Posts Tagged: Transportation



Cable Misunderstandings on The Transport Politic

Yonah Freemak, the tireless creator of The Transport Politic yesterday wrote about The Gondola Project and a piece I wrote for Planetizen. Yonah takes the perspective that cable transit is an enjoyable, interesting technology and wades into the Form vs. Function debate I highlighted recently.

Yonah is an excellent writer, one whom I respect deeply. Yet while Yonah is generally positive on the concept, I have to point out one interpretive misstep and one factual misstep that he makes. First, Yonah’s interpretive misstep:

It’s true, of course, that it makes little sense to build a gondola in many cities — many places lack major elevation changes or large natural obstacles that preference an investment in a mode of transportation that simply goes over everything that’s around it.

I’ll be the first to admit that gondolas aren’t for every city, but I would never say that it makes little sense to build a gondola in “many cities.” Like so many, Freemark assumes that the technology is only appropriate for cities characterized by natural obstacles and or large elevation changes. Why? No reason is given.

I prefer to look at the technology as one that can exploit rather than just deal with natural obstacles. Rivers, valleys, parks and electricity corridors become usable space for transit that other technologies would not be able to utilize. This is a classic case of using what you have to your advantage.

Furthermore, Yonah misses the fact that traffic is an even greater obstacle in urban settings than “natural” obstacles. At least natural obstacles are static over time and space and can be planned for. No such luck with “unnatural” obstacles such as traffic, street protests, cyclists, and pedestrians. Worse still, standard transit technologies such as Buses, Streetcars and Light Rail only contribute further to traffic problems. Not so with cable systems.

Yonah’s second misstep comes when he says this:

There are of course major limitations to aerial vehicles like the gondolas Dale has highlighted; their maximum running speeds are relatively slow and they lack the ability to handle anywhere near the capacity of traditional train systems.

Two problems here:

Firstly, Yonah confuses “maximum running speed” with average speed. As I point out here and here, average running speed is all that really matters in an urban setting. Maximum speed is basically irrelevant. Just ask that guy in the Ferrari whose been stuck at 10 km/hr in dense rush hour traffic. Just because a vehicle is capable of operating at 100 km/hr doesn’t mean it will, which is why Light Rail vehicles today are built to a maximum speed specification well below what they were in the past. (Toronto Streetcars and Light Rail vehicles famously operate an average of around 13 km/hr but are built to operate at 100 km/hr).

Because cable transit systems operate outside of all other forms of traffic, vehicles are actually able to reach their maximum speeds. So while the maximum speed of a gondola may be less than the maximum speed of a streetcar or light rail vehicle or bus, it’s ability to operate outside of mixed traffic completely negates that. Yonah also completely ignores the issue of wait times, a stat with which cable has no peers (see  here and here).

Secondly, Yonah is right about one thing: Cable cannot approach the capacity of standard train systems. Here, however, I have to assume that he’s talking about commuter or heavy rail (subways). In that sense, yes, he’s right. But one of the things he misses is that few North American cities are building heavy rail systems because the capacity demands just aren’t there.

(Danish scholar Bent Flyberg, for example, has demonstrated that rail projects generally meet with ridership half of what was forecasted. This perspective is echoed by the US Department of Transportation and Harvard economist Don H. Pickrell.)

We therefore should be examining Light Rail and BRT capacities not Heavy Rail because Light Rail and BRT are currently what everyone is building. And when you look at the offered capacities of most Light Rail or Bus Rapid Transit systems in North America, rarely does one find a line that eclipses the 4,000 pphpd mark. Currently, aerial cable systems can reach up to 6,000 pphpd.

Like speed, we have a choice to build technologies that have a theoretical maximum capacity which we will never use or we can build a more modest technology that can easily provide what is required. If the two technologies were the same price, yes, go for the more robust one every time.

Problem is, LRT and BRT is anywhere from double to triple the price of cable on a per-rider-per-kilometer basis, (with far longer wait times and worse safety levels to boot.)

