Is there a Place for Aerial Gondolas in the Bay Area’s Transit Picture?

A rendering of a planned Gondola station in Gothenburg, Sweden. Could estuary gondolas become part of the Bay Area's transportation picture? Image: UNStudio
A rendering of a planned Gondola station in Gothenburg, Sweden. Could estuary gondolas become part of the Bay Area's transportation picture? Image: UNStudio

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

The city of Gothenburg, Sweden, selected Amsterdam-based UNStudio to design its new aerial tramway. “The new cable car system will comprise one cable car line with four stations and six towers,” announced UNStudio in a statement issued last month. “The cable car will provide an alternative form of public transport by way of aerial shortcuts across the RiverCity. Travel times will be significantly reduced with minimum environmental impact, while an efficient and direct connection will be established between areas north of the river and the old city to the south.”

The design of the towers are “Inspired by and referencing the steady motion of Gothenburg’s famous shipyard cranes,” added UNStudio in its release.

They also look a bit like the Port of Oakland’s cranes, near Jack London Square.

The design for the Gothenburg aerial tramway towers was inspired by that city's shipyards cranes. Image: UNStudio
The design for the Gothenburg aerial tramway towers was inspired by that city’s shipyards cranes. Image: UNStudio

It’s a bit odd that the Bay Area, with its various waterways, elevations, and last-mile problems doesn’t have any aerial trams (with one exception, mentioned at the end of this post). The most screamingly obvious place for one is to link downtown Oakland and BART across the Oakland estuary to Western Alameda. It’s a narrow waterway with lots of boat traffic, which makes a bridge complicated. The only way to get across is by a circuitous trip by car or bus through the Posey and Webster tubes (one can also ride a bike through the Webster tube, sort of).

Randy Woolwine with Doppelmayr, the Austrian-Swiss company that built Portland’s aerial gondola, presented to the city of Alameda about the potential for a gondola that would connect BART/downtown Oakland, Jack London Square, and Western Alameda. He recommended a “3S” system, which can carry 5,000 passengers per hour.

“A preliminary budget for the 3S system without foundations would be in the range of $50 million. Adding in all the required infrastructure, concrete and egress and ingress could easily double that amount,” wrote Woolwine in an email to Streetsblog. Meanwhile, the Estuary Crossing Feasibility Study, done in 2009, seems to favor a pedestrian and bicycle drawbridge as the long-term solution, but acknowledges that it requires the “US Coast Guard allows the bridge to remain closed during peak times.” An aerial tram can be built high enough that it doesn’t interfere with shipping traffic, which is why it’s often favored for active waterways.

“I’m thinking four stations. Webster/Lincoln & Alameda Landing in Alameda, JLS and Downtown in Oakland,” wrote Bike Walk Alameda’s Brian McGuire, in an email to Streetsblog. His organization has been pushing for an alternative to the Posey tube for some time.

The 2009 study dismisses the idea of an aerial tram because of “high construction cost” and “potential environmental and visual impacts.” It also states that “any closures will shut down access along this route,” which is true of any transportation system and hardly seems like a reason not to build something (it also isn’t totally true in this case, since replacement bus service could run through the Posey and Webster tubes, and cyclists could use the existing bikeway through the Posey tube, noxious though it may be).

Gondolas/aerial tramways are actually fairly commonplace around the world for short transit connections, especially when it involves an estuary, narrow river, or a big climb. A nearby example is Portland, Oregon’s aerial tram to the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) campus, which is about 3,300 feet long (with a vertical distance of 500 feet) and links the hill-top campus to the South Waterfront Lower Tram terminal and a protected bike path. The aerial tram, which has been operating for more than 10 years, crosses two freeways, takes about three minutes, and transports about 9,500 people on an average weekday.

There’s also the Roosevelt Island tramway in New York City. It’s been operating since 1976, is 3,100 feet long, climbs up 250 feet to cross the East River, and carries between 5,500 and 6,500 people each day.

The distance across the Oakland estuary is about 1,200 feet.

The Roosevelt Island Gondola/Aerial Tram has carried millions of passengers since 1976. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Roosevelt Island Gondola/Aerial Tram has carried millions of passengers since 1976. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Portland aerial tram connects with the waterfront streetcar line and protected bike lanes with a hospital. Photo: Gobytram
The Portland aerial tram connects a waterfront streetcar line and protected bike lanes with a hospital. Photo: Gobytram

Currently, the only project underway to “improve” the connection between Western Alameda and Oakland is the car-centric, levels of service-inspired Oakland Alameda Access Project, an $83 million plan to rejigger I-880’s off-ramps to try and pipe more cars into the Webster tube. (Perhaps if someone invented an aerial gondola that can carry cars, it would get more consideration?)

Certainly, aerial gondolas are not a transit panacea. But with all the development going on in Western Alameda, and now discussions of a baseball park at Howard Terminal, and the ongoing issue of the shipping clearances in the estuary, perhaps in this specific instance, it’s time to give an aerial tram another look.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area already has one gondola line–it opened last year in the Oakland Zoo. And San Francisco had an aerial tram long ago–in Ocean Beach.

