The Problem With “Literature”

Post by Steven Dale

Planners rely on Literature (capitalization intentional). It is the lifeblood of the profession. Problem is, Literature isn’t always right, accurate or current. It’s like that boss you have to seek permission from even though he knows absolutely nothing about what you’re asking permission for.

Consider the Hercules Aerial Tram Study by Reconnecting America. Written in 2007, the study was conducted by Reconnecting America for Hercules, California, a small burg about 40 km north-east of California San Francisco. As one of the only publicly-available pieces of Literature on cable, this is an essential document for anyone interested in the topic. It is also riddled with half-truths, misstatements and flat-out shoddy workmanship.

The following are direct quotes from the study:

  • Expandability is impossible or difficult at best.
  • … current technology makes it difficult to have systems consisting of more than two stations …
  • There are very few instances of a mid terminal for dropping off or picking up passengers …
  • Aerial ropeway literature suggests that midway stations are very rare, and expansion is difficult.
  • Alignment tends to be limited to a straight line.
  • Availability, while high, is not as great as for other technologies.
  • High winds and electrical storms force shut downs which would not occur with other technologies.
  • System capacity upgrades will require reconstructing the entire system.

As far as I can tell, all of the errors and omissions are due to outdated Literature cited. Much of the Literature cited in the Hercules report date from 1987 and 1988, twenty years before the Hercules study. Given those misperceptions, the study authors went on to analyze gondolas purely in a linear, two stop alignment. Meanwhile, the study was titled “Aerial Tram Study” when they were clearly studying Gondolas. Not to be sticky about nomenclature, but the difference between an Aerial Tram and a Gondola is enormous, a fact which the authors should have made explicit.

In 2007, the Medellin Metrocable was already 3 years old (Note: Previously, I’d said the Metrocable opened in 2006, a mistake I apologize for. It appears the Metrocable opened in 2004.). Shouldn’t Reconnecting America have made reference to that system? Yes and no.

As I’ve argued before, we don’t know what we don’t know and that’s really no one’s fault. At the same time, the Hercules study relied almost exclusively on 20 year old Literature and cites virtually no observational or empirical research. Back in 2007, a quick search of the net would’ve yielded information on systems like the Ngong Ping 360, the aforementioned Metrocable, and Funitels. Yes, internet research wasn’t as easy three years ago as it is today, but if the authors were able to find their way to the practically ancient research they cited in their study, they certainly could’ve found out that intermediary stations and corners were more than possible.

(Further evidence in support of this idea: The study explicitly references the 3S. That technology was virtually brand new in 2007. Learning about it would have had to come directly from the net, but I digress.)

Basically, the authors never took the time to look beyond the Literature. And if they did, they willfully ignored what they saw because there was no Literature in support of what was plainly obvious.

This isn’t a rant against elitism, academia, or scholarly pursuits. It is, however, to say that youtube videos, wikipedia pages and forum posts are now (as they were three years ago) essential clues to the world around us. And those clues come far faster and quicker than any Literature could ever hope to do. These clues may not paint the entire picture, but collectively they force us to question that which the Literature claims as historical fact.

In many ways Literature is dead the moment is published. It becomes archaic and set in stone. That’s both a blessing and a curse. After all, Literature has an authority which the net may never attain and Literature is useful at setting the record of the past.

But it’s useless at understanding the new, the rapidly changing and the misunderstood. The new form of internet-based research that’s only now emerging evolves, grows, changes and adapts at remarkable speed. It may get things wrong from time-to-time (or frequently), but the error can be quickly amended. Not so with Literature.

One model is dead, the other is very much alive. It’s a shame Reconnecting America didn’t opt for that model which was actually breathing.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.


