Frog Principal Designer Michael McDaniel recently presented a system of 3S detachable gondolas connecting neighborhoods throughout Austin, making it possible for cyclists and pedestrians to “hop” over particularly congested areas.

The plan, which he calls the Wire, solves several problems associated with developing new mass-transit infrastructure in second-tier cities like Austin.

If a city wants to build a system at street level, they’re faced with the issue of land rights: Building a light rail or tram through an urban core requires buying rights from dozens of landowners. They might choose to eschew the street for an underground subway system--but exorbitant costs and decades of gnarly construction work remain.

The Wire bypasses both issues, by installing a new layer of transit above the existing system.

Strategic points of entry would connect the most vital neighborhoods to the congested downtown.

Because of the detachable tram system the team has chosen, operators would be able to add and subtract cars to efficiently accomodate peak commuting hours.

Compared to the cost of buying up land rights for a light rail, or building a subterranean subway system, the plan is fairly inexpensive.

“First off we are not talking about totally segregating car, foot, and bike traffic, but combining them in a smart and pragmatic way,” McDaniels said of the plan.

“If they meet us on the Wire we will have more ways and more money to help them cycle around the cities. What the Wire does is create more choices for commutes.”

“If they meet us on the Wire we will have more ways and more money to help them cycle around the cities. What the Wire does is create more choices for commutes.”

“If they meet us on the Wire we will have more ways and more money to help them cycle around the cities. What the Wire does is create more choices for commutes.”

After the Wire’s public debut on November 1, the team is planning to meet with Austin officials and gondola manufacturers about its feasibility.

Co.Design

A Mass-Transit Proposal To Connect A City Using Aerial Gondolas

Frog Principal Designer Michael McDaniel talks to Co.Design about his idea to connect Austin with a network of gondolas.

For many, aerial mass transit—either by way of tram or gondola—is an idea best left to ski resorts and World’s Fairs. But for a growing number of urban planners and designers, aerial transit represents an alternative for cities where traditional transit options are limited. At PSFK’s recent conference in San Francisco, Frog Principal Designer Michael McDaniel unveiled an ambitious plan called the Wire, which proposes a network of gondolas over Austin, Texas.

McDaniel and his team imagine a system of 3S detachable gondolas connecting neighborhoods throughout the city, making it possible for cyclists and pedestrians to "hop" over particularly congested areas. "The big advantage here is the detachable part which means more gondolas can be added during rush hour and removed in non-peaks times," he tells Co.Design. After looking at precedents—like dedicated bus lanes and Portland, another city whose aerial tram has been a huge success—the design team took to Austin’s streets, interviewing locals about their transit experiences.

Second-tier cities like Austin are tough places to implement comprehensive public transit systems beyond buses. If a city wants to build a system at street level, they’re faced with the issue of land rights: Building a light rail or tram through an urban core requires buying rights from dozens of landowners. They might choose to eschew the street for an underground subway system—but exorbitant costs and decades of gnarly construction work remain.

"It is simply a real estate problem," says McDaniel, whose other projects include a portable emergency housing unit slated to go into production later this year. "Part of the Wire concept is to circumvent this real estate issue by cheaply flying over the real estate allowing more access to areas that other modes of transit simply can not provide for the same costs. Once you couple that type of core circulator with an Amsterdam-style city bike program, under single fare, you get a door-to-door transit system that is implementable today." After the Wire’s public debut on November 1, the team is planning to meet with Austin officials and gondola manufacturers about its feasibility, though McDaniel has no delusions about a timeframe. "In my experience, products and concepts without an existing client are generally more difficult and take longer to realize," he says.

The plan is likely to inspire a good deal of debate, thanks to the polarizing nature of transit issues. Some advocates believe that separating cars from foot and bike traffic ultimately works against overall street safety—that drivers who don’t encounter bikes and pedestrians on a regular basis are more dangerous when they inevitably do. "Urban mobility networks that segregate by use and rely on totally new modes like ski lifts further dis-empower users of existing car-alternative modes like buses and bikes," says one urban planner, Andrea Marpillero-Colomina, who is an Isador Lubin Fellow and PhD candidate in urban and public policy at the New School. "It reinforces to car drivers that they rule as dominators of the road, encouraging them to become further disengaged."

But McDaniel explains that the Wire isn’t about completely separating foot and car traffic. Rather, the idea is to carefully insert "shortcuts" into the existing urban fabric, allowing cyclists and pedestrians to circumvent the worst areas. "First off we are not talking about totally segregating car, foot, and bike traffic, but combining them in a smart and pragmatic way," he says. "If they meet us on the Wire we will have more ways and more money to help them cycle around the cities. What the Wire does is create more choices for commutes."

It’s definitely a romantic concept—actually, it’s downright utopian. McDaniel articulates his plan as a "layering" of new infrastructure onto older cities—build up, instead of out. "[It’s] very much like DSL originally allowed broadband to exist over our old copper phone lines," he adds, "which was thought of as impossible to do beforehand."

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16 Comments

  • RichardMorris358

    Suntram would be faster safer and more economical.
    Suntram was selected as a semi-finalist for APRA-E. Suntram rides a cable like a track and is not pulled by a cable.

    Richard Morris, Architect

  • Austinadams

    This would be a great solution for moving people between the Convention Center, Congress, Lamar, and Zilker Park areas of downtown Austin.  When not in use for events like ACL and SXSW, it would surely be a big draw for tourists.

    I've been floating this premise for a few years to anyone who would listen and was excited to see Frog Design take it a step further with actual designs.

