As anyone who has attempted to see a game at the country’s third-oldest ballpark will attest, Dodger Stadium is not an easy place to reach except by automobile. Once you get there, however, and pay up to $50 to park, the asphalt in the lot rippling like an infinity pool before a stunning view of Downtown Los Angeles, it all makes sense: A stadium built at the height of car culture on a mountaintop with 16,000 parking spaces is working exactly as designed.
Which is why, in recent years, several schemes have been proposed to make Dodger Stadium incrementally more accessible to the incrementally more multimodal city that surrounds it. One of these ideas was presented to the board of L.A.’s regional transit agency, Metro, last week: a privately owned and operated aerial gondola named Los Angeles Aerial Rapid Transit, or LA ART, which would whisk gamegoers on a one-mile ride from Union Station to the stadium in seven minutes, sailing above traffic in airborne pods (eventually, of course; for now, the spectators are all cardboard cutouts). The ride will cost “less than parking at Dodger Stadium” and is expected to be completed in time for the 2028 Summer Olympics at a cost previously estimated at $125 million. At the Metro meeting, an LA ART representative said that the gondola could eliminate 3,000 cars nearby roadways during each game.
“This gondola is about more than an easier trip to Dodger games,” L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti, the chair of the Metro board, said in his official statement. “It will make our stadium more accessible to everyone, bring cleaner air to our communities, and provide an economic boost for our local businesses.” But wait — before elected officials try to sell a gondola as more than just a better way to get to your season-ticket seats, can it even fix the most basic problem it’s intended to solve?
What LA ART is proposing is called a tri-cable detachable gondola, which uses three steel cables to carry removable cabins bearing 30 to 40 people apiece. One of the systems recommended in the proposal is Doppelmayr’s 3S, which can move 5,500 people per hour in cabins that can hold 38 people and has enough room for strollers, wheelchairs, and even bikes. (It’s mostly used in ski areas.) Many cities have integrated gondolas into their transit systems to create access to neighborhoods located on challenging or steep terrain; Mi Teleférico, in Bolivia’s capital city of La Paz, is an entire transit system in itself, with ten lines connecting all of the city’s major destinations. As a transportation solution, it’s a good one for a hilly, congested city like L.A.: It’s relatively low cost, runs almost silently, and has a light footprint in historically or ecologically sensitive areas.
But gondolas are more often used as a kind of combination transit-slash-sightseeing ride — less often for accessing places like stadiums, where a lot of people will need to go at once (think about jammed postgame subway cars, known as “crush loading” in transportation-planner speak). LA ART claims that 10,000 to 12,000 people could, hypothetically, be transferred from Union Station to Dodger Stadium in the two hours before the game, transporting almost one-fifth of the stadium’s seating capacity. Two transportation experts I consulted doubted that this figure could be achieved in a real-world application. To move those numbers, the “just over one mile” system — let’s say it’s 6,000 feet — would need to fill at least 144 cabins nearly to their 38-passenger capacity and have them depart every 30 seconds or less, starting two hours before the first pitch. Loading and unloading 38 people in 30 seconds is a tall order if anyone onboard uses mobility devices. It also seems unlikely that stadiumgoers would distribute themselves so evenly, since getting to the ballpark an hour or two early grates against the traditions of Los Angeles baseball. (The joke about Dodger fans is that they arrive during the third inning and leave in the seventh.)
As a concept, a gondola to Dodger Stadium is more valid than, say, spending tens of millions of dollars to bore two tunnels from a nearby subway station that would move 1,400 people per game in electric minivans that hold 16 passengers at a time. That was the idea Elon Musk proposed in 2018, which was, incidentally, also praised by Mayor Garcetti for its ability to “make our most iconic destinations more accessible to everyone.” Musk’s tunnel — named the Dugout Loop — was supposed to be ready for 2020’s opening day, according to the Dodgers’ financial officer, yet ever since a bizarre, low-attendance public meeting two years ago, there have been no updates (although the Boring Company is building a similar tunnel in Las Vegas).
