Blogs & Other Sites



A Response to Streetsblog’s Gondolamania

With a title inspired by—one can only assume—this month’s WWE Wrestlemania spectacular, Streetsblog writer Angie Schmitt recently let fly an invective against all things gondola. The piece, titled “Enough with the Gondolamania Already” is the kind of fact-free op-ed column one expects from a lesser publication than Streetsblog. It’s the kind of piece that’s meant to provoke simply for the sake of provocation. It appears to exist for little reason other than to act as a counter-point to the growing interest in urban gondolas throughout the world. 
That, in itself, wouldn’t be a problem. 
I’d love to see a well-researched, reasoned and thought-out opinion piece on why American cities should stop exploring cable-propelled transit. That would be interesting, challenging and altogether thought-provoking. Unfortunately, Schmitt’s piece isn’t that. 
Schmitt’s column is a visceral repudiation of urban gondolas supported by three thin-as-wet-kleenex premises: That gondolas are only for complex topography, are a distraction from bigger transit problems and rarely get realized. 
Schmitt begins her piece by citing how interest in the technology may have been spurred by the “tremendous success” of Medellin’s Metrocable system. This is not controversial. While cable cars in urban environments predate Medellin, that city’s network of cable cars is generally seen as the urban inflection point for the cable-propelled transit industry. 
What is, however, controversial is her implication that the success of Medellin’s Metrocable is “an unusual case where gondolas make a certain amount of sense because of the city’s tricky geography.” In American cities, she states, they are nothing more than “a distraction from bigger problems.”
Schmitt makes two critical errors in thinking here: 
Firstly, by discounting cable car technology’s potential role in solving bigger transit problems, she subtly equates the technology as being useful in areas of difficult topography with being not useful in areas of simple topography. And yet the two things have nothing to do with one another. 
Just because a cable car is capable in challenging topography does not mean it is incapable in undemanding topography. By way of analogy — if a 4-wheel-drive Range Rover is capable in off-road safari environments, does that make it incapable in urban streetscapes? 

(Image via flickr user Dave Connor)

