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A transit solution in the sky

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Portland aerial tram
CC/Flickr/paulkimo90
The Portland Aerial Tram travels at a top speed of 22 mph, which could make an Uptown Transit Station to Hennepin-8th Street trip in 6.5 minutes.
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Since we won’t build rail transit investments where they are really needed, and we can’t even study better bus service because we might build slower streetcars, we have to get creative if we want transit improvements in Minneapolis’ densest and least car-dependent neighborhoods.

Enter 32 Magazine and Frog Design, with the urban gondola.  32 Magazine includes urban gondolas as idea #5 on their list of “22 Bold & Fun Ideas to Make the Twin Cities Even Better”.

Why should we consider adding them to our transit mix?  Because not only do we urgently need to develop a way for people to get around without cars, but we also need to create landmarks that make it easier for residents to identify with their city.

Frog Designs claims this system could be built for $3 million per mile.  That’s $2 million per mile cheaper than arterial bus rapid transit on Hennepin and way cheaper than LRT (SW comes in at $83 million per mile).  Frog Designs also says the gondola could handle 10,000 people per hour, which is what Hennepin BRT is expected to carry each weekday, so capacity is no sweat.

The case history on US urban gondolas doesn’t look good cost-wise, but the travel time savings look great.  The Portland Aerial Tram, which could also be called an urban gondola (if you consider low-slung Portland urban), cost $57 million, or roughly $90 million per mile, if I calculated the hypotenuse correctly.  The Portland Aerial Tram travels at a top speed of 22 mph, which could make an Uptown Transit Station to Hennepin-8th Street trip in 6.5 minutes.  That’s about one-third the posted travel time for the #6 bus, and less than half the travel time of the limited-stop #12.  6 minutes is even less than half the travel time identified by Metro Transit for an upgraded arterial BRT on Hennepin.

The Roosevelt Island Tramway
CC/Flickr/ChrisHamby
The Roosevelt Island Tramway spans the East River

The only other “commuter aerial tramway” in the US (according to the unassailable Wikipedia) is the Roosevelt Island Tramway, which spans the East River.  The Roosevelt Island Tramway actually carries quite a few people, with at least 15 minutes headways until 2:30 in the morning.  While not operated as part of the rest of the transit system, you can use a MetroCard. The tram’s route is 3,100 feet or 0.58 miles.  According to this website and others, the Tram cost $5 million when it was constructed in 1976.  That’s about $20 million in 2011 dollars, or $34 million per mile.  At 17.9 mph, a Roosevelt Island Tram-equivalent could make an Uptown Transit Station to Hennepin-8th Street trip in roughly 8 minutes.  That’s less than half of the #6 bus, and half of the #12.

But surely there would be economies of scale for our 4 mile Hennepin Transit Center-to-downtown-to-West Bank gondola.  Both the Portland and New York examples are very short runs, and I assume a large portion of the cost is in the motors and other mechanicals to make the wires move.  I assume tramways also have low personnel costs, as they have no drivers, so that would be a savings over buses and trains.

I’m assuming a non-stop ride between three major destinations (that are each only 2 miles apart, mind you), so if you wanted extra stops cost would go up and travel times down.  There is no way tramways could be cost-effective if they stopped as much as buses.  You’d have to keep local bus service, but perhaps you could eliminate the 12.  If another tram stops are needed, I propose Franklin/Hennepin.  Here’s my Minneapolis aerial tram/urban gondola master plan, with a few extra stops.


View Twin Cities Urban Gondola in a larger map

Other downsides to urban gondolas?  They are in the sky, as are the towers, which some people will complain about, but which I think of as much less ugly than elevated trains for example (although I don’t really mind those that much either).  They could fall, but assumedly there are safety precautions in place currently.  Tower footprints require space, but then again, so do actual transit stations for buses or trains.  They would need to be well heated for the Minnesota winter, and air quality high above Hennepin Avenue might not be great, so some sort of air filtration system might be in order.

While probably more expensive than enhanced bus service, gondolas are cheaper than LRT and probably cheaper than streetcar per mile.  If they were configured as true express service, they would be quite a bit faster than all three.

Will we build them?  Probably not, they are too whacky for us Minnesotans, and are probably more expensive than I, or Frog Designs, anticipate.  Plus I’ve never heard anyone say gondolas spur economic development, which is a necessity for any modern transit project to gain traction with politicians.  But I still yearn for a quick way to get between Downtown and Uptown, you say.  Well, you can always ride a bike.

This post was written by Brendon Slotterback and originally published on streets.mn. Follow streets.mn on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (4)

Give it up!

Southwest LRT is *exactly* where it needs to go. People have explained this over and over but some refuse to listen.

Southwest LRT must serve North Minneapolis. Uptown already has an abundance of transit service. Ridership there is not going to increase because we route Southwest LRT down the greenway. No one is going to transfer from a bus to rail just for the 10 blocks it takes to get downtown.

There are plenty of reasonable transit improvements coming to Uptown. Spending an extra *$300 million* to bring LRT somewhere it's not needed is not one of them.

As for the rest of the article, I sincerely hope this is a joke. People have been proposing riduculous transit ideas for decades in an effort to prevent progress on real solutions. We waste time doing studies everyone knows are pointless just because some anti-transit legislator thinks PRT would be a good way to scuttle the system. Think I'm exaggerating? Look at wiho has supported these crazy ideas over the decades.

We're building bus and rail. We need both. What we don't need are pointless diversions into uncharted waters.

The best innovations always seem crazy at first

Does this sound crazy in 2013 in a city that has never* seen such a transit solution? Yes. Does that make it a waste of time? No. Thirty-Two's aim was to consider wild ideas. Following what every other city is doing isn't going to make Minneapolis unique. Let's consider the crazy ideas. Let's do the research to determine which solution is best. It's hard to imagine such studies could be anything close to the waste of time/money as errors in actual planning and development that don't serve the population's needs.

That said, I agree that we need transit solutions that focus on all areas of the city, especially those that have been isolated by transportation-planning errors of the past like the many freeways that have sliced both Minneapolis and St. Paul into pieces.

*to my knowledge

Carl Sagan

I'll respond with my favorite Carl Sagan saying.

"But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

Portland's aerial tramway runs

from the shores of the Willamette River to Oregon Health Sciences University on Marquam Hill (581 feet tall), a location that was formerly accessible only by a steep and winding road. It is connected to the Portland Streetcar.

It is the only tramway in the system, and I know of no plans to build another one.

The tallest hills in the Twin Cities area are about 200 feet shorter than Marquam.