Case Studies



Hamilton Gondola — We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

NOTE: An earlier version of this post originally appeared on December 4th, 2009 (yup, that’s over 7 years ago, kids). At that time, the report “City of Hamilton Higher Order Transit Network Strategy” was available online. Unfortunately, it is no longer available. 

Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know and that’s really nobody’s fault.

For example:

In the spring of 2007 a working paper by IBI Group called City of Hamilton Higher Order Transit Network Strategy came out. For those who don’t know, Hamilton is a city in southern Ontario that is cut in half by a 700 kilometer long limestone cliff that ends at Niagara Falls. It’s called the Niagara Escarpment and has made higher-order transit connections between the Upper and Lower cities difficult.

You See The Difficulty

You See The Difficulty

In the IBI paper the writers conclude that a connection between the Upper and Lower cities is “physically impossible” and that the Niagara Escarpment Commission might “strongly resist” any new crossings of the escarpment. As such, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) became the focus and preferred technology of the report. That’s because streetcars and Light Rail can’t handle inclines of more than about 10 degrees. The only way for a rail based technology to work, IBI concluded, was if a tunnel or viaduct was built.

No where in the report, however, was Cable Propelled Transit (CPT) even mentioned, despite cable’s ability to resolve most if not all of the issues IBI highlighted.

It’s no real surprise. Back in 2007 there was virtually no publicly accessible research available on cable. Believe me, I know; I had just started my research in 2007 and it was incredibly difficult to find anything.

Should IBI have considered cable? Should they have known about cable? I don’t know . . . and furthermore, I don’t think it’s relevant to this discussion. What you don’t know, you don’t know and that’s all there is to it.

What is, however, relevant to our discussion is this:

Hamilton Gondola

Photoshop of a gondola traversing the Hamilton Escarpment. Image via Hamilton Spectator.

The City of Hamilton is now updating their Transportation Master Plan and they’re surveying the public on their opinions. And the survey includes a question on gondolas. Last summer, meanwhile, around half of the people that responded at Hamilton’s Transportation Master Plan public meetings said they liked the gondola concept.

So why does that matter?

Because in less than 7 years’ time, a large North American city made a complete about-face on this matter. They went from a place where they thought (incorrectly) that a specific transit problem could not be solved with a fixed link solution due to their topography; to a place where they are actively soliciting the public’s opinion on using a gondola to solve the very problem they previously thought couldn’t be solved.

I know people in the cable car industry think seven years is a lifetime. And it is. But not to a large municipal bureaucracy. To a city, seven years is a heartbeat. In a heartbeat, Hamilton went from basically not even knowing cable cars exist to considering it as a part of their overall Transportation Master Plan.

That’s progress no matter how you look at it.

Creative Commons image by John Vetterli

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Decaying Rail to Profitable Trail: Lessons From Walkway Over the Hudson

This past weekend, I found myself traveling to a small town called Poughkeepsie in Upstate New York and had the opportunity to visit the Walkway Over the Hudson. Image by Nicholas Chu.

The Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, NY (2 hours/130 kilometres north of New York City) is the world’s longest pedestrian bridge. It has lessons to offer planners. Image by Nicholas Chu.



As an urban planner, I love coming across unique examples of transport infrastructure when I visit a city. The Walkway Over The Hudson (WOTH), a former steel rail bridge turned pedestrian path, is a great example of one of those instances. The bridge has a fascinating history and is a great example of how elevated infrastructure can positively interact with its surrounding communities.

Entering Poughkeepsie, visitors will immediately notice a behemoth old structure spanning the town. The rail bridge, first built in 1889, played a significant role in the growth and development of the region. It was used in the past to deliver goods and materials but like many railroads, its importance began to decrease in the 1950s when industry declined and the interstate highway was developed.

It was used sparingly until 1974 when a fire broke out, forcing it to finally close. From then, the bridge was essentially left to its own accord until it was deeded over to the a non-profit called Walkway Over the Hudson in 1998. The organization was able to raise $38.8 million for restoration versus $50 million to tear down and the WOTH officially opened to the public in 2009.


Strolling the 2.0km (1.28 mi) long WOTH felt slightly surreal. After a flight of stairs, visitors find themselves 65m (212ft) above ground to a sweeping panorama of the Hudson Valley. But what creates that surreal feeling is this purely pedestrianized elevated environment. The absence of noisy and noxious cars and trains adds much to the ambience and sheer pleasure of walking the bridge.

Walkway Over the Hudson, Washington Street entrance . Image by Nicholas Chu.

Walkway Over the Hudson, Washington Street entrance. Image by Nicholas Chu.

Looking westbound. Image by Nicholas Chu.

Standing on WOTH. Looking west. Image by Nicholas Chu.

