Last month, Brooklyn real estate broker Dan Levy proposed a system of gondola lifts to ferry people between Manhattan and quickly growing waterfront neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. Dubbed the East River Skyway, the proposal is modeled as a sort of juiced up Roosevelt Island Tram. Levy envisions the system connecting South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan to Dumbo and the Navy Yard in Brooklyn, up to Williamsburg and across again to the Lower East Side, and a final stretch extending the Roosevelt Island tram over to Long Island City in Queens. He estimates the entire project could cost $225 million to $375 million, and could transport 5,000 commuters per hour per direction, with cars arriving every 30 to 40 seconds.
Levy says he got the idea for the proposal while on a ski trip in the Alps. While gondolas have long been employed to quickly lift skiers and other amusement-seekers up steep mountains, they have only occasionally been interpreted as urban transport options. Here we take a look at some ways cities have integrated elevated trams into their mass transit infrastructure, and what New York might learn from them.
Route of Dan Levy’s proposed East River Skyway
Singapore’s gondola lift connects Singapore’s main island to the resort island of Sentosa, and was one of the first urban schemes when opened in 1974. The mile-long system boasts three stations and is capable of ferrying 1,400 passengers per hour in each direction, with a full trip lasting 12 minutes. To account for the 300-foot change in elevation between the mountainous endpoints and the waterfront station in between, the middle station is housed in the top of a 20-story office building. The lift suffered a rare accident in 1983 when an oil rig passing through the harbor underneath severed a cable, plunging two cabins into the sea below and killing seven passengers.
New York City’s original East River tram has been operational since 1976
Initially intended as a stopgap measure as Roosevelt Island waited for the opening of its F line subway stop in 1989, the tram has remained operating more or less continuously since its opening in 1976. The tram was selected out of three alternatives (the others being a ferry and an elevator from the Queensboro Bridge) to link the island to Manhattan, after the city decided to start building housing on the island. The 3,000-foot dual-car system carries over 2 million commuters and tourists a year, a number which is expected to increase significantly as the lower half of the island begins to be redeveloped as a campus for Cornell Tech.
Like many Latin American cities, Medellin’s historic center lies in a valley, surrounded by slums sloping up surrounding mountains. Its City Council thus opted for a commuter gondola as a means to better connect the city’s poor hill-dwellers with the Metro rail system below. Opened in 2004, Metrocable claims to be the world’s first such system dedicated to public transport. Some of Medillin’s outer neighborhoods are too steep even for auto traffic, and prior to the gondola’s opening some commutes took as long as two and a half hours. Today the system boasts three lines, all integrated smoothly into the public transit network, and it has inspired other Latin American cities to build copycat systems in Caracas and Rio de Janeiro.
Together with Oregon Health & Science University, the City of Portland built the tram to more efficiently connect the university’s hillside campus with the rest of the city below. The 3-minute cruise is a quick, easy alternative to the windy, two-mile drive up the slope. Opened in 2006, the two-car system ferries over 3,000 people a day, making it the country’s busiest outside of Roosevelt Island. The project’s 280% cost overruns, as well as strong opposition from neighborhood groups below its path are thought to have scared off other U.S. localities from proposing similar systems.
Opened just in time for London’s 2012 Olympic Games, the Emirates Air Line – also called the Thames cable car – connects the Greenwich Peninsula with the Royal Docks over the River Thames. With cars arriving every 15 seconds, the system is capable of transporting 2,500 passengers per hour in each direction. Initially estimated to cost £25 million, by mid-construction the cost had ballooned to £60 million. To help cover the shortfall, London’s transportation agency Transport for London struck a 10-year sponsorship deal with Dubai-based airline Emirates. In keeping with the airline theme, the gondola trips are referred to as “flights” and the tickets “boarding passes.”