Skyriding to the Top of the Stupidity Pile

Streetcars apparently aren’t stupid enough for Michael McDaniel and Jared Ficklin of Frog Design in Austin, Texas. They’ve come up with an even stupider idea: moving people around on urban networks of ski lifts. Each ski lift would consist of scores of small cars suspended from wires, and each car would carry six to twelve people.

The 152-car, 2.1-mile gondola system in Rio de Janeiro cost $74 million, goes about 8 mph, and is expected to carry up to 30,000 people per day. Flickr photo by minplanpac

They estimate that a base system could cost as little as $3 million per mile. If you insist on weighty luxuries such as air conditioning and heat, the cost rises to $12 million. They admit that in urban areas the costs are more likely to be around $24 million per mile, but say that is still less expensive than streetcars or light rail. That’s like saying french fries are healthy because they aren’t as heart-attack-inducing as eating pure lard.

Similar systems have recently been built in Medillin, Columbia; Caracas, Venezuela; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The one in Brazil cost $35 million per mile, and I suspect construction costs in a country whose per capita income is about one-eighth of the U.S. are a little lower than here.

McDaniel and Ficklin estimate speeds of 12 to 15 miles per hour. Though they say some chair lifts are faster, it isn’t clear that higher speeds are possible with the enclosed-car systems they envision since they will require extra time to unload and load cars with higher capacities than one- to three-person chairs. The gondolas in Rio de Janeiro and Medellín, Columbia go about 8 to 10 mph.

At “peak operating efficiency,” they estimate throughputs of 3,000 people per hour in each direction. Although they say this is a “very respectable number in the mass transit industry,” it actually isn’t very much. (One article says 10,000 people per hour, but that counts vehicles in both directions, so it is really only 5,000 per hour in one direction.) In a presentation to the Round Rock, Texas city council, they suggest individual parties of people would not be expected to share vehicles with strangers, so the average number of people per car would be far lower than their capacity.

As the Antiplanner has previously observed, ordinary buses on city streets can move nearly 7,000 people per hour, while buses on dedicated freeway lanes can move 24,000 seated people per hour and 30,000 people per hour including standees. Substituting double-decker buses doubles all those numbers. So 3,000 people per hour is not very impressive compared with anything other than streetcars (which can move about 2,000 people per hour, most of them standing). The gondola in Brazil has a capacity of about 30,000 people a day, and unless days in Brazil are less than 10 hours long that’s less than 3,000 people per hour counting both directions, meaning its capacity is even lower than streetcars.

One advantage of an aerial system is that it could easily go over buildings or other obstructions. On the other hand, going around corners requires some tricky engineering. But an even bigger disadvantage that McDaniel and Ficklin gloss over is that ski lifts are all point-to-point, which means in an urban network most people would have to either change cars several times in the course of their trip or they would have to allow cars full of people to pass through stations.

On a continuous cable system, every car slows at every station so people can get off and then other people get on. This means people who stay on board end up going at a lower average speed than people who just go from one station to the next one. Meanwhile, if people pass through stations without getting off, other people who want to get on at that station have to wait for the next empty car, also increasing travel time. This may be why the multi-station systems in Brazil and Columbia go so much slower than 15 mph.

So what we are really talking about is a low-capacity, slow-moving system. Contrary to McDaniel’s and Ficklin’s claims, such a system is hardly suitable for moving people from airports to home or home to work. It most closely resembles the automated guideway systems built in Detroit, Jacksonville, and Tampa. These were all embarrassing failures; the Tampa one was shut down in 1999 after less than 14 years of hemorrhaging money.

Not surprisingly, there are already whole websites aimed at promoting this idea, some of them no doubt funded by the contractors who build ski lifts. Does multimodalism really mean we have to copy every wacky idea that moves a handful of people at a high cost?

You would think that people in Austin would have learned by now that fixed-guideway transit systems just don’t work. Austin’s Capital Metro built a commuter-rail system that cost twice as much as promised and opened two years late. This line is 32 miles long, which means it still cost a lot less per mile than the skyway system proposed by McDaniel and Ficklin. But in 2011, the commuter-rail line earned just $955,000 in fares against $10.3 million for operations and maintenance, for an average operating subsidy of nearly $25 pertrip. The cost overruns, high operating costs, and lack of revenue have nearly bankrupted the agency. Yet this doesn’t stop people from imagining that, if only they had chosen some other fixed-guideway mode, everything would have been fine.

