History

12
Mar

2010

Medellin/Caracas, Part 2

Last week I travelled to Medellin, Colombia and Caracas, Venezuela to tour five of the most important CPT systems in the world. This is Part 2 where I describe the turn-around cable transit caused in the impoverished and dangerous Medellin barrio of Santo Domingo. Image by Steven Dale

THE RETURN OF SANTO DOMINGO

A street merchant in Santo Domingo. Image by Steven Dale

Santo Domingo is an isolated barrio in the Colombian city of Medellin. Today it is a place of peace, calm and social progress. Twenty years ago, it was a type of living hell that the developed world can only imagine.

Crime was rampant, poverty high. Homes and businesses along Andalucia Street, the barrio’s main thoroughfare sat vacant. Landlords tried in vain to entice tenants with promises of zero rent, just so long as they paid the taxes and maintenance. They had few takers.

Few in the barrio had private transportation and the only form of public transit were the private bus cartels that infrequently plied the routes. A resident of Santo Domingo could expect to spend 2 – 2 1/2 hours commuting to work in the core each way.

Pablo Escobar, the most violent and successful drug lord the world’s ever seen, would’ve drawn many of his “troops” from this area. Protection money was a constant reality for area merchants and contractors were under the thumb of organized crime. In the ten years after Escobar’s death in 1993, things barely improved. Power abhors a vacuum, after all, and the resulting turf war between gangs trying to establish themselves as the new Escobar only made things worse. Residents wouldn’t leave their homes after dark as the threat of incident wasn’t just possible, it was likely.

Image by Steven Dale.

Police, even, wouldn’t dare to enter Santo Domingo.

Then something curious happened . . .

In the early 2000’s, Metro Medellin (the city’s transit authority) began talking about connecting Santo Domingo to the Metro system via gondola. The idea was laughed off as nothing more than a pipe dream.

Area residents had heard the promises before. Politicians would make their promises to grab the most number of votes and then forget the promises they’d originally made.

Those in government just thought the idea of a ski lift as transit was absurd.

Nevertheless, after four years of community development around the idea (and one potential supplier dropping out due to security concerns), the Colombian and Medellin governments ponied up USD$26 million (a huge sum for those governments) and allowed Metro Medellin to build the world’s first Metrocable.

To say the least, the results were surprising.

Even before the system opened, systemic change was witnessed. Contractors who had grown accustomed to their building supplies being stolen at night experienced no such thing. When such an incident did happen, the locals were more than happy to rat out the perpetrators. For once in their lives, the residents of Santo Domingo saw their government doing something for them rather than to them and Santo Domingo wanted to return the favour.

Within two years, the Metrocable opened and would herald a new era for the residents of Santo Domingo and Medellin in general.

Today, Santo Domingo is a place of relative peace. Andalucia Street is flooded with children, retirees, street merchants and commerce. The Metrocable did what no military, police force or politician could do; it brought the community back to life.

A young couple descends a terraced hill of stairs in Santo Domingo. Image by Steven Dale.

Santo Domingo from above. Image by Steven Dale.

Santo Domingo from below. Image by Steven Dale.

Image by Steven Dale.

A Bancovia branch, 1 of 3 new banks that have opened in Santo Domingo since the Metrocable opened. Image by Steven Dale.

The Metrocable reduced traffic so much that city planners reclaimed 1 lane of traffic and turned it into a pedestrianized lane of traffic. Image by Steven Dale.

Gondolas depart and approach the Acevedo Metro transfer station and the base of Andalucia Street. Image by Steven Dale.

Image by Steven Dale.

For security reasons, police and military are a common sight in the area. Image by Steven Dale.

Santo Domingo. Image by Steven Dale.

Return to Part 1.

Move on to Part 3.



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15
Feb

2010

History and Future

For most of the 20th century, the cable industry had been a hodge-podge of European, Japanese and American companies each jockeying for their piece of the blossoming ski industry. Some companies specialized in manufacturing, others in operations and maintenance. Privately owned and maintained systems were common. There were dozens of players but few titans.

