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Aerial Trams vs. Gondolas

I recently spoke with a cable engineer who thought it completely absurd that people use Aerial Tram statistics to negate the feasibility of Urban Gondolas.

When I told him such confusion was the norm rather than the exception, he became flustered. He simply couldn’t accept that people make that mistake. They’re two completely different performance packages! he exclaimed. They should know the difference!

Listen, if you’re a regular reader of The Gondola Project, then you know the difference between an Aerial Tram and a Gondola (MDG, BDG or 3S). You also know why Gondolas are more suitable to urban environments and fully-integrated CPT installations.

You know that Aerial Trams have long wait times, little ability to implement intermediary stations and corners, low capacities and high costs. You also know that a Funifor negates those problems to some extent but not without significant cost increases.

But not everyone reads The Gondola Project (probably the greatest understatement in the history of blogging).

This is why a post over at David Marcus’ Liveable Norwalk caught my eye.

In that post, David suggests a CPT system for his hometown of Norwalk, Connecticut. It’s a modest proposal; a 1.5 mile long 4 station line. It wasn’t, however, the proposal that caught my eye. It was the response.

Responding to the post was Cap’n Transit, of Cap’n Transit Rides Again. For anyone who reads the transit blogs, the Cap’n should be more than familiar. He’s a prolific blogger and commenter with vast knowledge about public transportation.

He also gets it dead wrong in his response to the Norwalk Gondola:

Says Cap’n Transit:

. . . the urban gondola was first introduced right here in New York City. When they reopen the Roosevelt Island Tramway, come down and try it. You’ll find that wait time has hardly been eliminated.

Says David in response:

I have to distinguish between a tram like Roosevelt Island and a gondola like in Medellin. When I speak of gondolas, I mean the smaller cars that hold 6-10 people and come by every 10 seconds or so.

Says the Cap’n:

Thanks, David! Do they really come that frequently in Medellin? Are there more than 10 people at a time who want to ride? Has anyone tried them?

In the Cap’n’s defence, he was open-minded enough to notice he might have been incorrect. But besides that:

Can the average person really tell you what the difference between an Aerial Tram and a Gondola is?

Does the average person know that the Roosevelt Island Tram is actually to be replaced with a Funifor-type system?

Does the average person know the difference between a Funifor and an Aerial Tram?

Problem, however, is not with the average person, it’s with the knowledgeable person. Cap’n Transit knows a lot about transit, but he clearly knows little about Cable Propelled Transit. And that’s not his fault! After all, we don’t know what we don’t know.

The cable engineer can complain all he wants that people should know the difference between Aerial Trams and Gondolas, but they don’t. Whose fault do you think that is?

And maybe more importantly: Do you think complaining about it is going to change 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.



Valparaiso Ascencors

In February The Gondola Project held a mini-competition. The winner was to receive their $50 prize by email money transfer.

Matt Thredgold of Wellington Cycleways won. But as Matt lives in New Zealand and email money transfers are apparently a uniquely Canadian phenomenon (they’re awesome, by the way), Matt asked that his prize come in the way of two CDs via Amazon Canada.

In exchange for that exception, Matt promised to post images from his recent trip to Valparaiso, Chile. For those unfamiliar, Valparaiso has the largest network of functioning Funiculars in the world, most dating from 100-150 years ago.

Clearly, I was happy to oblige. Click here to see the wonderful results.

This is how research is going to happen more and more. The old model used to be one or two researchers scouring obscure publications and writing obscure publications that no one’s ever going to read. That model is quickly dying if not already dead. And that’s a great thing. The internet’s simply faster, cleaner, cheaper and more efficient than peer-reviewed journals and government reports. Some people will fight to maintain the status quo, but it’s a losing battle because that old model was/is expensive, time-consuming and prone to all kinds of suspect Gate-Keeping.

Nowadays things are very, very different. Now things move at lighting speed and change doesn’t require millions of dollars. You don’t have the time or resources to get to Valparaiso, Chile? No problem. There’s a bicycle advocate in New Zealand whose already been there, done that. Send him a couple of CDs and he’s happy to help out. You’ll have your pictures and research next week.

Here’s the great irony: Matt and I managed to “broker” our deal in nothing more than a few minutes. A couple emails, a couple blog posts and a quick trip to Amazon. The CDs themselves, however, took 5 months (5 months!) to arrive on Matt’s doorstep.

And people wonder while snail mail and compact discs are dying businesses.

Thanks again, Matt!

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.