Secondly, while it isn’t entirely clear what Schmitt is referring to when using the phrase “tricky geography,” one can presume she is talking about the natural environment and topography by way of her reference to Medellin’s “mountainous landscape” in her preceding sentence. 
Yet this is a misunderstanding of what geography and topography is.
Topography is not just the natural landscape, but the man-made built urban environment as well. And remember — man-made topographical complexity includes such things as stop lights and rush hour traffic. I would argue that man-made topography is far more challenging than natural topography. It moves, it changes, it adapts. Mountains, meanwhile, stay put. 
In our work over the years this is something we see people repeatedly misunderstand about Medellin. The Metrocables were not just about the mountains. They were as much about navigating complex man-made topographical challenges as they were about ascending hillsides. 
Linea K (Medellin’s first Metrocable system which is emblematic of its other systems), for example, is only 2 kilometres long and acts as a feeder into the wider transportation network. The difference in elevation from top to bottom station is only 400m – hardly mountainous. In fact, the difference in elevation is less than the the difference in elevation between Los Angeles’ Venice Beach and some of the more developed areas of nearby Bel Air. 
We ain’t talking about K2 here, folks. 
Granted, in the Linea K context, the degree of inclination is an average of 20%. While this is a degree of inclination that no self-propelled rail technology could handle, it is an inclination that is easily handled by buses, particularly given Medellin’s favourable climate. 
What the buses could not easily handle, however, was the complex arrangement of man-made streets, buildings and all of the traffic those things cause. This, in combination with the natural topography was the real motivation behind the Metrocables. In past interviews with the designers of the system I’ve had, some even stated that it was the man-made complexities that presented more of a challenge than the natural ones. 
And man-made topographical complexities exist in every city on earth. 
Yes, the number and degree of man-made topographical complexities varies from city-to-city, but they all exist on a continuum — and that continuum applies to all cities. There is not a single transit technology or system in the world that does not have to contend with man-made topographical complexity, full-stop. 
When Schmitt discounts a cable car’s capabilities as something only appropriate to natural topographical features, she entirely ignores its capabilities at navigating man-made topography as well. And while I don’t wish to get into any modal comparisons here, it’s useful to point out that a cable car’s ability to operate without regard to man-made topography is matched only by under-or-aboveground railroads but at a fraction of the price. 
The author’s erroneous perspective basically boils down to oh sure, if the mountains are a problem, then yes, of course — of course, I know that! — gondolas, but otherwise this isn’t serious transit for cities without hills. 
Schmitt’s second premise is that gondolas are a distraction from bigger transit problems. 
The appropriate response then, is this: How does one define a transit problem? Seriously. That isn’t a rhetorical device, it’s an honest question. And who arbitrates on the matter of the problem’s scale and size? 
More problematic is Schmitt’s contention that gondolas as a whole are a distraction from bigger transit problems. It’s as ridiculous a statement as saying that steaks have served mainly as a distraction from world hunger. One has nothing to do with the other. 
Were Schmitt to have opened debate about specific gondola proposals in specific cities with specific transit problems that would be a different story altogether. Let’s debate the respective (de)merits of the various proposals across the continent. Let’s see which ones are good, which ones are bad and which ones are, indeed, a distraction from bigger problems.
But shouldn’t that level of discourse exist with all transit proposals, instead of just gondolas? Are there not streetcar, light rail, driverless car and subway proposals that are as much, if not more of a distraction from so-called bigger problems? In Schmitt’s world it would seem so. 
Schmitt paints the entirety of cable car technology as a distraction by cherry-picking a handful of ill-conceived proposals. That’s disingenuous at best. That’s like saying streetcars as a whole are a distraction from bigger transit problems because Cincinnati’s Bell Connector is experiencing ridership that’s short of its target by almost 50%.
What these “bigger transit problems” are is never defined. Following on that — once one defines a transit problem, how does one go about solving it? 
Generally, transit problems are solved by way of some technology — whether that be bus, light rail, streetcar, subway, bike share, gondola, skateboard or whatever. Even pedestrian transit solutions require technology. Shoes, sidewalks, crosswalks and the like are all technological solutions we’ve developed over the centuries to solve the most basic need of getting people from here to there. 
Schmitt’s comment that gondolas “have mainly served as a distraction from bigger problems facing urban transit systems” implicitly excludes gondola technology from being in a position to actively help solve those bigger problems. By discounting an entire technological category before even defining what the transit problem is speaks to a modal bias on Schmitt’s part that most transit agencies got over a generation ago. 
