Roads and railways are great, but they are not portable, scalable, or particularly well suited to ideally handling rugged terrain. You cannot easily disassemble a road or railway in order to move it from location to another. You cannot easily drive trucks or trains up and down steep hills, or across icy or snowy or flooded-out landscapes. And, you cannot widen a road or railway very much without facing sharp increases in expense. The wider you build them, the more likely they are to find a natural or man-made barrier in their way. The widest stretches of highway in the world rarely exceed 150 metres.
Ropeways, in contrast to roads or railways, are portable, are scalable, and are ideally capable of handling rugged terrain. You can fairly easily disassemble and transport them. You can scale them horizontally or vertically. Ropeway corridors could be made extremely wide without being blocked by natural barriers. So long as they are portable and temporary, wide ropeway corridors might also be able to avoid unduly bothering the owners of the private farmland they would inevitably need to cross above at times.
Their potential combination of portability and scale could make ropeway corridors useful for transporting bulk, time-dependent goods: for transporting crops at harvest time, or transporting cargo during the rainy season when roads are flooded out, or in snowy areas during the winter, or to help construct and access mines or dams.
There are a number of factors that could make ropeway corridors become common in the future:
- cheaper intermodal transportation as a result of autonomous cargo transferring. Thus far, the costs associated with transferring cargo from one mode of transport to another have led trucks to account for an estimated 70% of all US cargo transport, despite trucks being generally much less efficient than railways or waterways. If loading, unloading, and handling cargo becomes automated, we might expect that railways, waterways, and perhaps even ropeways will become used more widely as a result
- automating cargo-handling also means that ropeways would be able to add many more entrance and exit points than they have had in the past. Loading cargo on and off ropeways is especially labour-intensive, because the cargo arrives and departs at a slow trickle, each vehicle on the ropeway carrying much less than a truck or train. This has meant that ropeways have tended to move goods only from point A to point B, without many or any intermediate stations. Autonomous cargo-handling could change this, dramatically increasing the usefulness of the ropeway system
- cargo tracking systems — ropeways are slow, which in the past created uncertainties for those waiting for the goods they are bringing. With today’s cheap GPS tracking systems and software that can estimate arrival times (and adjust those estimations when there are unexpected delays of one sort or another), these uncertainties are reduced
- partially-autonomous maintenance: some of the technologies now being deployed or developed for maintaining vast electric grid systems should be applicable for ropeways as well. These include, for example, sensors and computer systems that monitor the entire length of the system in real-time, and drones that can be used as cameras to make inspections
- in some cases passenger cable cars might be able to share the same ropeway as cargo systems – perhaps with passengers being transported during the daytime and cargo transported overnight. Ropeways might also benefit, therefore, from technologies that facilitate intermodal passenger transportation: for example car-sharing, ride-sharing,autonomous valet parking, and other technologies might make it easy for a passenger to drive to a cable-car’s entrance and then get in a different car at the cable-car’s exit.