Where Do Aerial Tramways Make Sense?

A look at another unconventional transit method.

Ethan Finlan | July 16, 2018 | |
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One of the aerial tramways in Medellin / wikimedia

Let’s continue a bit with the theme of “where unconventional transport methods can work.”

Aerial tram systems, some of which are known as gondolas – not the aquatic variety associated with Venice – are enjoying something of a renaissance among economic development boosters. Once thought of as amusement park attractions,  many are now looking at the technology as a method to provide connections over relatively short distances. Examples include New York City’s Roosevelt Island Tram and the Emirates Air Line (named for the air carrier, which sponsors it) in London.  Now, they are being proposed for a wider variety of cities: there are two proposals in Los Angeles, where Warner Brothers wants to build one to the Hollywood Sign, and others see one connecting Union Station to Dodger Stadium; a consortium in Boston has proposed a line from the South Station transit hub to the Seaport; developers in Albany want one to connect the city’s downtown to the train station across the Hudson River.

Compelling arguments have been made that these projects can distract resources from more useful infrastructure improvements. In the case of Boston, there is already a multi-million-dollar transit tunnel that serves the same route as the proposed aerial tramway, which needs a capacity upgrade.  And additionally, in this case the distance is short enough that it is possible to walk. That, however, does not mean that the technology is in and of itself frivolous.

Looking at areas where gondolas have been built, a clear pattern emerges: they best serve areas with a hard barrier in between two points, or not many more. In Medellin, an aerial tramway network augments the city’s ground based rapid transit network, with lines making 2-4 stops.  Medellin features a hilly terrain, making it a natural candidate for such a system.

Much like Hyperloop, the central question is one of capacity. The capacity of these systems can vary, but they don’t approach the higher throughput that rail or bus can achieve. In one sense, then, it’s important to ensure that such projects do not get used as an excuse to defer more comprehensive solutions.

But give the gondola pitchers some credit: they don’t advocate for replacing existing transit, but rather view them as a supplement to urban transportation. While the Boston plan frankly leaves much to be desired, others may make more sense. It’s exactly the sort of area where the private sector has room to innovate, and add to, not detract from, mobility options. The best use of scarce tax dollars, at least in major cities, is on higher-capacity solutions (though that’s not to say that the state should be the exclusive provider of such options). They will move many people per hour (whether they are appropriate in certain cases is a separate question altogether). As for aerial tramways – don’t give subsidies to such speculative proposals, but don’t discount them either.

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