Half a world away from the cable cars in use at the French ski resort of Courchevel, the planned East River Skyway is intended to link the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan in 30 minutes using gondolas suspended in the sky.
New York City is growing fast, with ten new residents arriving every hour. In Chicago and Los Angeles, the next largest urban spaces in the United States, population increase is also now a serious issue. The California Department of Finance is predicting a 33.8% increase in population in Los Angeles county between 2010 and 2060.
Timothy Papandreou, Director, Office of Innovation at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which runs San Francisco’s public transport, explains: ‟After the Second World War the US government mainly directed investments towards building highways and outward expansion of cities, unlike in Europe. This has led to the scenarios we see today – such as the problems of road traffic congestion in cities and our poor public transportation networks.”
It is interesting to note that these same US cities have given birth to a company called Uber plus a string of direct rivals – such as Lyft and Wingz – and indirect competitors like SPLT. Not only are road traffic jams a daily reality for many New York City commuters but the NYC subway is also bursting at the seams in terms of capacity.
Timothy Papandreou, Director, Office of Innovation at SFMTA
East River Skyway: a multi-modal solution
So might ‘sky buses’ succeed in alleviating traffic congestion? This is precisely what the East River Skyway is designed to do. The mooted urban cable car system is a different take on what you would find at a ski resort. With the attractive name of ‘gondola lifts’, the cable car concept was unveiled to the audience at this year’s South by South West (SXSW) conference by real estate developer Daniel Levy. Each gondola will be able to carry up to 35 people and, using an innovative system based on two cableways running alongside each other supported by the same pylons, will be able to move very fast compared to the speeds generally attained by urban transportation. ‟Our cabins, arriving every 30 seconds, can transport up to 5,000 people an hour in both directions,” claimed Daniel Levy.
The East River Skyway, as its name indicates, is designed to ease congestion in the urban transportation systems in the East River area. The first phase of the project is to link Brooklyn’s Williamsburg station to the Rockefeller Center at the tip of Manhattan, the entire journey taking approximately thirty minutes. Today the trip by subway takes around an hour. The Skyway cable car system will run between 100 and 120 meters above sea level, following the line of the Brooklyn Bridge that connects Long Island and Manhattan Island. In subsequent phases the network will be extended around the river, connecting South Street Sea Port station to the Cornell Technion Campus.
While the view available to passengers on the East River Skyway promises to be breath-taking, the gondola lift system is not intended to be a mere attraction but a fully viable mode of transport, part of a multi-modal system, so as to help meet the challenges of a rising local population. ‟Our strength is our ability to integrate into existing transport networks. So I could easily walk out of the metro and take a cable car, thus avoiding the subway crush in the rush hour but still crossing the river in less than four minutes,” Daniel Levy told the SxSW audience.
The gondolas are moreover relatively environmentally-friendly, with the cable system being powered by an electric motor. Not least, Levy predicts that the system will be profitable. This prospect should be of interest to urban transportation network operators, given that the lack of profitability of the subway is a highly sensitive issue.
Drawing inspiration from major cities elsewhere?
The Complex do Alemão neighbourhood in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro and the El Alto district above La Paz in Bolivia have already seen the construction of similar cable car systems. Here the gondolas help to alleviate social exclusion in areas where people generally live in very deprived circumstances and which previously suffered from a serious lack of public transport links. ‟The residents of the El Alto neighbourhood used to have to change buses several times to get to work in La Paz, but now the cable car solution takes just a third of the time and has brought the price of a ticket down to 3 bolivianos, compared with 5 before. Just 50 cents for a trip at 14,000 feet above sea level!” underlined Daniel Levy.
Singapore, which is well known for its relatively uncongested roads, has a similar gondola lift system running between two of its highest towers. One was also built across the River Thames in London – named the Emirates Air Line after its main sponsor – in the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games.
Roosevelt Island aerial tramway
While the East River Skyway project stands out due to its huge scale, the New York City authorities were already experimenting with a cable car system – the famous Roosevelt Island aerial tramway – on a small stretch of the city’s transportation network as long ago as 1976. In 2010, the Grenoble, France-based company Poma won the contract to renovate the system following outages and breakdowns in 2006. When Hurricane Sandy struck the city in 2012, the aerial tramway was the last mode of transport to shut down and the first to open again, proving just how reliable the technology is. Recently, an announcement that serious work is needed on New York’s L subway line in the wake of Hurricane Sandy has raised concern among the general public. During the working week this line is one of the busiest lines on the New York subway, carrying up to 350,000 passengers per day. The East River Skyway could serve to ease overcrowding on other parts of the network when works are being carried out on the L-line tunnel.
However, even if the East River Skyway manages to win over the City authorities and the general public with its value proposition – it claims to be fast, integrating into existing transportation networks, environmentally-friendly and profitable – is this type of solution not in fact the equivalent of putting a small sticking plaster over a festering wound that is starting to afflict many cities across the United States? There is little doubt that US cities need better public transportation networks, but the authorities should also be making much greater efforts to reduce the number of cars on city streets and promote alternative means of transport, starting with bicycles. The Big Apple is after all relatively well-served when it comes to public transportation, as is San Francisco. The rest of the urban United States, which is current performing much less well in this respect, will therefore have that much more to do.