  1. The point is that all the quotes are still valid. I don't know any system which was expanded in a way that there was a trough running service. If a cable system is expanded in length a new section is usually added which requires a transfer. Branchlines are also not implemented until today. Curves are still not possible expect for corner stations. If capacity is expanded either a new line is built in parallel to the existing one or the old one is torn down and completely rebuilt. Middle stations are still rare and real transit would need ten ore more stations. except for cargo there is no such system today. And During high wind and thunderstorm the gondolas indeed need to shut down earlier although different technologies can stand different values of wind. The first 3S was built 1994 and 3S is just a variation of a BCD which is the oldest gondola technology. The terms seem not to be very clear in English language and there are differences between British and American English. For example in British English a cable car can be a gondola or aerial tramway
  2. A place in California that is 40 km NE of California. Such a breach of geometric laws itself would be a Herculean task.
  3. @ Mattias, I don't think the points are valid. Everything said could be proven by looking at just a handful of systems around the world. As for the Aerial Tram/Gondola nomenclature issue, I agree with what you're saying. But at the same time, this was a semi-scholarly publication that was (presumably) paid for by someone. It seems to me incredibly irresponsible that most of the stats/comments/analysis from the article used what was a weakness of an Aerial Tram system to disprove the viability of a Gondola system.
  4. @ Matt, Good spot. Fixed.
  5. @Steven: "It seems to me incredibly irresponsible that most of the stats/comments/analysis from the article used what was a weakness of an Aerial Tram system to disprove the viability of a Gondola system." Speaking of weakness, you guys need to seriously examine cable's downsides. Start with the math. To help, this today from my contact at DM on an urban system just two miles long: “... To go two miles with a mid station each 1000 ft. you would have 9 stations. A system like this could easily run 5 - 7 million per section, which would put the entire system at 60 million +-. This does not include the station platforms which could easily run 40 - 50 million...” Figure on $120 million. And that's without heat or AC or the blindfolds needed to get the elderly or disabled to ride the things.
  6. Can you tell me a system which has been expanded in length without being completely reconstructed? Technically this would be possible but not a easy task and adding a lot to construction cost as the terminal station as middle station. I agree with you that the alignments discussed in the linked document could have been built with any MCD, BCD or Funitel. Point is that the drawbacks would not have affect the system as it would do along well with corner stations And it seems the failed to fully understand the possibility of gondola technology to mitigate the drawbacks. However the main mistake was to only to look at North American passenger system. Multi station Gondolas where in operation for decades in Europe for touristic used or for over a century for freight uses. In German language literature those system are explained properly so it is a language problem not a literature versus internet problem. As most sytems are built in German speaking countries and major manufacturers are based there German is more important than English I dare to say that in French or Italian there are more written information about cable systems. And i hope you agree there is wrong information both in electronic or printed media.
  7. @ Mattias, The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway had their capacity expanded in 1997 basically by adding cabins and minor upgrades to the terminals and towers. Extending a line . . . as far as I know that's not been done yet. However, the "pass-through" mechanisms now used allow that. Maybe in German the problem isn't so difficult. After all, this is Germanic technology. At the same time, when I began my research 4 years ago I was a grad student with no budget, no german language skills and had ridden one gondola in my entire life. I think if some dumb Torontonian like myself was able to piece this together using mostly internet-based resources, a group as reputable as Reconnecting America has a responsibility to be more thorough in their research efforts. And I totally agree with you that there is wrong information in both electronic and printed media. I think the issue with electronic is that it can be easily changed (that's both a blessing and a curse) whereas print treats itself with permanent authority; a problem only compounded when out-dated or incorrect reports are published as pdfs online. Neither is perfect.
  8. @ Dave Brough: I've never said cable didn't have downsides; I'm no zealot. Match the technology to where it is most appropriate. Your theoretical line of 2 miles long with 9 stations, for example, would not be a place to put cable. In your example, you've got stations/stops at every 300 meters. With station/stops that frequent, only bus or streetcar makes any sort of logical sense - if an agency wanted station stops that frequent, which is not the trend any more. But let's just play along, shall we? At two miles and a price tag of $120 million, you're looking at a price tag of $37.5 million per kilometer. That's around the low-to-middle price of LRT. And because you've added an absurd number of stations to justify your perspective, you'd also have to add station platforms for an LRT line as well. Odds are, a comparable LRT line would be much more expensive than the $120 million you quote. Then of course you have to factor in the wait times, safety, and traffic creating factors. And of course, because line speed is dependent upon station spacing/stops, both the cable system and LRT system would be ridiculously slow. (I won't even address the fact that the Medellin and Caracas systems were built for less than $12 million per kilometer.) Your analysis just isn't valid. And why - incidentally - would you need blindfolds for the elderly or disabled to ride the things?
  9. 300 Meter between stations are widely used in Europe even some Metro systems have station spacings of under 500m. There are many small details which need to be considered for a transit system. I am not sure but i have my doubts a crawling gondola in a station would comply with the ADA rules. So gondolas need to make a full stop and stations would need to be barrier free. Adding to the cost. Evacuation is possible but more challenging than with other modes thus contribute the high insurance cost which cancel other cost benefits of a cable system. Even the cable companies suggest the use of supported vehicles if no topological obstacle is present.
  10. haha Blindfolded Man that. is. ridiculous.
  11. @Steven: "Your analysis just isn’t valid." My analysis wasn't my analysis: it came straight from the horse's mouth. @Steven: "Why would you need blindfolds for the elderly or disabled?" Because most people are afraid of dangling on a wire. As an experiment, I decided to treat my mom to lunch at the summit-restaurant of a local resort. She took one look and froze: “If you think I'm going to get on that thing, you're crazy!”. @Mattias: "...Even the cable companies suggest the use of supported vehicles if no topological obstacle is present." DM's exact words: “Forget about cable. Use our people mover”.
  12. @ Dave: You just failed (passed?) The Grandmother Test. Thanks for coming out.
  13. @ Matthias: "300 Meter between stations are widely used in Europe even some Metro systems have station spacings of under 500m." Again, what I'm suggesting is that in situations where station spacings are so short, maybe cable isn't the best solution. At the same time, Caracas and Medellin have station spacings of roughly 500 meters. But in those situations, there are topographical challenges.
  14. @Dave I did an experiment too. Mom ∴ my mom > your mom
  15. @ frankie g Now that were so close to crossing the Rubicon into mother joke territory, let's dial it down a bit, okay?

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