Council hosting public forum to examine feasibility of gondolas
The leaders of Round Rock are looking in a new direction—literally—for options in developing a mass-transit system to cope with the city’s expected continued growth.
Rather than regurgitating traditional transit options such as trains or buses, the city’s public officials are taking an active interest in a revolutionary “aerial-based mass-transit system” that would lift users from the ground in ski lift–style gondolas and drop them off at destinations throughout town.
The system is referred to as The Wire and is the brainchild of a team of planners from Frog Design, an international innovation firm with offices in 14 locations worldwide, including Austin.
“Once we got into some of the design research of it and really started investigating the technology, it quickly went from an office joke to, ‘this is really plausible and really viable,’” said Michael McDaniel, principal designer at Frog Design’s Austin studio.
Although unconventional, the idea of a gondola-based mass-transit system has caught the attention of Round Rock’s city leaders. Round Rock Mayor Alan McGraw recently took the time to visit Frog’s Austin office for a demonstration of the project.
McGraw said he walked away from the meeting impressed by the idea and intrigued with its possibilities.
“[The Wire] is a really fascinating concept when you are looking at mass transit,” McGraw said. “This is not just a Round Rock issue, this is a regional issue as [city planners] are looking at mass-transit alternatives.
“The question is, why is this one not being considered as an alternative?”
Old concept, new design
Anyone who has spent time at ski resorts will likely be familiar with The Wire concept. The system has been in use in for decades at ski mountains throughout the world.
Unlike traditional ski lifts, which are essentially exposed benches attached to a moving cable, gondolas are enclosed structures with seating for an average of six to eight people. When gondolas enter a lift station, they detach from an overhead cable and slow down to a walking speed for loading and unloading of passengers. Once airborne again, gondolas travel at approximately 15 miles per hour—a speed on par with buses or urban rail when traffic and stops are factored, McDaniel said.
The system is proven, reliable and safe, but for reasons unknown, it has received little consideration as a mass transit alternative in urban areas, McDaniel said.
Movability Austin is a nonprofit transportation association that works with businesses and employees to find options in transportation solutions. Executive Director Glen Gadbois said a gondola-type system could work as a transportation alternative given the right situation.
“There are numerous factors that ought to be thought about in terms of this technology,” Gadbois said. “What are you trying to achieve by it? If it is just a matter of getting people from Point A to Point B, then that is probably one of the stronger arguments for this design because it disrupts very little in terms of the existing transportation uses.”
Point-to-point travel remains the extent to which urban areas have been willing to utilize gondola systems. Cities such as Portland, Ore.; Telluride, Colo.; and most recently London, England, have installed gondolas for transporting pedestrians between two locations. The difference between those concepts and Frog’s is the latter’s desire to utilize gondolas as a citywide, or even regional, transportation circulator with multiple hubs and spokes.
“The problem is the technology,” Gabdois said. “Most [gondola systems] have only been done for a mile or so. Running them any longer than that runs into some significant technology issues.”
McDaniel and the Frog designers, however, believe the technology that exists today at mountain resorts could easily translate into an affordable and efficient urban transportation system. The system’s capacity and convenience, he said, also make The Wire concept superior to trains and buses.
“Gondolas can actually move about 10,000 people per hour between two stops … that would equal approximately 150 bus trips or 2,000 car trips,” he said.
Because gondola systems run on a continuous loop, passengers are not forced to wait long periods for pickups, McDaniel said.
“The beauty part of that is it requires no schedule,” he said. “This essentially gives Americans the same freedoms they would have in a car.”
McDaniel’s team has gone so far as to propose a complete system of gondola lines that could connect all of downtown Austin with surrounding communities, including Round Rock.
“We haven’t really gotten a [Austin] city-level response,” McDaniel said. “Our goal right now is to make [The Wire] uncomfortably visible because a lot of people aren’t aware there are alternatives to mass transit.”
Representatives from the Austin mayor’s office had not responded to requests for comment regarding The Wire project as of press time.
All about the money
The most prohibitive factor in mass transit, several officials say, is cost.
However, as Austin’s population growth continues moving north toward Williamson County, Round Rock city planners are being forced to consider how and when the city should go about investing in a local or regional mass-transit system.
“My problem is when we talk about mass transportation, it seems like cities get hung up on rail,” Round Rock City Councilman Joe Clifford said. “It is an antiquated system of moving [people], I think.
“If passenger service for rail was such a great idea, why are all the railroad companies out of the business?”
Prohibitive costs, or the lack thereof, is one of the most appealing factors when comparing rail transit to The Wire concept, McDaniel said.
McDaniel said the installation of a gondola-based system would cost a city $3 million–$12 million per mile. The difference in price performance is staggering, he said, when compared to the cost of rail.
“The current light-rail proposal [in Austin] runs about $100 million a mile … [five and-a-half] miles for $550 million,” McDaniel said. “For that same price, we could cover about 35 miles of [gondola] transit.
“Unlike rail, where you are having to build all of the infrastructure, with these things it is literally just cable and towers.We are essentially layering another mode of transit on top of existing real estate with existing roadways.”
Round Rock Transportation Director Gary Hudder believes cost benefit sets The Wire concept apart from alternative transit options.
“I am actually a fan of this concept,” Hudder said. “The more you really start digesting it and thinking about it, you eventually realize that this might really work.
“The biggest reason is cost of construction. So it becomes much more palatable from a business perspective.”
Although Frog’s designers conceived The Wire as a solution to downtown Austin’s mobility concerns, that city’s invested interest in developing urban rail is likely to preempt any near-term consideration of a gondola system.
“For the City of Austin to change course on [rail] would be a big deal,” Gadbois said. “It would mean millions of dollars of studies were thrown out the window.”
Round Rock’s city leaders, however, say they are approaching mass-transit solutions with open minds.
“We don’t have mass transportation [in Round Rock], we don’t have a transit system, we don’t have buses,” Clifford said. “But it will come to us. You have to start looking forward to it and start planning for it, and the day it has to happen, you better have some money. … Maybe gondolas might be the answer?”
Round Rock City Manager Steve Norwood said the city’s planners are not ruling out any mass-transit options.
“We are not at a point of recommending this is where we are going,” Norwood said. “We are just trying to get educated on it and not limit anything.”
Do you want to learn more about how gondola-based mass-transit systems work? Round Rock City Council is hosting a presentation by Michael McDaniel, principal designer with Frog Design, on Feb. 14 from 5–7 p.m., at Round Rock City Hall, 221 E. Main St. McDaniel plans to discuss the concepts behind cable-powered mass-transit and how it could be utilized in cities such as Round Rock.