El renacimiento de los teleféricos

For every gondola idea I’ve posted here I’ve been careful not to plan a line in the same place where it would make sense to build rail. A subway is more permanent, faster*, and generally has much more capacity than gondolas. Yes, gondolas are potentially much cheaper, but cost shouldn’t trump good design if we can afford it. Because of this, I think gondolas are best run as feeder branches to a subway system, or on its own in areas that doesn’t make sense for rail.

This said, I would like to call your attention to the city of La Paz Bolivia, and its first gondola line, Línea Roja. In their opening month they served 1,000,000 passengers, or around 36,000 riders per day. This is well beyond Seattle’s Central Link’s opening numbers, and it took Link over 5 years to reach one million riders in a month. La Paz is on course to build a total of 8 lines.

Of course there are a dozen reasons this line isn’t comparable to Link, or anything we would build in Seattle. And it hasn’t changed my opinion that gondolas belong mainly as branch feeder lines if we can afford real grade-separated rail. But occasionally the issue of capacity comes up, and I think La Paz shows we don’t have to worry about it.

* depending on frequency and distance

60 Replies to “Potential Gondola Ridership”

    1. There are certainly potential capacity issues for any technology. I’m just trying to fight the perception that gondolas are low-capacity transit.

      The aerial tram has a pretty limited capacity. 78 passengers per car on 5 minute cycles = 936 passengers per hour per direction (PPHPD). And that’s at a 1km distance – cut that almost in about half for a 2km route, and it shrinks the longer the route (adding a center station helps, but it has to be exactly between the other two stations).

      Línea Roja, on the other hand, can move 3,000 PPHPD, and the capacity is independent of the system length (more cable = more cars).

      And the Línea Roja is just a monocable gondola. 3S, or three cable gondolas (two support cables, one moving cable), can have many more people per cabin and move faster. This results in 6,000-8,000 PPHPD, but they’re more expensive than monocable gondolas.

      Let me again point out that even these numbers can’t match full capacity rail numbers. A 2-car 7.5 minute frequency light rail line can move 3,200 PPHPD – similar to Línea Roja, though much less than a 3S gondola system. But go up to 4-car and 2.5 minute frequency and Link can move a screaming 19,200 PPHPD.

    2. Aerial trams and gondolas are very different systems. I live and work at a ski resort that has one of each and our gondola can move four times as many as our tram. The tram has a capacity of 600 per hour per direction (two 100 person cars with one leaving about every 12 minutes.) Our 8 passenger gondola has 84 cabins with one leaving every 12 seconds at max speed, resulting in 2,400 people per hour per direction.

      The highest capacity aerial lifts are large gondolas like the Peak 2 Peak at Whistler, which has 28 passenger cabins leaving about every minute. Doppelmayr claims it can build one of these tri-cable “3S” gondolas to move 5,000 passengers per hour per direction, five times what Portland’s tram can do.

    3. The limit becomes how many cabins can be boarded and sent out on the line in a certain amount of time.

      One of the amusement parks back east I went to as a kid had one of these systems, and they were amazing. They set it up so that the stations at each end had tracks with switches that would automatically change the cars direction as they came in. The switches were set up so that the motion of the car passing over the switch changed the direction so there were no electrical elements to maintain or fail. There were three sets of tracks if I remember right, so they could be unloading three cabins at the same time – one on each track. The would then send the cabins to the other side of the station, where people would board. The cars were then shoved out onto the cable from each of the three platforms.

      They probably maintained something like one car every 10 seconds or better.

      1. Glenn,

        What park was that? What was the name of the ride? I run a website dedicated to the technology (www.gondolaproject.com) and I’ve never heard of such a switching mechanism.

        Do you have any documentation?

  1. There are already several corridors that a Gondola would be amazing. Seattle Center to SLU along Denny continuing to Broadway/Capitol Hill for starters. And the beauty is they are so cheap to implement that they could be up and running for decades before rail could be justified, planned and built.

