Nov 19, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Air gondolas could one day dot the U.S. urban landscape

Rendering of an air gondola system proposed for Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, per the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Rendering of an air gondola system proposed for Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, per the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Air gondolas — ski-lift-type conveyances that have become common sights in Latin American cities like Medellín, Mexico City and La Paz — could one day dot the U.S. urban landscape, some transportation planners say.

Why it matters: These appealing and eco-friendly cable cars — serving commuters and tourists alike — move people quietly and expeditiously and seem tailor-made for the COVID-19 era, since they fit a small number of riders per car.

Driving the news: In the Tampa Bay area, transit officials are about to study the possibility of building an air gondola system for Clearwater Beach — where parking is tight and traffic can be nightmarish — and St. Petersburg.

  • The concept "is still in its early stages, but planners say it would use a two-mile cable car line to connect downtown Clearwater to the beach, with the potential to expand across the Tampa Bay region into cities including St. Petersburg," per Smart Cities Dive.
  • There's also an air tram proposal for Dodger Stadium in LA, and the Oakland A's are floating the idea as they prepare to open a new ballpark.
  • Existing U.S. systems include the Portland Aerial Tram in Oregon, the Roosevelt Island Tram in New York City and the Skyliner at Disney World.

The big picture: Aerial trams took off like wildfire in South America after Medellín, Colombia, built its system in 2004, and enthusiasm is rising in the U.S., says Steven Dale, principal of SCJ Alliance, an engineering and design consultancy that specializes in cable car systems.

  • "The momentum is already here — that’s not even a question," Dale tells Axios. "North America, three to four years ago, was not much of a market for us, but the amount of attention that’s being paid to the technology right now is enormous."
  • Various schemes have been proposed — like hyperloop or magnetic levitation (maglev) — but so far those types haven't been commercially built.
  • "One of the advantages of the gondolas is that they exist," says Dale. "Cities and governments are very, very apprehensive about new technologies — they don’t want to commit to something new and crazy and wild."

But, but, but: Aerial tram proposals have been tossed around for years, with dozens of cities flirting with the idea. They have to be fast, convenient and economical enough to get people to ditch their cars.

Where it stands: Come January, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority (TBARTA) will seek bidders for a year-long study, Brian Pessaro of TBARTA tells Axios.

  • "There has to be some sort of geographic obstacle that the gondola is helping you to get over," he says. In Clearwater Beach — on a barrier island — that's "a body of water and a crowded causeway."
  • An alternative proposal that would rely on maglev technology is being pushed by a group called BeachTran Clearwater.
  • Sky transport would be "a combination of entertainment and transportation," Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, a land-use planning authority in Pinellas County, tells Axios. "It has that real 'aha!' value, a 'wow' factor."
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