I duly appreciate the attention and generally favourable impression of cable Yonah’s article gives. I just think it important to recognize the deep-seated misunderstandings of the technology (in specific) and transit (in general) that exist (check out the Neumann-Bondada studies) and how those misunderstandings may preclude us from considering a truly revolutionary technology.

Remember: Cable Propelled Transit and Urban Gondolas aren’t just cool or interesting; they’re deeply simple and practical, too.

Update: Since posting this today, Yonah Freemark has posted a response of his own at the end of his original post.)

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The Gleagle Has Landed

The Gleagle IG

Recently the Chinese motor company Geely showcased their Gleagle IG concept car at the Shanghai Auto Show. This three-seater is made of steel, is equipped with a solar panel hood and will cost only $2,250 USD.

It’s said to be the cheapest car on the planet, 10% cheaper even than the Tata Nano (formerly the cheapest car on the planet).

Economic scarcity is a funny thing. When something that’s scarce (expensive) becomes abundant (cheap), that abundance simply causes something else to become scarce. Caracas may have the cheapest gasoline on the planet . . . but they also have some the worst traffic humanity’s ever seen.

So what happens when our cars become cheaper than expensive bikes? Better yet: What happens when they become cheaper than public transit?

Will never happen, you say? When was the last time you saw a transit operator drop their fares?

As long as transit operators keep raising their fares (and lowering their level of service) and car companies keep driving down the price and size of vehicles, eventually the price of a car is going to be cheaper than an annual transit pass.

And that changes everything. Make an electrically-powered Gleagle and suddenly transit loses whatever moral high ground it once had. It’s at that point that scarcity kicks in again. After all, when cars are abundant, road space becomes scarce.

The scarcity of roads is one of the only things that will keep public transit alive (at least in its current form) to see the 22nd Century. But once roads are that clogged with micro-cars, vespas, cyclists and pedestrians how are Light Rail trains, Streetcars and Buses going to get around? They won’t.

At that moment transit will be forced to make a decision: Do we go below or above the traffic? There’s no other option.

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Aerial Technologies, Lesson 6: Pulsed Gondolas

The Grenoble, France Pulsed Gondola System. Image by Marv!

Pulsed Gondolas are a semi-rare subset of the CPT universe and generally not appropriate for mass transit installations. Most were built in the mid to late 20th century, and it’s uncommon to find pulsed systems built nowadays.

Read more

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Canadians Prefer Cars to Sex

According to a recent poll by the World Wildlife Fund, many “Canadians would rather give up junk food, coffee, television and, some of them, sex rather than park their cars.”

Read the whole Toronto Star article.

I’m not sure Public Transit is willing to accept this. They’re too busy denying that people actually like cars. To get people out of their cars, you have to offer a better alternative. Once Public Transit finally admits people like their cars (instead of shaming them for it), they can finally move on to the task of providing something better.

It doesn’t have to be cable. It just has to be something.

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Transit and the Hierarchy of Needs

Over at Human Transit, Jarrett Walker has an excellent post called Transit and the Hierarchy of Needs. In it, he explores Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs and its relationship to public transit.

His argument boils down to this: People will only care about high-order transit concerns such as urban design and technology choice once their lower-order concern of getting from Point A to Point B is sufficiently met. Regarding issues of urban design and transit-oriented development, Jarrett says this:

(Transit planners) shouldn’t expect these considerations to be very convincing to a citizen who’s stranded on a rainy streetcorner (sic), or in a stopped transit vehicle, because the city designed its transit to catalyse great urban life instead of to be fast and reliable. That person will see other people’s high-level needs being place (sic) above their low-level needs.

Jarrett presents a well-thought out and beguiling argument. He reaches his apex when he says:

. . . people are in a hurry and they have every right to be. If we can implement our great visions in ways that work with their lives, they’ll appreciate it. But when we hear that transit should be slower because it’s good for us, or that a transit line will be so sexy that we shouldn’t care if it’s reliable, be careful. If our visions get in the way of their lives, they’ll eventually rebel.

