North America

Gaga for Gondolas: The Surprising Relationship Between Semi-Autonomous Cars, Cable-Cars, and Good-Ole-Fashioned Railways

The really great thing about cable-cars is, of course, that they can fly.

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Banff, Alberta

Obviously, this has caused cable-cars to be used mainly in mountainous areas: in ski towns like Banff or Whistler or in high-altitude cities like Medellin or La Paz. Where they are used outside of mountainous areas, as in NYC, it is usually to cross over rivers or sea channels.

The limitations that cable-car gondolas have faced thus far are for the most part the same as those of their riverboat counterparts: they travel relatively slowly, they can’t be used in most areas of any given city, and they can’t usually be used to transport cars. These three limitations have caused urban gondolas (or Trams) to be relatively few in number, and to be considered useful mainly for recreational rather than functional purposes.

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“Gondolas” in Venice and Rio de Janeiro

Intermodal Transportation

This relative scarcity of urban gondolas may be coming to an end. With new transit technologies emerging — ride-sharing, car-sharing, bicycle-sharing, apps that find parking spots, cars that can parallel park themselves, semi-autonomous cars that can go find parking spots, even wholly self-driving cars — cities could be entering a new era of “intermodal” transportation. In this era, commuters may generally have the option of transferring seamlessly from one vehicle, or one mode of transportation, to another.

With people no longer tied to using a single vehicle or mode of transportation, cable-cars might end up with a significant role to play within city transportation networks, ferrying passengers over topographic barriers like superhighways, valleys, rivers, or hills.

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Singapore

Vertical Parking Towers and (Semi-)Autonomous Cars 

Autonomous cars might work well with gondolas; a car could drop off a passenger at a gondola entrance, and another car pick up the passenger at the exit. However, even if fully autonomous cars do not become commonplace for many years yet, gondolas might still work extremely well in tandem with semi-autonomous cars:

Either for political or technological reasons, it might be that autonomous cars first become tolerated only in certain places (e.g. designated areas within parking lots), certain times (e.g. from 4am-5am, the “witching hour”), or at certain speeds. Even just allowing autonomous vehicles from 4am-5am, at no faster than a measly 10 km per hour, would benefit car-sharing services enormously, allowing them to deliver cars to customers for the following morning or have electric cars drive themselves to battery-charging stations. This, along with autonomous parking lots, might spur intermodal transit even more than fully-autonomous cars would.

The biggest impact of semi-autonomous cars, both for intermodal transit in general as well as for gondolas, might come from vertical parking lots. Today most parking lots are no more than a few stories tall at most, because drivers don’t want to wind their way up and down many stories to get in and out of the lot. (Using car elevators instead of ramps might be too slow unless the elevators were very large, in which case they would take up too much room). If, however, humans could get out of their cars and then have them park themselves, then winding up or down many stories in a vertical lot would no longer be a problem.

Gondola Car Tower Pic

Okay, I’m not exactly a graphic designer, but you get the idea…

Vertical lots would also be able to hold more cars in them without humans, as they could have shorter ceilings per story, ramps that take up less space by winding more tightly, less space between each car on the ramps, and narrower parking spaces.  In some cases, if the vertical lots were to hold car-sharing cars rather than personally-owned cars, they could be able to hold even more cars, and distribute them to passengers more quickly; they would function more like large take-a-penny/leave-a-penny jars for cars rather than traditional parking lots.

As a result, vertical parking lots could also serve as ideal urban gondola stations.

Urban Archipelagos 

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Highway cloverleafs might be one good place to put car-sharing parking lots, ride-sharing transfer areas*, and/or gondola stations. These cloverleaf loops are often huge and unused;   the intersection of the 401 superhighway and Don Valley Parkway in Toronto, for example, has enough unused, highway-surrounded land to contain within it two entire Skydomes. Gondolas could in many cases be useful in linking these otherwise unusable lands to one another, while also helping to alleviate traffic jams on the highway itself and — especially in cases where highways run along the floors of valleys — connecting the highway to other nearby transit.

*A “ride-sharing transfer area” is a place where people could disembark their ride-sharing or car-sharing vehicles in order to switch to either a different vehicle or public transit. For example, a commuter from the suburbs could share a minibus to the city with people from his or her neighbourhood, then switch to a different carpool in order to get from the city to his or her office downtown. A transfer area is, in effect, a marketplace for transportation.  As with other markets, they require “liquidity” to be effective, which is why putting them near major highway intersections and connecting them to public transit and parking lots is useful.

