There is always that moment, mid–traffic jam, when your eyes dart around in search of an escape route and land, longingly, on the sky. Urban air travel may sound like a utopian fantasy (and “skywalker” everyone’s favorite whining Jedi), but Frog Design‘s mass-transit proposal for Austin makes airborne gondolas look like the most obvious and economical solution we’ve never thought of. Conceived as an enclosed ski lift large enough for bikes, the “Wire,” as it’s known, would create shortcuts for pedestrians and cyclists by floating them above motorists.
By lifting people over the hotspots of congestion in Austin’s urban core, the Wire could make going carless not only more feasible, but more pleasant. “You can design processions or entrances into cities, where you pop up and you have these grand vistas of the skyline, or a beautiful portion of the city, and then you can literally drop down and skim the grass and skirt right through a park or down a waterway,” Frog principal designer Michael McDaniel told PSFK before presenting the project at PSFK’s conference in San Francisco earlier this month. "You have this variance in elevation, so it can offer you a scenic view, which no other form of mass transit can."
For all its fancifulness, the Wire actually competes well on one big transit sticking point: cost. There’s a reason scarce transportation dollars often end up flowing to freeways: road projects are cheaper and less complex than light rail or subway plans. As McDaniel points out, freeway expansions typically run between $1 million and $3 million per mile—a fraction of the $50 million per mile the average light rail project commands (or the hundreds of millions that digging a mile of subway tunnel requires). And those amounts don’t even reflect the cost and hassle of acquiring land rights from private owners and the disruptions to businesses in the path of the line.
"Austin needs a mass transit system that doesn’t compete for the same real estate as everything else," McDaniel told PSFK. "It needs to go above, not through, the city’s existing infrastructure. We began to look at ski lifts because they’re cheap and they can be implemented very quickly."
Portland, Oregon, has had a half-mile, two-station aerial tram since 2006. With the Wire, the Frog Design team seeks to replicate Portland’s success while appealing to the habits that underlie our automobile addiction. Rather than following a timetable, the Wire would (like its ski lift parentage) run continuously and add more gondolas during rush hour; wait times could be as short as one minute.
McDaniel sees the project as one piece of a coordinated transit system that gives more power and freedom to cyclists and pedestrians, "allowing more access to areas that other modes of transit simply cannot provide for the same costs," he told Co.Design. "Once you couple that type of core circulator with an Amsterdam-style city bike program, under [a] single fare, you get a door-to-door transit system that is implementable today."
All images: Frog Design