Op-Ed: 2013 is “Year of the Gondola” in Seattle

by on February 19, 2013

STimes_GondolaWhen gondolas (aerial trams, that is, not Venetian canoes) hit the front page of the Seattle Times, you know it’s going to be a great year.

God bless Mike Lindblom for giving the idea ink. Gondolas, like Dangerfield, get no respect — if you peruse the comment section (as always, my advice is not to), you notice first off that some people can’t get past the word “gondola” itself.

Yes, they’re used all around the world, and yes, not very many miles from Seattle, they work transporting thousands upon thousands of people up and down challenging terrain, but who can take them seriously except a multi-billion dollar industry that needs to move pedestrians wearing skis quickly and safely?

So we skip how gondolas compare to other transit in terms of carrying capacity and cost and move straight on to jokes about ziplines.

In the most priceless instances, commenters fall back on The Simpson‘s monorail episode, somehow forgetting that this is Seattle and not only do we have a workhorse, self-funded, 50-year-old monorail that carries about two million passengers per year, but in 2006 the operators got the okay to spend $4.5 million on an overhaul because the city didn’t have a better solution.

In 2000, the monorail cost just $1.02 per passenger-mile to run its 1.2-mile route from Seattle Center to downtown. If you’re not a transit wonk, know that $1 per mile is not bad; in 2009, King County Metro reported operating costs of $0.88 per mile.But Seattle’s monorail runs purely on passenger fares (federal grants help with costs outside of usual operations), while Metro fares cover about 30 percent of operating costs.

Back to gondolas!

The success of any transit mode has to do with whether people want or need to get from A to B. Without demand, no dice. But that said, transit modes do offer comparative efficiencies when you look at the whole landscape. As I was explaining to Jeff Bezos earlier (Ha! We kid because we love!), it takes a modal village to move east-west in Seattle, especially on Denny: “More buses would just stack up in traffic, and the city will never find the cojones to allocate a bus-only rush-hour lane.”

In his article, Lindblom quotes gondola-booster Matt Gangemi saying: “It’s not unusual to wait 30 minutes for the 8.” That’s putting it mildly, because the waiting extends once you get on the 8 bus. During rush hour, a 15-minute trip can extend to about an hour. Exhibit A: @Fake8Bus. Demand is there, it’s packed in like sardines, and it’s moving more slowly than you can actually walk.

Seattle has chronic traffic congestion in part because certain areas are geographically congested — not only is there no room for another major thoroughfare, there’s no room for another lane. If you can’t use the surface, you can only move two ways: down to a Seattle Subway, or upward. We should do both — subways are the backbones of a high-capacity system — but we can get a gondola up and running faster and cheaper.

Matt Roewe and Matt Gangemi both detail, better than I can, the vision for how an east-west gondola would work, explaining the speed and reliability of gondolas (they’re out of traffic and all-weather), as well as how their relatively light infrastructure (stringing cables from station to station) keeps footprints and costs down.

Vancouver’s Burnaby Mountain gondola project, for instance, is estimated to cost about $120 million. It would travel 1.7 miles, and has the capacity to carry 4,000 or more people per hour. In contrast, a 2-mile tunnel beneath Seattle will cost $3.1 billion and carry (tolled) about 47,000 vehicles a day, depending on the price of the toll. You could build 26 2-mile gondola lines for that, carrying 104,000 people per hour — but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. One gondola at a time.

4 thoughts on “Op-Ed: 2013 is “Year of the Gondola” in Seattle

  1. The TransLink (Metro Vancouver regional transit authority) gondola project was shelved on 11 January, 2012 due to high costs, funding challenges, and a great deal of opposition from residents of the neighbourhood over which it would pass. It was unclear if the project was intended to serve student commuters to and from Simon Fraser University, or to be a marketing tool for the university’s large real estate development beside the campus. Nobody ever came clean on that and the prospect of using a lot of public money to serve private development interests didn’t play well.

    TransLink public consultation was for the most part window dressing, there was no real forum for open discussion, which in hindsight probably shot them in the foot as they are already mistrusted in Metro Vancouver (if not hated) so local media became a perfect platform for everyone to vent their anger on them, with the gondola as a focal point for what was (is) wrong with their planning and funding models.

    Given the economic situation we’re in, ongoing transit funding challenges, wiser ad hoc resident opposition groups, and potentially , a new oil pipeline to Vancouver harbour under the proposed route, it’s unlikely the project will be resurrected any time soon.

    Good luck with your plan, and be sure to listen to the folks who might have to live under the route: They’re not NIMBYs, they’ll be saying exactly what you’d be saying if one of these things was being strung up over your back yard.

    • Thanks, Cheese Head. I knew the project had gotten put on the back-burner but I wasn’t aware of all the details why. I think our right-of-way issue is perhaps a little simpler in Seattle, though it’s clear it’s a real issue to ship thousands of people past someone’s window. At least it’s quieter than an elevated train roaring past?