Posts Tagged: Proprietary Technology



Cable Propelled Transit: An Open Technology?

Plaques depicting the the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway's original builder, Von Roll, and the rebuilder, Doppelmayr. Image from flickr user bossco.

The new Roosevelt Island Tram (RIT) is likely to generate renewed interest in cable transit and urban gondolas. What it may also do is demonstrate to the wider transit planning community that Cable Propelled Transit is an “open” platform and not (necessarily) subject to the issue of proprietary technology.

Let me explain:

The Roosevelt Island Tram was built in the 1970’s by the Swiss lift manufacturer Von Roll. Two decades later, Von Roll was acquired by the Austrian manufacturer Doppelmayr in 1996. You would expect, therefore, that the Roosevelt Island Tram would’ve been rebuilt by Doppelmayr as well.

If you did expect that, you’d be wrong.

The Roosevelt Island Tram was in fact rebuilt by Leitner-Poma; Doppelmayr’s closest and most direct competitor.

I have no knowledge about the selection process behind the RIT rebuild. I don’t know why Leitner-Poma was chosen over Doppelmayr, nor do I really care. I don’t even know if Doppelmayr participated in the bidding process or even if there was a bidding process. None of this matters to me.

What matters to me is this: Having three different companies (two of which are fierce competitors) working on the same system over a span of 30 years demonstrates that cable transit is an open technology.

That is, the fundamentals are so common across the industry that any of the players can work on each other’s systems. That encourages competition and keeps prices low. It also prevents white elephant situations where cities find themselves trapped out-of-production technologies, desperate for parts that no longer exist; a situation plaguing Toronto’s ill-fated ICTS vehicles.

The argument for open technologies in transit is common enough that it took me just under one minute to find three espousing the idea:

Try it yourself. Google “proprietary technology” and “transit” and/or “public transportation” and you’ll find no shortage of arguments in favor of open platforms. None favor closed platforms.

(Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a strong argument in favor of closed platforms in public transportation. If you can think of one, I’m all ears, but I’m not sure it exists.)

As transit moves towards things like smart fare cards and ticketing systems, the current debate about “openness” centers around information technology platforms, but the principal still applies to vehicle and mode choice.

Basically, cities don’t like playing with proprietary technology. They need it to be as open as possible. Certainly every transit manufacturer will have their own patents and intellectual property, but at the end of the day, the fundamentals behind a given technology have to be similar enough across the industry to allow any major competitor to build, operate and maintain any given system.

Collectively, the Doppelmayr-Garaventa Group and Leitner-Poma (and/or their parent companies) have built 22,000 ropeway systems around the world. Those systems need parts, operators and maintainers. Yes, there are subtle differences between urban ropeway systems and non-urban systems, but the fundamentals are the same. It seems highly unlikely that any city that chooses to build an urban gondola would have any trouble finding parts in the future.

And it’s not like these companies are going out of business any time soon:

Leitner was founded in 1888 and Doppelmayr in 1892. If you want industry stability, that should speak for itself. For the sake of comparison; Bombardier, one of the world’s largest LRT manufacturers, is a relative youngster. It was founded in 1942.

By virtue of this attachment to history, the industry uses (literally) centuries old techniques and technologies not subject to strict intellectual property and patents. The technology is common enough across the industry to allow different companies to work on and maintain each other’s systems.

In other words: Cable Propelled Transit is an open technology. While examples shouldn’t be necessary to prove this fact, it’s great that the Roosevelt Island Tram demonstrates that the cable industry is indeed up to the task of openness.

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