Other Transit Techs



The Netherlands’ Randstadrail

The Randstadrail. Image by flickr user Sytske_R.

Architects and urban designers may be no fans of elevated transport infrastructure and fair enough. Rarely is the overhead viaduct, rail bridge or elevated freeway a contributor to the urban form.

Typically, they sap the very life out of the surrounding area.

Notwithstanding that argument, however, is the fact that tunnelling is remarkably more expensive than building overhead transport infrastructure while providing the exact same quality and level of service.

Plus there’s the question of the view – but that’s something for a whole other post.

Now if the architects and urban designers of the world were willing to open their own wallets to make up for the difference in price between elevated and tunnelled transport infrastructure, then tunnels it is. But until that unlikely day ever arrives, elevated transport infrastructure is likely to be the preferred means of providing fully-dedicated rights-of-way for public transit in the near future . . . at least in places where virtual slave labour can’t be used to build said tunnels.

The entire problem with the elevated versus buried argument is the logical fallacy both sides present. The buried proponents argue that elevated infrastructure is inherently ugly and detrimental to the urban form and it’s a hard argument to refute when you see things like Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway or the Chicago El. But the argument breaks down because the fact that most elevated infrastructure is ugly doesn’t mean all elevated infrastructure must be ugly.

As I’ve argued before, ugly is an opportunity to be beautiful and elevated can be beautiful.

The elevated proponents, meanwhile, don’t do themselves any favours by consistently producing and constructing some of the most ugly and intrusive infrastructure ever unleashed on the urban form. You can’t claim that a piece of infrastructure will help a community when a great many historical examples have destroyed, decimated and cut-up pre-existing communities.

Let’s be frank here: Most elevated transport infrastructure is ugly and it’s therefore no surprise that architects and urban designers get all up in arms whenever a new one is proposed for any city. Just look at the debate over Honolulu’s new LRT line over at The Transport Politic here and here.

Which brings me to the Netherlands new light rail systems the Randstadrail. Opened in phases over the second half of the last decade, it connects The Hague with Rotterdam. While most of the Rotterdam system is underground, much of the track infrastructure in the Hague is elevated. And unlike most standard elevated tracks, these are elevated not just physically, but aesthetically as well. Take a look:

A Randstadrail station as integrated into a pedestrianized plaza. Image by deVos.

Note how the overhead rails don’t overwhelm the sidewalk below. There’s an elegant, almost beautiful interplay between street, rail and service. Image by flickr user Daniel Sparing.

An entrance up to the Randstadrail. Image by flickr user Daniel Sparing.

A train departs a Randstadrail station. Image by flickr user Ferdi’s-World.

From underneath the Randstadrail. The lattice work creates a sculptural effect that is almost organic. Notice too the space for pedestrians and the lack of support columns. Image by flickr user Gerard Stolk.

It’s an interesting example of using the elevated track as a visual cue, guide and corridor. It seems designed to play with the pedestrian at street level as much as it is designed to move people above street level.

Will elevated infrastructure work everywhere? Of course not. Some urban form dictates that elevated infrastructure is completely inappropriate and impossible. But at the same time, if one considers geologic and economic factors, some environments are completely inappropriate for tunneled infrastructure too.

At the end of the day architects and urban designers have a responsibility to understand the financial constraints cities face and cannot disregard all elevated structures simply because they’re “ugly.” After all, an architect’s or an urban designer’s job is to make the urban form beautiful within the structural, political, environmental and economic factors of the day. For an architect or urban designer to willfully ignore something as viable as elevated transport infrastructure simply on the grounds of aesthetics is to admit that they possess a severe lack of creativity and are quite likely just not very good at their jobs.

To draw an analogy: If you were bad at chemistry, would you run around claiming chemistry to be stupid, useless, harmful or ugly? Or would you instead rely upon people who actually did understand chemistry and knew how to use it responsibly?

Hopefully this current debate subsides in the near future. It’s harmful and it’s wasteful. Hopefully as the internet allows us to easily peer into the backyards and intersections of the world, systems like the Randstadrail in The Hague and projects like Zürich’s Im Viadukt will gain notice and can go a long way to showing the world that elevated infrastructure can be more, shall we say, elevated.