If Schmitt thinks the dozen or so urban gondola proposals in North America that are meandering through various stages of analysis and planning are distracting from bigger transit problems, she’s giving urban gondolas far too much credit for their ability to garner people’s attention. Maybe she’s right. But if so, perhaps it’s because these systems are successful. 
The idea that gondolas have mainly served as a distraction is insulting to the millions of riders who utilize the Roosevelt Island Tram, Portland Aerial Tram and Telluride Gondola as a means of public transit every day. Those cable car systems aren’t distractions to those commuters, they are an essential link in their daily commute. It’s also insulting to the dozen or so systems operating around the world as public transportation that move hundreds of thousands of people a day. Are those a distraction as well? Or are they successful case histories that transit agencies are increasingly looking at so as to address their bigger transit problems in a different light? 
In La Paz, Bolivia, their urban gondola network moves an average of 60,000 riders per day. It transports more people per day than 72% of all Light Rail/Streetcar systems in the US. It has a 0% operating subsidy. 
I want to repeat that — Zero. Percent. Subsidy.  
According to the Portland Aerial Tram’s website, daily ridership of their system is around 10,000. This system is only 1km long and requires an additional fare to use unless you are a student, staff or patient of the Oregon Health & Science University. That ridership number, meanwhile, is higher than all three individual Portland Streetcar lines and 75% of their combined total ridership.
New York’s Roosevelt Island Tram is the only economically self-sufficient part of the entire MTA network and moves 2.4 million riders per year. 
And then there’s Medellin which Schmitt herself calls a “tremendous success.” 
These aren’t distractions. They are inspirations. 
If we define gondolas (or any cable car for that matter) as a transit technology, then they are not a distraction to a transit problem; they are a potential solution. No different from subways, buses and light rail systems. The fact that they are being studied in much the same way as standard transit technologies is a cause for regard not scorn. 
Finally, Schmitt implies that we shouldn’t be studying gondolas because most gondolas don’t get built. Why bother, in other words.
She makes this point by beginning her column with an image of Austin’s Wire One proposal, captioned with the phrase “like almost all gondola proposals, this one for Austin, Texas, will never get built.” Okay. Fine and basically true. As was reported widely last month, that proposal is unlikely to move forward any further
Schmitt carefully phrases this in a way that it is 100% factual but leads the reader in a direction so as to believe that the fact that the majority of gondola proposals will never get built is somehow intrinsic to the technology. We saw this tactic used before in the case of the Sydney monorail and careful readers shouldn’t get fooled by the author’s attempt to reframe issues that are extrinsic to cable cars into intrinsic features of the technology.
Alternatively, Schmitt could’ve also easily written . . . 
“Like almost all public transit proposals, this one will never get built”
– or –
“Like almost all real estate development proposals, this one will never get developed.”
– or – 
“Like almost all screenplays, this one will never get produced.”
. . . and she would’ve been completely right. But transit still gets built, real estate still gets developed and screenplays still get produced.
Failure is the default of all human endeavours and yet we endeavour still. 
That the majority of gondolas do not get built is not intrinsic to cable car technology but is instead intrinsic to almost all urban infrastructure and development. You’d think someone who’d been writing for Streetsblog for six years would understand that distinction, but apparently not. 
The Western, Developed Nation model of urban planning is largely and generally built upon the following process:
1. Generate an idea
2. Convert that idea into a proposal
3. Test that proposal through research
4. Use that research to gain buy-in and approvals
5. Leverage those approvals to attract financing
6. Deploy that financing to build the project 
The majority of developments, pieces of infrastructure or transit projects will never make it past the first few stages of analysis. Yet we still have to study them because that’s how things get built in our world. Do we study too much and build too little? Perhaps, but that’s an entirely separate discussion for another time. 
And even when infrastructure projects do eventually break through and actually get built, a large minority of them won’t even see the results that were originally envisioned. Ridership will fall short, square footage will go unrented and costs will be higher than planned. That’s just the way it is. 
Urban infrastructure is like a professional baseball player — you can fail 70% of the time and still wind up in the Hall of Fame. 
Are the odds against you? Of course they are. But that doesn’t mean you don’t try. Our entire civilization was built on that mindset and I see no reason to stop thinking that way when it comes to gondolas or any other technological innovation. 
Ending her piece, Schmitt states that “too many cities are wasting too much time and money on gimmicky distractions instead of the meat and potatoes of running a functional transit system.”
Without a single hint of self-awareness, Schmitt then immediately follows her conclusion with a link to a report on “a new bus line that didn’t deliver what riders in Mount Rainier, Maryland were hoping for.”
Apparently Ms. Schmitt’s understanding of urban gondolas is roughly equivalent to her understanding of irony and editorial juxtaposition. 

