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.
In a flat city with good transit, a proposed overhead line could close a gap in the existing network. Importantly, supporters don’t see it as a tourist attraction.
In Munich, the future of public transit might be up in the air. This month, the city is discussing a plan to create a new 4.5-kilometer gondola link in the northern part of the city, linking two districts on the internal beltway that are currently poorly connected for everyone except drivers.
Supported by the mayor, the regional transit minister, and even the opposition parties in the city’s assembly, it’s a plan that has a strong likelihood of being built.
It’s still perhaps a little unexpected: Munich is a flat city with a good public transit network. Gondolas have a mixed reputation, having both transformed mobility in some very hilly cities while failing to be more than gimmicky white elephants in others. So would Munich’s embrace of the gondola be a good or a bad thing? And why would the city even need one in the first place?
The fact is that even the better public transit systems have their limitations. Munich’s subway (U Bahn), Suburban rail (S Bahn), and tram networks offer good coverage of the area, but they all focus primarily on getting people in and out of the city center. This is fine for commuters, but can pose an inconvenience for people in outlying districts who simply want to travel between two adjacent neighborhoods. Bus routes compensate for this, but their speed and efficiency is dependent on road traffic.
The gondola poses a solution to a small local issue that could, if effective, be rolled out at other sites in the city. The proposed link would connect two subway stations (at Oberwiesenfeld and Studentenstadt) that sit 4.5 kilometers apart on a major road. Despite being close to each other, it’s time-consuming to travel between them, requiring a five-stop subway trip toward the city center, a transfer, and a five-stop trip back out in a different direction.
The gondola could knit these two districts tidily together. Sailing over the road, the wires would be far cheaper to install than the terrestrial rails of a train or tram, but still ferry up to 4,000 passengers an hour. Land-wise, the gondola would only take up the space that’s necessary to support its towers. Indeed, the road it would follow already has space for these in the median. To make it a fully functioning link, it’s vital that each terminus connects swiftly to the subway, but broadly the idea seems sensible.
Similar projects elsewhere in Europe—where urban gondolas are still in their infancy—suggest grounds for cautious optimism. France in particular has embraced the mode with enthusiasm, with five gondola projects currently under construction and due for opening before 2021. The gondola that the French city of Brest opened across its river in November 2016, for example, celebrated its millionth passenger last month—not bad for a metro area of only 300,000 people. Initially resisted by some residents for fear it would provide unwelcome views into people’s houses, Brest resolved the issue ingeniously by installing windows that misted temporarily when the cars neared people’s homes. London’s Emirates Air Line nonetheless remains a cautionary tale of what to avoid. Constructed at the time of the Olympics, it was promoted as both a transit link and tourist attraction. Due to a poorly chosen, out-of-the-way location, it hasn’t functioned well as either.
There have been some preposterous suggestions in the German media that Munich’s proposed gondola might possibly be a tourist attraction as well. The route offers little to look at, but proponents are sensibly focusing on its role as a transit fix, rather than a sightseeing adventure.
There’s still a sense that this plan is a too-piecemeal response to outer Munich’s limited connections. Even if the city creates similar gondolas in other underserved areas, the transformative effect of these all joined together would still be far less than that of a full orbital subway or segregated streetcar line circuiting the city. The fact that Munich isn’t considering such solutions reflects the considerable financial burden they would pose, but also suggests a certain narrowness of ambition. There’s also the argument that by avoiding the roads entirely, the gondola link offers little incentive for Munich to reduce the polluting traffic on its major roads. But is the proposed link feasible and likely to attract passengers? Probably, yes.