Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The East River Skyway aims to alleviate transit congestion along the Brooklyn waterfront by taking commuters off the grid.
Certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn have earned a reputation for their whimsicality. This proposal won't help counter that stereotype one bit. But it might make it a little easier to get around New York's fastest-growing waterfront areas.
The East River Skyway is a proposal for a multi-phase urban gondola to connect the growing residential and commercial corridors between Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. The proposal calls for an aerial transit system to be built out in stages, with the first line connecting the Lower East Side and Williamsburg. Subsequent lines might include a connection between Lower Manhattan, Dumbo, and Brooklyn Navy Yard, as well as a line threading between Midtown, Roosevelt Island, Long Island City, and Williamsburg.
The Skyway is the brainchild of Daniel Levy, president of CityRealty, an online real-estate company—though it is not his idea alone, of course. The Skyway builds off the successes of the Roosevelt Island Tram, which Creative Urban Projects president (and Gondola Project evangelist) Steven Dale describes in a release as "the most reliable piece of transportation in New York."
Can that earnest but modest success be replicated across a broad swath of New York? There's not enough detail in this early-stage proposal to say for sure, but the general outline sure sounds pleasant. A cable car could convey riders from Williamsburg to Manhattan in under 4 minutes. More than 5,000 people could take the gondola in each direction in an hour, according to CityRealty.
While an urban gondola might sound rather fantastical for Brooklyn—or all too fitting, depending on your read of the place—it's a transit option that's increasingly viable. Oregon Health & Science University operates and largely funds the Portland Aerial Tram, which ferries riders from Portland's South Waterfront neighborhood to the university's Marquam Hill campus. While that's the only other urban gondola system in the U.S., Frog Design sketched up a mass-transit gondola system for Austin called the Wire two years ago.
Outside the U.S., urban gondolas are more common, especially in South America, where a few major metro areas have really taken to them. Medellín, Colombia—which kicked off the urban-gondola transit revolution in 2004—announced the construction of a third Metrocable line last week. In La Paz, Bolivia, the third and longest line of the city's gondola system, the Yellow Line, started operations yesterday. The city of Manizales, Columbia, joins Caracas and Rio de Janeiro as cities that have embraced the gondola as a form of mass transit. Santiago has one in the works.
Many more gondola systems are built in places like Squamish, British Columbia—the "Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada"—where it serves primarily as a draw for sightseers. (Though Squamish is close enough to Vancouver that the gondola is probably used by some who work in Vancouver but call Squamish home.) Whether it works for Brooklyn depends in part on how well the existing transit infrastructure can meet ridership needs, especially as new housing projects emerge at the former Domino Sugar Factory, Greenpoint Landing, and Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Levy's report notes that expanding additional infrastructure is difficult. (Some Brooklynites, especially existing homeowners, cite the strain on infrastructure as a reason to challenge new housing developments across the borough.) The CityRealty report notes that ridership at the Bedford Avenue station has increased 50 percent since 2007. If you had any question about the riders the East River Skyway gondola aims to serve, it's gentrifiers.
It's not clear that ridership in Williamsburg is close to capacity, though. As Stephen Jacob Smith reported in The New York Observer last year, the L Train boasts a maximum rush-hour capacity of 26 trains per hour. A bit more than the current capacity, and a lot more than the present load for nights and weekends.
"The L’s excess capacity is measured in the tens of thousands of riders per day, while [Domino developer] Jed Walentas is only looking to add 2,284 new apartments to the waterfront—apartments that will be as close to the Marcy Avenue stop on the J/M/Z as they are to the Bedford Avenue L," Smith writes.
Which is not to say that a gondola couldn't help matters, especially when mega-projects like Greenpoint Landing come online. The urban cable car can also prove cheaper to build than alternatives.
"Running subway lines under a city can cost about $400 million per mile," said Michael McDaniel, a designer with the firm looking to bring the gondola to Austin, in an interview with Marketplace. "Light rails systems run about $36 million per mile. But the aerial ropeways required to run gondolas cost just $3 million to $12 million to install per mile."
Building a gondola line in Dumbo, Williamsburg, or Long Island City is a different proposition than building one in Austin or Portland. Not just because the costs would be higher (though they probably would). Building a transit system that appears to benefit the most promising parcels in gentrifying New York has greater obstacles to overcome than cost.