    1. Good point, the ski industry routinely puts up gondolas in less than 9 months between winter seasons.

      Crystal Mountain broke ground on Washington’s only detachable gondola April 27th, 2010 and it opened January 1, 2011. 1.3 miles for $6.5 million.

      1. It took nearly 10 years of planning and a lot of soft costs were incurred to get that gondola. Construction may have taken 9 months, but the NEPA took many years to complete.

    2. This is exactly the corridor that would benefit from this. Connect the new link station at Broadway and Olive to SLU and the Center would be perfect. You could live in Northgate and have about a 30 min commute.

      Also it solves the problem that the 8 has that its always full and stuck in traffic, and people fall over going up Denny.

      1. Much less than 30 min. Capitol Hill to SLU would be on the order of 4 minutes, and there’s no real transfer penalty (frequencies of ~30 seconds).

      2. For that corridor, it gets even better than that. Compare it to the SLU streetcar, for example. From Westlake Center to South Lake Union, I can ride a bike, take a bus or walk. A bus is slow, but the alternatives aren’t bad at all (and a streetcar is no faster than a bus).

        But from Broadway and Harrison to Westlake and Harrison for example, things are much worse. Biking is much tougher, because of the hill. Walking is a real pain because you have to go way out of your way just to walk there (either going several blocks south to Denny or several blocks north to Belmont). The bus, as is well known, is extremely slow (because Denny is a bottleneck street). A gondola in that area would save considerable time for anyone who wanted to travel that route. This means that you have great flexibility with regards to location. As Matt mentioned, you have headways measured in seconds, not minutes. This means that you don’t need to have the gondola station right next to the train station. Quite the opposite. A gondola can be thought of as a big escalator, except people are forced to stand (no walking). Put the escalator right next to the train, and you crush load it. Put it on the other side (in the direction people need to walk anyway) and you solve that problem. In other words, you could put this on Thomas and it would work out great. The only people that would be bothered by such a location are those that live and work closer to Denny. Everyone else would walk the same distance if they came from the train station, and less distance if they came from areas north of there (on Capitol Hill).

        We are basically talking about a system with great flexibility (in terms of exact location) with great benefit to huge numbers of people, many of whom will ride Link, but many of whom will not. All for roughly the cost of a streetcar line.

      3. Great insight Ross. Thomas might also make a good corridor because it connects right to the Key Arena on the other end. Put the station in the arena’s west plaza and you have easy access to a wide array of buses including the D.

  2. On a related note–how about an urban escalator, like the mid-levels escalator in HK, for providing E/W movement through downtown Seattle, particularly where the grade is steep?

    1. I like the idea. I submitted a comment in that regard for the Yesler Terrace project for the stairway next to I-5. It looks like for that corridor the issue would be wheelchair access (the ramp zips back and forth across the stairs), but this might work for other paths.

      1. Wheelchair access shouldn’t be that big a deal. There are diagonal elevators in many locations in the Puget Sound region – most of them are privately owned to provide access between houses or parking areas and docks or marinas at the bottom of a steep hill. I’ve seen them from a few ferry trips. The one at Harrison Street and Warbass Way in Friday Harbor is at a public viewpoint that also provides access to a marina, and other than having the mechanical workings exposed to the elements (the actual elevator car has a roof) it looks like it functions just like a regular elevator.

        So, not only is this possible to do, but someone in the region is already doing it on a regular basis.

    2. There’s something somewhat similar in Seattle already, at the UW. There’s a large, multi-level parking structure built along the hillside on the east edge of campus, and there’s a long outdoor escalator going up to the main part of campus.

      1. Yep–Padelford garage. Best tailgating spot in college football. :-)

        The escalator runs up only; stairs down, and it does not run 24 hours/day on the weekends. In all the time I’ve spent on that garage, some of it without a beer, I honestly don’t recall an elevator anywhere. Of course there was no ADA when the structure was built in the late 60s or very early 70s. There is actually no accessible parking in the entire garage.

