The Gondola Project has responded to d.p.’s claim that Seattle should not want to be the first North American city with a gondola system, because of the effort and expense required to be a first mover.  They make the case that:

  1. If it’s rational for Seattle to wait for other cities, it’s just as rational for other cities to wait for Seattle.  The result is that nothing gets built.
  2. It’s arrogant to dismiss the heavy lifting done by places like Caracas, Medellin and Rio de Janeiro (and I’d add Algeria) simply because they’re poor.
  3. Seattle has already placed itself in the extremophile position (sorry, my fault).  Other cities will look to us to be the first mover.

Read the whole thing here.

Great arguments.  But I think they missed one point.  Sometimes it’s great to be the first mover.  The Pacific Northwest, and Seattle in particular, is very good at being cutting edge.  And we profit from being first.

Let’s take the example of green buildings.  The Pacific Northwest leads the US in green buildings, specifically LEED buildings though we’re going much beyond LEED into net-zero and Passivhaus.  Being on the leading edge has grown our architects, engineers, and construction firms into sustainability experts.  This expertise is highly valuable, and our services are in demand throughout the US and the world.  There are now 1.8 billion square feet of LEED certified commercial space in the world and as early adopters we’ve been one of the go-to cities for expertise.  Similar examples can be found in airplanes, software, and even coffee.

Sure, gondolas may not go anywhere.  It might just be one weird system that Seattle has that nobody else wants to touch – perhaps it may even fail before we get that far.  Or it can be one more symbol that Seattle is still an innovative city that’s not afraid to be out in front of the pack.

25 Replies to “On Seattle as an Extremophile City”

    1. Could you get any more off-topic? RCW 81.104.120 doesn’t pertain to gondolas.

      Posting a link to a lawsuit filed by a lawyer who has been disbarred for filing frivolous lawsuits. That’s a new low for you.

      It’s also funny that good ol’ John Niles has confused North Link with Sounder.

      Neither of these guys care about taxpayer money or improving transit, over the last 3 decades neither has done anything substantial to save one or improve the other, all they care about are their own egos and hearing themselves talk.

      1. Anytime someone wants to shift the focus from building and operating transit modes that actually make sense, they attack the writer, his motives, his sources (usually demonized), and anything but the facts presented.
        I’ve been a long time supporter of looking at gondolas as a way to move lots of people between very busy activity centers, such as Capital Hill, Seattle Center and Colman dock. It certainly can’t be any worse than the FHSC booby prize project. I’d like to see objective analysis done by someone other than the usual paid hit men.
        What I hate is for agencies to squander precious tax resources and voter good will on projects that throw money down rat holes just because they can or don’t want to make hard choices.
        North Sounder is a complete and utter failure. Read the report to the COP. $32.38 per boarding is a criminal waste of money. Add in the 1/4 billion given to BNSF for track rights, amortized over 40 years adds another $22.94 per trip. On top of all that abuse, many riders are from outside the transit district, paying nothing for the service except the fare, and encouraging growth outside the Urban Growth Boundary.
        I don’t know the circumstances behind the man that filed the lawsuit, nor do I care, and you’re right, the law only covers Commuter Rail operations, but the point that I’m making is that transit needs to be efficient. If it isn’t, find another way, like gondolas, but don’t keep doing the same crap, just because it’s there, or some politician is in love with trains from Everett. You’re getting close to defining ‘insane’ behavior.
        It’s good Link doesn’t have the same RCW covering it, or it would fail to meet the test also.

      2. We know a lot about gondolas. Point 2 is truly accurate.

        And what the experience of those cities tells us is, gondolas are a point-to-point transportation method, useful for connecting an isolated region (on a hill, or an island perhaps) to a main trunk line (which is a railroad line).

        So, what locations in Seattle fit this pattern, and *shouldn’t* have a railroad line because they’re not on the way from anywhere to anywhere?

        I count West Seattle, and that’s it. All the other areas people have mentioned simply need *properly* designed rail lines.

    2. Now that is pretty hilarious – Global Telemetrics is quoting Will Knedlik? Isn’t he the lawyer that got disbarred and then claimed some dating service had broken into his house and planted evidence? The anti-transpo lot must really be running out of ammo if they quote him. Plus I believe he is from the eastside and not Seattle proper.

      But doing something because it is innovative and would set Seattle apart as some sort of symbol of inovation is a pretty silly reason to build any transportation infrastructure. Na, you build transportation because it makes sense and the economics are right.

      And personally, I don’t spend a second of my day hoping Seattle will somehow leapfrog ahead of everyone with some sort of gadgetbahn, but I do spend a lot of time hoping and praying that some day Seattle will at least catch up with other cities in conventional transit.

