Posts Tagged: San Francisco Teleferico



The San Francisco Teleferico: Why Gondola Transit Nomenclature Could Be An Issue

The world famous San Francisco Cable Cars. Image via Muni Diaries.

San Francisco’s California Street Cable Car line is under-going a major rebuild. As such, Muni (the San Francisco Transit agency) felt the need to inform the public via signs, press releases, websites etc.

The Spanish translation of the press release, however, referred to the cable cars as “telefericos.”

As any regular reader of The Gondola Project knows, teleferico translates directly to gondola. Muni rider John A. spotted the error and whipped up the above image in an act of transit humour geekery so specific that it’s probably funny to only 3 dozen of the world’s entire population – and will simply confuse thousands of elderly tourists looking to ride the Muni Teleferico in the coming months.

And while the entire situation allows us all to have a lot of fun at the expense of a translator’s mistake, it does touch on a difficulty cable transit has as it begins to grow within the urban environment. That problem is nomenclature.

As I pointed out a long time ago there are dozens of names for cable technologies in English alone. Add in foreign languages, and the situation becomes positively absurd. Teleferico, telepherique, teleferik, seilbahnen . . . the list goes on and on.

That people insist on using erroneous terms to describe installations only frustrates the matter further.

The proposed London Thames Cable Car, for example, isn’t a cable car. It’s a gondola. Full stop. That complicates matters for researchers, planners, journalists and policy-makers. Why not just call the new gondola the “London Thames Underground”? It’s not accurate, but neither is the “London Thames Cable Car.”

After all, you wouldn’t call a Honda Civic an “SUV”, would you? Or how about calling a Macbook Pro a “desktop computer”? Imagine if you invited your family over to visit your brand new house in the suburbs and asked them how they all liked your new “condo.”

"This puppy is the cutest poodle I've ever seen." Image by flickr user Nick LoCiero.

Whether we like it or not, the reason we classify things is so that we can understand them. Yes, it can be annoying. And yes, it can seem ridiculously anal at times. But we as a species have agreed that to foster communication amongst us we must call things by their proper names.

Sure the concept of a “proper name” is subjective and slippery. Anyone whose formative years took place in the 1990’s was probably forced to debate ad nauseum the true meaning of the term “alternative music” and no one ever came to a clear consensus. How we choose to use the term “light rail” is equally debatable and problematic.

Yet when we have a collection of technologies such as cable that make explicitly clear their defining features and, therefore, their exact names, it seems ridiculous that such a situation persists.

I’m not sure the problem will ever be resolved (it won’t), but it’s important to point out the problem for what it is: An unnecessary irritant that only complicates the further spread of the idea.

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