Cable Misunderstandings on The Transport Politic

Yonah Freemak, the tireless creator of The Transport Politic yesterday wrote about The Gondola Project and a piece I wrote for Planetizen. Yonah takes the perspective that cable transit is an enjoyable, interesting technology and wades into the Form vs. Function debate I highlighted recently.

Yonah is an excellent writer, one whom I respect deeply. Yet while Yonah is generally positive on the concept, I have to point out one interpretive misstep and one factual misstep that he makes. First, Yonah’s interpretive misstep:

It’s true, of course, that it makes little sense to build a gondola in many cities — many places lack major elevation changes or large natural obstacles that preference an investment in a mode of transportation that simply goes over everything that’s around it.

I’ll be the first to admit that gondolas aren’t for every city, but I would never say that it makes little sense to build a gondola in “many cities.” Like so many, Freemark assumes that the technology is only appropriate for cities characterized by natural obstacles and or large elevation changes. Why? No reason is given.

I prefer to look at the technology as one that can exploit rather than just deal with natural obstacles. Rivers, valleys, parks and electricity corridors become usable space for transit that other technologies would not be able to utilize. This is a classic case of using what you have to your advantage.

Furthermore, Yonah misses the fact that traffic is an even greater obstacle in urban settings than “natural” obstacles. At least natural obstacles are static over time and space and can be planned for. No such luck with “unnatural” obstacles such as traffic, street protests, cyclists, and pedestrians. Worse still, standard transit technologies such as Buses, Streetcars and Light Rail only contribute further to traffic problems. Not so with cable systems.

Yonah’s second misstep comes when he says this:

There are of course major limitations to aerial vehicles like the gondolas Dale has highlighted; their maximum running speeds are relatively slow and they lack the ability to handle anywhere near the capacity of traditional train systems.

Two problems here:

Firstly, Yonah confuses “maximum running speed” with average speed. As I point out here and here, average running speed is all that really matters in an urban setting. Maximum speed is basically irrelevant. Just ask that guy in the Ferrari whose been stuck at 10 km/hr in dense rush hour traffic. Just because a vehicle is capable of operating at 100 km/hr doesn’t mean it will, which is why Light Rail vehicles today are built to a maximum speed specification well below what they were in the past. (Toronto Streetcars and Light Rail vehicles famously operate an average of around 13 km/hr but are built to operate at 100 km/hr).

Because cable transit systems operate outside of all other forms of traffic, vehicles are actually able to reach their maximum speeds. So while the maximum speed of a gondola may be less than the maximum speed of a streetcar or light rail vehicle or bus, it’s ability to operate outside of mixed traffic completely negates that. Yonah also completely ignores the issue of wait times, a stat with which cable has no peers (see  here and here).

Secondly, Yonah is right about one thing: Cable cannot approach the capacity of standard train systems. Here, however, I have to assume that he’s talking about commuter or heavy rail (subways). In that sense, yes, he’s right. But one of the things he misses is that few North American cities are building heavy rail systems because the capacity demands just aren’t there.

(Danish scholar Bent Flyberg, for example, has demonstrated that rail projects generally meet with ridership half of what was forecasted. This perspective is echoed by the US Department of Transportation and Harvard economist Don H. Pickrell.)

We therefore should be examining Light Rail and BRT capacities not Heavy Rail because Light Rail and BRT are currently what everyone is building. And when you look at the offered capacities of most Light Rail or Bus Rapid Transit systems in North America, rarely does one find a line that eclipses the 4,000 pphpd mark. Currently, aerial cable systems can reach up to 6,000 pphpd.

Like speed, we have a choice to build technologies that have a theoretical maximum capacity which we will never use or we can build a more modest technology that can easily provide what is required. If the two technologies were the same price, yes, go for the more robust one every time.

Problem is, LRT and BRT is anywhere from double to triple the price of cable on a per-rider-per-kilometer basis, (with far longer wait times and worse safety levels to boot.)

I duly appreciate the attention and generally favourable impression of cable Yonah’s article gives. I just think it important to recognize the deep-seated misunderstandings of the technology (in specific) and transit (in general) that exist (check out the Neumann-Bondada studies) and how those misunderstandings may preclude us from considering a truly revolutionary technology.

Remember: Cable Propelled Transit and Urban Gondolas aren’t just cool or interesting; they’re deeply simple and practical, too.

Update: Since posting this today, Yonah Freemark has posted a response of his own at the end of his original post.)

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.



Cost Is Relative With Urban Infrastructure

The good folks over at US Infrastructure have invited me to blog for them on occasion. So, of course, the first blog has to do with the Caracas Metrocable and how various people (including The Economist) choose to portray the costs of civil works projects.

Please check out Cost Is Relative With Urban Infrastructure.

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.