Case Studies



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.

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Technicians Not Operators

The Mandalay Bay cable car in Vegas operates under a simple and controversial principal: Technicians, not operators.

This fundamental principal means this: The system is never in the hands of amateurs. If you don’t know how the system works in its entirety, you don’t operate the system. It’s the difference between having teenagers run a roller coaster and the people who actually built it running it.

This concept was described to me by Don Asetta, the Manager of Operations and Maintenance at the Mandalay Bay Cable Car. While the concept – up front – means increased costs, the long term savings are huge. As I mentioned in a previous post, the system is still operating with its original cable, eleven years later. Nevertheless, it’s massively controversial concept because of how disruptive it is for management, unions, etc.

Trouble is, the concept makes perfect sense. Every operator of the system is also an engineer, technician and maintainer of the system. Don, himself, spends 2 hours every shift in the booth “operating” the system.

To paraphrase Don: Whose going to know more about a system and what’s going on with it? Someone who just operates it, or someone who operates on it?

Think about that.

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For most of your career you didn’t need to know anything about cable. Not anything. Nothing. What transit planner, engineer, policy-maker or advocate bothers with ski-lifts? That’s not transit, that’s a toy for tourists.

You could ignore it. You didn’t need to learn about it and your boss never asked about it. No politician mentioned it and no media personality called you up about it asking for your opinion. Simple reality is you probably never even considered it as a transit technology in the first place.

Look at Hamilton.

It was a good arrangement. It was easy. Slap down some rails, buy some streetcars, call it Light Rail. Write the cheque. Trouble is, that arrangement has changed. Fundamentally.

Now you do need to know about cable. Trouble. Now people are asking you about it. Also trouble. Now governments are seriously asking “what about cable?” Trouble thrice over. Media calls you up and you either say you know nothing about cable or what you do say is demonstrably wrong. Double trouble.

You wouldn’t be reading this post if that wasn’t true. Cable Propelled Transit’s not the kind of thing you stumble upon; you hunt for it.

The thing is this: Cable’s here and so are you. Which do you think is going to be around longer? And what are you going to do about it? You can fight it, get angry about it, rail against it – which is a guaranteed losing strategy – or you can embrace it, learn about it and – most importantly – help improve it.

It’s always better to ride with the leading edge of change than chase after it.

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Mandalay Bay Cable Car, Part 3


The Mandalay Bay Mechanical Room. Image by Steven Dale

I recently travelled to Las Vegas, Nevada to explore that city’s two public cable systems. This is Part 3 of a 3 Part report on the Mandalay Bay Cable Car.

The importance of station design in cable cannot be overstated. Even more than other transit technologies, cable stations have to be designed to accommodate large piece of infrastructure and maintenance facilities that other technologies can locate elsewhere.

This problem is typically exacerbated by over-zealous planners and engineers unfamiliar with cable. In the case of short-distance people mover systems, it is standard practice to design stations prior to technology selection. Mistakenly, designers appear to believe that cable and self-propelled vehicles are one and the same. They are not, and to design and build a station prior to technology selection is a tremendous mistake that costs time and money in the future.

Mercifully, this did not happen with the Mandalay Bay. Station and maintenance design was left till after technology choice. Once cable had been selected, engineers familiar with the technology designed stations in tandem with architects to maximize visual effect while providing for every practicality associated with cable.

As such, the Mandalay Bay system has one of the most complete and user-friendly maintenance bays in the bottom-supported cable transit world. A full workshop and spare parts shop is located below the system, allowing technicians to conduct preventative maintenance at all hours of the day.

A recent tour of a similar system in Toronto, Canada (to be discussed in a future series) suffered from the opposite. Stations and maintenance bays were designed beforehand. As such, the facilities are both oversized in some places and undersized in others. It is a station design that is completely inappropriate for cable technology and Toronto’s weather. This adds significant costs and significant frustration to daily maintenance.

