Posts Tagged: Roosevelt Island Tram



Roosevelt Island Tram & Hurricane Sandy

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, transit users line the streets of Manhattan in wait for buses (as seen from above in the Roosevelt Island Tramway - which was barely even affected). Image via flickr user Mark Lyon.

Anyone care to venture a guess as to which public transit system in New York City was first to whir back to life after the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy?

As frequent commenter Giorgio first mentioned here, the Roosevelt Island Tramway was back up and running days before any other fixed link transit system in the greater New York Area.

If you’ll recall, virtually all transit in New York was suspended the evening of Sunday, October 28th. All transit, rationally, was suspended on October 30th effectively shutting the city down entirely.

Then, after the worst of the storm passed, the Roosevelt Island Tram re-opened for regular service on Tuesday, October 30th at 4pm – just 43 hours after it was shut down. Limited subway service wouldn’t resume for another 2 days after that.

I’ve intentionally hesitated to discuss this matter as I don’t want us to be seen as leveraging a catastrophe to further our own goals. But after reading in Transportation Nation that gaps in the NYC subway remain “stubbornly unrepaired,” I thought it important to bring this issue up.

By bringing it up, however, I fully understand that I risk being seen as a gloater. So let’s just clear that up right now: I’m not gloating. Nor am I indicting any of New York City’s fine transit authorities, the MTA or its capabilities in a post-Sandy world. I’m just stating a fact.

Look, Hurricane Sandy was brutal and wreaked a degree of havoc on North America’s most extensive transit system never before seen. Yet amidst all that disaster, the Roosevelt Island Tramway was resilient in a way that no other system was.

That’s a story worth telling.

Does that change anything about the current state of transit in New York? Of course not. But it is a tiny victory that hasn’t received even the modicum of attention it probably deserves.

It’s all fine and well to disregard the physical characteristics that define a transit technology and focus purely on the issue of service levels and geometry.

But at the end of the day there come times when the physical characteristics of a transit technology directly impacts said service levels and geometry.

It’s like saying a basketball player’s ability has nothing to do with his height and weight. In polite company that’s what we’re supposed to say. But we all know full-well that Shaq isn’t Shaq unless he’s 300 pounds and 7 feet tall.

The Roosevelt Island Tramway was resilient in the face of Sandy almost exclusively because of its physical characteristics just as subways and tunnels were powerless exclusively due to their physical characteristics.

Again, this isn’t an indictment of subways or a call to replace the MTA exclusively with cable propelled transit technologies. That would be insane.

Instead it’s to point out that we have a transit technology here that is resistant to disaster. Taken to its logical next step, could we not imagine the surgical use of cable systems within a complementary, multi-modal transit network as an emergency back-up?

Much of the transit struggles in NYC centred on people’s inability to move from mainland areas to Manhattan and vice versa. As demonstrated by the Roosevelt Island Tramway, cable transit systems can solve that problem with relative ease.

Isn’t that worth contemplating a bit?

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The Punisher Attacks The Roosevelt Tram

In our never-ending quest to document how the world of Hollywood fiction views cable cars and all mass transit as a mortal threat to your safety, we give you this:

Need we really say more about this?

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Gondolas & Proposals


She said yes! Image from

From a technical standpoint, we know that urban gondolas can provide many distinct advantages (think low headways, high capacities and etc.). But what about the less tangible technological benefits?

We often argue that cable transit has the ability to appeal to the psychological and emotional aspects of riding transit. Now as a case in point, we found evidence of this.

Earlier this month, a young man decided to propose to his girlfriend on the Roosevelt Island Tram – a very creative gesture to say the least. Or is it?

Now I don’t want to take anything away from the RIT proposal, but a quick google search shows that cable car operators around the world are already well aware of this phenomenon. And who can blame them? The panoramic views and privacy offered by a gondola cabin is almost entirely conducive to this type of behaviour. For instance, the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway, the Ngong Ping 360, and Singapore Cable Car all suggest and recommend that a marriage proposal on their system is an unforgettable, romantic and surefire way to get your partner to say yes.

So while I thought CPT was the only transit type fit for this type of job, I couldn’t have been more wrong. But let’s take a step back here and hopefully I don’t start a technology war by asking this.

Wouldn’t you much prefer your significant other pop the question on a gondola than a bus?

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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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Where do you put the towers?

On this blog there’s a lot of talk about cable as a flexible and adaptable technology for urban transit. CPT can travel above roads and traffic, go through buildings, and cross rivers and gorges. But for all that to work there needs to be space for towers and stations, too.

So what happens when a city’s simply got no space?

They deal.

Take New York City, for example. The Roosevelt Island Tram’s been dealing with this problem for 35 years by building a tower right over a road. Of course they did, because the system has three towers, two of which are located in Manhattan, the most densely populated New York City borough and the country’s densest county.

The Roosevelt Tram tower sits right on top of 60th St. -- CC image by Flickr user David Berkowitz.

Then there’s a system in Romania, where the city of Piatra Neamt built a cable car system, of which an entire kilometer traverses the city — towers and all.

To do this they built a tower in a road median . . .

Image courtesy of Doppelmayr.

. . . one over a parking lot . . .

Image courtesy of Doppelmayr.

. . . and even one on top of a sidewalk, so as not to obstruct pedestrian traffic underneath.

Image courtesy of Doppelmayr.

Now, we’re not saying this is the best way to go about designing towers. Remember, there are practical designs and then there are pretty designs.

London and Portland have the aesthetics down pat. Both cities dedicated a lot of thought and effort (not to mention a few dollars) to create stunning architectural towers, and in return have (or will soon have) practical works of art, so to speak.

But the adaptability seen in New York and Piatra Neamt should not go unnoticed either. As drab and industrial as the tower designs are, they represent a collaboration that can exist between municipalities and transit planning when both parties add a bit of imagination and ingenuity to the mix.

The important question here is how to blend the practicality of New York and Piatra Neamt with the beauty of London and Portland. That’s the challenge and the opportunity.

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Cable Propelled Transit in Google Earth

Thanks to Julia for finding this:

We know we’re making progress when a Cable Propelled Transit system makes its way into Google Earth 3D. Apparently the Roosevelt Island Tram can now be found in Google Earth by selecting to show all 3D Buildings.

Towers, stations, cables and cabins included:

Screen grab, Google Earth.

Screen grab, Google Earth.

Screen grab, Google Earth.

I love living in the future.

Now what are the chances we can get some other systems in there?

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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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