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NYT: Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, Please

As it seems to be picture week here on the Gondola Project, I feel that it is only appropriate to carry on this unofficial theme.

Monday we saw new images of Livigno, Tuesday was Jackie Chan sporting a cable car sweater day, and Wednesday we got a glimpse of the progress of the Emirates AirLine (London cable car) gondola.

Today is less about the transit infrastructure (or sweaters) and more about the act of catching, or trying to catch, the train. On April 6 the New York Times blog featured an article called “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, Please“. It is a lovely piece about the “glorious triumphs and heartbreaking defeats” we experience riding transit. When one or two seconds make all the difference, who will run and who will be stuck waiting for the next train to arrive?


Richard Perry / The New York Times

As promised, the article showcases just over a dozen images by Richard Perry of people and transit in New York City. Some images feature the chase, others the frustration of being just a moment too late, and still others the rather monotonous, daily commuter look.

Also mentioned in the article is the poem “A Commuter’s Lament, or a Close Shave”, by Norman B. Colp, which is printed on the ceiling of the Time Square Subway Station. The poem reads:

“Overslept / So tired / If late / Get fired / Why bother? / Why the pain? / Just go home / Do it again.”

Speaking of repetition, the poem has been up since 1991.

Pretty catchy. I don’t know about you but I would read it every day.

Check out the full article, and of course the rest of the photos here, on the NYT blog.

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Transportation & Traffic Week at City Builder Book Club

Over at The City Builder Book Club (which Creative Urban Projects is a co-founder and sponsor of) we’re discussing chapter 18 of Jane Jacobs’ essential The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Chapter 18, for those unaware, is all about ‘The Erosion of Cities or The Attrition of the Automobile’ and is excellent reading for anyone interested in the seemingly never-ending feud between the pedestrian and automotive realms.

On Monday CBBC has already had myself writing on why – though I may agree with Jacobs’ core thesis about the damage of cars – I have real troubles with her tactics for changing that situation.

On Tuesday Jarrett Walker of Human Transit fame discusses how the attrition of automobiles is “mostly the work of small, steady work.” 

And today Alissa Walker of Good, Fast Company and Dwell writes about The American Love Affair with roads and cars.

If you’ve not already been reading along with us, feel free to catch up any time you like – the posts will be there for the foreseeable future.

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The Gondola Project: Obsessive Guys Who Love Gondola Transit?

The internet’s a funny thing.

It’s so easy to take things out of context, misinterpret or just generally get all riled up about something that turns out to be nothing. Without that in-person interactive component, virtually anything can be misunderstood – and typically is.

Which is why I’m torn about a recent post over at Human Transit. In the post, Jarrett says this:

The possession of the tool, and the knowledge of how to use it, becomes a feature by which a group defines itself and sets itself in opposition to other interests.

If you don’t think this still happens, look at all the clubs and forums for people who own and cherish a particular tool — a Linux-powered computer, say, or a certain musical instrument.  If you read an online forum about such possessions, you’ll see the practical work of exchanging troubleshooting tips also builds a community in which people love hearing each other’s stories about life with the cherished tool.

So this is another thing that’s going on behind the obsessive attachment to transit technologies. People who love aerial gondolas (link his, bold mine) or whatever can now network worldwide with every city that runs one, compare notes about each other’s problems and achievements, and thus form a global community based on love of that particular tool.  Psychologically, it’s just like a club of guys who all own a particular kind of car, or computer, or electric guitar, or whatever.

Leaving aside the merits of his argument, what is one to make of Jarrett’s comment about aerial gondolas and his link to The Gondola Project?

There are, I think, two ways to look at it; one positive and one negative. First the negative:

It’s nothing more than a less-than-subtle broadside and a low blow.

The Gondola Project, as envisioned by Human Transit. Image by buhtterfly.

Calling The Gondola Project community nothing more than a group of “people who love aerial gondolas” with an “obsessive attachment” doesn’t inspire much faith in the community nor the technology itself. It also completely discounts the achievements cable has experienced in the last 10 years.

Furthermore, comparing The Gondola Project to “a club of guys who all own a particular kind of car, or computer, or electric guitar, or whatever” is off base. The phrasing is intentionally derisive here: No one is a professional. Everyone is just a “guy” united solely by the fact that they own a piece of hardware. Everyone is an amateur.