I cannot overemphasize this point enough: If you are even considering cable as a transit choice, do not (I REPEAT: DO NOT!!!) design and build the stations before you’ve officially chosen cable. You will save your self heaps of time, tons of trouble, and hours of bitching from justifiably-irritated-and-inconvenienced maintenance workers.

Cable’s special. Not snowflake special, but special nevertheless. Treat it that way.

Mandalay Bay Station. Image by Steven Dale.

The true beauty of the Mandalay Bay cable car is that the system’s practical requirements are met perfectly, yet with a high degree of flair and style. The stations are part of the overall experience, they aren’t merely practical. Even by Vegas standards, the stations are attractive.

The same can be said for the vehicles themselves. MGM actually holds a patent on the design for the vehicles and they are unique to MGM resorts. The noses are far more pointed than traditional Doppelmayr cable cars and this gives them an aggressive, purposeful appearance.

Admittedly, the vehicles have suffered from vandalism and wear over the years. It’s the kind of vandalism, too, that can’t just be fixed with scrubbing (scratchiti and the like). Parts would have to be replaced and in this economic climate, MGM has chosen state of good repair maintenance over replacing vandalized or worn parts. Small spots of rust are visible on the guideway.

Nevertheless, the Mandalay Bay cable car is a true joy. As stated in a previous article, this is an incredibly reliable system. That it was built for a fraction of the price of a comparable self-propelled system is all the better.

Next time you’re in Vegas, ride this thing. Ride it hard. It can take it.


Click here to read Part 1.

Click here to read Part 2.

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Mandalay Bay Cable Car, Part 2

I recently travelled to Las Vegas, Nevada to explore that city’s two public cable systems. This is Part 2 of a 3 Part report on the Mandalay Bay Cable Car.

The Mandalay Bay Cable Car is the kind of cable installation I love. It’s a modest, unassuming workhorse that demonstrates why cable is just so attractive a technology. It’s fast, it’s got heft and it just feels right. I know it’s impossible to quantify such a subjective concept, but – believe me – I’ve ridden several cable systems that didn’t feel right and this one does. In fact, it feels almost perfect.

The system operates 24 hours per day, 365 days of the year with a total downtime of less than 0.5%. It operates above 30 km/hr and it can move between 1,500 and 3,000 pphpd depending on your calculation. The lack of a specific capacity is due to two major factors:

The Mandaly Bay Cable Car Map. Note the Express Line and the Local Circulator Line. Image by Steven Dale.

FIRST. Because it is a hotel resort system, capacity is at least somewhat determined by people with luggage. As anyone who comes to Vegas will do so with luggage, that luggage must be accommodated for. The more luggage, the less people. This fact somewhat artificially drives down the stated capacity of the system. During times of conferences and conventions, when people from all over Vegas descend on the Mandalay Bay, the system operates well over stated capacity without trouble, a testament to the previous statement.

SECOND. The system actually operates two separate independent shuttles. One is an express connecting the Excalibur and Mandalay Bay resorts in a single swift minute, whereas the second line is a local connector with intermediary stops at the Luxor and a second Excalibur station. This is a revolutionary alignment that most higher order transit technologies don’t even accomplish.

This dual track, dual purpose configuration, however, complicates matters of capacity as well as questions of connectivity.

From the main Excalibur Terminal, there is no direct connection to the Luxor or the secondary Excalibur station. To access either of those stations, one must first take the express line to Mandalay Bay, then transfer to the local and retrace backwards to either the Luxor or Excalibur intermediary station.

It’s a truly ludicrous design to any rational transit planner. But remember: This is Las Vegas. Transportation and rationality are completely anathema to this world. The purpose of the Mandaly Bay system is not to get you to the Luxor or the secondary Excalibur station. The purpose is purely to get you to the Mandalay Bay.

It may be a piece of planning absurdity, but it’s also a piece of marketing genius, and it was intentional according to those I spoke with who work with the system. Any movement on the cable car is filtered through Mandalay Bay, ensuring maximum exposure.