The Walkway hovers high homes, rail tracks, and roads. Image by Nicholas Chu.

The Walkway hovers high above homes, rail tracks, and roads. Looking north (and down). Image by Nicholas Chu.


Given its elevation, the Walkway naturally provides users many unique vantages.  This means the ability to peer into people’s homes and businesses, about which there are mixed feelings.

Scrappy entrepreneurs underneath the bridge has turned it into an advertising opportunity. Image by Nicholas Chu.

For some entrepreneurs underneath the bridge, the Walkway has turned their rooftops into a perfect advertising opportunity. Image by Nicholas Chu.

Most homes seem to live peacefully with the bridge. Image by Nicholas Chu.

Most homes seem to live peacefully with the bridge despite being just meters away. Image by Nicholas Chu.

Not surprisingly, some homeowners were uncomfortable with the idea of thousands of pedestrians gazing down into their backyards.

Some homes closest to the bridge has erected green meshes to reduce privacy invasion from passerbys. Image by Nicholas Chu.

A row of homes opted to install green meshes to reduce privacy invasion from passersby. Image by Nicholas Chu.

The installation of privacy meshes is an interesting solution to what may have been a sticky situation. The green cover is a neat example of how a simple, good design intervention can solve almost all problems.

For gondola installations, these privacy screens may be an another ideal and cost-effective answer to limiting privacy concerns stemming from aerial infrastructure.


The Walkway has brought immeasurable benefits to the community. Initially, project proponents were worried that few would venture into town to experience the engineering marvel. In fact, the bridge was originally estimated to attract only 267,700 visitors annually but to the surprise of many, the bridge has been wildly popular.

On good weather days, the Walkway attracts scores of dog-walkers, pedestrians, and cyclists. Image by Nicholas Chu.

On sunny days, the Walkway attracts scores of pedestrians and cyclists. Image by Nicholas Chu.

Information center at the end of the bridge offers users a chance to buy souvenirs, rest up and learn more about the site's history. Image by Nicholas Chu.

Information center at the end of the bridge offers users a chance to buy souvenirs, rest up and learn more about the site’s history. Image by Nicholas Chu.

During its first year, WOTH brought in nearly three times (780,000) the amount of projected visitors and since its opening, over 3 million users have already traversed the bridge! As a result, it is estimated that WOTH has created 208 direct jobs and generated $575,000 in state tax revenue.


Overall, the bridge offers many lessons for urban planners interested in adaptive re-use and community initiated projects. It is not only a great example of how to creatively restore and reinvigorate underutilized waterfronts and greenspaces — remember it cost less to convert it into a revenue source than demolish —  but also serves as a reminder that it is possible for residents to co-exist peacefully with elevated infrastructure.

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A Buono Example of Transit Integration

IMG_2608 Lecco, Lombardia is a picturesque lake- and mountain-side town of about 50k inhabitants, located about 50km from central Milan. However, because this story is about transportation integration, let’s note that it’s exactly 39 minutes’ train ride from Milan’s magnificent Centrale station — and heavily populated enough to justify several dependable bus lines.

Lecco has its own bi-cable aerial tram. However, because this story is about transportation integration, we’ll get to that in two more steps.

Say you took the 9:50 train from the flat, smoky and sweatily overheated Milan on some Saturday morning in August. 40 minutes later — that’s far less than the time it takes to ride from central Manhattan to Newark airport — you’re disembarking at an alpine postcard, breathing pristine air.

Directly opposite Lecco’s station square, you can catch the #4 bus, a quick loop through the front of town, then up into the town’s leafy and lovely suburbs. The €1.25 ride is worth it because it saves a sweaty two-hour uphill walk and offers stunning views of the lake and sheer rising mountains.

On weekends, the bus service is hourly but every stop has an electronic device with the latest route information accurately posted. The bus terminates at the Piani d’Erna cable car after around 20 minutes. Gondolas leave every 15 minutes.

The gondola operates all year round. In winter it’s a quick and easy way for city people to ski without having to travel deep into Italy’s many other mountain regions. In the summer, it’s the same story for time-starved hikers. For just 20 Euros return fare, the ride from what is ostensibly a suburban park into a scene out of The Sound of Music takes 5 minutes. Total time from city mountain-top freedom, including a half hour between train and bus: 1 hour 50 minutes.


Now, say you’ve been hiking the beautiful if challenging trails (then maybe enjoyed a fabulous meal at one the upper station of the Piani d’Erna’s very unpretentious rifugio restaurants) on some Saturday in July and would like a refreshing swim. Hop back aboard the cable car, which is rarely busy in mid-afternoon and leaves every half hour. Then board the waiting air-conditioned public bus, which drops you back at the train station 20 minutes later. Here, you’re just 500 metres from a free and swimmable beach! The length of the ride is five minutes. Height differential: 725 metres. Total length of time from tip to dip: 45 minutes.