      1. While a game of vying egos between cities isn’t particularly useful, I think the key here is disruptive thinking. What has set Seattle apart from most places is that we are often way ahead of the world on technology innovation and we sometimes have innovations in things like governance.

        You wish us to get better at conventional transportation, but what if by shifting our thinking we can discover that “this” mode of transportation pencils out to be cost effective to build and operate, has a low carbon footprint and enhances mobility between urban villages and centers? What if choosing to build “this” mode of transport saves enough money that resources to improve “traditional’ modes becomes available?

      2. “you build transportation because it makes sense and the economics are right” But that’s exactly the problem. [d.p.] has argued that even if this makes sense, even if the economics are right, we shouldn’t do it because it’s bad to be first. I’m not claiming we should do anything just to be first. But we shouldn’t keep ourselves from doing something great just because others haven’t done it.

      3. Fair enough, Matt, but don’t pretend that being a guinea pig doesn’t effect the economics of a project.

      4. Charles,

        And where exactly has our decades long tradition of “disruptive thinking” and technology innovation gotten us in the transportation field? Just look around – it’s pretty clear that we are almost in dead last place when it comes to transit. In fact, up until ST1 and Central Link got implemented, we had exactly “zero” to show for all our efforts — except a mile long monorail maybe….

        So is more “disruptive thinking” really what we should be investing our limited energy in at this point? Or should we be playing catch-up? Because I guarantee you that it is a lot easier, quicker, and cheaper to play catch-up then it is to use “disruptive thinking” to solve real world problems on a city-wide scale.

      5. Short of the monorail project (which wasn’t exactly cutting edge – we alreay have a monorail), what “disruptive” transportation projects have been proposed during that time? We aren’t creative at all when it comes to transit.

      6. Matt: It’s not our creativity, so much as our almost pathological inability to learn from other cities.

        Who but Metro uses pay-as-you-leave, and treats all our buses as if they had one door for most of the day?

        Who but Metro requires paying a fare as you board a vehicle inside a dedicated transit station?

        Who but Metro runs buses that directly compete with the newly-built light rail, instead of nicely connecting to it?

        Who but Metro charges more for a rush-hour trip to Capitol Hill than an off-peak trip to Black Diamond?

        Who but Metro uses BRT as an excuse to *reduce* frequency?

        All of these problems and more could be fixed overnight if every Metro policy wasn’t subject to a direct veto by the county council. But that’s what we’ve got.

        If we try to do something genuinely new, I can’t even imagine how Metro will manage to screw it up.

      7. …pathological inability to learn from other cities.

        Man, am I glad you’re around sometimes!

        Who but Metro uses pay-as-you-leave…?

        Just to nip it in the bud: Someone’s going to say Pittsburgh. Then they’re going to call Pittsburgh “BRT pioneers.”

        So, for the record, PAYL sucks there too. And their BRT is basically amounts to freight ROW converted to commuter-express-bypass lanes that serve the urban areas extremely badly.

        Learning transit from Pittsburgh would be like learning diplomacy from Dick Cheney.

  1. Steven Dale’s article was very informative and food for thought about being audacious in building our city anew.

  2. “the worst that can happen?”

    You hire the initiative leader to run the project instead of an engineering firm. You underestimate the tax revenue base and underestimate the cost, causing the bonds to be issued for 50 years. You spend millions on design, on land acquisition, and then are forced to resell it at a loss. You collect some tax money but never build anything. You vote on it multiple times each time but the last which shows the final cost and win all of them. When faced with project disaster, the politicians instead of tossing the board, installing a new one with competency, putting in place a tax that can build it, or scaling back the project force an up/down vote and call it a total waste of taxpayer dollars. Thus poisoning the waters for ever building anything different for 20 years. (Enough time for voter memories to fade a bit.)

    In essence re-run the Monorail project.

    1. Again, I’m not for or against Matt Roewe’s concept – I know very little about Seattle and defer to those that do. Maybe gondolas work. Maybe they don’t. It doesn’t affect my daily commute one way or the other.

      But the scenarios you describe above apply to most any and all public expenditures. Any public expenditure brings risk. In fact, any expenditure, period, brings risk. That’s not a defense of the problems we have with accurate cost and ridership estimating, but instead to point out that the standards we apply to new and innovative ideas are far more strict than the standards we apply to our old ideas.

      If you objectively look at the numbers, most western rail-based transit infrastructure, on average, turns out to be more than double the initial estimates with roughly half the projected ridership. And those initial estimates are almost always generated by engineering and planning firms.

      That’s not to say rail-based transit is bad. It’s to say that the planning and engineering behind them is always going to be subject to politics and bias.

      It’s also funny how we accept a lower standard from that which we know than from that which we don’t – even if the chance exists that that which we don’t know could offer us something more. That’s not a comment, just an observation.

