both already have good transit service and there’s not that much travel between those locations.

  21. Whether that’s true or not will be a question lost to time since a station was never proposed for Georgetown. I get weary of accurately describing the record of this decision, but whether the antis would have won, or the proponents would have, we can all just speculate, between the granite substrate, and the perception at the time that there was no meaningful commercial / office development possible in Georgetown, all the red line planning focused instead on Dupont / Connecticut Ave corridor.

    In any event, in 2014, the residents and business groups were in unanimous agreement in advocating for transit, by Metro, by Streetcar, by Bus, and by Gondola. That is the current population’s position, so it’s worth taking that sentiment seriously, and dismissing a “maybe” past position of people who are long dead.

  22. It would be nice to see a comparison with other forms of transportation, but on most of the metrics I can think of, with the exception of frequency (they should be amazing at that), they don’t exactly sound particularly exceptional. Energy consumption of a cable based mode of transportation? Speed? Cost per mile? Ability to dynamically adapt to differing usage – both short term capacity and long term routes?

    Can anyone point at anything out there that covers this?

  23. There are costs in this article.

    -great with frequency
    -they run about 13mph (better than streetcar)
    -are less per mile to construct than streetcar
    -Can navigate hills/water
    -Have pretty high capacity (Probably 6-10 people with boarding less than every minute)
    -no obstructions blocking route like traffic/signals/accidents
    -in the air if you are like views

    -May require air rights over private property
    -Not fast over long distances
    -not sure it can sharply turn
    -Stations may take some room and infrastructure
    -Hard to do new things

  24. Acutally there are some places in the US that have similar topography as Medellin and could use gondola systems well like Pittsburgh

  25. That’s not that hard considering the cars are smaller than your average train car. Most designs come with an electrified cable to provide power. It would have to be a bit suped-up in order to handle the extra amperage but it can be done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Elon Musk’s “Master Plan” Won’t Work for Cities

Earlier this week tech entrepreneur Elon Musk released his updated “master plan” for Tesla, including some thoughts on how autonomous mini-buses will supplant today’s transit and “take people all the way to their destination.” Like every Musk pronouncement, this one got a lot of buzz — but it also drew some healthy skepticism. One reason to doubt Musk’s plan […]

Can the Feds Fix Detroit’s Uniquely Terrible Transit System?

There is no better evidence of the sharp social divisions that continue to haunt metro Detroit than the appalling state of its transit system. When it comes to public transportation, residents of the city of Detroit and suburbanites live in a state of government sanctioned apartheid. They ride fully separate systems, with fully separate sets […]

Many Americans Live Near Transit, But Few Live Close to Good Transit

This chart tells an eye-opening story about access to transit in the United States. Using the new data tool AllTransit, TransitCenter dug into who has access to transit in American cities, making a crucial distinction between residents near any transit whatsoever and residents with access to convenient, frequently running service. The analysis encompassed the nation’s 25 largest cities and […]

In Dallas, You Don’t Get What You Don’t Pay For

On Monday, we featured a post from The Transit Pass that called out Dallas as one of the U.S. cities in which the proportion of transit users to population is sadly anemic. Today, we’ll take a closer look at transit in the Dallas area, from a couple of angles. The DART light rail system in […]

Arlington, Virginia: Livable By Design

It’s clear you have arrived on the sustainable transportation scene when the president of the League of American Bicyclists asks if you are the new Amsterdam. Yes, Arlington, Virginia is a rising star in the livable cities movement. And new Census data is bearing out the Washington suburb’s reputation as a mid-Atlantic biking and transit […]