Urban Gondolas Offer Low-Tech Relief to Traffic-Jammed Cities
Boston, Toronto, and New York City look to the skies to solve congestion.
A gondola in La Paz, Bolivia. Image: Sunsinger/Shutterstock
Two people who won a local contest are the brains behind Edmonton, Alberta’s newest public-transit service: the gondola. It’s set to open in the next three to five years.
Amber and Gary Poliquin first encountered the gondola—basically a ski lift with enclosed pods—two years ago while visiting Chamonix in the French Alps. “We thought it’d be a great idea for our river valley,” Amber said on the phone, referring to the North Saskatchewan River that runs through Edmonton. “The gondola is very efficient. Nowadays, in terms of cost, bridges are expensive to build. It does the job for a lot less money,” added Gary.
They decided to enter a contest last year that was seeking a signature attraction for the growing city. Of more than 300 submissions, the Poliquins’ gondola was crowned the winner in early March. Their win has been met with a mix of curiosity, enthusiasm, and incredulousness, although Edmonton isn’t alone in reconsidering the gondola. In North America and Europe, the humble gondola has long been relegated to ski hills and tourist attractions. Recently, though, Boston, New York City, Oxford, England, Toronto, Ontario, and a handful of other Western cities have begun looking at them to solve transit crunches.
“When you take the ski lifts out the mountains and into the cities, people lose their minds a little bit,” said Steven Dale, one of the world’s foremost gondola experts, an urban planner, and the founder of cable-transit consultancy Creative Urban Projects.
Gondolas are relatively new urban transportation options built on millennia-old technology, explained Dale. While they don’t have the high-tech glitz and glamor of a flying car, they are practical. They don’t take up a lot of real estate, they’re relatively cheap to build and operate, and they’re carbon-efficient. That’s why this mode of transportation is emerging as a low-cost solution to solving congestion and overcoming barriers like mountains, water, and highways.
They’re already a familiar sight in heavily congested and/or mountainous parts of Latin America. La Paz in Bolivia, Colombian metropolis Medellín, the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, a suburb of Mexico City called Ecatepec de Morelos, and a number of other cities in Central and South America are using gondolas ( teleférico in Spanish) to shuttle people around town. La Paz’s Mi Teleférico, which opened in 2014 and is undergoing a significant expansion, is considered the longest (and highest) urban cable-car network in the world. It transports 159,000 people a day, according to a local paper.
The estimated cost of the complete Mi Teleférico project is $750 million for 33.8 kilometres (21 miles), 11 lines, and 39 stations. For comparison’s sake, most subway systems in the world cost between $368 million and $700 million per mile. New York City’s Second Avenue line cost $2.6 billion per mile. They’re also far faster to build.
They’re also efficient at moving people. The gondola system in Chamonix, which inspired the Poliquins, is called Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi. It takes 20 minutes to climb 2,800 metres (9,186 feet) and reach the mountain’s summit. In North America, New York City and Portland, Oregon both have gondola-like aerial trams.
In Edmonton, the Poliquins are planning 40 cars big enough for eight passengers, 12 support towers, and three stations. It’d take 10 minutes to traverse a 3.2-kilometre (two-mile) span, and cars would arrive every 45 to 60 seconds, according to the couple. They’ve estimated the total cost to be in the range of $25–50 million, which will funded through a public-private partnership. Dale’s cable-transit consultancy Creative Urban Projects and gondola manufacturers LST and Doppelmayr are working with them to get the job done.
Dale estimates that while there are 25,000 ropeway systems in the world right now—including ski lifts, mining conveyors, and others—just 100 are used for urban transport.
They are becoming more popular, though. That’s partly because the technology has improved, but the other big reason is more subtle, Dale explained. Because gondola suppliers have traditionally worked in a one-to-one relationship with clients, there haven’t been a lot of middle men. That sounds great in theory, except that intermediaries are required to advocate for the technology, propose projects, and lobby governments. (According to Dale, many governments restrict suppliers from advising them directly, lest they gain an unfair advantage ahead of a tendering process.)
Dale became one of the middle men. His company focuses on the preliminary design phase, including teaching people how to look at the gondola as a complementary transit option.
Neither of the Poliquins have built a gondola before. In fact, they’ve never built any piece of infrastructure. Amber is a science teacher, and Gary’s spent most of his time working in hospitality. They’re both avid runners and athletes, and together they own a tourism business called Big E Tours. Now they’ve added “gondola-building volunteer” to their resumés.
“Is it perfect for everything? No,” said Gary. “But in terms of natural barriers, we have not been able to find something better for crossing the river and cliffs.”
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