Like the American cable car industry of the 19th century, barriers to entry were low. There was nothing proprietary about the technology and all the components could, quite literally, be bought off the shelf. As the ski industry boomed, the cable industry attracted all sorts of fly-by-nighters and charlatans. Companies came and went and experienced companies found themselves fighting off insurgents with dubious safety records who exploited the lack of regulation within the industry.

Competition was brutal and innovation scarce.

Look back over cable’s 20th century history and you find something uniquely curious: New technology and innovation is almost entirely absent. A single game-changing innovation hadn’t been developed since the detachable grip in 1872. Imagine the computer, car or airline industry essentially not introducing a major new model or innovation for 125 years and you begin to understand how bizarre this actually was.

The ski industry was booming, yes, but it was a small industry with a razor thin target market. First you needed a mountain. Then you needed a population who knew how to ski. But you also needed a population that was wealthy enough to afford such an expensive sport and had the time to partake in the pleasure. The ski industry was (and still is) a pretty small pie to carve up amongst dozens of lift suppliers. What little profits the cable industry made were plowed back into getting more business. Research and development wasn’t the priority; survival was.

This all changed in the last quarter of the 20th century.

A flurry of mergers and acquisitions saw two major competitors emerge: The French-Italian consortium of Leitner-Poma and the Austrian-Swiss partnership, Doppelmayr-Garaventa. Today, these two companies control roughly 95% of the entire cable transit business and this concentration has provided the economies of scale necessary to advance the technology.

The integration of computer-controlled Programmable Logic Circuits has made cable safer than ever before and tight regulation has weeded out most of the deadbeats. In the last ten years alone at least four major new technologies have been developed and older technologies are being stretched to new limits. Cable’s popping up in totally unexpected places and thriving. It’s rare that a year goes by without some new surprise. I’m constantly surprised.

While consolidation in many industries often marks the beginning of the end of innovation, it marked the beginning of a new era for cable. Hopefully, that innovation continues. The urban market is just now starting to look at Cable Propelled Transit and I suspect cable finds itself on the cusp of something great.

Rather than slow the pace of innovation, now’s the time for the industry to push forward with more.



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07
Jan

2010

CPT in NYC

The Roosevelt Island Tram, Image by Steven Dale

I recently wrote an article for the Architectural League of New York‘s urbanism-themed website Urban Omnibus. The article, titled Off the Road and Into the Skies (click to read it), should provide you with a decent history of New York City’s Roosevelt Island Tram and some analysis of Santiago Calatrava’s botched cable transit proposal for New York’s Governors Island.

I’d just like to say that the people at Urban Omnibus, particularly Varick Shute, are wonderful to work with. They’re truly creative, passionate, open-minded and collaborative with a stylish and informative site. Please look them up.



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06
Jan

2010

January 28th, 1882

Chicago, 1890s. Library of Congress

January 28th, 1882 is one of (if not the) most important dates in Cable Transit history. On that blustery winter day, C.B. Holmes opened the first cable car in Chicago.

It was the first time cable was shown to be economical in such a snowy, icy, windy environment. It was also the first known instance of cable cars installed in an absolutely flat city.

The Chicago City Railway cable cars operated at 23 km/hr and within 5 years were carrying 27 million passengers per year. Remember: This was 1887! They were also among the most profitable and extensive in all of North America.



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07
Dec

2009

Cincinnati Funiculars

The Mount Adams Incline in Cincinnati, Ohio

The Mount Adams Incline in Cincinnati, Ohio

Way back in the day (we’re talking 1872 here) Cincinnati, Ohio was clustered at the base of several small mountains. As the city grew and expanded up the sides of the mountain city officials had a problem: How were people and goods to be moved up and down the mountains?

This was, of course, before automobiles. People were still using horse-and-wagon and the steep grades surrounding Cincinnati threatened the city’s growth. A series of five inclined railways / funiculars were used to ingeniously solve this problem.

