The Use of Gondola Lifts and Aerial Trams in Public Transportation

Another station along the route of the Breckenridge Gondola. Christopher MacKechnie

The Use of Gondola Lifts and Aerial Trams in Public Transportation

A gondola lift is an enclosed cabin, which seats anywhere from two to over two hundred people depending on size, which is attached to a continuously-moving overhead cable. In terms of locomotion gondolas could be considered the aerial equivalent of cable cars. Aerial trams are similar to gondola lifts with the exception that the cars move back and forth on a cable instead of being attached to the moving rope.

Gondola lifts and aerial trams are most commonly found carrying skiers up mountainsides, although a gondola is an integral part of Portland, OR's transit system, ferrying riders up the side of the cliff that divides the campus of Oregon Health and Science University from the Willamette River.  As of October 2015, Portland is considering building another aerial tram to link a community college to a proposed light rail corridor. In addition, the aerial tramway connecting Roosevelt Island to Manhattan is a famous landmark in New York City . Finally, Translink in Vancouver, BC is seriously studying the possibility of constructing a gondola lift / aerial tram from the Production Way Skytrain Station up Burnaby Mountain to Simon Fraser University.

While most such systems only have two stops, some have more: a good example is the Breckenridge Aerial Tram in Colorado, which has several intermediate stops between the two termini at the town and at the base of the ski runs.

The aerial tram even turns corners.

Given the above information, what are the prospects of these transit modes becoming more important in the nation's public transportation systems?

Advantage of Gondola Lifts and Aerial Trams

The major advantage of gondola lifts and aerial trams is that the constant momentum makes for better acceleration up slopes than would be possible by buses or conventional trains, especially diesel units.

In addition, the fact that they are elevated (and thus are unaffected by snowfall) and securely attached to their cables means that they can operate in all sorts of weather - even blizzards. The above two advantages are reflected in the fact that virtually all of these units operate on slopes, and most operate in skiing areas. Of course, as aerial trams are by definition grade separated they have all the advantages of other grade-separated modes (the avoidance of traffic congestion, etc.). Another advantage is that gondola lifts can carry a large number of people - which can be a disadvantage if not many people are riding since it is difficult and time consuming to modify the capacity of a gondola lift by adding and removing cabins.

Disadvantages of Gondola Lifts and Aerial Trams

That major disadvantages of these units are the same as the disadvantages of cable cars - high maintenance and electricity costs caused by the continuously moving cable. Two other disadvantages are more aesthetic than technological - many may find the overhead wires unsightly (this was a factor in the decline of the streetcar ), while others may find the fact that tram riders will be able to look down into the backyards of homes an invasion of privacy.

Singapore has solved this second problem in their recently built elevated rail lines by automatically making car windows opaque when the train passes apartment buildings - a solution that may be O.K. if the problem is intermittent but not if the line is constantly passing homes, as few people would desire to ride in a box they could not see out of. Finally, the way most gondola lifts operate today - in constant motion - makes ADA access difficult. The whole system would literally have to come to a halt in order to board a wheelchair passenger.

Outlook for Gondola Lifts and Aerial Trams

As a result of an analysis of the feasibility of constructing the Burnaby Mountain Gondola by a consulting firm, Translink concluded that the idea had sufficient merit to be considered in future expansion plans.

Although its construction and operation would cost $12 million more annually over the next twenty-five years than is presently being spent on bus service to Simon Fraser University, the report estimated benefits (mainly in a significant reduction in transit travel time from the nearest SkyTrain station from fifteen to seven minutes each way and a reduction in days when travel is disrupted due to weather from ten to zero days per year) to commuters and the region as being 3.6 times greater than the cost.

While in Vancouver's case the math came out in favor of aerial tram construction, in general, given the disadvantages of these modes of transportation in conjunction with the fact that their major advantages can only be taken advantage of in the presence of heavy slopes, especially heavy slopes in cold-weather climates, it is likely that in the future, with the exception of certain niche operations where large numbers of people need to access destinations on mountain summits (like the Vancouver, BC example), gondola lifts and aerial trams will not play a major role in the public transportation pantheon.