Could Public Transportation Be Taking Flight in Bat City?


Soaring Over Traffic

While it may sound like another Austinite’s half-baked idea, last Wednesday during an event titled ‘Nerd Nite’ designer Michael McDaniel laid out a compelling case for gondolas, the cable propelled ski variety, as a viable public transportation mode here in Austin.

Among his claims, McDaniel, a member of Frog, an Austin-based international design firm, posits cable propelled transit would be considerably cheaper than the current proposed plans, require a smaller infrastructure footprint, be comparable in scale and speed, and make for a really fun commuting experience.  Yes, fun commuting experience. As for their environmental impact, gondolas demand far less energy to operate than contemporary transportation alternatives and with the proposed system being powered by a single drive house, retrofitting the operation to future energy technologies should be an easy switch.

As wacky of an idea as ski-lifting around town sounds to some, Austin would not be the first metropolitan area to adopt the high-flying approach. In fact, the technology has existed in this very country for decades.

Since its first trip in 1976, New York’s Roosevelt Island Tramway has shuttled over 26 million passengers from the east side of Manhattan to Roosevelt Island. Dozens of other cities around the world have deemed cable propelled transit the logical solution to their public transportation challenges. Last year, London built an aerial cable crossing the Thames. What used to be an hour and a half commute through often life-threatening favelas has become a sixteen minute glide above the famed vistas of Rio de Janeiro. Two French cities will start service by 2015. Even our competitor as the American counter-cultural mecca, Portland, OR already uses a cable system to transport passengers up its Marquam Hill.

While we shouldn’t jump into action just to out-weird Portland, if Austin is serious about providing a world-class public transportation system to its ever growing population it needs to consider all options, no matter how lofty they may seem.

Whether or not Austin decides to adopt the gondola system proposed by McDaniel or stick with a more traditional method, its going to be difficult to go back to thinking about buses and trains after we’ve envisioned soaring above our beautiful city, with its rolling hills and shimmering waters laid out below us as we are whisked quickly and cheaply to work–or, lets face it, for many Austin residents, their dealer’s house.

Read more about Frog’s proposed Gondola system, ‘The Wire’…

-Avery Thompson
Sierra Club Communications Intern and former ski gondola operator in Vail, CO

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