Palmylink Update

Conceptual picture of Palmylink's Park Street Terminal; note the adjoining buildings, a proposed mix of commercial and residential apartments.

The following is an update on the Palmylink gondola proposal by Ryan O’Connor, the promotor and champion of Palmylink.

Palmylink is a proposed 3.2km aerial ropeway system and transit orientated development (TOD) in Palmerston North, Zealand. It is to link the Central Business District and Massey University. It would have 4 terminal stations (one of multiple possible configurations). The expected cost of the system was $NZ40 – $50 million (US$28 – 35 million). It has a proposed capacity of around 1,500 pphpd.  A visualization can be found at or

On the 12th of May, 2010, Palmylink was presented to a Palmerston North City Council, Massey University and other stakeholders at a Council initiated workshop. The Palmylink team was multidisciplinary and represented the fields of urban design, transportation, planning, project management and land development, with representatives from well respected companies including Beca Consultants, Common Ground, Landlink and Creative Urban Projects.

Palmerston North is a city of 80,000 people. It has a large tertiary education population; the majority being staff and students at Massey University (14,000). This results in the university being the largest traffic generator in the city. The vast majority of the population is located on the north side of a major river in the city, while the university is located on the south side of the river on the fringe of the urban area. The road connecting the city and university is a key arterial route and is limited to four road lanes and bridge. All north-south bound traffic is confined to this route as the bridge acts as a ‘funnel point’.

Conceptual picture of the Massey Terminal. The station is positioned about 1 minutes walk from the very centre of the Campus.

The transport case for an aerial ropeway was:

  • 12,000 people travel to Massey University (Turitea Campus) daily, along a single corridor. This number was set to increase as a proposed merger of Hokowhitu Campus would add a student/staff population of 1,200 to the Turitea Campus of 11,900.
  • Around 1,000 students live on the Turitea Campus and require frequent access to the CBD.
  • The Turitea Campus currently has around 11,500 traffic movements a day (this includes buses and private vehicles, but not pedestrians and cyclists); these movements are dispersed throughout the day.
  • Student distribution maps indicated a large number of commuters live in close proximity to the route.
  • A density analysis put around 6,000 people within walking distance (800m) of one of the proposed terminal sites. Other proposed terminal sites had lesser, but significant numbers.
  • The road corridor was close to congestion point (forecasted to occur in 2012). This would continue to worsen due to a range of factors. At the bridge, traffic counts were estimated at 33,000 vpd in 2006.
  • Palmylink’s estimates were that 28% of all traffic along the route was Turitea Campus related traffic.
  • The ability for roading upgrades was limited due to physical and natural constraints, ‘ground based’ transit options restricted valuable road space.
  • Traffic modeling previously done in a previous roading transport study (not by Palmylink) indicated a proposed second NZ$50 (US$39) million bridge upstream and associated roading upgrades would not alleviate congestion problems, just provide temporary relief on the route.
  • A ropeway provided significant benefits over the existing ‘fully subsided’ bus service, in particular frequency and reliability, but also average speed. Over 30% of all students were frequent passengers of the service.
  • The shear economies of scale resultant of the ridership catchment allowed for public transport prices for pass holders.
  • It was considered that Palmylink was a ‘future proof’ solution to the significant transport corridor.

Student Distribution Maps indicates that many students (commuters) live in proximity of the Palmylink route (in green). The green arrow demonstrates that a clustering effect could occur over time. Map sourced from an Opus Massey University Palmerston North Transport Study (2006), our diagram is overlaid.

The proposal also proposed strategic residential densification and commercial activities in and around terminal stations in line with TOD principles. It is envisioned that Palmylink could transform a low density residential environment into a vibrant mixed use urban environment. Over time, land could be densified around stations in clusters or in a ‘ribbon’ type development along the route. There were pockets of vacant or underdeveloped land in proximity to the system, much owned by the stakeholders. These TOD opportunities are where a business case could be developed. Put simply, the Palmylink team sought to ‘internalize’ external benefits associated with the development in partnership with the stakeholders.

Traditionally (with exceptions), transit feasibility has primarily been based on ridership projections and fare-box recovery. External benefits are rarely monetized or captured, despite these benefits usually dwarfing the internal cashflows of transit systems – especially in regards to land price increase and development opportunities. These benefits tend to develop around ‘high-end’ urban transit systems, and rarely bus systems. Economic benefits are usually captured by the landowners in proximity to the route, not the transport infrastructure that fosters the positive change in the first place. The full public benefit cannot be realized when this occurs. This is a fundamental flaw when comparing and undertaking feasibility on transport infrastructure; but it also poses an opportunity to do things differently. Some of these benefits can be captured, and this is what Palmylink sought to do.

The Palmylink team formulated that a mixture of residential and commercial development, advertising opportunities, capturing land price increases, and transfer of existing subsides and funding could easily provide enough scope to create an investor proposition. Murali Gopalan of Palmylink identified also an opportunity to utilize locally generated electricity from a nearby landfill (methane) gas electric generator. Critically, to realize these opportunities we required the assistance and commitment of stakeholders, in particular the city authorities and the university i.e. aligning planning regulations and policy amongst other mechanisms. The stakeholders made profitable returns possible for an investor, as well as reducing risk. This is why we approached them first to gather support for the proposal; the second stage was to approach investors.  At that point further studies could be commissioned.

Potential route alignment options indentified. The visualization and primary proposal is based on the Fitzherbert route (shown in the dark green). The blue route alignment is a possible Cook Street alignment, and the light green route is a potential Massey extension, proving access to large area of undeveloped Massey University owned land. The orange areas on the map show vacant land that could potentially be developed in conjunction of the system. Underlying map is from Google Maps.

Despite a positive, but cautious response from stakeholders at the workshop, for reasons we have not been able to fully understand, the project has been put on the political ‘back burner’ – possibly because a local election is approaching. Council voted that ‘no action be taken at this time’. We weren’t helped by misinformation in the local media and poor Council staff reporting. An opinion poll undertaken by the local media (with a 500+ sample) found that 56% of people in favor of Palmylink proposal.

With the benefit of hindsight, the complexity of our business case perhaps proved to be a barrier, as opposed to a driver to the cause. It was comprehensive – the cost benefit analysis has around 60 variables and the reports totaled 150 pages. This level of complexity requires a sufficient review to make an informed decision on how to progress; this is yet to be undertaken. The idea of ropeways in urban environments for public transit is still foreign to many despite their benefits in certain applications; breaking down the existing perceptions was half the challenge for the team.

The seed has been firmly planted with Palmylink; we are currently assessing our options going forward and welcome interest from outside individuals.

This guest post was written by Ryan O’Connor of Wellington, New Zealand. He is urban planner with interests in innovation, transportation, land development, project management and business. He has expertise in cable propelled transit technologies, in particular aerial ropeways, and their applications to urban transit markets after several years research on the matter. He is the originator and developer of the Palmylink proposal.

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Palmylink Rendering

Check out the Sketchup rendering of the Palmylink proposal that came out of New Zealand last week:

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