Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
No more aerial transit riders staring through your bathroom window.
The French region of Brittany may be beautiful, but it’s not normally thought of as a laboratory for internationally influential city-fixes. A new gondola link in the Breton port city of Brest, however, may have just created a solution to one of the key problems facing aerial tramways. It has found a simple but ingenious way to get close to people’s homes without invading their privacy.
This is an issue that all urban gondola builders need to navigate. Place an aerial transit link in an area without a lot of residents, and it risks becoming an under-used novelty along the lines London’s Emirates Air Line. Build it in an area where more traffic is guaranteed and you risk providing an unwelcome, airborne audience for the homes beneath the link, as happened with Portland’s Aerial Tramway.
The Brest Gondola, or Le Téléphérique de Brest as it’s known locally, has a simple but brilliant solution to this problem. As it crosses the mouth of the River Penfeld, it passes fairly close to the upper floors of some homes. The moment that these houses’ windows come into clear view, however, the side windows of the cabin mist, clearing only when the car is out over the water. Local residents get both privacy and a faster route to the city’s downtown, while riders on the gondola only get the briefest disruption to the view. If you watch the short video below, you’ll notice the windows misting up at 42 seconds in.
It’s lucky for France that Brest has coined this solution. Right now the country is gripped by gondola fever. The Greater Paris region alone has 13 possible links in the pipeline (though not all will likely be built), while gondolas in Orléans, Toulouse, and Grenoble are already at the stage of advanced planning. The cities of Marseille, Montpellier, Nice, Nancy, and Saint Étienne are all considering their own aerial links, providing a boom for a French gondola construction industry that has already built many cableways for the country’s ski resorts.
But should this level of optimism about the gondola’s future become internationally contagious? The mode’s role in steeply sited Latin American cities is already well documented, but France is going a step further by placing some of its new links in relatively flat terrain. Choosing a means of transit that involves neither rails nor the road network in such an environment is breaking some new ground.
“In the U.S., we have terrible transit projects because we can't get the land for them,” says David King, an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences & Urban Planning. “To have something that addresses those land acquisition issues is a very big deal.”
Now that Brest has found a way around privacy concerns, gondolas might come across as a win-win choice for urban transit. But there are indeed other potential disadvantages, even if they too can be overcome with careful planning. One is maintenance. Talking to Le Monde in 2013, a manager of the urban gondola in Bolzano, Italy, admitted that problems in a single cabin could stop the whole system:
“In the event of an incident affecting one of our "eggs"[the local term for the gondola’s egg-shaped cabins], there is no question of isolating it. You have to stop the whole system because the cabins are connected by the same cable."
By contrast, a broken-down bus may cause congestion, but it doesn’t necessarily prevent other buses continuing on the route. Another gondola issue is access. Make the cabins too small, or give people too short a time to get into them at the terminus, and you create a link that risks excluding people with disabilities or young children or the elderly. Brest has thankfully paid some attention to this. Its cabins (shown in this photo) are wide enough to admit wheelchairs and buggies, while each terminus provides ramp access to enter the pods.
So far, so good, but even in Brest, the ghost of failed gondolas past lingers gauzily over the thinking behind the project. Taking in the views from gondolas is so pleasant that cities still tend to think of them as potential tourist attractions. This is a mistake, because daily commuters and tourists have different priorities. That’s why regular London double decker buses, for example, don’t go the tourist route by providing an open upper deck and a sightseeing commentary. In Brest, there is nonetheless talk of the gondola attracting year-round tourists on short breaks.