Posts Tagged: Beijing



Weekly Roundup: No Cable Cars For Aspen

A couple highlights from around the world of Urban Gondolas, Gondola Transit, and Cable Propelled Transit (slow week, sorry):

  • Elected officials for ski area reject ski lifts – The Elected Officials Transportation Committee (ETOC) have rejected a proposal to study a concept plan to link all four ski mountains of Aspen, Colorado by cable cars and/or gondolas. The ETOC cited “everything from environmental concerns to high winds shutting the system down.” Interesting how an elected body with no knowledge of cable transit systems can pass judgement on the technology without even studying it first. Even more interesting this comes from a body of officials elected to represent a ski resort area.
  • Gondola Riders Barely Inconvenienced, Demand Apology – Proving that an unjustifiable sense of entitlement is not unique to the western world, tourists are demanding an apology from Beijing’s Fragrant Hills Park. Apparently, park officials left the tourists stranded in a gondola system for a total of (gasp!) ten minutes. Most interesting is the claim that riders “found themselves dangling 500 meters off the ground” which seems highly unlikely considering the highest gondola in the world only measures 436 m off the ground and is located in Whistler, British Columbia.

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The Ten Day Traffic Jam

Last week, a variety of news outlets (Associated PressCBCNew York TimesThe Drudge Retort and dozens of others) reported on a massive 100 km long traffic jam outside Beijing, China. The jam lasted ten days and stretched into Inner Mongolia only to ‘vanish’ seemingly overnight.

Of all the reports on this story, the one that caught my eye was from The Globe & Mail. In the article, they quote the mayor of Beijing via government report saying “getting people out of their cars has not been easy. Last year the rate of people who took public transportation for their daily commute in Beijing was only 38 per cent.”

According to the article, Beijing’s road network is virtually over capacity or will be by 2015 and despite having the worst “commuter pain” of all major cities in the world, new car registrations are up 23.8% over last year.

And yet, Bejing has a massive public transportation system that includes subways, buses and suburban commuter lines.

The Beijing Subway Network. Image by Wikipedia user Ran.

In other words: Despite having an incredibly useful public transit system and ridiculously bad traffic congestion, transit is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of commuters. While it’s no where near as bad as in North American cities, it’s certainly surprising that transit gets such a small share.

Two months ago I wrote a post called Form vs. Function. In it, I questioned Jarrett Walker’s assertions (here, here and here) that function and ‘Usefulness’ (his word) are all that matter when trying to lure people into using transit. I argued that transit, as is currently designed, doesn’t create ridership as much as we might like to believe. Even cities with ‘Useful’ transit systems still do not attract the majority of commuters that the private automobile does.

In Beijing, we’re seeing that very phenomenon on display because mode choice isn’t always a function of logic or Usefulness, it’s also a function of emotion, ego and pleasure.

The private automobile, remember, is as much status symbol as it is a means of getting around. They are also undeniably more pleasant to ride than public transit. Public transit, after all, doesn’t even offer you a cup holder, let alone seat warmers, surround sound systems and GPS.

According to Jarrett’s Usefulness theory, people in Beijing should be streaming away from car ownership because car ownership is clearly not Useful – as evidenced by said 10 day traffic jam. In a city like Beijing, the private automobile doesn’t display Usefulness, instead it’s Uselessness personified.

And yet people are flocking to it.

Beijing disproves Jarrett’s Usefulness theory and suggests that something other than the harsh light of utilitarianism is necessary to lure people to transit. As I see it, it’s the design of public transit that matters. The quality of the ride matters as much if not more than the Usefulness of the system.

After all, the quality of a ride in a car is apparently so much better, tens of thousands of Beijing residents would rather sit in their private car in a 100 km long traffic jam than ride the train or bus. For those people (and the increasing number of car owners in Beijing), it’s not a matter of Usefulness or function, it’s a matter of form, style, comfort and pleasure.

Or maybe we’ll all just be saved by The Chinese Tunnel Bus™.

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