A Cable Car for Chicago

Post by Julia

A Chicago lakefront gondola would connect many of the city's lakefront attractions while giving riders a great view of the skyline, Lake Michigan, and the parks below.

The idea for the Chicago Lakefront Gondola came from an article in the Chicago Tribune about various design ideas for Navy Pier. (It was posted on the Gondola Project just last week, here).

**In case you missed it, the post discussed a gondola proposal for Navy Pier, which was an element of the Navy Pier Redesign project presented by Aedas Architecture / Davis Brody Bond / Martha Schwartz Partners. Here is an image of their pier rendering, gondola (the Pier Pod) included.

Of course, as a Chicago native and total gondola nerd, I took this news to heart and quickly started imagining what a Navy Pier gondola would entail. The article described a design that would run all the way to Michigan Avenue, presumably along the Chicago River, and I thought cool — a connection, along the water, to a super touristy spot in the city. Makes sense.

But then I kept thinking about this idea and realized that the gondola could extend all the way downtown, to the El, Millennium Park, Grant Park, and the Art Institute. This is a spot popular with Chicagoans, too. Of course, if a gondola is going to go into Grant Park, why not keep it going all the way to Museum Campus, or Soldier Field, or heck, even McCormick Place. The only way I know how to reach those places is by walking or driving (and there’s a bus).

So yes, the Navy Pier gondola would be a nice touch to the city’s tourist sector — a short point-to-point system with bright colored cabins. But why stop there? Cable can do more. Multi-station lines are being installed in cities around the world, providing cost-effective, fast, and efficient transit options. Chicago is home to more than 2.5 million people. It also happens to have one of the greatest urban lakefronts in the world, where anyone can enjoy the parks and trails, gardens and skyline, museums and music. What if the Chicago Gondola proposal stretched beyond Navy Pier, connecting all of these leisure spaces and creating a unified waterfront network for everyone to enjoy?

Right now, we’ve got the El (city rail) and Metra (commuter rail) which serve the Greater Chicago Area. Yet, efforts to develop the lakefront as a place of outdoor recreation, leisure, and landscaping — a public lakefront — have left this area greatly disconnected from the main public transit lines in the city. (Plus the surrounding roads are either too busy to cross in most places, or get shut down all through out the summer for various festivals and events.)

To compensate, bus services operate to and from the Loop. But while the lakefront and its cultural and entertainment sites run north/south most of the bus routes travel primarily along east/west routes, leaving gaps between the various attractions themselves.

A complete transit solution should benefit both tourists and locals alike, while still maintaining the area as “Chicago’s Front Yard.” This could be accomplished with a gondola system that would not require additional roads and would function free of traffic restrictions. It would even become a destination point.

Click for larger image (pdf)

As discussed, there are 6 key areas east of the downtown Loop, along Lake Michigan, that could readily be linked by a gondola system. This gondola could run from Navy Pier, moving inland and south to the Millennium and Grant Parks which are close to the train lines, and then south east towards the museums, stadium, and convention center.

The first stop en route would be at Navy Pier.


[Legend: Red star for gondola stations, Orange Line for gondola route, Green Circle for attraction entrances, Purple dashed line for walking paths/sidewalks]

Navy Pier draws more tourists than any other site in Illinois and is the number one tourist attraction in Chicago.

Navy Pier is the largest tourist attraction in the state of Illinois. It is also a hub for cruise and dinner ships, home to a popular theater and children’s museum and host of numerous artistic and commercial events as well as a large employer in the city. The pier is accessible by car, bus, bike, and foot. Geographically separated from the city it is natural anchor for the gondola system.

With the new addition of the Modern Wing and BP pedestrian bridge, these city landmarks are intertwined, drawing crowds of all ages and interests, from both near and far.

From there, the system would move along the scenic lakefront to Millennium Park and the Art Institute of Chicago. Millennium Park is the City’s newest downtown jewel. Located above a railyard and parking lot, it is technically one of the largest green roofs in the world. The park itself contains many attractions, ranging from the giant Bean sculpture (Cloud Gate) to a large ampitheatre which holds free concerts all summer long. A pedestrian bridge within Millennium Park leads directly into the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute, the second largest art museum in the country. This area is located within walking distance of the EL and Metra.

Other attractions within Grant Park include Buckingham Fountain, sports and concert venues, as well as the many summer festivals held in the space each year.

The next stop could be at the western edge of Grant Park, a 319 acre urban park which is located in the center of Chicago, next to the Loop (Chicago’s central business district) and stretches all the way to Lake Michigan. In the summer it is the center of numerous festivals, including Taste of Chicago and Lollapalooza, which transform the park into a world stage. A station at the west side of the park would connect riders to the trains and downtown before launching them on a cruise directly above the parks and the festivities below.

The southern end of the trip connects to the Museum Campus — home to the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium — as well as to Soldier Field and McCormick Place. Farthest away from the city center, Museum Campus and Soldier Field are also the most inaccessible to the train lines, with the exception of the South Shore Line and Metra Electric, only one of eleven Metra systems in the metropolitan area.

Museum Campus is frequented by visitors and students daily.

Museum Campus is composed of the Field Museum of Natural History, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium. The entire campus was recently redesigned to include pedestrian friendly pathways and landscaping. It covers 57 acres in total.

Soldier Field is home turf for the Chicago Bears and is also used for other large outdoor sporting and music events.

Soldier Field, home to the Chicago Bears, is a large, 65,000 person stadium. Other than the NFL the stadium hosts many other large scale events such as outdoor concerts and soccer matches.