      I find it truly unfortunate how our city-building culture has become so toothless and spineless that we’re not even permitted to contemplate different and innovative ideas. I also happen to think there’s a great opportunity there for change.

      This isn’t about creating gondolas. It’s about creating a civic culture where we allow ourselves and our civic leaders some degree of freedom to explore alternatives that aren’t the same, old shopworn non-solutions.

    2. Sorry, I’m still a bit bitter over the way the Monorail project was run and treated. And now with a 1.5 mile downtown waterfront tunnel being built for roughly the same amount of money, I’m disgusted.

  3. And here’s what I wrote in response, just in case they decide to “arrogantly and paternalistically” censor my comment:

    …not because of any objective analysis of fact but because the origin and source nations happen to be poor.

    Wow, way to put words in my mouth.

    1. The three South American cities in question have thus far employed urban gondolas to serve only their most pervasively poor, most haphazardly constructed, and least enfranchised districts. How “staggeringly arrogant and paternalistic” of you to presume that the favelas reflect all that Columbia or Brazil have to offer.

    2. None of the regimes in charge of said projects are shining examples of open process. And frankly, I implied that this might have its advantages, as it no doubt expedited the projects. If you have evidence that engineering studies of the sort that would pass muster in major western democracies were done, I’m all ears.

    3. You have never lived in Seattle, I presume. This city has a grand tradition of grand transportation visions derailed by change-phobic parochials. We have an equally grand tradition of getting wrong what we do build. For a project like this to succeed here, the templates had better be flawless and the sales pitch had better be iron-clad.

    For all of your gross misinterpretation of my comment, you managed to miss the part where I said it is an excellent fit for its traffic-choked and space-constrained route, and the part where I said I hoped to see it feasible soon. But to presume that flattering with a neologism a city that took 100 years to build its first subway line (and that just voted to build a $5 billion auto-only downtown-bypass highway tunnel) makes us ripe for First Mover status reveals the blindness of a modal zealot rather than someone interested in promoting transportation solutions that will actually come to pass.

    1. Whoa.

      If you actually read our site, you’ll see that we’re not “modal zealots.” We want good transit and believe that a multi-modal approach is best.

      Gondolas are one among many tools, nothing more.

      Why is it that we can’t have an understanding of one misunderstood mode and not have a positive understanding of others?

      And so you know, you’re comment was approved on The Gondola Project. We don’t censor unless the comment is spam or abusive.

      Comment all you want.

    2. Modal zealots?

      Uh, you’re proposing gondolas for routes with multiple intermediate high-volume stops.

      They *don’t work for that*.

      So, you’re acting like modal zealots. Propose some realistic point-to-point gondola routes, like the ones in South America which link hillsides to the downtown rail spine.

      1. Nathanael,

        While I stand by my description of Steven as a “modal zealot” — he runs a blog dedicated to the mode, he travels the world researching them and finding ways to promote their utility, and he clearly has some sort of Google Alert for discussions on the subject — I firmly agree with him and Matt that medium-length, connective, obstacle-spanning gondola lines with intermediate medium-volume stations can fundamentally work in the right situation.*

        The South American examples (the first in the world used for a genuine urban mass-transit purpose) all have intermediate stops.

        *(And for the record, I also agree that the Denny corridor could be that right situation! I just happen to believe that the financial/engineering/political situations must match up as well.)

  4. As most of you know who read anything I write, I am not exactly a patient person when it comes to transit projects. I find we take way too much time thinking about them, designing them and then building them and at the end of the day, someone will always dislike what you build or implement. Sadly, it is the nature of the beast which is why I think the amount of thinking and designing needs to be streamlined more in favor of the building side. If, as happened with East Link, folks approved the overall line in a public vote, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to then re-work the thing for years to make sure that as close to 100% of people agree before we move on – unless of course it is all just a delaying tactic to build up funds before constructing the project.

    So, coming back to the Gondola Project. How far along are we with this? Does someone actually have a vision and a plan to start or are we just thinking about it. I need to moderate my enthusiasm for this idea to its appropriate point of focus. How enthusiastic can I be at this point? If we are just thinking about it, then I need to shut up but if it is more than that, then I will be enthusiastic to the fullest extent possible with regard to the project.

    As I said in an earlier post, linking the waterfront/cruise ship terminals through the Seattle Center and then up to Cap. Hill via South Lake Union offers to me a really exciting focus on a great way to see the city. Imagine seeing the fireworks from up there!

    Portland has one of these things and though I haven’t used it, I got excited just passing it on the Coast Starlight. Plus our city is more spectacular than their city as a viewing sight – along with our soccer team!

    1. It’s unfortunate that gondolas weren’t used to counter the great-views- from- the- viaduct argument.

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