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23 thoughts on “Skyriding to the Top of the Stupidity Pile

  1. C. P. Zilliacus

    Hey, Sweden has a line almost like this (built about 1940) that was used to transport massive buckets of lime from a mining operation to a building products factory. It was long, at about 42 kilometers end-to-end. A lot of the lime transported by this operation went to build the (in)famous Swedish Million Program effort to build a million new apartment units in the 1960’s and early 1970’s.

    The line has been abandoned for quite a few years, though it remains in operable condition and there are some that want to preserve it for historical reasons.

    Web site (in Swedish, though the embedded video of the line in operation could be interesting for some): KALKLINBANAN FORSBY-KÖPING

  2. LazyReader

    No more than say the Portland Aerial Tram. Built at a cost of 57 million dollars to move people 5/8ths of a mile. Cost’s 1.7 million a year to operate and doesn’t really move that many people.

    Capital Metro opened a 32-mile commuter rail system known as Capital MetroRail in 2010. Capital Metro is also looking into a circulator system of streetcars to connect most of Downtown, the University of Texas at Austin, and the 700-acre (2.8 km2) Mueller Airport Redevelopment. Austin is the liberal fortress of an otherwise conservative, set in it’s way state. As a result of the major party realignment that began in the 1970s, central Austin became a stronghold of the Democratic Party, while the suburbs tend to vote Republican. It’s nice to see a city not entrenched in antiquated thinking, never the less this skycar appears far too optimistic. These PRT (personal rapid transit) proposers and they come across as a particular sort of crackpot. With schemes like monorails, elevated mini cars or guided trolley’s, underground transports, building a elevated network of bridges exclusively for bicycles. And there’s one concept I’ve actually found amusing.

    http://shweeb.com/

    Even so, I’ve seen many of these so called PRT proposals and most seem nothing more than highly rigid automobiles. If were gonna replace the automobile, why do it with something that’s not only like the car but not really as good as the car. The whole thing should be what we need are walkable towns again. If they had a finished side walk on Mountain Road where I live, I could walk to my grocery store, my Post Office, my veteranarian’s office, and my bank.

  3. msetty

    Randal, this is one of your more ignorant, dumber posts in a while, one that warrants a response (you are also wrong on so many levels RE streetcars, but I don’t have time to go into all the details).

    While I doubt the veracity of the particular Round Rock proposal or its actual suitability, urban gondolas are a valid niche technology for specific situations, such as the various places in very dense South American cities where they’ve been built. As for being “stupid” please tell it to Telluride and Mountain Village, Colorado (http://www.telluride.com/summer-activities/gondola, or the dozens of Swiss communities where gondolas and other forms of cable-powered transit are fully integrated links in their local and intercity transit systems.

    I also suspect that Steven Dale http://gondolaproject.com/ would be amused, if not honored by, essentially being called an idiot by Randal O’Toole.

    Lazy Reader, you don’t seem to realize it, but you’ve drunk a major part of the “New Urbanist” kool-aid: the notion that our towns should be walkable and designed first for people, not cars! Not that I disagree, but then you’ve violated one of the mantras of the anti-transit, anti-urban types here, e.g., that streets are for more than just cars!

  4. FrancisKing

    Ski lifts are not, as Antiplanner is suggesting, a silly idea. It is too slow as an idea, but workable. I have seen far worse.

    My problem is that the systems will have major last-mile problems, People live and work all over the place, but the ski lifts only go to one place.

    Cable systems like these make more sense as a way of moving containers of freight, enabling articulated lorries (heavy, long, diesel, dangerous) to be removed from the road network. Containers do not require air-conditioning, and are not in a hurry. There are few industrial/freight areas in cities, and so the last mile problem doesn’t really apply for freight.

    “As the Antiplanner has previously observed,”

    Sorry, but theoretical bus/rail/streetcar capacities are still irrelevant. Like last time, and the time before. At a realistic capacity of one bus every three minutes, and 50 people per bus, that’s just 1000 people per hour – a long way short of Antiplanner’s 30,000 people per hour, which is just nose-to-tail travel, without pick-ups and drop-offs.