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Public Transit: Safety Should Never Be Compromised

Sometimes you forget how incredibly awesome and safe cable systems are – especially when entire systems are supported by a single cable the width of golf ball.

Note: this is a repost from an original article in 2012.

Last week, guest blogger Ryan O’Connor, wrote a brief analysis on the state of HSR (high speed rail) and the potential implications and lessons cable can learn from China’s recent love affair with rail. If you haven’t been keeping up-to-date with transportation news in China, last Saturday a tragic accident occurred when two HSR trains near Wenzhou collided.

Having just recently traveled to China and experienced the comfort and convenience of HSR, I cannot imagine the pain and sorrow that the victims and their families are experiencing.

Built partly to raise national pride and joy, the entire HSR network is now under extreme scrutiny as members of the public are demanding immediate answers from the government. Unfortunately, as China continues to build and develop HSR at such an unprecedented and feverish rate, quality and safety most likely will continue to arise. Hopefully this recent tragedy will serve as a grim reminder and lesson that safety should always be the paramount priority.

While the pace of HSR and CPT development are not nearly on the same level, the fact is, cable will also continue to grow. Let us hope that the growth of CPT technology continues to develop and evolve without any major setbacks.

In fact (although I don’t have the official statistics on hand) the safety record of cable technology since its inception is  nothing short of a remarkable achievement – probably one that is neither praised enough nor one that’s given the attention it deserves.

Can you think of the last time someone died in a gondola accident as a result of mechanical failure? Last one that comes to my mind is the Peak2Peak Excalibur Gondola tower failure, but no fatalities resulted.

So to all the cable engineer dudes and dudettes that may read this blog and the supporting staff that work day and night to ensure the safety of CPT passengers, on the behalf of the Gondola Project and myself, my hat goes off to you.


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Going… Across? The Future of Elevators is Here

MULTI elevator. Image courtesy of ThyssenKrupp.

MULTI elevator. Image courtesy of ThyssenKrupp.

From mobile devices to urban planning, space is always at a premium. Ever-smaller devices like smartwatches are able to do infinitely more than the average home PC of a decade ago, while developers are stacking compacted living quarters higher and higher into the sky. Minuscule gadgetry has existed for centuries; the very idea of vertical living, however, has really only been with us for a little less than 100 years. And the (literal) rise of the skyscraper era is directly linked to the development of the modern elevator.

Outside of the go-anywhere elevator featured in the ending of the 1971 film Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the basic idea of the elevator has remained more or less unchanged since it debuted. But whether glassed-in or high speed, they still only go up and down.

That is until late last year when German company ThyssenKrupp announced its MULTI elevator, which can go up and down as well as side to side. Instead of the traditional cables, the cabin is moved by magnetic force. (Bloomberg Businessweek has an excellent visual rendering of how it works.) Directional improvements aside, the new technology also means that cabins are considerably lighter and will be able to travel more efficiently through buildings. Accompanying the story was the staggering statistic that elevators take up 40 per cent of the space in an average condo tower. Read more

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Aerobus: Ahead of Its Time?

We may have posted this video earlier but recently there has been some comments about the Aerobus which made me revisit the technology.

Based off some quick Google searches, it seems like it has been awhile since anyone online has given Aerobus the time of day. The last news article mentioned that a few developments were made in Ecuador but there appears to be little word on what progress has been made so far (at least in the English language).

Digging through Gondola Project’s past blog posts, we ourselves actually had some interesting but cursory discussions on the technology (click here).

But after watching the Aerobus promotional video again last night, it got me thinking: was the Aerobus a technology that was ahead of its time?

Perhaps to partially answer that question, we can take look at the technology and its basic claims/achievements:

  • Capacity: up to 10,000 pphpd
  • Speeds: up to 60km/h
  • Headways: 60 seconds
  • Estimated cost: $23 million/km

Now some of the variables are hard to ascertain. Supporters may assert that a few pilot systems were implemented back in the 1970s-90s but I imagine that argument, unfortunately, holds little weight in today’s time.

