Ogden Utah



Urban Gondolas in Ogden, Utah

My hunch is that many people stumble onto the topic of Cable Propelled Transit (and this website) by googling the words urban and gondola or urban gondola. If not, go ahead and try it and see what you come up with. I’ll wait . . .

So what did you find? Likely you came upon several references to the city of Ogden, Utah and its mayor, Matthew Godfrey. We can often learn a lot (if not more) from the failures than from the successes and Ogden, Utah is one of those very failures. It’s unfortunate that “urban gondola” and “Ogden Utah” are so inextricably linked (at least where the internet is concerned), but so be it.

Apparently from around 2004 – 2008 the mayor of this small city of 80,000 people had plans to build an urban gondola connecting the downtown core, a local university and a golf course.

The scheme was not well-received. Not well-received at all. And it’s hard not to see why:

  1. Suspicious dealings between mayor Godfrey and the private sector interests of developer Chris Peterson made residents question the public benefit of the system. In one city resolution the project was explicitly called “The Chris Peterson Project.”
  2. No communications and public outreach strategy seemed to exist. Emails were never returned, phone calls ignored and despite being invited to discuss the project in public by the Ogden Sierra Club, mayor Godfrey declined.
  3. It appears that no one with any cable experience whatsoever was involved in the planning process. According to a commenter below, RG Consultants were involved in this project. I cannot confirm nor deny this. Any additional information on this matter would be appreciated.
  4. Mayor Godfrey, for his part, spent taxpayer dollars to visit European ski lifts even though his design didn’t involve any ski resort whatsoever. Meanwhile, it seems he didn’t bother to visit the Medellin Metrocable despite it being (at the time) the single most important urban gondola system in the world. (NOTE: I erroneously said that Mayor Godfrey visited ski lifts. This was a large error on my part. Mayor Godfrey visited streetcar systems. The point is therefore moot. Very sorry.  – Steven Dale)
  5. An initial study called the Urban Gondola/Tram Comparison. This must be one of the most poorly-written and researched planning reports in the history of all public transit. Of the seven systems documented, two were purely theoretical (Baltimore and Camden), one was under contruction (Portland), and one had been dismantled 20 years ago (New Orleans MART). Of the three remaining, one was an aerial tram not a gondola (Roosevelt Aerial Tram). The report had little analysis and relied almost exclusively on Wikipedia and USA Today as sources.
  6. A study called the Ogden Transit Corridor Study Report. This is an ugly little piece of political gamesmanship masquerading as planning. The study concludes that LRT/streetcar transit is a more viable form of transit in Ogden for two reasons: Firstly, more riders would use a LRT/streetcar than a gondola system. Despite providing absolutely zero justification to back this statement up, it is taken as a fact and artificially drives down the cost per new rider for LRT/streetcar and drives up the cost per new rider for a gondola system. Secondly, the study uses an arcane method of decision making developed by the National Forestry Service called Choosing By Advantage. In this method, important factors were weighted more heavily than non-important factors. The most important factor? Ridership levels. This, in essence, allowed the report’s authors to double-count the matter of ridership against cable technology. Again: This, despite offering absolutely no justification for why a LRT/streetcar system would attract more riders than a gondola.

Am I claiming conspiracy theories? No. I don’t tend to believe in conspiracy theories. I am, however, calling shenanigans. On everyone’s part.

Whether for altruistic or selfish purposes, Mayor Godfrey wanted this urban gondola bad. It’s likely the whole scheme had more to do with shady golf-land-swap-deals with Chris Peterson than with public transit. Did Ogden need an urban gondola? Who knows, that’s besides the point.

At issue is how mayor Godfrey went about the process. Let’s assume his intentions were genuine, that Chris Peterson and the golf course never existed. Mayor Godfrey still never gathered the necessary community support for the project ahead of time. Because he never took the time to explain the idea, answer questions and create grassroots level support for the idea, he exposed himself to all manner of mistruths, half-truths, faulty planning reports and out-and-out-lies.

I’m not saying that Ogden should’ve built an urban gondola. But if they were to, this was certainly a textbook case of how not to go about it. In fact, it’s probably the textbook case about how not to go about it.

Cable transit and urban gondolas can win the hearts and minds of people with ease. When explained properly, urban gondolas sell themselves. We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again.

The concept is so foreign, however, that it is absolutely necessary to engage the community you intend to serve well in advance. If not, you risk needless backlash that is completely, 100 percent preventable. If you take the time to answer the public’s questions openly and honestly they’ll come around, believe me.

Knock on doors, answer questions, hold town hall meetings, answer your emails, be proactive. Do whatever, but don’t do nothing and do it early on in the process.

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.