Lecco is on the same lake as the much more famous and touristy, though certainly not prettier, town of Como, which takes much longer to get to by train. For all these reasons, we’re not surprised that Lecco was awarded Alpine Town of the Year Award in 2013. What we don’t understand is why Lecco isn’t much overwhelmed with tourists even if it doesn’t have George Clooney.

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Coming Soon: Portugal’s Urban Cable Cars

View of Porto from Vila Nova de Gaia. Image by Nicholas Chu.

As Steven hinted last week, I was on vacation in an unnamed locale doing a little sightseeing. Today, I’ve finally made the journey back and am just starting to settle in.

Over the next weeks, I will have a few posts on two of mainland Portugal’s finest urban cable cars — the Telecabine Lisboa and the Teleférico do Gaia.

Stay tuned! 😉

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Lyle Lanley From The Simpsons — Alive, Well and Building Monorails in Malaysia

In our never-ending quest to bring you the best and most unique transport stories, we were recently informed by a colleague of a curious transit system in Malaysia named the Malacca Monorail.

Being true transit geeks (and huge fans of the Simpsons), we had no choice but to personally visit it ourselves.

This 1.6km, 2 station system is located in Malacca City — a World UNESCO Heritage Site and home to half a million residents. Today, the state is a huge tourist destination and welcomed a reported “13.7 million” visitors last year.

So as a way to add recreational infrastructure to the city, the RM15.9 million (~USD$5 million) monorail first opened in October 2010. Unfortunately, in an uncanny resemblance to the Springfield Monorail episode, the system infamously broke down during it first day of operation!

Malacca Monorail at Hang Jebat Station.

Malacca Monorail train at Hang Jebat Station. Image by CUP.

In fact, during its first year, it broke down a total of 21 times as it suffered from a range of mechanical issues — not the least of which included loose door screws, software glitches and engine problems.

Perhaps the most absurd discovery was that the system was found to be inoperative during rainfall. This would probably be a non-issue if the monorail were built in a desert — except unfortunately for the Malacca Monorail, it’s located in the tropics where precipitation is a common occurrence.

Hang Tuah Station.

The seemingly abandoned Hang Tuah Station. Image by CUP.

And instead of selecting experienced manufacturers, decision-makers chose a little-known company from China called Unis Technology Company Limited (no word on whether these guys wore bowler hats and sang a song).

Undeterred that they’ve already made a bad investment, officials went on to announce the second phase of the monorail at RM13.2 million (~USD$4.1 million) in December 2011.

Not surprisingly, despite its scheduled completion date of February 2013, the second phase of the system was never fully built.  Interestingly enough, if you sail down the river today, you can actually see some of the unfinished columns as a reminisce of the ambitious yet unsuccessful project.

Malacca Monorail. Unfinished columns.

Unfinished columns along river. Image by CUP.

So while it was originally designed to provide tourists with a 30 minute ride alongside the Malacca River, the entire system is essentially now a white elephant.

Even though I’m still failing to come to grips as to how a real-life Springfield Monorail came to be, the Malacca system does offer a very important lesson for all future transportation planners: if you choose to build transport infrastructure, please, please, please remember to choose someone with a proven track record.

But hold on, perhaps I’m missing something in all this. Could this have been preplanned?

On the flip side, a broken down monorail could be a huge attraction itself. And for a country obsessed with world records, the Chief Minister himself even quipped, “We almost made it to the Guinness Book of World Records for encountering countless breakdowns.”

Now that’s an achievement worth getting recognition for!

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The Hauser Kaibling Aerial Tram — (Tauern Seilbahn)

This is a guest post by Ross Edgar.

Departing from the lower station of the Tauren Seilbahn

The Hauser Kaibling Aerial Tram is located just south east of Schladming in central Austria. The aerial tram takes passengers from the valley station at 810m to the summit station at 1836m. It was built in 1960.

Although the cable system runs an impressive 3km up the mountain, it is predominantly used in the summer by hikers or to access the restaurant (which is integrated directly into the summit station). Even in the winter the tram is not used by many skiers as it is difficult to access and requires a short walk through town.

8 passengers in one cabin

One obvious feature of this aerial tram is its small cabin size — each vehicle holds only eight people. However, the small, unassuming aerial tram tucked away on the Alpine mountainside is of a rather unique design. Instead of operating just two cars back and forth between two stations, the system has four cabins and a third (middle) station.