    3. I think a gondola works a lot like an escalator, except you can’t walk on it. You have minimal headways, and you can crush load it. Obviously escalators make more sense in certain areas, but I would be surprised if an escalator, for example, could deliver someone from Capitol to Cascade (let alone South Lake Union) as cheaply or as well as a gondola could. But both systems compliment light rail extremely well, but aren’t substitutes for it.

  3. As long as we don’t intentionally set up the Gondola to compete with existing or soon to open LRT routes, I don’t have a big issue with considering this kind of infrastructure. The Capitol Hill to Mohai to Seattle Center route seems like an idea that could have merit for example.

    1. To be clear though, I would not advocate using ST money for this. If you have a separate idea on how to fund it though…

      1. I think ST money could certainly be a source, as it’s a feeder for rail. The justification would be the same as the First Hill streetcar or a park and ride, and it would increase rail ridership substantially.

        That said, I’m also open to city sources. Anything from a levy to transit benefit district (SLU) to the original Monorail funding scheme that’s still on the books. Though if it’s going to be city-wide sources it should probably be as part of a package that benefits the other areas as well.

      2. @Matt Gangemi
        ST can’t use their funds for things that are outside of their charter like this. ST3 would have to be written to allow the use of their funds for a Gondola, and I am not convinced it is the best use of funds.

        If you want Gondolas to be a fast and cheap alternative to routes not going to be served in the near future by light rail, then going through ST is almost certainly not the way to go. A city wide measure might be a better idea.. just make sure that whatever you want to propose interacts well with existing infrastructure… we don’t want more disconnected transit options that involves blocks of walking to get between modes.

      3. Really? How is it outside their charter? The only problem I can see is ST’s regional focus v. the gondola’s local route, and that’s covered by its being a feeder to light rail just like the First Hill Streetcrawler is.

      4. @William C
        I previously asked ST about Gondolas and was told by staff there that they are unable to build Gondolas unless they are specified in the ballot measure. Notice that the first hill streetcar was in fact specified in the ballot measure passed by voters.

        ST is not some magic piggy bank for your pet projects. Anything ST build still needs to go past the voters.

      5. Is anything being added to ST2? I assumed that was more or less fixed at this point. I imagined this as part of an ST3, if we use ST funding at all. Of course that would go to the voters.

        But you have a great point about losing one of the large advantages gondolas bring: speed of construction. It would be painful to wait around for the years of process that comes with an ST public vote in order to fund something that could be up and running in a year.

      6. Sound Transit explicit said that gondola were not considered in the LRP update.

      7. @Adam — Wow, that’s too bad, and that’s nuts. I think this could be added to ST3 and it would make perfect sense. Sound Transit is a lot more than light rail, even though people think of it as that. If I’m not mistaken, bus ridership is still higher than light rail ridership. Sound Transit should, and does perform a lot of small budget, little projects that make a big difference. I would put a gondola in that category.

        But if the city needs to do it, then so be it. I wouldn’t worry about matching this project to other projects around the city, either. A Capitol Hill to South Lake Union line makes a lot of sense from an overall standpoint, even though it benefits those two neighborhoods a lot. Besides that, with the new transit station, and very high employment in South Lake Union, it could benefit people from throughout the area.

        From a political standpoint, the toughest obstacle is getting away from the notion that gondolas are for amusement only. La Pas is hopefully changing that notion, and I would definitely leverage their success in such a campaign.

      8. @RossB

        “I wouldn’t worry about matching this project to other projects around the city, either. ”

        I would definitely worry about matching this to other projects. If you were going to put a gondola in, it ought to be close to existing transit on both sides, or it won’t be used nearly as much and won’t get as much out of the investment as it should.

        If a gondola was going to go in on Capitol hill, it ought to be as close as can be managed to the light rail station. In SLU, it ought to land in at least one place that is very close to the streetcar. (Maybe in the park by Mohai?). If you don’t leverage existing infrastructure when you put in a new transportation project, you are wasting the money to build it.

