Bringing the ‘White Line’ Gondolas to San Diego

by on January 21, 2016 · 0 comments

in Culture, Economy, Environment, Politics, San Diego

tram1By Doug Porter

An editorial in the Union-Tribune waxes poetic about the virtues of building a mass transit system for the white people in San Diego– a network of “skyway” gondolas.

Saying it’s “one idea that does not get the attention it deserves,” the UT goes on to predict Ron Roberts, now chairing both the Board of Supervisors and SANDAG (and vice chair of the Metropolitan Transit System board), will use his perch to seek funding for the concept.

The editorial writers for the Union-Tribune might want to try becoming bus riders (I suggest the #7 Route during rush hour) before they go all in on this idea. And I realize they probably have no clue as to what an insult this project might be considered to the (mostly) people of color in San Diego who have very real transportation problems.

Roberts gained approval for $75,000 grant from the supes slush fund in 2014 for a study on the logistics of building an aerial gondola and how much the project might cost. The concept is now embedded in SANDAG’s wish list of transit options. All it needs is funding.

Sensitive Integration

From the San Diego Business Journal:

A proposed aerial tram linking downtown San Diego with Balboa Park would cost between $65 million and $75 million to construct, according to a consultants’ report issued by San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).

Consultants at Parsons Brinckerhoff said the small footprint of stations and support towers for a tramway that would operate up to 85 feet above ground level, on a two-mile corridor along Sixth Avenue, would allow major infrastructure to be “integrated sensitively” into the existing corridor environment.

Support towers could be placed within the existing public street right-of-way with minimal or no loss of on-street parking, the report said. Consultants estimated potential ridership between 3,000 and 4,000 daily, averaging 751,000 to 1.1 million annually, including local commuters and tourists.

Here’s the closing pitch from the UT editorial:

We expect Roberts will outline his skyway hopes and plans when he delivers the annual State of the County address the night of Feb. 25.

A SANDAG study last year documented the realistic possibilities of elevated gondola lines, not just as a touristy attraction but, in tandem with buses, light-rail and other transit, as a means of daily commuting. The skyways would be far cheaper – between $65 million and $75 million for the two-mile line to downtown – and easier to build. And they could add to the unique character of San Diego. We hope skyway skeptics will do their homework.

I guess you can count me as one of the skyway skeptics. It is undeniably a bold vision. It’s even (kind of) a cool idea… …until you look at the miserable history of transit projects in San Diego.

Exact Change Only: A History of #Fail

San-Diego-bus2There are transportation advocates in San Diego who have long memories about SANDAG; the failed promise of a special ballot measure on open space acquisition in exchange for support on the transnet authorization in 2004, the lengthy delays in implementation of the CenterLine bus rapid transit project along the Interstate 15 corridor in the Mid-City area, and the Rapid Transit bus line (215) along El Cajon Boulevard that’s not really all that rapid.

When it comes to operational implementation at the level of MTS (Bus/Trolley) one need look no further than the arcane fare collection system. It’s easy to use only if you can send your chauffeur out to obtain the necessary materials.

Having eliminated en route day pass sales over concerns about abuse, it’s been necessary for a couple of years now to either have exact change for each bus ride or find a supermarket location (within specified hours and with a helpful register clerk) to buy a pass.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Other cities–I was amazed at Portland’s system on a visit last year–have made it easy to ride. Local MTS officials have been saying they’d get around to a fix, but don’t hold your breath. Especially since the company that sells easy access technology to other transit systems is in…wait for it…San Diego.

As I said about the gondola idea, all a modern fare collection system needs is funding. Maybe the supes can fund another study there.

From University City to the Shore

An article in the Los Angeles Times suggested that some sky tram routes might replace proposed light rail routes.

In case you’re wondering about my references to the concept being a “white line,” consider the potential routes mentioned in the SANDAG vision:

One line would connect Balboa Park to the waterfront convention center with possible stops along the way.

The second would go from Pacific Beach to Sorrento Mesa. Gallegos said the steep grades would require expensive tunnels and bridges to run a trolley inland, so skyways might be cheaper.

The third route would extend from University Town Center — home to a new Blue Line stop — to the Coaster, with stops along the way. This would link the two systems and give train riders new options, Gallegos said.

Notice anything about these routes and the communities they would serve?

Assorted Shortcomings

Columbia Tram

Colombia Tram

Then there are the limitations. There’s the reality that sky trams don’t make sense over long distances. They’re slow and the size of the cars makes them unsuitable for handling crowds of commuters. And wait until the NIMBY’s of San Diego find out they can be noisy and consider the privacy issues when a gondola car is traveling above homes.

There are cities where sky trams an effect means of transit. The system in mountainous Medellín, Colombia has been heralded as a social and cultural success because it opened up a connection with the poorest neighborhoods.

But nobody’s claiming it actually reduced traffic, which is supposed to be a regional goal– a fact SANDAG’s planners seem to have have a hard time grasping.

From Urbanland:

Detractors say gondolas are still most effective as tourist attractions, not commuter vehicles. London’s gondola line over the Thames, built for the 2012 Summer Olympics, attracts more than 1.5 million passengers a year, but a very small percentage are commuters. Guardian newspaper columnist Owen Hatherley mocked the “Air Line” as “theme park whimsy.”

Gondolas are “useful only in a narrow range of cases,” says Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based public transit consultant and author of the book Human Transit. “You need sufficient volume of people traveling between just two points, with a significant barrier to solving the problem on the surface, such as topography or a land barrier like a water body.”

But Walker says there are “certainly situations” where gondolas are the most cost-effective transit option. In particular, gondolas can provide an alternative when there is a short-distance gap to be addressed and a constant demand, “because gondolas have fixed moderate capacity and can’t do huge peak crushes,” he says.

I’m not saying we can’t or shouldn’t do an aerial transport system in San Diego. I am saying such an idea needs to get in line –behind the region’s more pressing transportation issues…


This is an excerpt from Doug Porter’s column at SDFP.

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