Highways and Railways

Putting parking lots and ride-sharing transfer areas alongside highways makes sense not only because highways are where automobiles tend to congregate most heavily, but also because you ideally would not want to put too many parking lots or transfer areas in other places in the city, where you could be building better things like housing or green spaces instead.

Cars, however, even if they do become autonomous or electric, are simply not as efficient as railways are in most cases, or even as efficient as Bus Rapid Transit (especially if the busses become autonomous) is*. The cheapest way of building new railways or Bus Rapid Transit lines in a city is by doing so on a highway. The problem, however — the reason this has not happened too often thus far — is lack of accessibility. You cannot easily use the outer lanes of a highway for a rail or rapid-bus line, as it would block the highway’s exit/entrance lanes, thus requiring either expensive construction or traffic lights to overcome.

Moreover, the rail/bus line would still only be accessible to those on the side of the highway you choose. The people on the other side of the highway would have to cross a bridge or tunnel — a long bridge or tunnel, given that highways can be very wide (the 401 is usually about 100 metres wide). And all this is in addition to the fact that building residential condos next to highways is not ideal, so people must first get from their home to the highway; something that car-sharing parking lots and (semi-)autonomous cars and parking spot apps and ride-sharing may make far easier, but which has not been too easy up until now.

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It would be better, as in the graphic above, to put the railway/busway in the middle of the highway, where it would not block the highway’s entrance/exit lanes. This, of course, only makes the accessibility problem more severe. A gondola could help address this problem, linking parking lots and ride-sharing areas alongside the highway (and/or in highway cloverleafs) to the rail/bus stations in the middle of the highway. This would, of course, be especially useful for highways that run along the floors of valleys, like Toronto’s Don Valley Expressway.

*(While Bus Rapid Transit is not generally as efficient as railways are, it can in certain cases have advantages over rail, especially in the shorter-term. Not only does Bus Rapid Transit require far less construction, but it also, unlike railways, offers the possibility of building a one-lane system: a Rapid Bus lane could be used by busses going downtown in the morning, then switch directions and travel uptown after noon in order to keep with the main flow of traffic).

 Where to Put Gondolas in Toronto

1. Don Valley-Danforth 

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A 1.2 km line from Parliament to Broadview, with stations at St James Town, Castle Frank, Bayview, and Broadview. The St James Town and Broadview stations would include take-a-car/leave-a-car vertical parking lots; Bayview’s would include both a ride-sharing transfer area and a new “Relief” train station on the Richmond Hill GO line.

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Richmond Hill GO line

St James Town development

This is a digital rendering of the enormous towers that condo developer Tridel is planning to build in North St James Town, by the intersection of Parliament and Bloor. St James Town is  already perhaps Canada’s most densely populated neighbourhood

Broadview Subway Station

Castle Frank Subway Station

2. Allen Expressway-Highway 401 

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A 1.75 km line, linking two shopping facilities and parking lots (at Yorkdale, just south of the 401, and next to Costco, just north of the 401 ), connecting to two subway stations (though you might have to walk through Yorkdale or through Yorkdale’s parking lot to get to Yorkdale’s subway), and next to two separated areas of Downsview “Park”. It could be built in two phases: its southern half from Yorkdale to Wilson first, and its northern half in the longer-term, if and when the Park is finally built. The parking lots by Yorkdale and/or Costco could be an ideal place to build a gondola station that is also a vertical car-sharing parking lot.

…to paraphrase Trump, let’s build a gondola and get Nordstrom to pay for it.

3. DVP-Thorncliffe Park

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A 1.1 km line, descending in and out of the Don Valley at Don Mills Rd., which is at an elevation 25-30 metres below where the stations at Thorncliffe Park and at Coxwell Ave would be.

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Thorncliffe Park, as seen from the DVP (just west of the DVP’s intersection with Don Mills Rd.)

The intersection of Coxwell and O’Connor, or of Don Mills and O’Connor, might, maybe, be the site of a Downtown Relief Line subway station eventually

4. Don Valley Parkway-Eglinton

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A 1.3 km line, similar to the Thorncliffe Park line in that it would descend into and ascend out of the Don Valley. In this case, however, its valley-floor station would be at a rail line (the Richmond Hill GO Line) and ravine trail, rather than at the DVP. It would, instead, meet the DVP where the DVP intersects with Eglinton, next to the Aga Khan Park & Museum stop on the Eglinton Crosstown.

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East of Laird, with the brief exception of Science Centre Station at Leslie, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT stops being a subway and travels overland

5. 401-DVP-Sheppard!

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The 401-DVP intersection is where Toronto’s main north-south and east-west expressways meet. It also happens to be less than a kilometre (as the gondola flies) away from Don Mills Station, the easternmost station on the Sheppard Subway line.

