Roosevelt Island Tram – From a Tourist Perspective

Tram travelling eastbound from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island. Image by Nicholas Chu, CUP Projects.

So this weekend, I made a trip down to New York City to take in some of the sights and sounds of the Big Apple. Being a natural transit nerd, I decided to make a side trip to Roosevelt Island (aka the Little Apple) to ride the Roosevelt Island Tram (RIT). Much to the chagrin of the accompanying girlfriend, but much to my delight, I was excited at the chance to finally ride the newly modernized RIT – arguably the world’s first commuter CPT line.

The system was originally constructed in 1976 to temporarily connect island residents to Manhattan. But even when the island was finally linked to the city’s subway in 1989, the RIT’s efficiency, coupled with its distinctiveness made it an inseparable icon of Roosevelt Island (more detailed history can be read here).

In terms of my experience riding the RIT as a tourist, the system was everything I expected – a quick transit connector service to and from Manhattan which offered scenic views of the city’s skyline. Unlike the typical screeching and squealing of a subway train, the RIT soared across the East River with poise, grace and stability. With the “dual-haul” or funifor configuration, service is frequent as the large spacious cabins arrive and depart no more than 5-7 minutes apart.

The tram is easily accessed from two different subway lines. For me, I boarded a train on the “N” subway line and got off at Lexington Avenue / 59th Street station. From there it was a short 2 minute walk over to the tram station at E 60th Street and 2nd Avenue. The Manhattan tram station was inconspicuously and neatly tucked into a street corner, almost entirely hidden from view by trees from the adjacent park. This is a great example of how cable transit infrastructure can be simply weaved into the urban fabric without causing any disruptions to sightlines and privacy.

Tram station on the Manhattan side. Image by Nicholas Chu, CUP Projects.

Since I rode the system on a Saturday afternoon, I’d say that about half the riders on the RIT were tourists. Given the breathtaking panoramic views offered, the dozens or so visitors armed with their DSLRs quickly snapped away at every possible moment (me included). Throughout the ride, the constant camera clicks and ticks were met with many “rolled eyes” and sighs from locals.

In typical tourist fashion, visitors struggle at the faregate, causing a slightly irritating backlog for regular commuters. Image by Nicholas Chu, CUP Projects.

Once we arrived on Roosevelt Island, we took a stroll around the vicinity but didn’t venture too far as we had other plans for the day. Similar to the Manhattan Tram station, the Tram station on Roosevelt Island was highly utilitarian and functional in design, with absolutely no frills about it. However, there were plans in the past to renew the stations (no word on the current status now).

On our way back to Manhattan for more shopping and sightseeing. Image by Nicholas Chu, CUP Projects.

While the island isn’t the most renowned tourist attraction in the city, the island itself does provide beautiful views of the city and lots of greenspace – perfect for a short weekend jaunt. So the story is: if you’re a tourist in New York and you want to take a breather from the hustle and bustle of the city, the RIT makes for a fun and exciting excursion.

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Aerial Trams vs. Gondolas

I recently spoke with a cable engineer who thought it completely absurd that people use Aerial Tram statistics to negate the feasibility of Urban Gondolas.

When I told him such confusion was the norm rather than the exception, he became flustered. He simply couldn’t accept that people make that mistake. They’re two completely different performance packages! he exclaimed. They should know the difference!

Listen, if you’re a regular reader of The Gondola Project, then you know the difference between an Aerial Tram and a Gondola (MDG, BDG or 3S). You also know why Gondolas are more suitable to urban environments and fully-integrated CPT installations.

You know that Aerial Trams have long wait times, little ability to implement intermediary stations and corners, low capacities and high costs. You also know that a Funifor negates those problems to some extent but not without significant cost increases.

But not everyone reads The Gondola Project (probably the greatest understatement in the history of blogging).

This is why a post over at David Marcus’ Liveable Norwalk caught my eye.

In that post, David suggests a CPT system for his hometown of Norwalk, Connecticut. It’s a modest proposal; a 1.5 mile long 4 station line. It wasn’t, however, the proposal that caught my eye. It was the response.

Responding to the post was Cap’n Transit, of Cap’n Transit Rides Again. For anyone who reads the transit blogs, the Cap’n should be more than familiar. He’s a prolific blogger and commenter with vast knowledge about public transportation.

