Research Issues



Assessing Intangibles in Transport Planning — Recreation, Chocolates & Proposals

Tourist riders on Medellin’s Metrocable. Image by Flickr user Juan Pablo Buritica.

As far as most transportation planners are concerned, urban transit systems should be evaluated based on major “function-related” items only (i.e. level of service, capacity, travel times, speeds, costs and etc).

Such an analysis is appropriate in transit applications if the only objective is to move users from point A to point B in the fastest and most cost-effective way possible. And in many instances, this is undoubtedly an important factor.

However, as astute readers know, debates on form vs function are often much more complicated than that — especially when “form-related” items are accounted for.

Factors such as experience and fun (novelty) are perhaps some of the biggest intangibles. For example, due to a cable car’s aerial nature, it often is a visible piece of infrastructure that provides passengers with panoramic views. In turn, this has the ability to improve ride experience, open up advertising partnerships and/or attract tourist riders.

While some of these items can be properly quantified in a study (i.e. sponsorship dollars), others such as the “fun” factor may be more challenging to address.

For instance, last week we reported that the Emirates Air Line cable car was offering romantic joint-ticket packages for Valentines Day. This week, we learned that the system transported over 25,000 passengers over the 4-day promotion period (nearly double the ridership over same period last year) while a marriage proposal took place in a private cabin.

Melanie, the lucky lady who was proposed to, was quoted saying:

“This was the most perfect moment just us, 100 feet up in the air surrounded by the awe of the London Skyline and with beautiful love songs serenading us. This moment we will remember forever. Waiting for sundown we took our return journey, now engaged and calling each other fiancé, the love songs continued to play as the sky went dark the lights of London came on and we enjoyed our chocolates absorbing the stunning scene. Richard pulled off a proposal beyond my wildest dreams.”

Something as simple (or as special) as the feasibility for a marriage proposal and dating event would be likely be lost in a traditional transport analysis because it’s beyond the purview of “transportation”.

But if you think about it, in many instances transportation is much more than simply getting from one place to another. Designed properly, it can be an integral part of a city that adds flavour and excitement to our lives.

So as transit plays a bigger role in everyday life for city residents, perhaps transport planners should start asking not only how public transport can move us around the city, but also how its intangibles can add character and open up opportunities for more “fun”.

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World’s Cutest Transit Vehicle: Hello Kitty Tram & Transit Ridership/Marketing

Over the years at the Gondola Project, we’ve probably seen some of the world’s most awesome-looking and unconventional transit vehicle designs. However, when it comes down to the world’ most kawaii (Japanese for cute) mode of transport, the Hello Kitty Trams seen around the world is by far the clear winner (I challenge you to find a more adorable example!).

So while this may seem a little childish at first, a quick google search reveals that Hello Kitty merchandising is no joke. Reports indicate that this global icon generates $1-5 billion dollars annually! And where I’m from, that’s a whole lotta dough — enough to build you Vancouver’s Canada Line two times over or hire Kobe Bryant for the next 180 years.

Hello Kitty Tram HK. Image by Flickr User Joseph Tse.


Anyways, on a more serious note, I think these Hello Kitty trams may make for an interesting case study from a transit planning perspective. If this cartoon cat truly has so much clout and influence, it may not be so asinine to think that an entire Hello Kitty themed transit line could act as some sort of catalyst to spur more transit ridership. Afterall, adding a little fun to public transport never hurt anyone.

And oh yeah, did I forget to mention, the airline industry has already picked up on this idea. And if you still not convince this could work, Hello Kitty jets have a reported average seat occupancy of 90%, compared to just 78% of regular aircrafts.

Hello Kitty Jet. Image by Flickr user Lin.y.c.

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Reducing Violence by Transforming Neighborhoods: A Natural Experiment in Medellín, Colombia

The American Journal of Epidemiology recently published a report, Reducing violence by transforming neighborhoods: a natural experiment in Medellín, Colombia, which examines the effects of “neighbourhood level interventions”. In this research paper, the “intervention” studied was the implementation of the Metrocable Line K in 2004.

Medellin Metrocable Line K. Image by Steven Dale, CUP Projects.

The paper looks at 25 neighbourhoods that were serviced by the Metrocable and 23 similar neighbourhoods from around the city that were not effected by the Metrocable. Researchers conducted a survey of these neighbourhoods in 2008, and compared them to the responses from a 2003 city-wide household survey on violence and neighbourhoods.