  5. OFP2003

    Austin is a reasonably flat city with many people living/working in the suburbs. They built their train because they believed “If we build it they will come.” PURE UNADULTERATED CARGO CULT MENTALITY. A right-brained superstitious mentality: “It’s so cool that if we build it people will ride it… all day long…. and into the night… paying extra and leaving tips if they have to wait.” It’s important not to squash creativity, and these ideas need to see the light of day for evaluation, but hopefully, no one will fall for this…. (PS don’t forget all the gondola accidents at the Texas state fair grounds… http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2245&dat=19791022&id=fhgzAAAAIBAJ&sjid=sTIHAAAAIBAJ&pg=6737,5616422 )

  6. JOHN1000

    This is just a (terribly deadly) accident waiting to happen.
    When government operators skip on maintenance on a subway or a bus, you get a delay. When they skip maintenance on a ski lift flying over the middle of the city, you get a disaster movie.

  7. MJ

    While I doubt the veracity of the particular Round Rock proposal or its actual suitability, urban gondolas are a valid niche technology for specific situations, such as the various places in very dense South American cities where they’ve been built. As for being “stupid” please tell it to Telluride and Mountain Village, Colorado (http://www.telluride.com/summer-activities/gondola, or the dozens of Swiss communities where gondolas and other forms of cable-powered transit are fully integrated links in their local and intercity transit systems.

    So your point of reference is two small ski towns in Colorado, a handful of Swiss villages with essentially the same geographic characteristics as a said ski towns, and a couple of 3rd world South American cities? I wonder if Austin’s (or Round Rock’s) residents see the similarities.

  8. metrosucks

    MJ if I were you, I would just ignore Michael Setty. He’s a foul-mouthed cretin who plays a butt-hurt transit advocate who’s all sore that we don’t spend all our transportation money building light rail, streetcars, and gondolas. I especially like that he blasted generally Randal but wasn’t able to provide a single actual rebuttal.

  9. metrosucks

    MJ if I were you, I would just ignore Michael Setty. He’s a foul-mouthed cretin who plays a butt-hurt transit advocate who’s all sore that we don’t spend all our transportation money building light rail, streetcars, and gondolas. I especially like that he blasted generally Randal but wasn’t able to provide a single actual rebuttal.

  10. gecko55

    MJ if I were you, I’d consider carefully MSetty’s points-of-view. He noted that “gondolas are a valid niche technology for specific situations”. A niche solution for sure. But not by any means a “stupider idea” (to use Randal’s phrase) in some circumstances.

    LazyReader: I suggest Braunwald, Switzerland for you. http://www.myswitzerland.com/en/braunwald.html

    A car free village served by a cog railway. There are other car free villages in Switzerland (e.g., Wengen, Zermatt, Saas Fe) but Braunwald is very nice and low key.

  11. LazyReader

    I am not a new urbanist. I admit, some of it’s features seem rather attractive and a small group of American’s about 10-20% claim they want to live in an ”authentic” neighborhood. I’m more of a New Pedestrianist. I’m not necessarily in favor of car-free, more car-optional and rediscovering the use of our legs before they devolve into flippers. According to International Center for Technology Assessment, people living in the Houston-Dallas-Ft.Worth Metro spend about 23% of their Gross regional product on transportation compared to just 10% in places like Honolulu or Baltimore. In the United States we’ve paved over 160 billion square feet of land simply to provide places to park cars (1.6x the size of Yellowstone Park) yet we still cant find a good place to park despite adding several acres a year. Those seniors got the right idea, they walk and jog everywhere and they practically live forever, meanwhile younger Americans spend $40 billion dollars a year desperately trying to lose weight.

  12. kens

    msetty said, “Lazy Reader, you don’t seem to realize it, but you’ve drunk a major part of the “New Urbanist” kool-aid: the notion that our towns should be walkable and designed first for people, not cars! Not that I disagree, but then you’ve violated one of the mantras of the anti-transit, anti-urban types here, e.g., that streets are for more than just cars!”

    Believing that roads ought to include sidewalks and bike lanes or paths to accommodate all users hardly makes one an urbanist. I’m not an urbanist, suburbanist, exurbanist, or ruralist. I think that people should be able to live in whichever type of environment they prefer, and not be expected to subsidize the lifestyles of those who choose something different. And I don’t think that Randal, or myself and the others posting here who generally agree with him, are in any way anti-transit. He’s anti-stupid, wasteful transit. Like, for instance, building a gondola system over a city like Austin. Randal consistently compares the stupid transit systems he criticizes to bus-based alternatives, and did that is this very post.

