Roosevelt Island Tram & Hurricane Sandy

Post by Steven Dale

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, transit users line the streets of Manhattan in wait for buses (as seen from above in the Roosevelt Island Tramway - which was barely even affected). Image via flickr user Mark Lyon.

Anyone care to venture a guess as to which public transit system in New York City was first to whir back to life after the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy?

As frequent commenter Giorgio first mentioned here, the Roosevelt Island Tramway was back up and running days before any other fixed link transit system in the greater New York Area.

If you’ll recall, virtually all transit in New York was suspended the evening of Sunday, October 28th. All transit, rationally, was suspended on October 30th effectively shutting the city down entirely.

Then, after the worst of the storm passed, the Roosevelt Island Tram re-opened for regular service on Tuesday, October 30th at 4pm – just 43 hours after it was shut down. Limited subway service wouldn’t resume for another 2 days after that.

I’ve intentionally hesitated to discuss this matter as I don’t want us to be seen as leveraging a catastrophe to further our own goals. But after reading in Transportation Nation that gaps in the NYC subway remain “stubbornly unrepaired,” I thought it important to bring this issue up.

By bringing it up, however, I fully understand that I risk being seen as a gloater. So let’s just clear that up right now: I’m not gloating. Nor am I indicting any of New York City’s fine transit authorities, the MTA or its capabilities in a post-Sandy world. I’m just stating a fact.

Look, Hurricane Sandy was brutal and wreaked a degree of havoc on North America’s most extensive transit system never before seen. Yet amidst all that disaster, the Roosevelt Island Tramway was resilient in a way that no other system was.

That’s a story worth telling.

Does that change anything about the current state of transit in New York? Of course not. But it is a tiny victory that hasn’t received even the modicum of attention it probably deserves.

It’s all fine and well to disregard the physical characteristics that define a transit technology and focus purely on the issue of service levels and geometry.

But at the end of the day there come times when the physical characteristics of a transit technology directly impacts said service levels and geometry.

It’s like saying a basketball player’s ability has nothing to do with his height and weight. In polite company that’s what we’re supposed to say. But we all know full-well that Shaq isn’t Shaq unless he’s 300 pounds and 7 feet tall.

The Roosevelt Island Tramway was resilient in the face of Sandy almost exclusively because of its physical characteristics just as subways and tunnels were powerless exclusively due to their physical characteristics.

Again, this isn’t an indictment of subways or a call to replace the MTA exclusively with cable propelled transit technologies. That would be insane.

Instead it’s to point out that we have a transit technology here that is resistant to disaster. Taken to its logical next step, could we not imagine the surgical use of cable systems within a complementary, multi-modal transit network as an emergency back-up?

Much of the transit struggles in NYC centred on people’s inability to move from mainland areas to Manhattan and vice versa. As demonstrated by the Roosevelt Island Tramway, cable transit systems can solve that problem with relative ease.

Isn’t that worth contemplating a bit?

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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. Subways are much more fragile than we think, and is the 24/24 all year round continuous maintenance that keeps them working well. The underground environment makes all more difficult and the sheer quantity of electrical and signal devices makes water (particularly if salt) the worst nightmare - as happens in very building with floods. Instead, suspended cable transport looks fragile when it isn't - the very nature makes relatively easy to repair even with big damages , like burnt ropes or landslides that take away pylons .

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