McCormick Place, located at the end of the line, hosts conventions and trade shows year round.

McCormick Place is the largest convention center in the United States. It is home to many conventions, meetings, and trade shows every year, including the Chicago Auto Show. The site is composed of several buildings and connects directly to the South Shore Metra line.


The Gondola and Existing Transit Network

The Chicago Lakefront Gondola would add to the city’s existing fixed transit network, by linking existing attractions to each other and the downtown EL (CTA) and Metra lines.

The nearest Metra line stops near both Millennium and Grant Parks, as well as Soldier Field and McCormick Place. This route serves areas to the south and east, both within the city and beyond.
For the rest of the city an easy transfer to the CTA EL trains would be highly beneficial. Currently Navy Pier and the southern most attractions – Museum Campus, Soldier Field, and McCormick Place – are located a considerable distance from the nearest El station.

The gondola system’s key transfer areas to the CTA would be at the Millennium Park and Grant Park stations. These stations, although within the park, are within a 5 minute walking distance of several EL platforms for multiple lines, providing an easy link to the rest of Chicago.

For those visitors who will drive to the lakefront, large parking facilities are located at Soldier Field, Millennium Park, and Navy Pier. The gondola connection would allow drivers to park in one place and to quickly and easily reach multiple destinations.



A fixed transit cable link connecting these six areas would unify Chicago’s downtown lakefront, increasing accessibility while at the same time drawing more people to the area. Visitors arriving by car could park in one location while still having easy, family-friendly access to a much larger area of the city. Those arriving by El or train could travel to the museums, football stadium, and Navy Pier without the hassle of city traffic or shuttle schedules. Conventioneers and vendors would be able to move quickly from the McCormick Place commercial environment to cultural and entertainment sites. With the elevated views, riders would experience Lake Michigan to the east and the beauty of one of the world’s most recognizable skylines to the west.

CC Photo used in Grant Park gondola render from Flickr user Wajimacallit

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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. Matt the Engineer
    Love it. I've walked that entire area, and man was it a long walk. This area needs serious transit. The one weakness is that you need a good connection with the existing metro. Though I guess you could walk from Grant Park. Maybe move the northern Grant Park station to the other side of Millenium Park?
  2. Fantastic idea -- Chicago's downtown lakefront is scenic and active and often packed with people, which is great, but they need a quick and easy way to get around. This is one of the best people-moving ideas I've seen in ages.
  3. Good idea. Probabily you could get rid of a couple of curves, for example that between Millennium Park and Navy Pier, since either a MGD or 3S could fly over the highway. You could also put Mc Cormick place station at the Grand concourse so to be between Lakeside Center and North Building to have a straight line to Soldier Field
  4. Yeah, a direct connection would be best but downtown the El is totally wedged into the Loop. Even many of the bus connections are a block away, on Michigan Avenue, so I'd say that's about as close as you could get. In terms of the northern Grant Park station, I think keeping it on the east side of Millennium Park is key because there's available land there, and this would only further encourage people to pass through the park. Plus this alignment keeps the system within the confines of the green spaces and therefore away from buildings and windows.
  5. I totally agree with the second curve at McCormick place! Awesome. As for the first turn, that's there to avoid the buildings, not the road.
  6. Fantastic idea! Should definitely be made part of the design work for Navy Pier.
  7. Awesome proposal. Given the connection to so many high activity centers, it's perfect for tourists and normal Chicagoans. As a frequent visitor to the city, it'd be amazing if this concept caught on and gained traction. I would be definitely be the first in line to ride this! This transport link will add much needed connectivity and help with the continued revitalization of the waterfront.
  8. I especially like the possibility of another connection to the Field Museum/Shedd/Adler complex. This campus has some of Chicago's most popular cultural institutions and one of the best views of the downtown skyline, but it's difficult, and very expensive to reach. Good work, Julia!
  9. You're right... a curve is needed ; at Navy Pier in the same station could start also an MGD line along East Grand Avenue until near Grand Avenue metro station. Seems that there's the end station already done at Nordstrom !
  10. Very innovative Julia. It would decrease traffic congestion, be a valuable green alternative and become an attraction for locals and tourists. Has Rohm Emmanuel seen it?
  11. Julia, first of all...wow. You are an innovative thinker and very talented! But I guess we already knew that. I really love this idea as a way to provide accessible transportation along the lakefront. I love the idea that it would connect to existing public transportation and that it will give folks an option in their mode of transportation along the lakefront, especially tourists, as this makes it possible to quickly go from attraction A to attraction B while still taking in the "sights of the city." For what it's worth, one opposition to this plan might be people thinking the gondola system will be an eyesore to the lakefront. Has the commuter/tourist benefit in other cities that have similar systems outweighed the possible aesthetic issues? And will this gondola system shut down for the winter? or only for inclement weather?
  12. I'm not sure, but I bet he'd be a fan!
  13. Thanks Shelly! In terms of becoming an eyesore, I think the high standards of architectural beauty in the city wouldn't allow for it. The towers could be stylish and the stations small, yet stunning. The technology itself has a slim profile, and compared to the grandeur of the skyline, lake, and park, would be small. In Portland, despite some of the initial opposition, the aerial tram has become an icon for the city. This is also the case for New York's Roosevelt Island Tram where island residents have continued to use the system, even after the construction of the subway. As for the weather, remember gondolas are commonly used on mountains and at ski resorts. A cable car could certainly handle a Chicago winter.

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