Look Up In The Sky! Can Gondolas Solve NYC’s Transit Problems?

An NYC developer thinks a gondola can help the city’s transit problems. Photo: East River Skyway

This summer has been coined the ‘summer of hell’ by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, due to the Amtrak shutdown at Penn Station for repairs, and delays which have skyrocketed this year on subway lines.

While the city has increased bike lane construction and has expressed interest in Chariot, a crowd-funded bus service, getting millions of people where they need to go is no easy task.

But, one prominent realtor has proposed a unique solution: aerial mass transit. Daniel Levy, the president of City Realty, thinks a high speed gondola system might solve some of the city’s transportation woes.

The idea is in discussion now as New York faces  the 2019 shut down of the L train, which carries 300,000 people a day between Manhattan and the Williamsburg Bridge Plaza Bus Terminal in Brooklyn and Delancey Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Save for surface transportation, there are few options for moving these passengers about.

While on a ski trip, Levy took an interest in the gondolas that bring skiers to the top of the mountain and thought the same system might help his city. He founded the East River Skyway company, which is pushing for the construction of a gondola near the Williamsburg Bridge between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Manhattan has a tram system that runs to Roosevelt Island, the closest thing to what Levy is proposing.

“They (gondolas) are relatively inexpensive to build and operate and very importantly, they can be built quickly,” Levy said in an interview with Curbing Cars. “So our vision is to augment the New York City mass transit network by adding additional capacity across the river.”

Gondolas are capable of moving 5,000 to 6,000 people an hour, and have been built in many cities, including La Paz Bolivia, Caracas, Venezuela, Cali, Colombia, among others.

Per mile, subways can cost around $400 million, light rail $36 million, but gondolas only cost $3 million to $12.

Even before the L train is shut down, “there is a fundamental need for additional capacity,” Levy says. “You’re not going to go below the ground, you don’t have any ability to add capacity on the ground, so you’re going to go above the ground.”

He believes the gondola wouldn’t be running only for the time that the L train is shut down. As development increases in the area where the L train runs, there will be more of a need for higher mass transit capacity.

“Keep in mind that even today when it’s (the L train) running ‘perfectly’, it’s still massively overcrowded,” Levy says. “So even when the repair work is done, so 2021, 2022, whenever it’s actually finished, keep in mind that when it comes back online, it’s going to be even more crowded than it is today.”

Progress on the proposed gondola has been slow. Since he founded East River Skyway in 2014, Levy has been trying to gain community support, one of the biggest barriers for the project going forwards.

“Ultimately the most important piece is making sure that there is strong public, civic support behind it,” Levy said. “The last thing I want to do is embark on a project that doesn’t have that public support.”

The financing of mass transit systems in New York City and across the country has become a major hurdle. Even when there is public funding to construct a project, money for repairs is often scarce. Levy wants to get around that.

“We see it being mostly private,” Levy said. “We believe that it can be financed privately, operated privately, again built relatively inexpensively.”

Other cities have talked about gondolas. Pittsburgh has a modified version called the Duquesne Incline (you might remember seeing it in Flashdance). In Austin, designer Jared Ficklin has introduced the idea of putting a gondola system, since Austin lacks light rail.

Developers in Chicago have also considered putting a gondola system in Chicago, launching from Navy Pier, but  it’s intended to be a tourist draw, offering views of the city’s skyline.

Meanwhile, New York City commuters will wait to see if their “summer from hell” becomes the “fall from hell,” and then the “winter from hell,” which could help make the gondola a reality.

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