How gondolas grew from a tourist attraction to a viable transit option

Gondolas aren’t just for ski slopes anymore.

Ever since the Colombian city of Medellín introduced urban gondolas to its public transportation network in 2004, cities from La Paz, Bolivia, to Ankara, Turkey, have used aerial transit systems for more than mere tourism. As of February, Paris is on its way to joining that list.

Rendering for the Cable A gondola proposal in Paris [Image: IDF Mobilities]

Southeast of Paris, a newly greenlit gondola will connect the Paris suburb of Créteil with the city’s metro system. First proposed in 2008, the gondola has now cleared its feasibility studies, paving the way for construction to start this year; its completion is expected by 2025.

The $149 million gondola line will be electric-powered and service 11,000 passengers per day, filling a big transportation gap in an area that’s bisected by several highways, a high-speed rail line, and a rail freight depot. As cities continue to look for cheaper, greener ways to move people, this shows yet again that gondolas can become a serious tool in the public transit tool belt.

In the US, only two cities have operating gondola commuter systems. In New York City, the Roosevelt Island Tramway can move about 1,500 people per hour between the island and the Upper East Side of Manhattan; in Portland, Oregon, the city’s Aerial Tram, designed by AGPS Architecture in 2007, soars 500 feet from the ground and travels 3,000 feet from the banks of the Willamette River to a medical center atop a nearby hill.

Chicago Skyline aerial tram proposal rendering [Image: F10/courtesy DMA]

Seven years ago, about a dozen other cities were considering gondolas, including Chicago, Austin, and Seattle. None of them have made it past the conceptual stage, but the recent infrastructure bill could move the needle with $85 billion toward mass transit and billions more toward electrifying transit.

“Aerial gondolas may appear exotic, but they leverage previously untapped aerial rights-of-way and connect people to destination points in urban spaces in a way that alleviates the burden on existing routes,” says Jason Westrope, a principal at Development Management Associates, a real estate project management firm that was involved in Chicago’s proposed gondola, known as the Chicago Skyline.

Chicago Skyline proposed rendering [Image: F10/courtesy DMA]

Gondolas have a lot going for them. They can straddle and connect hard-to-reach areas. They’re quiet and emit no pollution (many are electric) and they’re cheaper to build than new railways, bridges, or tunnels. Despite that, gondolas have struggled to get off the ground: They can’t move as many people as trains do, their towers can be tricky to integrate into the urban realm, and they’re still largely regarded as a tourist attraction.

The fact that a gondola has now been approved in a city like Paris, however, suggests a considerable shift in perception. “In recent years, the conversation has moved from gondolas being a kind of novelty to a conversation where they’re being considered as a logical and viable transit technology,” says Brent Toderian, who was Vancouver’s chief planner from 2006 to 2012 and now runs the urban design consultancy Toderian UrbanWorks. “What I like it for particularly is as an urban transportation gap filler,” he says, noting it shouldn’t have to replace other forms of public transit.

Metrocable cars in Medellin, Colombia [Photo: holgs/Getty Images]

A tool for topography

Gondolas have one obvious advantage over other modes of public transportation: They’re really good with topography. Known for its hilly terrain, Medellín’s cable car network stretches over 10 miles, with six lines and 20 stations connecting the city center to the city’s poor communities in the hillsides. (The system has even been credited with reducing poverty and violent crime.)

Other hilly South American cities have since jumped on the bandwagon, including La Paz in Bolivia, and Caracas in Venezuela. But the concept is also being considered in the Canadian city of Burnaby, just east of Vancouver. Last month, the Burnaby City Council voted in favor of a gondola system that would connect Simon Fraser University to a campus at the top of Burnaby Mountain. According to a recent report, the gondola would cost 30% less to operate than current bus routes (although it would likely cost much more to build in the first place).

Rendering for Cable A proposal [Image: IDF Mobilities]

An alternative to cars

In Paris, the so-called Cable A gondola won’t have to deal with hilly terrain. Instead, it can help overcome what Toderian calls a “hellish carscape” that can’t be traversed well with public transit because it would involve building a long bridge or digging a tunnel. “It’s a relatively short line, but it’s got a lot of bang for its buck,” he says of the gondola line that will connect hospitals, universities, schools, and public office buildings in the area.

Rendering for Cable A proposal [Image: IDF Mobilities]

For Toderian, gondolas have the potential to reduce car dependency. He sees a successful transit system as one that replaces car trips with walking or public transit.

“If [a gondola] helps with that, it will have done a good thing for urban transportation as well as climate change mitigation, urban equity, and public health,” he says, noting that it’s crucial that gondolas aren’t seen as a way to allow more cars on the road. “What I wouldn’t want is this technology to become a way to once again avoid inconveniencing the car.”

Design innovation

In the meantime, there’s still some room for improvement in terms of how gondolas look and operate. Unlike subways or buses, which we’ve grown to associate with the road, a cable car gliding above our heads can be jarring. Toderian acknowledges that there are consequences to every mode of transportation, but he believes the visual impact might spur more innovation.

The Brest commuter line [Image: courtesy Calag]

In the port city of Brest, France, where a commuter gondola line opened in 2016, the French design agency Avant Première drew inspiration from the port’s cruise ships, with snazzy, curved edges and flooring that simulates teakwood. On the outside, the cabins are aglow with LED lights that can be programmed in any color, and when the cabins glide too close to people’s homes, the glass is equipped with a special foil that tints the windows for privacy.

Design of a commuter gondola cabin in the French city of Brest [Image: courtesy Calag]

Aesthetics, of course, matter only if the operational requirements are met. For Toderian, these include how big the cars are, how frequently they come, and how many people they can hold. The context matters, too. Just because Paris is building a gondola, it doesn’t mean that every city will find it useful. In London, for example, the Emirates Air Line cable car, which opened in 2012 for both tourists and commuters, has been so underused that the operators ended up applying for a liquor license to lure more visitors. (“In-flight” drinks launched in 2018.)

The Emirates Air Line cable car, circa 2012 [Photo: Luciana Guerra/PA Images/Getty Images]

“From a straight geometry perspective, I don’t think gondolas are going to become the primary mode of transport, nor do I think that should happen,” Toderian says. “What I see it as is a strategic addition to the urban transportation tool belt.”

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