      9. Sorry, Charles, I wasn’t very clear. My comment was in reaction to Matt, where he said “Though if it’s going to be city-wide sources it should probably be as part of a package that benefits the other areas as well.”.

        But, as to your point, I did suggest Capitol Hill to South Lake Union (so did everyone else, as well as Matt, years before this post). As I said above, it makes sense to put this close to the Capitol Hill station. But as I said above (https://seattletransitblog.wpcomstaging.com/2014/08/13/potential-gondola-ridership/#comment-516726) it isn’t as essential as having other parts of the system interact with each other. If a bus doesn’t interact with a train station, everyone on that entire bus line suffers. Likewise, with intersecting light rail lines. In this case, we are talking, at worse, about folks walking a couple of extra blocks if they live or work closer to Denny. That isn’t the end of the world, especially when you consider that Capitol Hill is the third biggest urban center in Washington. In other words, you can pretty much throw a dart at a map in this area and do pretty well.

      10. I want to follow up on what I just said, just so it is clear. Ideally every part of your system links with every other part of your system really well. But what if it doesn’t? What if an agency is strapped for cash, or there are are other barriers to ideal placement. My point is that with a gondola, the cost to riders (in terms of lost time) is less. Consider a couple of examples;

        Imagine that we build underground light rail from Ballard to the UW. Also imagine that we couldn’t interline the routes, and to make things worse, a rider has to walk a couple blocks to get from one station to the other. The good news is, the Ballard to the UW line can be timed so that it arrives right before the Northgate to downtown train. But how soon before? How long does it take an average rider to walk two blocks? Try to time it too closely, and slow walkers miss the connection, thus having to wait several minutes for the next train. Time it too conservatively, and fast walkers twiddle their thumbs waiting for the connection.

        Now imagine a similar connection between Link and a gondola. With headways measured in seconds, there is no need to worry about a connection.

        Again, ideally a Capitol Hill gondola would be really close to the Capitol Hill station. But because people spend so little time waiting for the next gondola car, it isn’t as big of a deal if it isn’t.

  4. For gradient and passenger density, La Paz looks to have a huge amount over Seattle. Would also suspect that there, what’s expensive and difficult to build here would eat the national treasury there.

    For us, I think a good measure would be having at least two places it’s critical to connect, and astronomical slow and costly to do so with standard transit measures.

    Whole length of the Route 8 between Seattle Center and 44 line climbing Capitol Hill come to mind.
    Harborview Hospital and Pioneer Square Tunnel Station good too. Also short extension to Colman Dock.

    Good case could have been made that aerial cableway from Swedish Hospital to Pioneer Square could have made First Hill streetcar unnecessary for purpose of replacing the missing LINK station. Streetcar would have made a better case for itself if planned whole length for lane reservation and signal pre-emption.

    Would still like to see geological map of the ground where the tower footings have to go.


    1. Gondola good for those going from A to B only, not for all those going to places in between.

      1. I agree with you that it’s tougher to cover a corridor with gondolas than with buses, but there actually can be intermediate stations. And still, I think a point-to-point route between SLU and Capitol Hill, or Harborview and Pioneer Square, would be great.

      2. Linea Roja has three stops, and some systems have many more than this. Think of it like light rail – you have fewer stations, but the frequency is high so even if you have to walk a bit your trip length can go down.

  5. One word: “Manakamana.”

    I’d go for that, except no chickens or goats allowed please…

  6. I can see corridors where a gondola could be useful. It certainly is worth pushing the City, Metro, and Sound Transit to take a look at places where a gondola makes sense and do some initial studies.

  7. A gondola would be perfect for going up and down Kent East Hill.

    The grade is so steep even buses strain to make it…and I’m sure it erodes transmissions faster than usual.

    Having an automated people mover would allow the trip to be made at all hours from Kent Station.