Doesn’t matter that many of The Gondola Project’s readers, writers and contributors are professionals actively engaged in issues of transit, planning and policy. The impression given is one of a bunch of guys huddled together in one’s garage obsessively going over the minutiae of that which they have no personal stake in.

It’s an attack not upon the technology, but upon the people associated with it.

But maybe that’s reading a bit too deeply into the subtext.

The second way to read it is this:

If Jarrett Walker and Human Transit are hostile towards the idea of cable transit and The Gondola Project, why bother linking to us in the first place? While his coverage of the idea could be interpreted as less-than-favorable, it puts the idea front-and-centre before his sizable readership.

Furthermore, Human Transit has had a link to The Gondola Project under their ‘Technophile’ category for months now. If Human Transit doesn’t like the idea of cable, they wouldn’t mention it. They’d just ignore it and hope that it goes away.

If they don’t approve of the idea, the best way to kill it doesn’t involve giving it more attention. That would be a huge strategic error. After all, like publicity, there’s no such thing as bad traffic.

So maybe it’s a reluctant invitation to the table. While not explicitly endorsing the technology, idea or people behind cable transit, Human Transit’s favorable linking allows for the idea to enter the conversation and discussion. It allows it an opportunity to go mainstream while giving Jarrett the critical distance he requires and deserves.

There’s really no way to know one way or the other which of the two perspectives is right. In fact, there could be a third or fourth perspective as well. The only way to know is to get it straight from the source.

So my question to Jarrett is this: Which one is it? What do you think of cable?

(Update: Jarrett responds in the comments.)

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Say ‘Hi’ To The Spokane Urban Gondola

I recently discovered a new site advocating for Urban Gondolas in Spokane, Washington. I have no idea the person(s) behind the site and it’s currently slim on details, but that’s okay. After all, it’s only a couple months old and these things take time to build up content, community and resources.

Refreshingly, there’s no route or alignment proposed. The author, Selkirk, is candid and simply posits: Why not a gondola?

Why not, indeed?

This is an important step forward. Someone took the time and energy to do something; to say something and reach out to the world. In essence, they’ve expanded, localized and focused the Cable Propelled Transit community and that’s what’s needed here.

I can shout gondola! all I want, but it won’t do a thing until others take ownership of the idea, run with it and push it in whatever way they deem necessary.

So please, if you’re a regular reader of The Gondola Project (or even if you’re not), take the time to visit Selkirk’s site and leave him (or her) a message. Support him (or her). Offer to help. At the very least, say ‘hi.’

After all, starting a website and/or blog is hard work. Sometimes the only thing that keeps one going is the steady trickle of clicks, unique visitors and comments that indicate some small part of the world hears them.

Let’s make sure Selkirk knows we’re listening.

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Americans Want Public Transit (A Satire)

One of my favorite websites in the world is the satirical newspaper, The Onion. Its commentary is such a spot-on accurate depiction of how the world works, it’s oftentimes a more reliable source of news and commentary than our traditional sources.

An absolute favorite article (from 2000) is titled Report: 98 Percent of U.S.Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others. Among the highlights:

  • “With traffic congestion, pollution, and oil shortages all getting worse, now is the time to shift to affordable, efficient public transportation,” APTA director Howard Collier said. “Fortunately, as this report shows, Americans have finally recognized the need for everyone else to do exactly that.”
  • Among these positives: the health benefits of getting fresh air while waiting at the bus stop, the chance to meet interesting people from a diverse array of low-paying service-sector jobs, and the opportunity to learn new languages by reading subway ads written in Spanish.
  • The APTA is kicking off a campaign to promote mass transit with the slogan, “Take The Bus… I’ll Be Glad You Did.”

Meanwhile, in March of this year Transportation For America announced: New Poll Shows Americans Strongly Support Public Transportation.