    I was in Switzerland last year, and visited the little car-free Alpine village of Murren, accessible only by train and gondola, and have to admit that, at the time, any similarity to Austin escaped me! Of course it’s silly to suggest that a form of transportation suitable for a mountainous vacation village would necessarily also work in big, generally flat American metro area. I can’t say that I recall seeing gondolas crossing overhead while in any bigger European city either.

  13. The Antiplanner Post author

    MSetty and others,

    The idea that one gondola line might be an efficient most of travel in selected high-density topographically challenged areas is far-fetched but not impossible. What I consider stupid is the Frog proposal to build a network of such lines connecting airports, downtowns, job centers, and residential areas. Almost any other form of travel would be more cost effective, even streetcars.

  14. msetty

    Evernyone, if I were you, I would just ignore Metrosucks. He’s a foul-mouthed right wing, knuckle-dragging cretin who crys and whines and insults people who don’t buy his butt-hurt road advocacy and who’s all sore that we don’t spend all our transportation money building nothing but freeways, expressways and more highways, even though per capita auto usage has dropped and continues to remain roughly 10% below the peak despite the ongoing, slow if steady economic recovery, even if it’s slower than most people would prefer.

    I especially like that he blasted me generally but wasn’t able to provide a single actual rebuttal to my criticism of Randal, and unlike myself who pointed out the utility of cable-powered transit in specific niche situations, even if agreeing that they are not a universal solution particularly in flat areas like Round Rock, Texas. In other words, applicability of cableways is very “site specific” and not nearly as far-fetched as Randal thinks in a lot of situations.

  15. MJ

    According to International Center for Technology Assessment, people living in the Houston-Dallas-Ft.Worth Metro spend about 23% of their Gross regional product on transportation compared to just 10% in places like Honolulu or Baltimore.

    And how much do DFW residents spend on housing relative to other, arbitrarily chosen locations? Seems to me that urban economists have an explanation for this.

  16. Dan

    And how much do DFW residents spend on housing relative to other, arbitrarily chosen locations? Seems to me that urban economists have an explanation for this.

    Urban economists use tools much more advanced than monocentric models to figure out the impact of transportation costs on a region or a household.

    Dallas is above the median of the top 25 metros for combined trans + housing costs., and is 15th most affordable.

    DS

  17. Dave Brough

    OFP2003 said “Don’t forget about ALL the accidents at the Texas State Fair?” (emphasis mine).
    A single accident in 1979 makes for a pretty good safety record. Let’s see, now, when was the last car acci…..whoops!
    Next to elevators, aerial gondolas – which traverse the most demanding terrain on earth – have the best safety record of any form of transport.
    If you want to knock it, hit it where it hurts: lack of HVAC, station dwell time, emergency evacs, difficulty to install or turn, cost, the fact that to run one passenger, you have to fire up the whole system.
    Then consider the alternative, something that should make even Randal start nodding his head over: http://faculty.washington.edu/jbs/itrans/third%20generation.htm

  18. Bernard von Schulmann

    Interesting no one has mentioned the Emirates Air Line cable car in London over the Thames. It is apparently the most expensive one to be built anywhere.

    1 km long
    4512 passengers a day
    Estimated cost to build £25 million
    Actual cost to build £60 million
    Naming rights payment of £36 million

    Regular transit tickets do not apply. Even Oyster card holders have to pay an extra £3.20 per trip

  19. OFP2003

    Brough: “A single accident in 1979 makes for a pretty good safety record. Let’s see, now, when was the last car acci…..whoops!”
    The link was to the final fatal accident that closed the line. There were many more accidents on that same line. Sorry, I don’t have documentation of these pre-Internet accidents. Since we seem to agree on lunacy (and since this post is out of date and it is unlikely that you’ll even read this) I’m not motivated to try and find documentation of these accidents.

  20. MJ

    Urban economists use tools much more advanced than monocentric models to figure out the impact of transportation costs on a region or a household.

    Not with much success, they don’t.

    Dallas is above the median of the top 25 metros for combined trans + housing costs., and is 15th most affordable.

    This doesn’t strike me as particularly alarming, but even if it did it still misses the point. The point is that you cannot point to a single type of expenditure (or pair of expenditures) to demonstrate whether or not a particular city or spatial arrangement is “efficient”.

    The monocentric model is a bit reductionist in some ways (as most models are), but it does contain some important features, like highlighting the fact that there tradeoffs between expenditures on land and transportation. Surprisingly, simple concepts like these are poorly understood and appreciated, even among many who concern themselves with making policy that affects these markets.

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