It is also enormous:

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Part of downtown Toronto, cut-and-pasted onto the 401-DVP intersection

There are a few ways that you might be able to build useful gondola/vertical car-sharing lots/ride-sharing transfer areas at this intersection. The simplest is to build a 2.2 km gondola linking the 401-DVP intersection to Don Mills subway station, stopping along the way at the highway cloverleaf at the intersection of Sheppard and the DVP (aka Highway 404):

401-DVP Gondola.png

(Just west of Don Mills Station, a new 35-floor residential high-rise put in a development application at the end of 2016)

An alternative to this could be having the gondola run only 1.4 km, stopping at the DVP-Sheppard intersection. In this plan, the Sheppard Subway would be extended 650 metres eastward, to a new subway station/gondola station/vertical parking at the DVP-Sheppard intersection.

A different, more intrusive (but shorter and cheaper) alternative would be a 1.6 km gondola line, taking a more direct route to Don Mills station:

Don Mills line.png

Given its intrusiveness, this alternative plan would not be worthwhile unless it were to be  accompanied by a an ambitious project to turn this area between Don Mills Station and the  401-DVP intersection into a gigantic new transit/transportation hub for the northern part of Toronto.

This new hub would have to include some or all the following additional features:

— A 1 km line linking Leslie Station (on the Sheppard Subway line) to North York General Hospital, the 401 Highway, and Oriole Station on the Richmond Hill GO Line:

Hospital Line

The 401-Leslie intersection is 1.5 km west of the 401-DVP intersection. Leslie Station is the station immediately west of Don Mills Station

— A transit line reaching eastward from the new hub. This could be either a Sheppard East LRT, or a Rapid Bus route along either Sheppard or the 401, or a rail line on the 401 east of the DVP, and/or a gondola linking Leslie in the west to Warden in the east:

DVP-401 Gondola

7.4 km gondola network at the site of a major transportation marketplace

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The gondola’s eastern terminus would be Warden or just west of Warden, where the north-south Warden Hydro Corridor and the northwest-southeast diagonal hydro corridors meet (both of which, in turn, link to the wider Gatineau Hdyro Corridor bicycle trail, which will itself link up with the Eglinton Crosstown). The Warden Hydro Corridor could similarly be future site of a green-space bike route

If we can even way, way more ridiculous here for a minute, I would like to propose not only turning the 401-DVP-Sheppard area into a transportation hub, but also into a housing and sports hub. It would feature mid-rise residential developments in the neighbourhoods surrounding the intersection, and would feature the world’s first transit station-sports stadium hybrid.

The stadium — Rob Ford Place — would be home to a new NFL team called the Toronto Housing, as well as a new NHL team (with affordable ticket prices!) called the Toronto Transit. The Transit would only play half their home games in the football stadium – the other half could be handled by the ACC — which would mean the stadium would only be used for sports about 30-40 days a year. The rest of the time, it would convert into a large transit station.

It’s the Mary Poppins approach: hockey and football is the sugar, transit and housing the medicine.

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…told you I can’t do graphic design

It would also be great for tourism: utterly unique, weirdly highly efficient, accessible from the airport, kicked-off with a Superbowl featuring a trio of Drake, the Weekend, and Ryan Gosling at the halftime show, and leveraging Canada’s primary brand: affordably priced ice hockey.

For more about the 401-DVP intersection, see A Bazaar Alternative to the Scarborough Subway 

6. Exhibition Station and the Gardiner Expressway 

Exhibition Station is, today, one of just two GO Train stations in the City of Toronto south of Bloor/Danforth, outside of Etobicoke. The Exhibition has a vast parking lot, the only lot of any significant size next to one of the downtown Gardiner Expressway’s on/off-ramps. A new gondola could be built at Exhibition in something like one (or both) of the following two ways:

Exhibition Stn. gondola.png

A 2.3 km from the marina at Ontario Place Island,  to Ontario Place’s parking lots (and the Martin Goodman lakeshore bike trail) next to Lakeshore Avenue, to BMO Field and Exhibition Station, then east over the GO rail line to Garrison Crossing next to Fort York and, finally, to Front Street’s (and the proposed Rail Deck Park’s) western terminus at Bathurst Street.

OR

1.75 km Exhibition to Queen line .png

A 1.75 km line to the southern foot of Ossington, on Queen Street, passing over both GO rail lines along the way (and perhaps stopping not only at Exhibition Station, but also at the new planned Liberty Village GO and SmartTrack  station). This could be preferable if there is a Queen Street subway built eventually. But, it would have to cross partly over a neighbourhood, which residents of the area might not want.

