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December 03, 2018

"Getting There" - Commuting by Aerial Tram

How’d you like to commute above the traffic by aerial cableway?  Thousands do it daily in cities around the world and more places are looking at this technology as a solution.

Most Americans’ experience with aerial cableways would probably be at DisneyWorld or at ski resorts:  small, enclosed cabins carried up and over the terrain, attached to moving cables.  But here we’re talking about much bigger transit systems.

Maybe you’ve ridden on the Roosevelt Island Tramway in New York City.  Opened in 1976 to connect the island’s residents to the upper East Side, it once carried 5500 passengers daily, though ridership has dropped since a new subway station opened.  It was the first such system in the country and was not without its problems, breaking down for weeks at a time.

In Portland OR an aerial tram carries 10,000 passengers each day up a steep hill to the Oregon Health & Science University campus.  Being such a transit-friendly city, the tram connects with trolleys and light rail at a base station next to a 250-space bicycle parking lot.

But both these systems are limited, only offering what’s known as point-to-point service with no stops in between.

In Latin America you’ll find aerial trams on steroids.  Like the La Paz Bolivia Teleferico which covers 19 miles with 27 stations on three separate lines. On opening day the first line carried 41,000 passengers in 10-person gondolas.

And in Medellin Columbia, the MetroCable Medellin has cut commuting times from an hour to just 10 minutes, whisking 40,000 passengers at 10 miles an hour up and down a 1300 foot incline.  The Medellin system now offers six miles of cable connecting nine stations on three lines.

Both of the South American systems use their trams to overcome serious terrain challenges.  But would this tech find application in flatter areas?

The folks in Williamsburg Brooklyn think so.  They are facing 18 months of no subway service to Manhattan starting in April 2019 when the L train is shut down for repairs.  That’s going to leave 100,000 residents scrambling for buses across an already crowded bridge to 14th St. in Manhattan. 

That’s why they’re pushing for what they call The East River Skyway offering a 10 minute ride to Delancey Street from two stations in Brooklyn. One concept calls for 38-person gondolas departing every 30 – 40 seconds, adding up to 5000 passengers an hour.   Estimated construction cost:  $75 - $100 million, probably with private money.

Aerial tramways have serious cost advantages over street-based or subway systems.  All you’re really building are towers to carry the cable, so estimates are $50 - $60 million per mile and construction time of just 12-18 months.

Operating costs are also lower as the system uses much less energy, creating fewer greenhouse gas emissions.  And real estate folks like the system both for its novelty and potential TOD (transit oriented development) possibilities near the stations.

The downsides?  You’d have to obtain air rights along the path.  And the system would be far more susceptible to weather than a ground-based system.  High winds and thunder-storms would force closure of the system, stranding passengers.

As our roads and rails reach gridlock, it may well be that to go up and over the delays will prove to be an interesting solution in years to come.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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