  • ABT

    Very interesting idea, but I'm not sure the actual system map is very well thought out. The peripheral stations (Oak Hill, Circle C, Wells Branch, Jollyville) are 10 miles or more away from downtown and aren't the type of dense, walkable areas that support public transit. A more focused system built around establishing new connections across the river and reestablishing connections between East Austin and downtown would be better and more cost-effective. I'd love to see a line going from east Riverside across Town Lake up through central East Austin and then across I-35 to UT. 

  • Marc Harmon

    I think when people examine one of the key bottlenecks- where and how to cross Lake Lady Bird, this system becomes EXTREMELY interesting. We're behind the curve and if we don't find workable and affordable solutions, our quality of life will deteriorate over the next 20 years, and as more and more of our economy is dependent on tourism and ever larger events we HAVE to do something to handle the crowds. I don't agree with my fellow Austinite that this will never fly here. If the engineering and economics pan out I think it fits perfectly with our self image as a city. Many of the wealthy western voters will be against it, but they are against light rail, monorail, etc... regardless. And this is an idea that could capture the imagination of the progressive and younger central city dwellers. Besides, what better way to Keep Austin Weird than to build a gondola mass transit system in the middle of Texas? 

  • DAK

    This makes so much sense.  Have long thought that this (cable transit) needs to be intregrated into transit systems in North America, but unfortunately current "planning" think rarely allows this kind of outside the box thinking.  Would make sense for for a city like Austin and for connectors (would be cheaper and much! faster than bus shuttles for instance) within other cities transit systems for all the reasons detailed in the article.

  • Lp115lp

    I rather think a more conventional mode of public transit should take precedence - such as some sort of monorail with interconnecting rails snaking throughout the city carrying smaller capsule cars rather than the mass transit style cars of Disneyland/world's and Seattle's systems.

    Take a look at this example (see link below) of an overhead monorail (in background) and expand upon that to design to allow 4-8 person cars - much as smaller commuter vans are used throughout cities word-wide permitting faster, more targeted commutes than are possible with the larger city buses.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?...

    With the monorail network suspended above foot and roadway traffic it can be even be integrated into building designs - allowing building to building commutes without interruption by adverse weather. (Hurricane Sandy?)

    BTW: It's highly unlikely passengers in suspended monorail cars would suffer the problems millions recently faced in the NY, NJ, CT region due to high winds and tidal surges.

    Removable gondolas suspended from wires may work fine but I recall the Roosevelt Island Tram (in NYC) having frequent closures due to cable problems - something non-existent in the rigid track monorail systems already mentioned above.

    Still - good effort!

  • 0u812

    Check on the Roosevelt Island project now...It was the first system back and running after Sandy and currently has 99.8% availability for guaranteed functionality. Gondola systems/aerial transit exists at a fraction of the cost of a monorail. a "suspended system" would cost hundreds of millions of dollars as real estate is the primary issue. The ground footprint for a gondola only exists where towers sit and terminals serve as endpoints or midstations. This is the most economical and efficient system that exists in modern technology with a variety of applications. I have no doubt that this could function as well as it does in Medellin, Rio, London, New York, Spain...etc.

  • Jose Betancur

    I live in Medellín Colombia. And this is a perfect example for social inclusion and a great way of mobility :D

  • Craig Cornwell

    This is a great idea in terms of concept and equally, practability but one of the other issues it may posses is that of construction.

    If they have these in place and another building needs to be built or taken down, would we then need to shut down and divert the transport link itself to another location? in order for the Gondolas not to be in the way? also if there is an emergency and say a helicopter needs to land in the city, these wires could prove a big issue as well.

    I am however all for it and this concept is already being earmarked for London.  The idea is that we can cross from one side of the Thames to the other very easily as commuting is far quicker and there is nothing that can be in the way due to it being across a river, rather than through an urban area.

    Having said the negative points above, if it cuts traveling time and is a cheaper and more viable option than the current transport links, i am all for it!

  • Primo Rizky

    We are building this transport system in Indonesia for Bandung, a capital of West Java Province.

    http://www.thejakartapost.com/...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

    I personally don't see this as an effective transport system since the speed of the car will be not as fast as train or bus and the capacity itself is waaay smaller than other mass transport.

    However, in the case of Bandung Skybridge, the purpose is to mobilize weekend tourist (Bandung is famous as a weekend gateway for Jakartans). So it is still make sense since the number of passengers will not be that big.

  • Shaun

    I feel like the success of this would be totally based on the speed at which the Gondolas could move. Also I feel like people would get seasick on windy days.

  • jared ficklin

    Medellin is one of our key case studies.  It is exciting to see cities outside of North America looking past the traditional models for infrastructure.  They very much are an inspiration for this proposal and referenced in our materials.

    So I am very glad you brought this into the comments!!

    It will be great if North American cities also can also expand their view past 200 hundred year old formulations to more progressive possibilities. 

    Jared Ficklin
    frog fellow

  • Tom Ordonez

    It looks very interesting, although I would like to know if Austinites really feel that commuting around is a real pain or they are happy with their cars and bikes.

  • Lindsayp

    Austinites do feel that commuting is a real pain. Our main traffic arteries have been at capacity for 20 years, and the city expects the population to double by 2025 or so with all the economic growth that Austin is seeing. 

    Unfortunately the city hasn't been very progressive with public transportation, and we are just now trying to get a light rail system designed and approved by voters. I can say with certainty that a gondola system would will never fly here. Looks neat, though!