  • shamelessly

    “The Fifth Sacred Thing”, a speculative fiction novel by Starhawk set in a future SF, includes a network of aerial gondolas.

  • mx

    This could make some sense, but only if Alameda actually allowed anything resembling the kind of density needed to justify such a project. An aerial gondola surrounded by single family homes makes no sense at all.

  • Bruce

    San Francisco is about to have one of these at the Salesforce Transit Center connecting the ground level to the rooftop park.

  • Guilherme Owen

    Let’s hope that extensive preliminary studies are performed on projected usage of this aerial tramway, so that the East Bay doesn’t end up with a boondoggle gondola ride, similar to what happened when Rio de Janeiro built one of these earlier in this decade to connect the central city with the Complexo do Alemão favela: http://citiscope.org/story/2015/rios-biggest-favela-one-flashy-project-thrives-while-another-fails https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6d87572acf91bab5d6b7d4e78d5752d2ce272f52a1a8557e1e2b2d096a81d04c.jpg

  • City Resident

    Interesting idea. Thanks for covering this. By the way, the company is correctly spelled Doppelmayr (with a r on the end). They also built the guideway and vehicles for the Oakland Airport Connector.

  • Roger R.

    Thanks. Typo fixed.

  • That article says ridership is 10,000 a day. Thats not bad.

  • Portland Tram

    Good article, and good news that the connection to Alameda may be improved someday.
    One correction – the Portland Aerial Tram actually sees daily ridership of 9500, Monday – Friday (as of a year ago – source: https://news.ohsu.edu/2017/01/28/portland-aerial-tram-turns-10 ).

  • Earl D.

    Missed out on a chance to pick up a whole system for cheap when Georgia was decommissioning ‘Stalin’s Rope Roads’ in Georgia.

    https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2013/08/stalins-rope-roads/100577/

    https://cdn.theatlantic.com/assets/media/img/photo/2013/08/stalins-rope-roads/c10_iatura22/main_900.jpg?1420506985

  • Earl D.

    Hardly a boondoggle, Rio de Janeiro gondela’s are a major transportation success.

  • Roger R.

    Mmm… conflating average daily ridership with weekday ridership I suspect, but I’ll bite. 🙂 Updated. Thanks.

  • p_chazz

    Transbay Terminal will have a funicular railway, not a gondola.

  • Bruce

    It was originally going to be a funicular but they changed it to a gondola, I think for cost reasons.

  • Bruce
  • Agreed. The Alameda Point development is nothing but a series of strip malls and tract homes. Even JLS is rather quiet. At best it would be a tourist trap, but once you land in Alameda there’s nothing worth seeing. Spend the money on a huge ass ferris wheel at Pier 39 or at JLS to make it more of a destination. (No offense, but I was at JLS over the holidays for the first time since I lived in Oakland back in 2000/2001. I was completely underwhelmed.)

  • Guilherme Owen

    Ridership was 10,000 per day shortly after the Complexo do Alemão aerial tramway opened in Rio de Janeiro. However, revenues were unable to sustain the tramway. Since October 2016, ridership has been zero, as the system has been inoperative.

    The teleférico (aerial tramway) system in Rio de Janeiro was highly subsidized from the time it opened in 2011, offering residents a fare less than a third of what an average Rio Metrô ride cost. On 14 October 2016, the system stopped operating due to financial problems. At first they reported that the shutdown was related to one of the steel cables degenerating, news that was most unsettling to residents. Then news came out that the financially strapped Rio de Janeiro government hadn’t been making its agreed upon subsidy payments to the operating consortium. (https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teleférico_do_Alemão).

    As of December 2017, new cables were supposed to be arriving “within weeks” but no date had been set for reopening the system. (https://oglobo.globo.com/rio/bairros/novos-cabos-do-teleferico-do-alemao-chegam-em-semanas-mas-servico-nao-tem-data-para-retornar-22219028). So now the Complexo do Alemão tramway has been inoperative for nearly 1.5 years.

    The aerial tramway of Complexo do Alemão should not be confused with the teleférico do Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf Mountain aerial tramway). That system is purely a tourist attraction, offering visitors to Rio spectacular views of the city at a very steep ticket price (BRL $40 = USD $12.35 at the 7 March 2018 exchange rate). Just think of the San Francisco cable car ticket price on steroids or of a ride at Disneyland! The Sugarloaf tramway is not part of a practical, integrated transportation system, as the Complexo do Alemão system was, and as the proponents of an Oakland-Alameda tramway would like their system to be. And probably related to the reliance on the high price paid by tourists, the Sugarloaf aerial tramway has been a financial success.

    I’ll reiterate once again, the decision makers really need to do careful projections of ridership and financial gains and losses before any decision is made to build an aerial tramway connecting Alameda and Oakland. A “boondoggle” fact finding trip to Rio de Janeiro just might help prevent a real financial boondoggle for Bay Area residents.

  • I’m not saying the ridership would necessarily justify the costs, but the place in the Bay Area I would consider an aerial tram would be from Hayward BART to Cal State East Bay. Then the university’s many parking lots could be used for housing.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG