Every now and then, an idea comes up regarding transit solutions in New York City that seems so out there in its creativity and so out of the box vis-a-vis the way transit operates here that you have to take a step back and appreciate it. Everyone got the ferry bug a few months ago; then we heard about waterfront light rail; and who could forget when John Catsimatidis threw out the idea for a monorail during his run for mayor? Today, we have gondolas.
Gondolas aren’t a particularly new idea for New York City. The Roosevelt Island Tramway delivers over 2.6 million passengers to one side or the other, and until it couldn’t keep up with maintenance obligations and passengers were stranded in the air for hours, the Bronx Zoo had the Skyfari. Now, thanks to Dan Levy, president of CityRealty, we have the East River Skyway, the latest and greatest in niche transportation for waterfront communities on either side of the East River.
The idea, Levy says, came to him while on a ski trip, and his plan involves three phases that will, he claims, cost around $75 to $125 million each. The gondola system, when completed, would span from south of the Brooklyn Bridge through Dumbo and the Navy Yards and north through Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Long Island City with connections to the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, the United Nations and the South Street Seaport.
In a certain sense, this plan gets to problems with the current transit set-up including overcrowded L trains, a need to serve the southern part of Roosevelt Island, especially with the Cornell development on tap and more capacity across the East River. On the other hand, the alignment is terrible in that it tracks subway lines such as the J/M/Z that are under capacity and mirrors preexisting ferry service. The materials tout a 3.5 minute ride from Williamsburg to Delancey St. at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge, but that’s already something the M train can deliver and with better connections to points north. Even though, as CityRealty site 6sqft noted, “gondola stations can also be sited several avenues in,” that’s only the case because the Roosevelt Tram tracks the 59th St. Bridge. (The site also calls the Lexington Ave. IRT line “less taxed” than the L. Make of that what you will.)
Levy apparently drew his inspiration from international cities as well, something that should be applauded, but his examples leave much to be desired. He cites London’s Emirates Air Line as a comparison, but that’s a 10-minute ride geared toward tourists. Germany’s Koblenz Rheinseilbahn is a temporary structure that serves to move people to a cliff above the Rhein, and Chile’s Telerifico Bicentario remains in the planning stages. Levy’s would be among the most complex in the world and relatively long as well.
As to ridership, he predicts around 5000 per hour — which is the equivalent of about three peak-hour subway trains. It’s a reasonably decent ridership, but it’s also one limited by geographic constraints. As with ferries, these gondolas get people from one coast to another, but not from where they live to where they work. Sure, some people live on the Williamsburg waterfront and work near Wall Street, but many would still need to ride a crowded subway. Thus, the problem for which Levy is trying to solve remains. Furthermore, these are issues that could be solved with dedicated bus lanes across the city’s bridges or better bike infrastructure. That’s the realistic conversation we should be having.
Ultimately, this is a fanciful idea, but one that’s more pie-in-the-sky than anything else. It can move the conversation though about ways to solve transit capacity issues, and if someone wants to build it with private funding, no one other than NIMBYs with waterfront views will raise much of a stink. (The insurance costs for operating these types of systems though make them cost prohibitive and nearly impossible to run at a profit.) For now, it’s the shiny new toy.