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A transit solution in the sky

Can commuter gondolas solve Minneapolis’ transit problems?

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.

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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
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 Follow on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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