It’s easy to say you support public transit. After all, who wouldn’t? Even easier to take a poll and say people in general support public transit.

But the real question isn’t whether or not you support public transit. The question is will you ride public transit?

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Forecasting as Voodoo

There’s nothing more common and consistently wrong in the transit planner’s toolbox as ridership forecasting and projections. It’s like voodoo: 90% of the time it doesn’t work, and the 10% of the time it does no one knows why (hint: it’s not because of the voodoo).

So here comes Tom Rubin, a veteran transit consultant saying if Los Angeles had forsaken its program to build streetcars and light rail and instead “run a lot of buses at low fares, they could have doubled the number of riders.”

Meanwhile, quoting the LA Times article above, Jarrett Walker echoes this philosophy stating that “if you really want a transformative boost in transit ridership, the single most effective thing you could do can be done entirely with paint and signs: converting traffic lanes or parking lanes to bus lanes.

It would be great to see Tom Rubin (and to a lesser extent Jarrett Walker) prove his claim. How can he know that Light Rail directly decreased ridership and that bus ridership would have doubled the number of riders? How can he make such a sweeping prediction?

He can’t.

There’s no way to make that claim unless Rubin has access to a time machine capable of visiting an alternate universe and reporting the results back to our current universe. And if Rubin did have such a machine, why is he wasting his time as a transit planning consultant?

If you read the LA Times article closely you notice four things:

  1. Rubin  makes clear that the initial decrease of transit ridership in 1985 was due to an increase in fares. It’s a bait-and-switch. First he attributes the decrease in ridership to an increase in fares. He then tries to pin that on Light Rail (because the subsidy used to artificially keep bus fares low was shifted to rail).
  2. Rubin notes that traffic congestion continues to rise throughout the region and uses that as evidence of rail’s ineffectiveness. It’s a correlation versus causation error: Just because rail was built at the same time that transit ridership decreased does not mean one can attribute the latter to the former. Meanwhile, during the same period of time, LA opened one of the longest and most heavily used Bus Rapid Transit lines in North America. Why is rail to blame and not BRT?
  3. Rubin conveniently ignores the fact that transit ridership has returned to pre-1985 levels in Los Angeles.
  4. Rubin focuses on running “a lot of buses at low fares.” His argument in favour of buses is dependent upon them having low fares. The same argument could be made for running “a lot of streetcars at low fares” or “a lot of ponies at low fares.” Rubin’s argument should be rephrased as low fares increase ridership not buses increase ridership.

Generally speaking, I’m not the biggest fan of LRT because it’s rarely implemented properly. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was the cause of decreased transit usage in Los Angeles, especially when the logic underpinning such an argument is completely suspect.

I also wouldn’t go so far as Jarrett Walker does to say that any one technology or technique (bus in particular) is the single most effective means to boost transit ridership. That’s a pretty big claim to make especially without any statistics to back it up.

For any technology-specific advocate, the stakes are high. Transit contracts are some of the most valuable in the world, costing billions of dollars. It shouldn’t, therefore, surprise us that some industries play fast and loose with facts and truth. Is it right? No. But just because it isn’t right doesn’t mean we should blind ourselves into believing it doesn’t happen.

Cities, meanwhile, are continually struggling to increase transit ridership. So if a certain group of technology enthusiasts can make a specious claim that their technology can do that, maybe their technology will win more contracts and their consultants and planners will get more work. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy that’s (strangely) rarely fulfilled.

Selling one transit technology as the be-all-and-end-all savior of transit is irresponsible. Damning another technology using incredibly faulty logic worse still.

Note to Tom Rubin: If you do have the aforementioned alternate-universe-time-machine handy, could you please tell me who has my copy of Jane Jacob’s Dark Age Ahead? I really love that book and I have no idea who I lent it to. Also: Whose going to win the 2014 World Cup? And: What would I look like with a mustache?

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