At any one time there are two aerial tram cars travelling in each direction — two of which operate between the valley and mid-station (shown in red), and two of which move between the mid and summit stations (show in blue). The two lower and the two upper cabins are on opposing sides of the cable loop. Riders must switch between vehicles at the mid-station — although with no more than sixteen people on board this is a smooth and efficient transition that takes a matter of seconds.

The figure below demonstrates how a person must use two vehicles to get from the valley station to the peak of the mountain.

Traveling to the summit in 5 easy steps.

Essentially the Hauser Kaibling is two trams operating as one, where the red cabins are one system and the blue two cabins are another. Yet, this set up breaks the extensive distance in half without the cost of constructing and operating two entirely separate aerial tram systems. In fact, the mid-station was added after the tram initially opened as a way to double the capacity from the original two-cabin alignment.

The mid-station is discreetly located between the trees.

This setup is unique for an aerial tram and has a number of advantages over a more conventional system. Firstly, by dividing the system into two segments, the Hauser Kaibling Aerial Tram allows for the provision of a middle station which adds a degree of versatility to the system and provides additional options for passengers (there is access to ground level via a flight of stairs). Moreover, the waiting time for the next aerial tram car to depart is cut in half. In addition, the operation of a single system rather than two separate systems has many advantages in terms of construction, operational and maintenance costs.

Conversely, the design of this type of tram requires that the middle station is positioned exactly halfway between the valley station and the summit station. This is a limiting factor in the design as very rarely will the desired position for a middle station be exactly in this position.

By considerably increasing the capacity of the aerial tram cars, a system of this nature could prove invaluable across long distances within an urban environment. In urban areas where traffic is not especially heavy such a setup could prove to be exceptionally cost effective as well as versatile, even if it is slightly restrictive in the positioning of the middle station.

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Meran 2000 Bergbahn

The Merano 2000 Bergbahn. CC image by Flickr user Alexander Klotz.

There is more than one intriguing feature to the Meran 2000 Bergbahn, an aerial ropeway built in 2010 at the Merano 2000 ski resort in South Tyrol, Italy. At first the it may appear to be a simple (yet stunning) two-cabin tram — the stations are small, the system branded a vibrant red, and the cabins large (each cabin can hold 120 people.) But there’s more…


A view from the mid-station. Image from Merano 2000.

First off, the system has three stations, not just two. And even more interestingly the mid-station consists of an underground waiting area, a large lattice pylon (tower), and a bridge. Yes, I said a bridge. Essentially, because of the alignment, the mid-point is located in a rather difficult location (apparently mid-air?)

Instead of constructing a really tall station that would reach to the ground below (which would be more costly and require a larger footprint) or re-aligning the system, engineers decided to span the distance between the cabins and nearest parallel mountainside with a large metal and cantilever (with support) bridge.

Now, when I say cabins, I mean cabin. The other point to this design is that as far as I can tell, only one cabin can utilize the mid-station since the bridge only reaches as far as one side of the tower. This is more obvious in the diagram below.

The bridge is entirely static except for the last bit which folds down for the approaching cabin once it has come to a complete stop. You can see the bridge in action in this video (or here):

Another intriguing aspect to the mid-station is that the cabins only stop when requested. If everyone is going to the top (or bottom) station, the system will continue past the mid-station/bridge. Only when the “request a stop” button is pushed does the cabin stop. (This reminds me of some other form of transit … oh right, buses and streetcars!)

As previously mentioned, the Merano Bergbahn stations are small. And by small I mean really narrow. Since the system is a reversible aerial tram there can never be more than one cabin at each end station at any given time. Therefore to save space the loading/unloading platforms in these stations are moveable, sliding back and forth depending on which side the cabin is on.

The base station with its sliding platform. CC image by Flickr user Alexander Klotz.

Other than being really awesome, a big reason for the small size (at least at the bottom station) was to stay away from the river, which would have led to additional complications and cost. If station sizes can be reduced to avoid naturally occurring obstacles, imagine how they could be designed to fit into urban contexts…

Finally, the last point to note is the architecture, which is really rather striking.

The top and bottom stations are mostly concrete but clad in a ruby red metal mesh. The top station also has a bistro which is almost entirely surrounded by windows — I can only imagine that the view is spectacular.

Mountain Station by day. Image from Merano 2000.

Mountain Station by night. Image from Merano 2000.

As a final observation, one video I watched showed the inside of one of the cabins. And it was equipped with a bike rack, which seemed rather appropriate to point out especially as a feature for urban systems and as a follow up to a recent guest post about bikes on transit. In this case it is definitely a feature that seems like it could be removed for the winter to allow more room for people and skis.

The Merano 2000 biker friendly aerial trams

In conclusion, if you’ve ridden on this system or have anything to add, tell us in the comments! We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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