A cursory look at the findings indicate that the intervention neighbourhoods (those which were effected by the Metrocable) experienced a 66% faster decline in homicide rates than in the control neighbourhoods. Yet, in actuality, violence and homicide rates in both cable and non-cable areas decreased dramatically.

It should also be noted that while the government was constructing the Metrocable, they were simultaneously making other improvements to the gondola neighbourhoods, including: “additional lighting for public spaces; new pedestrian bridges and street paths; ‘‘library parks’’; buildings for schools, recreational centers, and centers to promote microenterprises; more police patrols; and a family police station next to a gondola station.”

Overall the results are encouraging for Medellín. Crime is down and community relations have improved. While this study concludes that there is statistical proof that infrastructure improvements can help decrease violence, it also clearly states that other factors could have influenced the results.

Medellín was lucky to have had a major government infrastructure intervention happen just a year after PREVIVA, the city-wide survey on violence, was conducted. Even without a survey, it will be interesting to see if there are any actual or perceived effects from the 2011 gondola system in Rio de Janeiro, and the proposed system in La Paz.

If you would like to read the full study, it is available here.

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Alpine Way Quiz – CNE

Earlier this year, I blogged about the new Skyride chairlift at the CNE. At that time I did some background research and watched a couple of videos of the old gondola ride at the Exhibition – called the Alpine Way – but didn’t notice any particularly special.

Alpine Way. Image from

However, I revisited this system this week and only then did I spot something unique about the gondola ride. If you look closely, it showcases one important feature previously discussed on the Gondola Project. Does anyone see it?

I’ve posted a video below which may help.

Hint: it’s related to capacity. 

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Three Eye-Opening Papers On How We Build Transit

The other day I discussed how modal choice often has less to do with the intrinsic qualities of a technology and more to do with extrinsic factors. Those comments caused something of a stir with people coming out saying a variation of the following:

  • Light Rail is a scam.
  • Light Rail is awesome.
  • It depends. (Note: This is the camp I tend to fall in.)

Within the comments I disagreed with a commenter who referred to a “Light Rail Scam” but also admitted that “LRT has been foisted onto places that didn’t need it and probably shouldn’t have been built. But that’s not the case everywhere.”

Which prompted frequent commenter Matt the Engineer to question “What LRT lines weren’t needed and shouldn’t have been built?”

Very good question, Matt.

For readers interested in this issue, there are three essential articles they should look to (Note: clicking on the title of the article will allow you to download it):

The Pickrell piece is insanely readable for something as mundane as transit ridership forecasting. If you only have time to read one, this is the one you should look at. It gives a rather disturbing insight into how public transit is planned, funded and built in North America.

The Flyvbjerg piece, meanwhile, is a little more technical but nevertheless eye-opening. In fact, most of Flyvbjerg’s work is essential reading for anyone interested in how we (in)effectively conduct mega projects in the developed world, particularly in regards to public transit. If you take the time to work through his materials, you’ll come out the other end with a different mindset than when you entered.

The FTA piece, lastly, is boring beyond belief. But is great as a reference point to see how this all comes together. In it, you’ll find out which LRT systems in the US are the star performers (they’re not the ones you think), which are the true dogs (they probably are the ones you think), and which ones are middling at best (a few surprises).

If you’re a transit nerd, you need to read these.

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Asking About Urban Gondola Transit

Recently we’ve been receiving a lot of email requests for details about gondola and cable car transit technology. Often, the requests have been coming from university students asking for help with assigned projects. The pace of requests have only increased since my recent talk with the Alberta Professional Planners Institute and a proposal for a Seattle Gondola System went live on Citytank last week.

We’re thrilled that universities and students are beginning to pick up on the idea, and we’re happy to help where we can. Unfortunately, we often receive requests that we’re unable to meet. Furthermore, such requests oftentimes sound less like students and more like foreign companies exploiting our openness in an effort to attain competitive, proprietary information.

So in an effort to ease this process in the future, let’s set a few ground rules:

ONE – University Email. If you’re a university student looking for help with a school project, please email us via your school’s email address. Sending email from your yahoo or hotmail account but saying your working on a university project only raises suspicions. Similarly, please include a few details about your university and the nature of your project. That will help us help you. Know that we will never share, distribute or publicize those details.

TWO – Blueprints and schematics. We will never provide blueprints or schematics of existing or planned cable transit systems. We will also not solicit them on your behalf from the cable industry. Such documents are intellectual property, valuable and owned by their respective designers. Please do not ask for such documents.

THREE – Repeat. We’re going to say this one again, just to make sure everyone’s listening: We will never provide blueprints or schematics of existing or planned cable transit systems. We will also not solicit them on your behalf from the cable industry. Please don’t ask.

