The new way to get to work?
Traditionally cable cars are only found at ski resorts or to take tourists to the top of mountains, but many believe this form of transport could be of use in the urban environment enabling commuters to travel around cities without using congested roads or crowded undergrounds.
Steven Dale, the founder of Creative Urban Projects (CUP Projects) and an expert on Cable-Propelled Transit recently discussed the potential for such systems on UrbanOmnibus in an article entitled "Off The Road and Into The Skies", where he theorised that major cities could benefit from such transport schemes.
The idea of major cities utilizing cable-propelled transit as a form of transport is an intriguing one, especially with more and more people giving up their cars in favour of public transport. Be it concern for the environment or the cost of gas, people are embracing public transport more and more, forcing local governments to invest in rail and bus systems, but what, we asked Mr Dale, are the benefits of cable transport over these well established transport systems?
Cheaper than underground technology
"It's very hard to make a direct comparison," he said. "Generally speaking, I would say that the qualities that are exemplified by cable are most competitive with something like light rail or streetcar systems. Of course, it doesn't have the cost effectiveness of a bus system, but at the same time generally speaking most don't like the aesthetics of buses."
"At the same time, it's far, far cheaper than subways or underground technology, but at the same time it doesn't move quite as many people as that technology can, but on a per rider basis it does come out far cheaper than underground technology, and there are cable systems around the world that have been installed in underground tunnel."
"Because there's zero chance of a derailment you actually don't need to build two separate tunnels, which is what we currently do. When we build our undergrounds we build multiple tunnels so in case of an emergency people can get out and go in another direction, you don't have to do that with cable. So that saves you one of your major, major costs of building underground because you only need half as many tunnels."
Cable cars in New York?
The fact that cable-propelled transit can also be used underground immediately widens its potential especially for those that only assumed it is 'in the air' cable cars, such as the Roosevelt Island Tram, but can such a system been implemented in a major city in New York?
There have been plans to construct a cable transport system as a possible alternative to the current commuter rail route going from Brooklyn to Governor's Island to Manhattan and New York Airport, but is the technology ready to go and how much would a system like that cost?
"It's a very complicated subject matter, but one of the difficulties with educating people about this is that when they hear light rail they know what it is, there's only one form of it. When they hear subway they know what it is, there's only one form of it, etc etc. When you're dealing with cable, there's probably about 12 different forms that it takes.
"So each one is different, each one is more or less suited in a particular environment. So I've seen cable systems installed for as little as 5 million per kilometer, and I've seen cable systems installed for 50 million per kilometer. But at the same time, even at the absolutely highest end of 50 million, you find that that's still much cheaper, or at least competitive with most light rail technology
"I mean it would be very hard to estimate at this stage, but I would ballpark it at maybe $300-400 hundred million."
"In terms of viability, it's not even a question from a technology perspective. The technology is sound, it's safe, it's proven; it would be a non-issue. From a political standpoint it might be a little more difficult, especially if the planners who were involved in something like that, if they made the mistake of flying vehicles over people's backyards. I always try and say, "Never go over people's backyards, it's just a disaster waiting to happen.""
Popular with commuters?
However, despite the obvious aesthetic properties of cable cars floating through metropolis, would commuters require transport with a bit more speed? According to Mr Dale, the fact that many think the underground will rocket them to their destination is all in their head and as such, cable might be able to get you there just as fast.
"The thing is about underground technology, there's a myth about the speed. The myth is very simple, it has a high maximum speed, but the overall line speed is dependent upon a lot of different things, including the number of stations, the distance between the stations, and the rate of acceleration and the rate of deceleration.
"So most transit agencies are going to ballpark their average underground speed at around 25 to 35 kilometers per hour. When you look at something like light rail, for instance, light rail almost never goes above 20 kilometers per hour. We have systems in Toronto that are street cars, they're built to go 100 kilometers per hour, but they average 12."
Of course, a thought at the forefront of every one's mind is safety. With the foiled Christmas Day bombing and attacks on public transport links in Madrid and London over the past decade, surely hovering hundreds of feet in the air is a disaster waiting to happen?
After all, in 2006 the Roosevelt Island Tram lost power stranding those in inside for several hours. Despite this incident being a one-off, the thought of being stranded in a cable car for several hours if the power goes out will not be far from many peoples minds.
"Generally speaking, the best philosophy in terms of safety is to accept in the absolute most dire situation don't try to remove people from a vehicle in midair. The best thing to do, and most of the systems now have this, is they all have backup diesel engines in each station. So if there is an electrical failure or a power outage, what can happen is that the diesel engine can click on and they can basically manually pull the vehicles into the station and then get people out in the station."
"In the case of the Roosevelt Island tram, the system is 25 years old with not a great maintenance history and uses something called aerial tram technology which is a very, very outdated technology. And also, ironically, aerial trams are the most expensive of the cable technologies, but the ones that provide the lowest level of service."
"I also think that I'm not necessarily in favor, at least in an urban setting, of having incredibly high systems. I think that keeping them lower to the ground where they have more interaction with the urban fabric is better, and also then rescue efforts are easier. But again, I think that the most important thing for people to realise is that except in the most direst circumstances rescues occur in the stations."
The future of urban transport?
So with the technology seemingly ready to go, a CO2 footprint smaller than other forms of public transports and the financial savings compared to rail services, why aren't cities around the world embracing cable-propelled transit?
Well, some cities have. Perugia in Italy has a fully automated, bottom support cable car system that has 50-person vehicles every minute and runs above ground, below ground, and at ground level. Medellin in Columbia has a gondola system fully integrated into their metro system that was so successful it has spawned a second and third line and plans to expand the original line are underway.
"It's in a place that you would never possibly believe that it actually is there. It's out there, people are talking about it, and most importantly there are cities in the world that are using this as public transit."
Steven Dale is the founder of Creative Urban Projects (CUP Projects) in Toronto, Canada. He is an expert on Cable-Propelled Transit with several years experience researching and consulting on the matter. Steven recently launched The Gondola Project, an information campaign in support of CPT. For more information, visit www.gondolaproject.com or www.creativeurbanprojects.com.
All images are from the Gondola Project flickr page.
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