Bellevue Incline in Cincinnati, Ohio

Bellevue Incline in Cincinnati, Ohio

Cincinnati’s funiculars were remarkably unique and simple in concept.  As far as I am aware (and that could change), I believe they were almost entirely new for the time. And as such, I think they deserve their own classification: Let’s just call them “Cincinnati Funiculars.” for ease and simplicity’s sake.

What differentiates a Cincinnati Funicular from a traditional funicular is this: Traditional funiculars were (and continue to be) enclosed vehicles running up and down a mountain. A Cincinnati Funicular, however, was simply a gated platform that was relatively level to the horizon. It’s entrances and exits were aligned not with a sidewalk, but instead with the existing street grid.

Traditional Funicular, The Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh, PA

Traditional Funicular, The Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh, PA

A Traditional Funicular, the Polybahn in Zurich, Switzerland

A Traditional Funicular, the Polybahn in Zurich, Switzerland

A Cincinnati-Style Funicular; Cincinnati, Ohio

A Cincinnati-Style Funicular; Cincinnati, Ohio

This pared-down design conceit allowed horse-and-wagon teams to move from the street below, onto the funicular, up the mountain and onto the street above with little trouble. As time passed, the system allowed streetcars, trolleys and buses to do the same. It was a rare situation of transit technologies co-operating rather than competing with each other.

So who cares, right? Transit planners and advocates should:

Almost all rail systems (that includes, light rail, streetcar and subways) are limited to their location by how steep they can climb. It’s a limiting factor they can’t avoid. Rail technology simply cannot climb more than a roughly 10 degree incline. This severely restricts their potential for installation in all but the flattest of locations (see Hamilton, Ontario for a modern day example of this situation). When partnered, however, with a Cincinnati Funicular, that problem is alleviated, thereby opening up all new avenues for rail-based systems.

Sadly, like most fixed-link transit in North America, Cincinnati’s funiculars were gone by 1948. Unlike rail transit systems, buses and private automobiles had no troubles ascending the mountains, thereby making the inclines redundant. The design concept of a Cincinnati Funicular was forgotten about almost completely and the funiculars were demolished.

But now, given that the gussied-up streetcar known as Light Rail is king again I have a feeling we’ll be seeing Cincinnati Funiculars sometime soon once more.

Mount Adams Incline.

Mount Adams Incline.

Historical images of the Cincinatti Funicular are public domain. They can be viewed at www.cincinnati-transit.net.

Creative Commons images by JOE M500 and phototram



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12
Nov

2009

Why Cable-Propelled Transit?

How do you find out about something if you don’t know what to call it? Easy: You don’t.

For the longest time, cable had no clear name and that made research efforts next to impossible. As I’ve pointed out, the sheer volume of terms used to describe Cable-Propelled Transit (CPT) was preposterous and none conformed to standard naming conventions. Let me explain . . .

Most transit technology has a naming scheme with three major components:

First, a technical term of three words, the last of which is almost always ‘transit.’

Second, a three letter acronym derived from the first three letters of their technical designator.

Third, a range of colloquial terms used to describe the technology commonly.

Heavy Rail Transit = HRT = Subway, Metro, Underground

Light Rail Transit = LRT = Streetcar, Trolly, Tram

Bus Rapid Transit = BRT = Bus, Busway

So in the interest of simplicity, let’s follow that lead:

Cable-Propelled Transit = CPT = Gondola, Cable Car



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11
Nov

2009

Sky-Riding Bus

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and this is certainly no exception:

ski-gondola-bus

This system was actually built.  It was designed so that it could propel itself along the support cables without need of a wheelhouse. It is easily one of the most bizarre cable contraptions I’ve ever encountered and I’ll admit to having scant details about where, when and how it occurred.

Anyone who has any more information on it, please send word this way.

(December 5, 2009: I recently discovered this. Apparently the system above is called the Aerobus.  I know virtually nothing about this technology and so can’t comment upon it. My first instinct says that the idea of a self-propelled cable transit system defeats the purpose of CPT, but who knows . . . )



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