Urban Gondola Infrastructure vs. Urban Gondola Architecture

The other week we talked about the difference between those features that are intrinsic to a transit technology and those things that are extrinsic. Intrinsic features are those things that make a technology what it is; they define it.

Extrinsic features, meanwhile, are those items and factors that affect the cost or operation of the system that uses the technology in question but are not dependent upon the technology itself. Extrinsic features may define a specific system, but often obscure the intrinsic qualities of the technology being used.

For example: Intrinsic to buses is the fact that they operate on rubber tires. Extrinsic to buses is what the bus stations look like and how they integrate with the surrounding traffic. The key here is to understand that intrinsic features are going to be standard across quantitative performance-cost measures (such as cost or maximum speed) whereas extrinsic features may cause different applications of the same technology to vary wildly in their performance-cost packages.

(Note for the transit geeks: Average speed is an extrinsic feature of any transit technology, not an intrinsic one.)

This got me thinking a lot about the issue of urban gondola station infrastructure and urban gondola architecture.

As we’ve seen in the past, the actual cost of installations (such as in Caracas and Koblenz) can vary widely due not to the technologies used but due to the station architecture, land expropriation and civil costs. This has caused wild swings in the price of systems (here and here for example) while the cost of the actual gondola technology has stayed relatively consistent over the years and across systems.

So remember: Gondola station infrastructure is intrinsic to the technology and it’s pretty hard to negotiate on price. If you need a station to do x, expect to pay y.

But also remember: Gondola station architecture is extrinsic to the technology and you can pretty much do whatever you want with it. You want to wrap a gondola station in a full-scale replica of the Taj Mahal? Go for it. But that’s going to cost you more than a pretty penny and that cost has absolutely, 100% nothing to do with the cost of the technology itself.

The perfect image to demonstrate this is an image I found on Alpinforum of the Eagle Express in Hasliberg, Switzerland. Take a look:

Image via Alpinform.

It’s a great image because it strips away all the confusion. All the (intrinsic) infrastructure is white and metallic whereas all the (extrinsic) architecture is wood and brown. Only one set of stuff here is needed for the system to operate. The other stuff is completely extrinsic and extraneous to the system’s cost and operations.

The stuff shaded in red is what you need.

So next time you’re confronted with a) the opportunity to design an urban gondola system or; b) a study or system that seems remarkably over or underpriced, ask yourself three questions:

Firstly, to what degree do extrinsic architectural features factor into the design? And secondly, are those extrinsic features needs or wants? And lastly, do any of those extrinsic features have an adverse effect on the performance-cost package of the system you’re designing?

That doesn’t apply just to gondolas either, but all public transit.

Endnote: No room for this idea in this post, but wouldn’t it be great if reports and studies (and the media that cover them) broke down – in easy-to-understand language – the extrinsic and intrinsic costs of public works projects? If the public could actually see what needs to be spent and what is being spent, perhaps a more intelligent dialogue on the project-to-be-built could be had. Maybe there should be a ratio for that? The E:I ratio? 

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