Gondola Transit in Seattle?

Post by Steven Dale

Proposed Urban Gondolas for Seattle by Matt the Engineer.

Frequent commenter Matt The Engineer has thrown his hat into the ring for an urban gondola transit system in Seattle, Washington. He outlines his concept at Citytank.org:

Let’s take a sample Seattle route with 3 stops. Seattle Center to South Lake Union to Capitol Hill near light rail. Each of these neighborhoods is separated by highways and geography to such an extent that the peak scheduled bus (travel) time (is) 40 minutes for this route – and add time for waiting, since traffic makes this route unreliable. But a gondola could make this entire trip in 7 minutes with no waiting.

Now I’ve never been to Seattle and while I have a pretty good idea about the city’s topographical challenges, I certainly can’t comment on whether or not this is a good or viable proposal. I do, however, have a few observations and questions:

  • I may be wrong, but I think the image above depicts two individual gondola lines. So when you read about a “sample Seattle route with 3 stops,” I believe Matt’s talking about the blue line alone (please correct me if I’m wrong).
  • Comparisons to bus travel times is somewhat controversial here as a bus along the same route would stop far more than 3 times. Is this trade-off for speed instead of coverage acceptable? Would it have a negative or positive impact on ridership? It’s really a question of geometry. Would adding another stop or two mitigate this problem?
  • Stations minimize turns which minimizes station footprint and costs – good!
  • No line has more than 3 stations. Another good example of starting small.
  • Seattle has severe topographical changes and steep inclines. Using gondolas in this situation makes clear sense.
  • Both lines appear to use existing rights-of-way with the notable exception of the red diagonal routing. This should ease concerns about privacy. The question I have is this: Does the route lend itself well to the technology from a design perspective? Are the lines running down the centre of the street? (And if so, is the street wide enough to accommodate towers?)

We get a fair bit of traffic from the Pacific Northwest, so I’d appreciate it if readers from those regions could chime in with their thoughts and opinions:

What do you think? Does Matt’s urban gondola in Seattle have merit?


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  1. Matt the Engineer
    Good analysis. You're right - it's the blue line, with a potential future red line. I've updated the map here for clarity. Buses certainly have the benefit of more frequent stops - "stations" for buses are all but free, whereas almost all of the cost for gondolas is in the stations. Without doing a full ridership analysis (though I do hope this project will get to that point), it's tough to tell the potential ridership compared to the existing ridership. But let me be clear: the current bus will take you at least 40 minutes for this route during peak travel times. This 40 minutes necessarily turns into at least 50 minutes with an average wait time added, since East-West routes in Seattle are so crowded (Denny in particular). And your actual travel time can be much, much greater than that so if you need to, say, get to work on time or pick up a child from daycare you should probably add more time in for a buffer. Considering how terrible this bus route is, I would imagine a very large walkshed would be possible for this 7-minute trip. How far can you walk for the difference between a 50 minute trip and a 7 minute trip? Possibly the entire route. So even if we kept this bus, I would imagine someone walking very far out of their way to take the gondola instead of the bus. My point: ridership should at least be that of a bus, despite the bus's ability to stop frequently. Further, there aren't many major destinations between these stops. At one end you have a new light rail station, in the middle is the center of a new business district and the station's right next to a streetcar line, and on the other end you have a major regional destination and the hub for many bus lines. I could imagine 1 or 2 more stops, but stations cost money. I'd rather add those stations later in the project if they're desired. Re: towers in the street. That's a good question. The right-of-way is around 20m wide. I could imagine many designs for this, all depending on what we want for other street uses. Center-of-road towers should work fine, just curve the lanes around the towers and remove street parking for those sections of road. This design would actually have some traffic-calming benefits as well.
  2. Matt - Great idea. I wish gondolas were considered in the Transit Master Plan. The costs are similar to streetcars, but they can provide routings that are not possible with any other transit method. Two thoughts about this routing: 1. Is the middle of the Seattle center the best place for the line to begin? The monorail's location in the center of the center renders it almost useless for actual mobility from surrounding neighborhoods. Its quicker and easier to catch a 1, 2, or 13 bus (along the west side) or a 3, 4 or 16 (along the east side) than to walk to the monorail station in the center and wait around to buy a ticket. I would consider extending the gondola two blocks further west to Queen Anne Ave., or shortening it to end at 5th Av N. Center-goers still have convenient access, but Uptown residents and/or Gates Foundation employees will find it convenient also. 2. On the east end of the line, would it be worth it to have a turning station and travel two blocks south to directly meet the Link subway station? It should be considered in planning, but I am not sure the benefit would exceed the additional cost.
  3. 1. I could bring it to 1st or QA Ave, but I was afraid of going over Key Arena. It wouldn't be too tough to have the towers tall enough, but I assume at some point they'll replace the Key Arena, and I didn't want to limit the future building's height. I suppose we also could route the wires around the Arena. 2. Yes. I wanted to keep it simple, and the walk is very short and enjoyable to the light rail station, but we could certainly put in a turning station and connect directly to rail.

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