Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Regional transportation officials in the traffic-plagued Texas capital support a viability study for an eight-mile aerial circulator.
The former Austin mayor Will Wynn once stepped out of his car to ”spew a fog of profanity” at a big-rig truck blocking morning commuters on Fifth Street. He later apologized, but his constituents might have been sympathetic: No other U.S city of its size compares to Austin when it comes to traffic. The small but fast-growing Texas capital consistently ranks with big-leaguers like New York and L.A. as the nation’s most congested metros. And with the city’s expected 30 percent population increase by 2025, things aren’t getting any better.
Which is why some Texans are praying for an answer in the sky: a gondola. The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority board voted Wednesday to fund a portion of a $15,000 viability study for an 8-mile “urban cable” line along the busy thoroughfare of South First Street. It’s a significant step—very few such proposals in the U.S. have gotten further than the blogosphere.
Dubbed “Wire One” by its chief booster, the designer and technologist Jared Ficklin, the system would convey passengers in air-conditioned cars over downtown Austin between the University of Texas to the north and the neighborhood of Garrison Park to the south. It would run like a circulator, designed for local trips to the supermarket, a bar, nearby offices or to campus, with pleasant skyline views and wait times of less than one minute. Ultra-fast headways would be essential to convince Austin drivers that public transit can offer more freedom than their cars, while freeing up room on the road, believes Ficklin. “If you can capture all of those micro-trips in the air, then you create capacity for commuters traveling from greater distances on the ground,” he says. “We’d be adding supply at a constant speed that doesn’t stop traffic.”
The latest proposal was rendered by Ficklin’s firm, Argodesign. (CityLab covered an earlier iteration by Frog Design, Ficklin’s former company.) It claims that Wire One could hold as many as 6,000 riders per hour—equal to 100 buses running per hour along the same route, says Ficklin. That capacity is on par with light rail, practically speaking, and could be pulled off for a sliver of the cost. According to Argodesign, equipment and construction costs for Wire One would total between $300 to $600 million, depending on the number of stations along the 8-mile route. That’s fairly cheap, in transit terms. In 2014, light-rail projects around the U.S. averaged between $200 to $300 million per mile, according to figures by the U.S. DOT. A transportation bond Austin voters defeated that same year would have partially funded a $1.4 billion, 9.5-mile light-rail route between Highland Mall and Southeast Austin.
The big cost savings here is that gondolas can be built along existing rights-of-way. In Austin’s case, Ficklin believes a cable line wouldn’t present the need to reinforce bridges and foundations that rail would. It also wouldn’t take up the same amount of lane space that rail or even a dedicated, high-speed bus line would. That’s not to say that Ficklin thinks that ground-based transit shouldn’t necessarily be built—it’s just that he sees cable as ideal for “Keep-Austin-Weird” Austin. “It’s fun, cool and simply adds a useful new mode to get around rather than asking for a mode shift,” he says.
So why aren’t Austinites already sailing care-free above ground? Cities around the world have invested in gondolas as urban transit systems with fairly high rates of success. South American cities like Medellin, La Paz, and Rio de Janeiro are constructing ever more impressive networks of aerial cables connecting their sprawling, hilly neighborhoods.“Ropeway” systems are under development in several Mexican municipalities. The French towns of Toulouse and Brest also have cable lines in the works, as does Santiago, Spain. London completed its Emirates Air Line crossing the Thames for the 2012 Olympics (this was advertised as a commuter option, but has succeeded mainly in attracting tourists.)
But in the U.S., gondolas are goofy things you see in ski resorts, with the notable exceptions of two-stop aerial tramways in downtown Portland and New York City’s Roosevelt Island. Their scarcity might be explained by the fact that, even if urban cable projects can cost considerably less than other kinds of transit, they’re still big political gambles—especially because so few American cities have approached them as viable, multi-stop transit solutions. “No one wants to be the first one to take that plunge,” says Ficklin. Plus, the dangling cars look strange to unaccustomed eyes, and their visual impact on neighborhoods can awaken NIMBY rage. (They can also have cost overruns like any infrastructure project; the Portland tramway cost nearly four times the projections, and fares are double the initial promise.)
Still, gondola boosters are popping up with sketches and figures for more and more American cities, including New York, Washington, D.C., and Seattle. And some officials are warming to the concept. Today, the CTRMA agreed to pay a portion of a $15,000 viability study testing any insurmountable technological or engineering hurdles associated with Ficklin’s proposal. If there’s still enough political support after that, a costlier, more in-depth feasibility study could then be conducted. CTRMA chairman Ray Wilkerson sounded downright enthusiastic about it at a meeting earlier this month. "The thing is, we are a mobility authority,” he said on the local Fox News station. “It's not just pavement. So looking at options and ideas does not hurt this agency at all. It just shows an openness for innovation."
Full funding for the viability study now awaits buy-in from Capital Metro Transportation Authority and the city of Austin, both of which have expressed interest. Mariette Hummel, a spokesperson from CapMetro, explains that the agency sees the gondola as one among a suite of mobility alternatives the city is analyzing as part of its ongoing Project Connect transit study. “Given the attention this mobility option has received locally, we believe it’s appropriate to see if it merits inclusion,” she said via email.
Austinites may be eager to embrace an airborne people-mover, but there’s also the possibility of a far less weird alternative: adequately funding existing public transit. Ridership has been trending downwards on CapMetro’s buses in recent years, and though there are likely many contributing factors, funding and service cuts on specific routes appear to be the primary culprits. Per-capita service hours that the agency provides have been in decline since 2004. "Really, any analysis of transit ridership begins and ends with how much service you provide," Todd Hemingson, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development with Capital Metro, said in 2014. "Unfortunately, the reality is we're just not keeping up.” Improvements have started to take shape within the past year, with an expansion coming to the city’s sole commuter rail line and more frequent service for key bus routes expected in 2017. Still, a lot more can be done for existing riders and to attract new ones as the city grows.
But as traffic worsens, perhaps every option is the right option. Could a gondola be the right move for traffic-snarled Austin? The odds may be getting higher in a few months.