7. 401-400-409 

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A 5.1 km line, linking highways to the Etobicoke North GO Train station (on the Kitchener-Waterloo GO line).

Or, much shorter alternatives might be possible instead, such as just linking the 409 cloverleafs to Etobicoke North station.

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8. Mt. Dennis-Black Creek-Eglinton 

eglinton_final_map_jan.png

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A 1.3 km line, linking to the Mt. Dennis station on the Eglinton Crosstown, which is also expected to be the site of a new GO train/SmartTrack station and the starting point for the Crosstown’s extension westward to Pearson Airport.

Here’s a zoomed-in view:

Mt Dennis Gondola.png

9. Pearson Airport 

John Lorinc of Spacing Magazine writes:

I have every confidence that not a single person involved in the advocacy or planning debate over this [Pearson Airport transit] hub will ever schlep by bus or foot through the sidewalk-less industrial wilderness north of Pearson, asking themselves whether the last-mile problem isn’t really a last-ten miles problem…No compelling evidence exists to support an airport multi-modal hub which purports to serve the super low-density employment zones nearby, or shuttle executives between Pearson and the office parks in Mississauga or Waterloo. The densities simply aren’t there, and won’t be for a century or more.”

Transitway Mississauga.png

The Eglinton Crosstown west of Mt. Dennis has not yet begun construction, and, even when it is done, it is not clear that it is a good thing to have, as is planned, westernmost final stops at Convair or Silver Dart. These stops would not serve many people, and they make the trip to the airport slower than it would otherwise be (and it will already be fairly slow, since  will not be an underground line west of Mt. Dennis). It might be better to build the line without stops at Convair or Silver Dart, either having the LRT run direct from Eglinton the airport or else having it not leave Eglinton at all.

The airport could instead be made accessible from Eglinton via the Mississauga Transitway’s rapid bus, and/or via the Kipling Subway Station bus (the 192 “Airport Rocket”, which uses Highway 427 to get from Bloor to the Airport, making only one stop, at Dundas St., in between). A car-sharing lot at Eglinton and Highway 427’s intersection could also be a way to get from Eglinton and other roads to the Airport.

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A 5.5 km line linking Eglinton Crosstown to the Airport, to multiple highways, and to the Mississauga Transitway “MiWay” Rapid Bus corridor.

Whatever does happen with the LRT, a gondola from Eglinton to the Airport could be a way of linking the two together, and also linking them to a cloverleaf car-sharing parking lot and/or ride-sharing area. The gondola could, perhaps, also provide access to Convair and Silver Dart, so that a future LRT would not have to make stops there.  Finally,  a gondola built from Eglinton to the Airport would provide interesting views of the Airport’s southern runways.

10. The Don River Portlands 

A 1.8 km line starting at Portlands’ marina in the south, which would cross a 110 metres wide channel of water, then a 50 metres wide channel of water, then the Gardiner Expressway, and finally a 100 metres wide GO rail tracks, ending at the Corktown Common.
Portlands Gondola

Portlands Gondola Zoom in

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The Don Valley Network

The Next Big Thing 

Mont Blanc

A cable-car station near the peak of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps

Even if urban gondolas do experience another renaissance, the natural environment of cable-cars will of course still remain the world’s mountainous areas. Today, in the United States, mountain living is not very common. The only medium-elevation cities of any significant size are Denver, El Paso, and Albuquerque; the largest city higher than those is Colorado Springs, which has only around 400,000 inhabitants–and is still more than 400 metres lower than Mexico City. The highest US “city”, Leadville (pop. 2,000 ), is around a kilometre and half lower than El Alto (pop. 650,000) and barely higher than Bogota (pop. 8 million).

Mountain living is difficult: the reason that places like South America have so much more of it is that high-elevations provide a cooler-climate alternative to the tropical lowlands or rain-forests they overlook. Will Americans take to the hills more often in the coming years? Certainly people do like to go on mountain vacations, if they can afford it. So, if new technologies, like autonomous cars, trucks, snowplows, and aircraft, or like tele-commuting, allow living and transporting bulk goods in mountains to become cheaper, then it may indeed be that more Americans will choose to live in a more frequent state of apres ski.  

gondola-icon

In the nearer term, though, gondolas could be one of the surprise stories of city life. With intermodal transportation — easy parking, easy transferring, and easy public transit — it makes a whole lot of sense to provide more connections between superhighways, valley expressways, subways, railways, parking lots, and even ravines and waterways. In many cases, the cheapest, most efficient, and least intrusive way of doing this is with a flying car. A cable-car!

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