But there is one high-capacity, low-cost transit solution currently being used to get fans to the game that is already getting cars off the road: the Dodger Stadium Express. Every game, 46-seat Metro buses (which can add up to 25 percent more standing capacity) are loaded up in the bus corral at Union Station (as well as a second location further south on the city’s J, formerly Silver, Line) and whisked rather efficiently up to the stadium on dedicated bus lanes, which can move 4,000 to 8,000 people per hour. The ride itself takes about 25 minutes; the wait is short or nonexistent; and it’s free for anyone who has a ticket to the game. Additionally, surveys show that about 80 percent of Dodger Stadium Express riders take transit for their entire game-day outing. But, of course, the Dodger Stadium Express — which was implemented as an air-pollution-mitigation program — runs only on game days, so even though it logs 370,000 annual trips, when playoff season is over, Chavez Ravine transforms back into a transit desert for roughly 280 days of the year. That’s become an even bigger problem during the pandemic, as the area around the stadium is a destination for much more than just baseball; it’s home to a large public space perfect for social distancing, L.A.’s largest COVID testing site, and a voting center for next month’s election.
To its credit, LA ART — which, like the parking lot where it will terminate, belongs to the former owner of the Dodgers, Frank McCourt — says it’s exploring options to keep the gondola running on non-game days. That should be required by the city as a condition of operation, mostly because Metro is devoting time and resources to the project. Yes, even though LA ART is privately funded, the proposal came through Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation, and Metro is handling the environmental review, as well as the outreach to gather feedback from the community through a series of meetings, which begin next month.
I don’t think I’m being too skeptical to doubt that a single gondola to a single destination would dramatically cut the number of vehicle trips to the stadium, at least not any more than the Dodger Stadium Express already has. (At the Metro meeting, L.A. County supervisor Sheila Kuehl was worried that more people might drive to Union Station specifically to take the gondola.) Especially when there are so many obvious opportunities to cut back on motor-vehicle trips that the city isn’t doing anything about: For example, Metro’s own report notes that increased Uber and Lyft usage to the stadium has created an “influx of cars,” even causing a “bottleneck” slowing down Dodger Stadium Express buses, yet nothing has been implemented to mitigate that impact.
Complicating the whole narrative is the fact that Dodger Stadium is situated in the middle of 575-acre Elysian Park, the city’s second-largest park. Like the stadium, Elysian Park is also very difficult for people to reach without a car, even for people living nearby, due to steep hills, freeways, or both. From two adjacent neighborhoods — the west entrance off Sunset in Echo Park and the south entrance in Chinatown — the walk to the stadium is less than 20 minutes from existing bus stops and train stations, yet the pedestrian experience ranges from phenomenally unpleasant to downright dangerous. At the same time, the park, which is also L.A.’s oldest, has been carved up to accommodate more car traffic. Four-lane roads with nonexistent crosswalks and missing curb ramps weave around playgrounds and picnic areas, a reminder that it’s not as much of a park as it is a well-landscaped extension of the nearest freeway on-ramp.
The secret to reducing car trips in L.A. is often much simpler than what well-connected consultants might want you to believe. A complete overhaul of the walking and biking infrastructure throughout the park, connecting it to the surrounding neighborhoods and existing transit, would make car-free trips to the stadium shorter and safer while also improving those same trips made in day-to-day life. This could be accomplished using a variety of dedicated infrastructure elements designed for steep inclines — stairs, ramps, escalators, even funiculars — that could easily be added by next season’s opening day, not 2028. And if reducing vehicle trips is actually the goal of the gondola project, LA ART might be pressed into subsidizing those improvements, too. Not only would the neighboring communities, which are so adversely impacted by vehicular traffic, gain better access to their park right away, but it would also take immense pressure off of any future amenities, like a gondola, to perform at maximum capacity. After all, many fans really only need help getting up to the stadium — the postgame walk is all downhill.