He also gets it dead wrong in his response to the Norwalk Gondola:

Says Cap’n Transit:

. . . the urban gondola was first introduced right here in New York City. When they reopen the Roosevelt Island Tramway, come down and try it. You’ll find that wait time has hardly been eliminated.

Says David in response:

I have to distinguish between a tram like Roosevelt Island and a gondola like in Medellin. When I speak of gondolas, I mean the smaller cars that hold 6-10 people and come by every 10 seconds or so.

Says the Cap’n:

Thanks, David! Do they really come that frequently in Medellin? Are there more than 10 people at a time who want to ride? Has anyone tried them?

In the Cap’n’s defence, he was open-minded enough to notice he might have been incorrect. But besides that:

Can the average person really tell you what the difference between an Aerial Tram and a Gondola is?

Does the average person know that the Roosevelt Island Tram is actually to be replaced with a Funifor-type system?

Does the average person know the difference between a Funifor and an Aerial Tram?

Problem, however, is not with the average person, it’s with the knowledgeable person. Cap’n Transit knows a lot about transit, but he clearly knows little about Cable Propelled Transit. And that’s not his fault! After all, we don’t know what we don’t know.

The cable engineer can complain all he wants that people should know the difference between Aerial Trams and Gondolas, but they don’t. Whose fault do you think that is?

And maybe more importantly: Do you think complaining about it is going to change it?

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Aerial Technologies, Lesson 8: Funifor

The Freeride Paradise Funifor. Image by alexleo10.

The last aerial cable technology worth mentioning is the Funifor. Like the 3S, Funifors are very rare beasts. Only around a half dozen exist, and are all located in northern Italy (for whatever strange reason).

In essence, the Funifor is nothing more than a fusion of a Funitel and an Aerial Tram. It’s dual grip mechanism allows for a short grip arm and a more stocky, yet purposeful appearance. It doesn’t appear to dangle like other aerial systems. Like an Aerial Tram, however, it lacks the Funitel’s detachability. This means longer than normal wait times and lower capacity. It also means intermediary stations are very difficult and the technology is best used for point-to-point applications.

Like most Aerial Trams, a Funifor runs on a parallel set of support ropes, though the pair are spaced wider apart than standard Aerial Trams.

What distinguishes a Funifor from an Aerial Tram is that each of the two cabins operate separately. As opposed to an Aerial Tram, a Funifor’s propulsion rope is not returned to the opposite direction for use by the other vehicle. Instead, each cabin uses its own set of bullwheels, engines and propulsion ropes. (That’s why when you see pictures of a Funifor, each direction appears to use 4 separate ropes; two for support, one for propulsion plus the return part of the propulsion loop.) This allows a Funifor three distinct advantages over an Aerial Tram:

  1. As cabins operate independently of each other, higher capacity can be realized through reduced wait times.
  2. Intermediary stations become possible in locations other than the exact mid-point.
  3. In the event that one line shuts down due to emergency and or maintenance, the other line can still operate. Yes, that means that capacity is reduced by half, but at least the system is still in operation.
  4. If evacuation of a vehicle is necessary, the second vehicle can be used. Funifors can be equipped with bridging equipment allowing passengers to move from the disabled vehicle over to the other operational line.

These advantages, however, are offset by a couple of negatives:

  1. Towers are necessarily larger and sturdier in order to carry the extra load.
  2. Doubling of engines and propulsion ropes causes a significant increase in cost.

If one were choosing between an Aerial Tram and a Funifor in an urban environment, it would be best to opt for the Funifor. The added capacity, reduced travel times, maintenance potential and evac procedures makes it an obviously superior choice. Yes, it’s more expensive, but on balance worth it.

Why, after all, do you think New York opted to rebuild the Roosevelt Island Tram as a Funifor? Given that the terminals were already built, the $25 million USD price tag that came with this rebuild made the choice easy.

The Roosevelt Island Tram Redesign. Image from The Roosevelt Islander blog.

(In fairness to the manufacturer Sigma (one division of the Poma-Leitner group), this is not strictly-speaking a Funifor. Funifor – the word – is a trademarked name of the Doppelmayr Garaventa Group. Sigma’s design, however, clearly captures all that a Funifor is.)

Return to Lesson 7: 3S

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