It is, in essence, the Freemium Model of public transit. Mobility is offered to everyone and anyone free of charge, the price is allowing oneself to be exposed to one giant Mandalay Bay advertisement. It was no mistake, after all, that the Mandalay Bay station is located deep within the heart of the complex, whereas the other stations require a long walk through their respective casinos.

So is it transit? No. But does that question really matter? I don’t think so. The Mandalay Bay cable car was always much more about marketing than it was about mobility. It’s important to analyze a system based upon its strategic goals. Not only has the cable car been an enormous marketing success, it has also (bizarrely) succeeded as transit in ways other Vegas transit systems haven’t, namely the Las Vegas Monorail.

The Las Vegas Monorail. A perpetual money-loser, the Monorail has a spotty technical record and is increasingly underutilized. Image by Steven Dale

Whereas the not-for-profit owned Las Vegas monorail is far longer and offers better connectivity, it is so much more irrelevant than the Mandalay Bay system. One doesn’t even know the monorail exists and one really doesn’t care to. In fact, it’s totally common to find websites and forums that confuse the Mandalay Bay system for the Las Vegas Monorail. But at a $6 per trip price tag, it’s hard not to understand why the Las Vegas Monorail drives users away.

Ironically, the Las Vegas monorail as a fare-based system is a perpetual money loser that has struggled financially and technologically since it opened. The Mandalay Bay cable car, meanwhile, is free and is seen by its owners as a complete success. So much so, MGM has just recently opened a second cable system linking three other resorts (more on that system in the future).

I’ll wrap up this report tomorrow with a discussion about the Mandalay Bay cable car’s visual aesthetics and station design.


Continue to Part 3.

Click here to read Part 1.

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Mandalay Bay Cable Car, Part 1

The Mandalay Bay Cable Car. Image by Steven Dale.

I recently travelled to Las Vegas, Nevada to explore that city’s two public cable systems. This is Part 1 of a 3 Part report on the Mandalay Bay Cable Car.

In the late 1990’s, the MGM group wanted to build a new casino in Las Vegas. The new casino – dubbed The Mandalay Bay – would be MGM’s sprawling take on a tropical paradise with far less emphasis on the kitsch the company had become associated with. The Mandalay Bay was not to be another Luxor or Excalibur.

Virtually all of MGM’s resort holdings in Las Vegas are located in one cluster at the interesection of Tropicana and Las Vegas Blvd. On the north-east corner is the MGM Grand. On the north-west is the New York, New York and the Monte Carlo. On the south-west corner is the Excalibur and Luxor. The Mandalay Bay was to be located south of the Luxor, one kilometer away from Tropicana and Las Vegas Blvd, much too far away from the action.

This presented a problem to MGM executives. A walk from the Grand, New York New York or, really, any of the MGM resorts would simply take too long. The friction of distance would either limit tourists’ spending or they would simply avoid Mandalay Bay entirely.

Movement is hard in Las Vegas. Intentionally so. The more people are walking around, the less they’re spending money. The casinos and resorts are designed in such a way that once you’re in, it’s very hard to get out. Exits are rare and placed as far away from suites as possible. It’s an exercise in social control where conspicuous consumption is the desired outcome.

The solution needed to be a short, high-speed transit link. The link had to be cheap, easy to maintain, available 24 hours a day, open to the general public and – most importantly – free of charge.

The answer was an elevated cable car system designed and manufactured by Doppelmayr. Completed in 1999, it was the first bottom-supported cable system by the Austrian cable transit giant behind such installations as the Peak 2 Peak and the Galzigbahn. Doppelmayr had little experience in bottom-supported systems other than funiculars and this presented a whole new set of challenges.

Mandalay Bay Cable Car en route to Excalibur Hotel (in background). Image by Steven Dale.

Built for a total cost of $26 million (1999 US), the Mandalay Bay cable car was remarkably cost-effective. The system and guideway itself only cost $16 million while the four integrated stations made up the rest of the total investment.