FOUR – Keep it simple. More and more people are approaching us with ideas for excessively long, complex systems with dozens of stations and hundreds of kilometers worth of loops. Please understand that modest systems are the order of the day at least in the near term.

FIVE – Provide details. Often we’re asked by people to help them with technology choice and general advice about designing a gondola transit line. We’re more than happy to help. But to do so we need details. Without knowing the topography, desired capacities, urban environment, etc. it’s impossible. Even more than other transit technologies, gondolas are incredibly site specific. Just asking us to help you design a gondola line is like asking a chef to just help you make dinner. We need to know the ingredients you’re working with.

SIX – Read our site. Please take the time to read over the information on this site before sending us questions. We’ve put it together for just that reason. Is it perfect? Not on your life. But we truly believe it to be the most comprehensive resource on the web to learn about urban gondolas and cable propelled transit. We also think it’s at least somewhat entertaining and provocative.

SEVEN – Cost is relative. Understand that there is no standard costing mechanism for cable transit. Every system is unique and highly dependent upon the details of the system. There is no good “rule of thumb” for costing a cable transit system.

EIGHT – Trust. It’s easy to be mistrustful, hard to be trusting. We get that. If you have an idea for a system, don’t worry, we’re not going to rush off and steal it from you. More than likely, we’re going to ask you to talk to us about it and write about it on the site. One of the goals of The Gondola Project is to help empower people to dream about and create transit in their own communities. We’re not hear to steal ideas, we’re here to develop them.

NINE – Trust us again. Unless you tell us otherwise, and unless the project you’re talking about is already available within the public realm, we will never discuss the idea online. We understand the delicateness of the topic and understand that discretion is the better part of valor. We think our track record has proven this to be true.

TEN – Contact Details. We do not provide contact details for cable transit manufacturers based on a single email. All of their contacts are listed on their respective websites.

ELEVEN – Offer to contribute. Online communities such as The Gondola Project live and die by the contributions of its readers. If you’ve got an idea for a gondola system, tell us about it. Offer to write a guest post on the idea. Stumble us. Link to us. Get involved in the comments. Tweet us. The more we get to know you, the better we’re able to help you and the better we’re all able to help spread this idea.

We genuinely want to hear from everyone who is exploring this idea. We just want to make sure everyone is working from the same starting point.

(Note to our regular readers: An earlier version of this post appeared on April 7th, 2011 – apologies for the repetition, but it’s becoming necessary.)

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Glass Dome Escalator – Uenohara, Japan

Incline Escalator: As can be seen, the glass domed tube – when designed properly – can be aesthetically pleasing and a delightful piece of architecture. Image by Panoramio user tsushima. 

Last month, Steven discovered an interesting/unconventional use for funicular technology in Horw, Swtizerland. Essentially a small development was built on a hillside, with a funicular acting as an elevator. Instead of connecting floors in a building, it moved between houses on a hillside.

Because of this funicular, it largely increased the hillside’s market value and made the site developable.

At that time, it was thought that this type of development concept was rare but (perhaps) it’s more common than we initially thought — especially in land-constrained and topographically-challenged locales.

In Uenohara, Japan – a city of 30,000 people that’s an hour drive west of Toyko – there exists a variation of this concept. Instead of using a funicular to provide access on a hill, they decided to build a 230m long glass tubed escalator that connects the Shiotsu Train station (at the bottom) to the Komoa Shiotsu hilltop community (at the top). The development, which was started in the early 90’s, is now a vibrant community complete with amenities which include schools, supermarkets and clinics.

Exterior View: Glass Tube Escalator – Uenohara, Japan. Image from Wikipedia.

Interior View:  Escalator ride is ~6 minutes. Image from

This glass domed escalator  is a fine example of an ingenious and simple solution that not only maximizes the development potential/property value of the previously inaccessible hilltop lands, it drastically increases accessibility for residents who are now directly connected to one of Japan’s main trunk railway lines. This escalator connection is also important for the rail operator as it increases its station’s catchment area which brings in more riders. All in all, a win-win situation for all parties.

Legend: ORANGE – Hilltop Community; RED – Glass Domed Escalator; PURPLE – Train Station. 

While the escalator doesn’t completely eliminate the need for vehicles (i.e. there is a winding road that connects to the community), it does encourage and enable residents to be more multi-modal.

This form of escalator/funicular oriented development is worthy of more research and discussion as it could be a potential solution that maximizes the use and efficiency of all lands within an urban setting.


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