What we’ve seen in Medellin thus far epitomizes Jarrett’s idea of implementing great transit visions in ways that work with people’s lives. The Metrocable satisfied the most basic of needs in Medellin; moving people quickly, cheaply and reliably.

But it also contributed to so many other facets of the community: Decreased crime; increased civic pride; increased pedestrian space; higher quality urban design; decreased traffic; and increased economic opportunity.

Effectively servicing Medellin’s lower-order transit needs had dramatic impacts on higher-order needs down the line. But those higher-order needs came after basic needs were met.

I tend to bristle when people assume cable transit to be some niche-expensive-frill-novelty-dream-technology because it’s not.

Cable’s really pretty basic, which is why – I suspect – it’s received so much recent usage in the developing world. These are people meeting their very basic transit needs using an ancient (literally) technology that’s been updated to the present day. Colombia, Venezuela, Algeria and others wouldn’t be using this technology if it wasn’t practical, cost-effective, fast, safe and reliable.

That it accomplishes so much more is nothing more than a bonus.

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Lost Toronto Funicular

A Funicular near Toronto's High Park. Image by Edward Dale.

I’ll admit it: One of the things I love about cable transit is the “treasure hunt” quality of the entire thing. It’s a “lost” technology with clues and remnants scattered around the world. Picking those clues up and piecing them together is – for me – one of the most exciting parts of this work.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was to receive an email from my uncle which included the picture to left. He stumbled upon it the other day and snapped a photo of it.

This funicular, unbeknownst to me, is located near High Park in my hometown of Toronto, Canada. I’ve yet to find any research on the system.

Lost or unknown infrastructure is nothing new to Torontonians, but to discover a funicular is almost totally unheard of:

Who built it and when? Why? Is it still operational? Who owns it? What was it used for? Could we use it today? Would we want to use it today?

So many questions, too few answers. So, Toronto: Do you know anything about the High Park Funicular?

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Independence vs. Interdepence

I’ve heard the argument that cable’s not a viable form of transit because vehicles cannot move independently of each other. Standard transit technologies – the argument goes – are self-propelled and are therefore immune to problems experienced by other transit vehicles on a line.

This argument is only half-true. The first part is true: Yes, in standard configurations all vehicles are self-propelled. The second part is false: Just because all vehicles move independently of one another, does not mean they are not impacted by each other.

Consider, for example, how many times a fully-functioning streetcar, LRV or subway is stuck in place due to the malfunction of a vehicle ahead of it. Because all vehicles share the same right-of-way, they are just as interdependent upon each others’ movement as a cable system. Even PRT would be susceptible to this (if it existed), and independence is one of that technology’s key selling points.

A problem in one part of a transit system will always reverberate throughout the rest of that system, independent or not.

Buses, one could argue, avoid this problem entirely, but their full independence means high operational costs due to the need for a large number of drivers. (Their independence, however, is also questionable due to the mitigating impacts of traffic, stop lights and scheduling.)

The independence argument is a red herring and completely masks three significant advantages to interdependent movement:

  1. Cheap Automation – As cable systems move interdependently, automation can be accomplished easier and more cost-effectively than complex automation of independent vehicles. You don’t need a driver in each vehicle – human or otherwise.
  2. Economies of Scale – Rather than build 30 engines to propel 30 vehicles, cable systems build one engine to move 30 vehicles. The economies of scale that occur here are one of the single greatest reasons for cable’s cost-effectiveness.
  3. Reliable Headways – Ever waited for half an hour for a bus or streetcar only to have four arrive at one time? That’s what happens with independent vehicles. In a cable system, that doesn’t occur. Because vehicles move interdependently, chain-gangs of vehicles (‘bunching’ as it’s called) is a virtual impossibility.

It’s easy to get caught up in terms like “independence” because it sounds like a good thing. But – really and truly -independence is a non-argument.

After all, independence without impact is irrelevant.

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