This was a very inexpensive system to build considering its capabilities (to be discussed tomorrow). While I have no evidence to support the following claim, I reason that the cost of the system had as much to do with the manufacturer’s desire to penetrate the urban people mover market as it did with the cost-effectiveness of the technology. Nevertheless, cost-savings accrued due to one major innovation:

Unlike previous Las Vegas cable propelled systems at Circus Circus and the Mirage, the Mandalay Bay system would utilize a modular steel truss guideway. This guideway – which could be manufactured off-site in a controlled environment – was cheaper to build than traditional concrete guideways that were far more typical of the time. Even today, concrete guideways are standard on almost all self-propelled people mover systems due to load-bearing requirements.

The Mandalay Bay Cable Car connects three MGM properties: The Mandalay Bay, Luxor and Excalibur. Image by Steven Dale.

The steel guideway also had the added benefits of less aesthetic intrusion on the urban environment and the ability to transmit light to the the areas below it. It had not, however, been demonstrated in a cable system to date except in a demo site at one of Doppelmayr’s manufacturing facilities.

Despite having no track record to speak of, the guideway was a tremendous breakthrough and is now standard on almost every Doppelmayr bottom-supported system.

Tomorrow in Part 2 of this report, I’ll discuss the capabilities of the Mandalay Bay system and some of its finer and unique qualities.


Continue to Part 2.

Click here to read Part 3.

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The Hungerburgbahn (Part 3)

A Hybrid Funicular, Image by Steven Dale

This is Part 3 of a 3 Part series on the Innsbruck Hungerburgbahn. Part 1 can be found here and Part 2 can be found here.

The Hungerburgbahn is what is known in the industry as a Hybrid Funicular. It is a unique and rather new technology that defies categorization and is bound to confuse. Even the simple act of calling it a “Funicular” is mistaken because it is only a Funicular in the strictest sense of the term for a disproportionately short part of its journey.

Hybrids are more mutt than purebred and that’s what makes them so special; they’ve got a good mix of genes from a large pool of possibilities. Hybrids are literally cross-breeds between three cable families: Cable Cars, Funiculars and Gondolas. It’s this cross-breeding that allows Hybrids to do things no other traditional or cable transit technology can.

Consider the Hungerburgbahn’s route: A vehicle begins in an Open Air Yet Underground (OAYU) station in downtown Innsbruck. The vehicle then journeys through a single tunnel and then darts quickly up to street level. It then gently ascends to a slim-profile station a couple metres above street level. After allowing riders to board and alight, the vehicle banks sharply to the left and crosses a river on an elegant single-purpose bridge. It then plunges below ground, tunneling under a major highway and then pitches back above ground where it starts a dramatic climb up the side of a mountain. It comes to a rest at its third stop in an inclined position at a dramatic station dangling at the edge of a cliff. The vehicle then finishes its climb and comes to a rest at its final destination in a second OAYU station.

A yellow hybrid vehicle makes the trek up hill (look closely in the upper left corner) while a blue hybrid vehicle departs the Löwenhaus Station and ducks underground. Image by Steven Dale

Now here’s the kicker: Despite the myriad of changes in inclination the vehicle goes through, the rider is absolutely unaware of anything. The inclination of the rider never changes, only the vehicle.

To imagine how Hybrids work, picture a car’s chassis, now imagine the same thing but in the shape of a streetcar. Now populate that chassis with 5 separate gondola cabins that are bolted to the inside of the chassis. These gondola cabins are not stationary, however; they are allowed to tilt freely and independently of the chassis which occurs naturally according to gravity. In all but the flattest tracks, therefore, a Hybrid’s chassis will be inclined to a different degree than the passenger compartments attached to the chassis itself.

A yellow hybrid vehicle waits at the Alpenzoo Station. Notice how the individual cabs are inclined separate from the grey chassis. Image by Steven Dale

It sounds complicated, but it isn’t. Much like a carpenter’s plumb-bob, a gondola will always find a natural, level inclination because it’s supported from above. It doesn’t matter if the carpenter is leaning forward or backward, the bob he’s holding will always find the same natural inclination separate from the carpenter, just as a gondola’s inclination is separate from the inclination of the cable that supports it. As there is no friction from below, gravity can do what it does best, and the gondola finds its natural inclination.