On the flip side, we often contend that “No City Wants to Be First But Every City Wants to be Second” and that without the internet, cable transit may not be where it is today.

So let’s just assume that another pilot Aerobus was safely redesigned, financed, and implemented in a city, would the technology take off? I certainly don’t have a clear answer right now but it’s got me thinking more.

If the technology has ever had a chance to redefine itself and gain a foothold in the urban transport market, the time may be now. In comparison to the 70s, in today’s environment the Aerobus may have many of the necessary ingredients to succeed: escalating traffic congestion, massive urbanizing populations and the increasing need for innovative, green and sustainable transit solutions.

But I feel that I’m almost certainly missing something here and maybe readers with a greater knowledge of the technology and history can help provide guidance to this post. What are your thought? Am I onto something or not even remotely?

I’d love to hear from you.


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Toronto Downsizes Streetcar Fleet Due to Winter Storms

Toronto Ice Storm.

In my neighbourhood. Creative Commons image by flickr user Bad Alley.

Over the holidays, a particularly nasty ice storm wreaked havoc in my hometown of Toronto (and much of the surrounding area for that matter). The storm was so bad it left hundreds of thousands of people without power over Christmas. The problem was then compounded by several wicked cold snaps that saw the mercury plunge into the minus 20’s celsius on several occasions.

Like the transit nerds that we are, we couldn’t help but note the fact that the city had to downsize its fleet of streetcars to cope with the frigid temperatures. According to the linked article, the city’s (admittedly very old) streetcar fleet cannot cope with temperatures that cold. Which is interesting because to people in the Great Lakes, winter weather such as this is nothing unfamiliar. Minus 20 (30 with the wind chill) is par for the course.

And as any Torontonian knows: There is nothing worse than waiting for a streetcar in a frigid winter storm — because in all likelihood it just won’t ever come.

Astute readers will immediately point out that — obviously — such a problem wouldn’t happen with a gondola or cable transit system. But hold on there, tiger, because that’s not the point. We’re not braggarts and we’re not about to say to Toronto “hey, Toronto, why don’t you just replace all of your streetcars with gondolas.” That would be ridiculous. That would be illogical. And that would smack of techno-zealotry — a character flaw we try very hard to avoid. 

The point instead is this: When you choose to use winter weather as an argument against cable cars (as a surprising number of people do), understand first that an urban gondola or cable car is basically a souped-up ski lift. And you know what works really well in really bad winter weather? Ski lifts.

And you know what doesn’t work really well in really bad winter weather? Streetcars in Toronto. Yet people rarely ever take the time to realize that.

It’s a strange paradox that has less to do with transit and more to do with people in general. People will almost always hold the unfamiliar to an irrationally higher standard than that which they’re (un)comfortably accustomed to.

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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 Economics of Hong Kong’s Trams

Hong Kong Tramway Map

Map of the Hong Kong Tramway system. Creative Commons image via Wikimedia.

Last week the New York Times ran an interesting piece on Hong Kong’s historic street-level trams.

These double-decker, non-air-conditioned relics are apparently quite the workhorses.

According to the Times the trams move 200,000 (220,000 according to Wikipedia) people per day along the 13 km route with 1.5 minute headways between vehicles—and,despite zero government subsidies, they do so profitably.

Hong Kong Tram

Hong Kong tram image by flickr user DavidSandoz.

French company Veolia Transportation owns the trams 100% and is able to eke out a profit from the system, despite fare prices being only approximately $0.30 USD per trip.

All this seems lovely enough, but something just doesn’t add up to me.

How can a privately-run transport system possibly be profitable given these numbers?

Even with ancillary revenues from billboard advertising and “private party” rentals, it is hard for me to understand the economics here.

Let’s assume an average fare price of $0.25—once one factors into the equation pass, child and seniors discounts that number seems reasonable (if not a little bit high). That yields ticket revenue in the $20 million USD range.

Yes, I’m sure that advertising revenue is significant and the cost of drivers in China minimal, but the economics still seem highly dubious.

I’m not saying the system isn’t profitable—it most likely is, or else why would a private company continue to own it? The question I have is how is it profitable?

Any guesses?

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