Gondolas in D.C.? Transit policy should not be a high-wire circus act

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein recently wrote a fascinating article on a proposed new transit link between Georgetown and Arlington. No, it wasn’t about a proposed busway or rail line. Instead, boosters, led by the Georgetown Business Improvement District, are proposing to connect the wealthy Washington neighborhood and Rosslyn with a gondola line.

Gondolas, or Aerial Ropeway Transit (ART), are not new. But in the same way 19th century–style streetcars have been forced on District residents in recent years, we are now expected to consider yet another inefficient and unreliable transit mode, and one that is best suited for the Alps.

The city is providing $35,000 merely to study a Georgetown-Rosslyn ART line, thanks to Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. “We have to realistically explore all forms of transportation,” Cheh told the Post. “It may not make any sense, it might not be feasible, but I do think it makes sense to explore it.”

But does it make sense to explore a gondola line as a serious mode of mass transit for D.C.? A cursory review of the transportation engineering literature suggests not. ART presents unique infrastructure, operating, safety, resiliency and privacy challenges.

On infrastructure challenges, as noted in aMarch 2012 study in the Journal of Transportation Engineering, ART “[t]erminal stations seem to have larger footprints than the terminals of other transit modes” and “locations have to be carefully selected in areas with low space constraints” in order to “house maintenance bays and car yards.” With real estate in both Georgetown and Rosslyn commanding a hefty premium, acquiring the necessary land for the gondola stations alone would likely break the bank.

With respect to operating challenges, the same study found that “maximum capacity achievable with this mode is unlikely to match that of [light rail transit or bus rapid transit].” ART capacity may also be “dependent on the longest unsupported cable span achievable and the heaviest weight such cables can carry.” Given that the line would primarily span across the Potomac, this raises serious questions about the ability to provide adequate capacity. In addition, building supports across the river to increase ART car capacity would further add to the system’s unsustainable infrastructure costs.

Safety is always a major concern with mass transit, and gondolas don’t handle emergencies well. The position of the line over the Potomac River would make rescue attempts from the surface essentially impossible. And the Georgetown-Rosslyn span would almost certainly not have a side path for passengers to use to escape stalled cars. As noted in a 2014 study in the Journal of Urban Planning and Development, ART necessitates the development of “dramatic evacuation techniques.”

Traditionally, this meant forcing stranded passengers to rappel to the surface, which itself is extremely dangerous. Similar to New York City’s Roosevelt Island Tramway and Portland’s Aerial Tramway, redundant rescue power and drive systems would likely need to be installed to bring the cars back to the station in the event of an emergency. Yet, stemming from the fact that a catastrophic failure mid-transit would kill every person in a car, insurance premiums for ART are far greater than for other modes of transit.

With all of the redundancy baked into modern ART systems, one would think they might be more resilient in the face of predictable and recurring events. Unfortunately, ART lines must close during lightning and high wind conditions. The D.C. region is no stranger to thunderstorms, and the ART line could be forced to close multiple times a day during our muggy and stormy summers. To be sure, severe weather can negatively impact all modes of transportation, but ART is uniquely unable to withstand even modest weather events.

Finally, as Portland, Oregon, residents have discovered, privacy may be compromised. Depending on how the Georgetown-Rosslyn line would be routed, it may pass over private property. The NIMBYism in Georgetown that has prevented Metrorail expansion and stopped countless building projects over the years is unlikely to yield to the prospect of strangers getting a nice view into upper-story windows and backyards.

Thanks to Councilmember Cheh, District residents are already on the hook for a pro-ART industry study. Fortunately, having seen the D.C. streetcar flame out, many residents have become wary of the transit gimmicks District officials have been forcing on us for the past decade. Because of this, Washingtonians are unlikely to enter The Golden Age of Gondolas, and that is a very good thing.