Urban Gondolas, Seattle, First Movers, Second Movers, Prisoners & Panspermia

Post by Steven Dale

Over at Seattle Transit Blog they’re having quite a lively debate about the merits (or demerits) of Matt Roewe’s proposed urban gondola system for Seattle.

Of the myriad of comments (most of which are incredibly well-thought out and reasoned), one in particular jumped out at me:

“Unfortunately, we do not want to be the first United States city to give this a shot. For better or for worse, the speed and thrift of the Medellín and Caracas projects were made possible by lack of political openness in both places, by less stringent engineering-study requirements, by the perception that the lines’ constituents are so poor as to be expendable (or at least non-litigious) in case of a mishap.

There are no worthy urban examples in the First World. Roosevelt Island comes the closest, but it takes a very different form than the gondola-based system we would need here. Portland is irrelevant both because of the technology and because “hospital shuttle” is not a general-purpose transportation need. The London proposal is a condo-development gimmick and has no general-purpose demand either.

Basically, we do not want to be guinea pig here, spending a ton of feasibility-study money only to have the whole thing scuttled by… who knows… (a single air-rights lawsuit? a Congressional pissing match? an arbitrary FAA ruling?)

Our best bet is to wait until another U.S. city gives urban gondola a shot (probably a dying city vainly trying to snare tourists; those things always get green-lit faster than actual transit projects) in a way that happens to provide us enough “cover of precedent” to give ours a chance to actually get built.”

We often talk about this issue at lengths on The Gondola Project and have even gone so far as to name it the No City Wants to be First Problem.

It’s not a problem specific to gondolas – but of any new urban idea, technology, policy, program, innovation, whatever.

Notwithstanding the commenter’s staggeringly arrogant and paternalistic view of people in Caracas and Medellin, the problem essentially boils down to exactly what the commenter above describes. No city is going to stick their neck out and try something different without an established track record of success elsewhere first.

The problem is essentially a fusion of three concepts: The Prisoner’s DilemmaPanspermia and the First/Second Mover Advantage.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a well-known game theory model whereby individuals a largely forced by circumstance to co-operate because the risk involved in defecting from the norm is too great.

Panspermia, meanwhile, is the hypothesis that organisms capable of living in extreme environments (extremophiles) are able to carry life from one place to another despite the incredible risk involved. Implicit within the hypothesis is the idea that while the ability of an extremophile to transplant life from one place to another is incredibly unique and fraught with danger, once one extremophile completes the task he (she?) makes it much easier for everyone (thing?) else that comes after it.

Lastly the First Mover Advantage is the basic idea that a firm, individual or group is at an advantage over competitors when they “move first” to pioneer a new product, concept or idea. Which is all fine and well except that so-called “second movers” have the advantage of sitting back and watching the first mover spend great sums of time and money on things like market research, product development and general R&D. Second movers are basically free-riders.

Trouble is, without the first movers, there can never be second movers.

Slam those three things together and we get the No City Wants to be First Problem:

  • Cities A, B & C are all intrigued by a new transportation technology. Let’s call it the CableRailGryroCopter, because why not?
  • All three cities are unwilling to commit the time and resources (and risk the significant chance of humiliating public failure) to pursue it, reasoning that one of the other two cities will “move first” thereby allowing the other two to free-ride off of the other’s success (or failure).
  • The problem develops because all three are making a massive assumption that could very easily be wrong – that one of the others actually will move first.
  • Because all three make the incorrect assumption that one of the others will move first, no one moves first and no one ever gets to discover the benefits (or costs) of the CableRailGyroCopter.

While the the commenter’s thesis above is basically correct, it’s incredibly cynical and based on a faulty assumption. The assumption is that Seattle will build an urban gondola once another American city does first. The trouble is there’s at least a 50/50 chance that every other city in America is thinking exactly the same thing! 

The commenter wants Seattle to sit back and wait for some other ‘extremophile’ to do the heavy-lifting for Seattle so that Seattle can reduce their risk to the absolute minimum.

Rational? Sure, I guess. Noble and progressive? Not on your life.

Even worse, the fact that the heavy-lifting has already been done in places like Caracas, Medellin and Rio de Janeiro is deemed suspect not because of any objective analysis of fact but because the origin and source nations happen to be poor.

The ironic part of the whole thing is that due to the work of sites like Citytank and Seattle Transit Blog, Seattle is likely one of America’s most learned and knowledgeable cities about cable transit solutions – with severe topographical challenges to boot. The commenter above may not like it, but at the end of the day, Seattle already is the ‘extremophile’ America needs for cable transit to spread.

The last thing Seattle should do is cede that ground to someone else – especially because there’s no guarantee that “someone else” even exists or will in the near future.

To reiterate, this isn’t just about gondolas – it’s about anything.

Any city that’s at the cutting edge of knowledge regarding anything that could perhaps improve the health of cities across the world has a moral obligation and duty to pursue that knowledge to its logical conclusion. That’s because in our increasingly globalized world, our cities now have a duty not just to improve themselves and their citizens, but to improve each other as well.

If every major city on our continent understood that obligation and accepted that duty with vigour and enthusiasm, our cities would be all the better for it.

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. Well i guess Seattle is not a good place to sell a innovative transit technology. Their Monorail project was quite far advanced and passed several ballots but then stopped in another ballot. At the end a lot of time and money was lost. And monorails work fine especially in Japan and are just a variation of a traditional metro. Gondolas are a more radical change than monorails. Thus it will be even harder to find a city to adopt it.
  2. Unlike monorails though, there will always be a need for gondola technology, especially for topographically challenging contexts. Monorails can essentially be replaced by standard rail systems and don't provide much of an advantage (whether space savings, costs and etc.) in any particular scenario.
  3. ...not because of any objective analysis of fact but because the origin and source nations happen to be poor. Wow, way to put words in my mouth. 1. The three South American cities in question have thus far employed urban gondolas to serve only their most pervasively poor, most haphazardly constructed, and least enfranchised districts. How "staggeringly arrogant and paternalistic" of you to presume that the favelas reflect all that Columbia or Brazil have to offer. 2. None of the regimes in charge of said projects are shining examples of open process. And frankly, I implied that this might have its advantages, as it no doubt expedited the projects. If you have evidence that engineering studies of the sort that would pass muster in major western democracies were done, I'm all ears. 3. You have never lived in Seattle, I presume. This city has a grand tradition of grand transportation visions derailed by change-phobic parochials. We have an equally grand tradition of getting wrong what we do build. For a project like this to succeed here, the templates had better be flawless and the sales pitch had better be iron-clad. For all of your gross misinterpretation of my comment, you managed to miss the part where I said it is an excellent fit for its traffic-choked and space-constrained route, and the part where I said I hoped to see it feasible soon. But to presume that flattering with a neologism a city that took 100 years to build its first subway line (and that just voted to build a $5 billion auto-only downtown-bypass highway tunnel) makes us ripe for First Mover status reveals the blindness of a modal zealot rather than someone interested in promoting transportation solutions that will actually come to pass.
  4. If gondolas can also carry bikes, I think benefit will be enormous. The hardest thing about cycling in Seattle is the uphill (in the cold, dark, rain). 3-4 Gondolas to the natural high points (QA, CH,...) and you'll people taking the gondola to the top, and then rolling down to their destination.

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