    1. Electric trolley buses are also good for hills, if Kent East Hill has a lot of stops on it, perhaps some electric bus conversions might suit it better? Of course they would still be sitting in traffic…

    2. Where exactly are you talking about John (I’ve spent some time in Kent, but I don’t remember it that well)?

    3. 104th & Kent-Kangley Road. That’s the “densest” part of East Hill. Kent should price out a gondola and see if it can get contributions from local businesses, rather than waiting for Metro or ST to have any extra funds. It could continue west to the KDM Link station if that’s not too long a distance. And it would shame Seattle if Kent got a gondola first, the way Shoreline has shamed Seattle with its full BAT lanes on Aurora, and Community Transit has shamed Metro with Swift.

      1. Thanks Mike. Interesting. Yes, that is the only census block in South King County with a population density exceeding 25,000 people per square mile. I’m sure 516 is a mess during rush hour, and I would imagine there are limits to what can be done from a road construction standpoint, given the steep slope. A Link station at Kent would also be a destination in itself, assuming it is close to the college (i. e. this would be great for students). Plus, like Capitol Hill to South Lake Union, walking is a huge challenge. A gondola would definitely solve the “last mile” problem, in this case.

        But, as you said, we are talking more than a mile. Obviously gondolas can do this, it’s just that the benefit versus cost goes way down as you extend the distance. It is about 4.5 miles (as the crow flies) from there to Highline Community College. That is a long distance. To put things in perspective, Broadway to Westlake is less than a mile (and I would put a station in Cascade as well). Lower to upper Queen Anne is a lot less than a mile (e. g. Mercer to Galer is 2700 feet). Lake City to Northgate is 1.7 miles. West Seattle to SoDo is shorter (less than 3 miles). Even West Seattle to the International District is shorter (3.5 miles). I wouldn’t mind this route, but as you suggest, the biggest benefit would not be from a cost benefit standpoint, but as a way to prove to Seattle that such a system can work in the area.

        Another option (and one I assume John likes) is to connect 104th & Kent-Kangley Road (AKA the intersection of 515 and 516) to the Kent Sounder station. That is a lot closer than I-5, and certainly a promising destination. Not only does it connect to Sounder, but is also a fine area in its own right (justice center, college, etc.). Unfortunately, it is a surprisingly large distance as well — 1.65 miles. This puts it in the category of Northgate to Lake City. Definitely worth considering, but probably not as cost effective as half a dozen other routes.

        I think what might make more sense is to use the gondola to connect to the college to a Link I-5 station. A Link station at I-5, especially if it has a Mountlake Terrace style HOV bus stops, could provide a very fast connection for riders coming from all over the area. Someone from Tacoma, for example, could still ride an express to Seattle, but spend less than a minute at a station on I-5. If they wanted to get to SeaTac, Highline Community College, Kent or anywhere else in South King County, they would get off there. I think a station there makes the most sense from a connection standpoint.

        But a station there loses most of its walk-up customers. Walking from the college becomes a big ordeal. But a gondola solves this problem, and solves it really well. I-5 to Highline Community College is only a few thousand feet (depending on where on I-5 and the college you put the station). That is perfect for a gondola. It also helps improve the connection situation, especially for buses on 99/509. All buses in the area could conceivably benefit from such a gondola. Now buses don’t have to worry about serving both the station and the college, but would simply serve the closest one.

      2. “Another option (and one I assume John likes) is to connect 104th & Kent-Kangley Road (AKA the intersection of 515 and 516) to the Kent Sounder station”

        That’s the original proposal. It would connect Kent’s two “urban villages” and regional transit. The city should cost it or another mode out and see how much private funds it could generate. But I’m concerned about the shortness of the line compared to people’s trips. The problem with the SLU streetcar is you can’t take it south to Rainier because it doesn’t go that far, and you can’t take it north to north Capitol Hill or the U-District because it doesn’t go that far, so you either have to take it a short distance and transfer, or take a parallel bus which goes all the way. With the majority of riders taking a parallel bus, how much benefit is it? Likewise, people in the nearest concentrations (Lake Meridian, Covington, 132nd SE) will not be able to take it as a one-seat ride, nor can anybody take it to the Link station as a one-seat ride. So how much benefit is it if it just covers the middle section? Only those whose destination is near 104th. Is that enough people for a gondola? I tend to doubt it, unless East Hill is significantly upzoned and mixed-use’d.

