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Are Urban Gondolas Part of the Future of Public Transit?

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Proposals for an Austin mass transit system and Chicago tram for tourists explore the potential of urban cable

Anyone who has been to Austin, especially for the city’s signature music and tech festivals, such as SXSW, has seen a particularly crowded version of this Texas cultural capital. Navigating the packed streets can be a challenge. But if designer Jared Ficklin has his way, Austin will eventually have a seamless, more efficient means of moving people around the city, one that will float them above the pavement as part of a massive urban cable system.

"I think Austin would be a great city for this to happen," says Ficklin, partner at argodesign, while talking about his proposed cable-based transport system, The Wire. "The industry has matured around this internationally and you see a lot of cities in North America considering the technology, so I think there’s a tipping point coming. Whether it does happen is complex. It’ll be a long road."

It’s also, increasingly, a road that others want to take. While cables and funiculars have been in use in Europe and Latin American cities for years, they’re comparatively rare in the United States. But recently, Ficklin’s idea was joined by a proposal for the Chicago Skyline, a series of cable cars that would transport tourists along the city’s riverfront, and other cities are exploring related proposals. While gondolas may seem unorthodox, their myriad advantages compared to traditional rail or bus systems make them an intriguing potential addition to a city, say supporters.

"These systems can add transportation where you need it, route people where they want to go, and do it at a cost that the city can afford," says Ficklin.

For the designer, who came up with the concept a few years ago while working at Frog Design, urban cable systems help solve a lot of issues, and are particularly suited for a city like Austin, which is much less dense than those in the Northeast with rail systems. A system of cable cars with intermittent stops spread out around the downtown core circulates passengers throughout the densest part of the city in four-to-six person gondola, allowing easy, continuous rides that are often faster than one might assume (especially when factoring in the time it takes to go underground and wait for the subway). The constant circulation of travel pods provides easy access, letting people take "micro-trips" throughout the day, becomes a key part of a multimodal transportation system, and frees up the roadways for through traffic. The great views are just a bonus.

"People love the cultural aspects of Austin, but they can be threatened by traffic," says Ficklin. "The Wire works like a moving sidewalk."

While funding presents a large challenge, the system, which has a relatively light footprint, would be much less expensive to construct than a comparable light rail system, which requires eminent domain and property acquisition. Ficklin sees this technology, which has helped revitalize cities such as Medellin, Colombia, as a key part of transit infrastructure, an easy and affordable way to encourage mass transit.

The partners behind Chicago Skyline, Laurence Geller, head of Geller Capital Partners, and Broadway in Chicago founder Lou Raizin, envision similar transportation serving as a huge tourist draw. Part of their New Vision plan, a series of proposals meant to attract new visitors, the bespoke, $250 million gondola system they propose setting up would link existing top destinations including the Navy Pier, Millennium Park, and the Riverwalk, and bank on the city’s exceptional architecture and skyline as a prime selling point.

"We looked at top cities, and saw the impact of projects such as the London Eye, but everyone was building a bigger and bigger," says Geller. "We thought, ‘Let’s do a horizontal London Eye."

In addition to hiring a team of designers, including the architects who designed the London Eye, Geller and Raizin have undertaken years of development and analysis, spending millions to develop a feasible, actionable proposal.

"Chicago is a great world class city that the world doesn’t know about," says Raizin. "How do you get people to extend their stay? We’re looking at tourism as an economic driver, and we can’t afford to sit still. We believe strongly it’s time for the private sector to step up."

Ambitious Tourism Plan Imagines Elevated Gondolas Over the Chicago River [Curbed Chicago]

Long Beach Considering Gondola, Cable Tram For Downtown [Curbed LA]