Surface vehicles are the exact opposite. Because their support comes from below, they cannot float free. A surface vehicle’s inclination is exactly the same as the road, track or rail it is supported on. This problem is as common to Cable Cars and Funiculars as it is to Buses, Subways and Light Rail. This makes sharp changes in inclination uncomfortable for riders (particularly standees), and technologically difficult for traditional technologies themselves.

That’s why roads, rails and tracks are typically inclined at a maximum 10 percent inclination. But doing this adds large costs to any bridges or tunnels required because the total ascent and descent must be “stretched-out” so that it doesn’t eclipse the 10 percent limit. The greater the total change in elevation, the greater the stretching-out.

This, of course, adds significantly to the amount of infrastructure required which adds additional cost while damaging the street level urban fabric. Furthermore, streetcars, subways, or any other rail-based technology simply cannot ascend a greater than 10 percent inclination due to a lack of traction and this “stretching-out” becomes an absolute prerequisite.

(Note: After additional research, I’ve found that a 10 percent inclination is typically too high for most urban rail systems, though there have been a few examples. The ability of any train to ascend such an inclination is dependent on the power of the motor and the speed of the train prior to its ascent. The descent is even more difficult. Bad weather significantly decreases a rail vehicle’s ability to deal with high gradients.)

A blue hybrid vehicle crossing a river. Image by Steven Dale

(Note: Some rail-based trains have solved the 10 Degree Problem using what is known as a Rack-Railway.)

Hybrids dispense with “stretched-out” bridges and tunnels. Hybrids disregard the 10 Degree Problem and nimbly leapfrog over (or groundhog under) impediments and intersections with ease. That saves money and does not clutter the streetscape with additional infrastructure. It also means that Hybrids could provide the first true fully-dedicated street level right-of-way, something Light Rail has never been able to accomplish.

Contemporary Light Rail systems operate in what are known as semi-dedicated rights-of-way. Mid-block they operate in their own exclusive rights-of-way, but at intersections they must contend with traffic, pedestrians and cyclists like everyone else. These semi-dedicated rights-of-way are meant to be an improvement on simple mixed traffic operations but statistics show little if any improvements because it is in the intersections where most problems occur, not at mid-block.

It’s a “weakest link” kind of problem and the weakest link in any right-of-way is always the intersection. If a right-of-way does not provide a vehicle exclusive access through, above or below the intersection, that right-of-way is virtually useless. This situation is common to semi-dedicated rights-of-way and are little more than a cosmetic frill that steals road space from private automobiles and cyclists. Some cities have experimented with Transit Signal Priority schemes to correct for this problem, but those schemes have yielded questionable results and a dubious track record.

Hybrids therefore present an intriguing possibility: Vehicles could run mid-block at street level in dedicated rights-of-way. This eliminates the cost of tunneling or elevating an entire line while contributing positively to the streetscape. Come the intersection, however, the vehicles could groundhog under or leapfrog over the problem, thereby preserving the fully-dedicated right-of-way.

This would, in turn, also allow the systems to be fully-automated, an impossibility with semi-dedicated rights-of-way. As was demonstrated by the Hungerburbahn, stations could even be located underneath the intersection, an ideal configuration for all.

A hybrid vehicle enters an inclined tunnel. Notice how the roof of the vehicle is still level despite the chassis's inclination. Image by Steven Dale.

The Hungerburgbahn may not be the silver bullet system cable’s waiting for, but it’s Hybrid configuration is a quantum leap forward for Cable Propelled Transit. While they are admittedly rare, they should not be ignored. Cable Hybrids can finally help transit planners realize their goal of a low-cost, fully-automated system that operates at ground level.

For that reason, Hybrids deserve a ton of respect and a whole lot of attention.

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