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City of Austin Could Look at Gondolas for Public Transportation

Teaukura Moetaua, Getty Images

When you think about gondolas in the sky, you probably think of some mountain town. If some in Austin have their way, gondolas could be taking people from The Driskill to the airport.

If you have been to Austin recently, you know how bad the traffic is on I-35 and in the city. Leaders are now taking a look at expanding public transportation and for some, gondolas make sense and sound interesting. According to bizjournals.com, an Austin firm came up with the idea.

We first heard about the gondolas several months ago, and our initial coverage was picked up by several other news outlets. Since then, the project – dubbed the Wire – hasn’t been far from discussions about transportation solutions.

It’s interesting, it’s weird, and it’s got a really well designed set of graphics with it. But how serious are we about riding to work and back home every day in a gondola?

Michael McDaniel and Jared Ficklin of Frog Design Inc. are determined. The two helped create the project and recently gave a presentation as part the TED talk series on the subject. They argue that gondolas have a number of advantages over traditional transit.

They compared the idea to the ski lifts of Europe, which have the capability to move millions of people each day without having to stick to a set schedule. McDaniel and Ficklin estimate that a system of gondolas would cost about half as much as the $550 million urban rail project the city has planned.

Stops could be incorporated into existing buildings, and stringing wires doesn’t require buying right of way.

I think it’s certainly an interesting idea. Whether or not it’s feasible is a decision I’m not qualified to make. But so far, the transportation planners and professionals have yet to be convinced.

In a Twitter discussion, Joe Black of Lonestar Rail said he’d like to see the city focus on more feasible solutions. In fact, in all of the discussions I’ve had with transportation decision makers such as Linda Watson of Capital Metro and Mayor Lee Leffingwell, gondolas haven’t come up.

But on the street, people keep talking. Our stories about gondolas drive nearly as many comments and often more page views than stories about urban rail. Some of that is positive, some negative, but the interest is there.

My guess is that advocates for a living gondola are going to need to dive into the analyses and studies that drive so much of the transit conversation in order to win over the people who make transportation plans.

Sure, like McDaniel and Ficklin say in their TED talk, there are advantages to using a ski lift style transportation system. But commuting isn’t like a ski lift, where the number of people trying to ride is mostly steady throughout the day.

How would the system handle the peak traffic of rush hour? Would the relatively slow 15-mph speed be attractive enough to draw people from their cars? Would the Federal Transit Administration be willing to provide matching funds for a project like this? How would the cable cars integrate with the rest of the region’s transit? In 20 years, would a network of gondolas still be viable as our city’s primary mass transit?

Gondolas in Austin? I don’t know how much sense it makes, but it would keep Austin… different.

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