Posts Tagged: Hercules



The Problem With “Literature”

Planners rely on Literature (capitalization intentional). It is the lifeblood of the profession. Problem is, Literature isn’t always right, accurate or current. It’s like that boss you have to seek permission from even though he knows absolutely nothing about what you’re asking permission for.

Consider the Hercules Aerial Tram Study by Reconnecting America. Written in 2007, the study was conducted by Reconnecting America for Hercules, California, a small burg about 40 km north-east of California San Francisco. As one of the only publicly-available pieces of Literature on cable, this is an essential document for anyone interested in the topic. It is also riddled with half-truths, misstatements and flat-out shoddy workmanship.

The following are direct quotes from the study:

  • Expandability is impossible or difficult at best.
  • … current technology makes it difficult to have systems consisting of more than two stations …
  • There are very few instances of a mid terminal for dropping off or picking up passengers …
  • Aerial ropeway literature suggests that midway stations are very rare, and expansion is difficult.
  • Alignment tends to be limited to a straight line.
  • Availability, while high, is not as great as for other technologies.
  • High winds and electrical storms force shut downs which would not occur with other technologies.
  • System capacity upgrades will require reconstructing the entire system.

As far as I can tell, all of the errors and omissions are due to outdated Literature cited. Much of the Literature cited in the Hercules report date from 1987 and 1988, twenty years before the Hercules study. Given those misperceptions, the study authors went on to analyze gondolas purely in a linear, two stop alignment. Meanwhile, the study was titled “Aerial Tram Study” when they were clearly studying Gondolas. Not to be sticky about nomenclature, but the difference between an Aerial Tram and a Gondola is enormous, a fact which the authors should have made explicit.

In 2007, the Medellin Metrocable was already 3 years old (Note: Previously, I’d said the Metrocable opened in 2006, a mistake I apologize for. It appears the Metrocable opened in 2004.). Shouldn’t Reconnecting America have made reference to that system? Yes and no.

As I’ve argued before, we don’t know what we don’t know and that’s really no one’s fault. At the same time, the Hercules study relied almost exclusively on 20 year old Literature and cites virtually no observational or empirical research. Back in 2007, a quick search of the net would’ve yielded information on systems like the Ngong Ping 360, the aforementioned Metrocable, and Funitels. Yes, internet research wasn’t as easy three years ago as it is today, but if the authors were able to find their way to the practically ancient research they cited in their study, they certainly could’ve found out that intermediary stations and corners were more than possible.

(Further evidence in support of this idea: The study explicitly references the 3S. That technology was virtually brand new in 2007. Learning about it would have had to come directly from the net, but I digress.)

Basically, the authors never took the time to look beyond the Literature. And if they did, they willfully ignored what they saw because there was no Literature in support of what was plainly obvious.

This isn’t a rant against elitism, academia, or scholarly pursuits. It is, however, to say that youtube videos, wikipedia pages and forum posts are now (as they were three years ago) essential clues to the world around us. And those clues come far faster and quicker than any Literature could ever hope to do. These clues may not paint the entire picture, but collectively they force us to question that which the Literature claims as historical fact.

In many ways Literature is dead the moment is published. It becomes archaic and set in stone. That’s both a blessing and a curse. After all, Literature has an authority which the net may never attain and Literature is useful at setting the record of the past.

But it’s useless at understanding the new, the rapidly changing and the misunderstood. The new form of internet-based research that’s only now emerging evolves, grows, changes and adapts at remarkable speed. It may get things wrong from time-to-time (or frequently), but the error can be quickly amended. Not so with Literature.

One model is dead, the other is very much alive. It’s a shame Reconnecting America didn’t opt for that model which was actually breathing.

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