Why the Seattle Urban Gondola Matters

Post by Steven Dale

Seattle Waterfront Urban Gondola

Courtesy of Via Architecture

To understand why I think the proposed Seattle Waterfront urban gondola scheme might just be the best thing for the cable car industry’s potential in the western market, let me ask you a quick question —

What’s the difference between urban cable car systems in Portland, London and the planned system in Vancouver; versus, say, those systems in Koblenz, Singapore and Whistler?

Astute readers will notice two things:

Firstly, the former cohort are all made up of systems that were developed by government agencies whereas the second cohort were all built exclusively by the private sector.

Secondly, the former cohort all suffered from extreme scope-creep to the non-intrinsic parts of the system. Stations, consultations and system designs were all well beyond anything that could charitably be considered reasonable. The second cohort, meanwhile, is made up of systems that all came in at price points well within industry norms.

So what are we saying? Are we saying that governments are incapable of building cable cars? Hardly.

It’s no secret that scope-creep and cost-control is something that governments struggle to manage. We’re not saying that all cable car systems developed by government clients suffer from unsustainable scope creep (look at the economic efficiency of the Metrocables of Medellin, for example), but only government cable car systems seem to suffer from unsustainable scope creep.

The reason for this is as simple as it is logical—if a cable car system developed by the private sector is economically unsustainable, it won’t get built or it will close due to the basic profit-seeking nature of business. Governments don’t have that built in failsafe and can therefore build things that aren’t economically sustainable. It’s that plain and simple.

Point in question, the number of privately-financed systems in the last few decades to close for economic reasons could be counted on one hand—the most noteworthy being the Mississippi Aerial River Transit (MART) in New Orleans. Whereas all systems that we currently know of that have experienced severe scope creep and cost overruns have been creatures of the public sector.

This isn’t a condemnation of the public sector, it’s simply a statement of fact.

That’s what makes Seattle important.

As it currently stands, urban cable cars in the western world are severely held back by systems such as Portland and London.

Sure those systems are incredibly high-profile, but for all the wrong reasons. Their capital costs are so out-of-whack with industry standards, they have the ability to drag down the reputation of the technology as a whole.

We should know—we repeatedly hear the costs of these systems used as evidence against the technology to the point that it’s cliche.

Seattle, on the other hand, is a private-sector initiative that—if built—is likely to conform to more typically reasonable costs. People will rightly point out that the system is nothing more than a Toy for Tourists and not a real mode of public transportation. But who cares?

Moving tourists and moving commuters are basically the same thing. Were Seattle successful, we’d finally have a system to point to and say: “See? That’s how much it’s supposed to cost to build.”

(That assumes, of course, that we would actually get to know the costs of the system—which isn’t a sure thing given the private sector nature of the system—but I digress.)

We’d have a reference system the likes of which we basically don’t have in the western (or at least, North American) context. 

For all the reasons I’ve mentioned above, the first North American urban gondola system almost needs to come from the private sector for the simple reason that the industry can’t afford to have any more repeats of Portland and London. 

If a public sector agent is willing and able to build an economically sustainable cable car system, I’m all for it. But given history, I’m hoping the private sector comes to the plate first.

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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. I could be wrong but the Roosevelt Island Tram rebuild seems to have been done within industry standards... and that's a pretty western example
  2. I think the problem with the RIT is that it's such an old system, and even the rebuild eliminates the scope creep of stations, consultations, permitting, legals, etc. It's just not a strong reference system nowadays because of that. But I see where you're coming from.
  3. Why economic sustainability is calculated and taken in charge just for cable transport?
  4. Just to be clear , because you article effectively have a point : cable transport historically, from materials ropeways one the 1900 to the ski lifts of the '60 '70 until now , had a development driven just by free market forces. My point is that administrations and the "public opinion" tend to overestimate costs of novelties and heavy underestimate the costs of "business as usual"
  5. Because one of the benefits of the technology is that it is very economically sustainable—when it is designed and implemented properly. We shouldn't consider it just for cable.
  6. I really like that — public opinion tends to overestimate the cost of novelty and heavily underestimate the costs associated with "business as usual." Quite insightful, Giorgio!

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