  8. This is an excellent post. It is important to remember that generally speaking, grade separated light rail isn’t cheap. Much of the developed world (including a handful of cities in this country) built their rail system years ago. But there are plenty of cities (this one included) that didn’t, and struggle to this day to build an adequate system (it’s been almost fifty years since Forward Thrust, and we still don’t have rail from the UW to downtown). The problem is that it is simply very expensive. This makes it worth it for cities like L. A., but a tough process for cities the size of Seattle. This leads cities to build half ass light rail lines (going for miles on cheap land, but picking up few passengers) or building streetcars (that perform about as well as buses).

    Kudos to La Paz for finding the appropriate solution. In part, they had to. I’m sure if they had the money, the would have built extensive viaducts and tunnels between the two areas. It would have cost ten (or more) times as much, while delivering only a bit more in terms of service. Hopefully it will serve as a model for other cities (especially this one) to build the appropriate system for the appropriate situation. For a city like Seattle, that means a gondola (or several) starting with Capitol Hill to South Lake Union.

    1. generally speaking, grade separated light rail isn’t cheap.

      Generally speaking… ST spends way more money per mile than any comperable system and has ridership that pales in comparison. Bottom line; we get less for more… a lot more. ST is the poster child for Boondoggle.

      1. Sound Transit isn’t building light rail, no matter what they want to call it. They’re building what would honestly be called pre-metro or even heavy rail infrastructure.

      2. Fast transit is good and generates riders. That “more money per mile” is what it takes to make transit fast, to at least partly compete with cars. That’s the missing level of transit that Seattle never had until now, and it’s one reason why Link’s ridership has been going up and up and up. What’s the biggest complaint about MAX? It takes twenty minutes to go from one end of downtown to the other. That’s what those cheap light rail systems give you.

      3. It’s important to remember how much geography and geology matter in terms of the cost of light rail. The hills and waterways of Seattle severely restrict where and how light rail can be built. Where Denver can draw a line on the map and, property acquisition not withstanding, build surface or elevated rail as it sees fit, Seattle requires bridges and tunnels for almost any worthwhile route. And the tunnels can’t be cut and cover, either – both the gradient and the lack of continuous street grid prohibit it.

        Given what they have to work with, I’d say sound transit has done a solid job so far.

  9. If cable technologies arouse your interest, check out the Doppelmayr web site to see all of the various products that they have. It includes La Paz. the company has a variety of funiculars and cable systems as well. Many times in other posts, I’ve mentioned their soon-to-open transit project — the Oakland Airport Connector cable technology — as a viable solution for several locations around the area.

  10. All of the cars don’t necessarily have to stop at intermediate stops either. Typically, the ones I have seen have rollers on the end of the spire that connects the car to the cable. These wheels are used to roll the car around, sort of like a suspended style monorail. At intermediate stations some cars can be pulled out and stop, while the non-stop cars can continue on the track between cables and continue on to the next cable loop.

    The gondola they had at Disney World in Florida was actually two separate cable loops with an intermediate station. The cars were rolled back and forth between the two cable loops rather than turn them at each end, as seen in the video link shown above. It does not appear La Paz system has the ability to pass cars back and forth between the cable loops in this fashion.

    1. Are there any examples of gondolas that can skip stops? I’ve wondered how feasible this is, because dwell times can be long for a gondolas and if you really want to replace the 8 west of Capitol Hill station it would be nice to have stops at Bellevue, Eastlake, Fairview, and Dexter, but it would be nice if passengers could actually indicate where they want to stop like in a bus or elevator so that gondolas would usually skip these stops.

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