High above the grid­lock, gon­dola rid­ers join ur­ban com­muters

Ski lift mak­ers are look­ing to ur­ban trans­porta­tion for growth “A one-week in­ter­rup­tion isn’t ac­cept­able on a tramway”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - NEWS - David Rocks and Ania Nuss­baum, with Cather­ine El­ton

For years, Nel­son Ledezma suf­fered through a two-hour com­mute by minibus from his home in the Bo­li­vian city of El Alto to his job in neigh­bor­ing La Paz. The ride was noisy, cramped, and un­com­fort­able as the buses nav­i­gated the traf­fic-clogged switch­backs on the roads con­nect­ing the two cities. Two years ago, though, the IT pro­fes­sional started com­mut­ing via Mi Tele­férico, a gon­dola sys­tem that cuts his travel time in half. “The bus driv­ers don’t care about their pas­sen­gers,” he says. “The gon­dola is safe, ser­vice is good, and the peo­ple are well-trained.”

Mi Tele­férico was built by

Dop­pel­mayr Seil­bah­nen, an Aus­trian company that is the world’s lead­ing maker of chair­lifts, aerial trams, and gon­do­las for ski ar­eas. Dop­pel­mayr and its pri­mary com­peti­tors, Italy’s

Leit­ner and its French sis­ter company Poma, are look­ing to cities for growth. Dop­pel­mayr has pro­vided gon­dola lines to La Paz that have logged al­most 50 mil­lion rides in the past two years; Poma has built ca­ble car lines in Colom­bia, Tai­wan, and Rus­sia. At least two dozen cities around the world are con­sid­er­ing build­ing gon­do­las or aerial trams for public trans­porta­tion, Dop­pel­mayr says. New York, Paris, Austin, and La­gos, Nige­ria, have all floated the idea. “Ur­ban mar­kets present a big op­por­tu­nity for us,” says Thomas Pich­ler, Dop­pel­mayr’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer.

By 2019 the sys­tem Dop­pel­mayr is build­ing in La Paz is slated to have 10 lines to­tal­ing 20 miles and serv­ing al­most three dozen sta­tions—at a to­tal cost of about $625 mil­lion, in­clud­ing var­i­ous im­prove­ments around the sta­tions. The first line opened two years ago, link­ing the city cen­ter at 12,000 feet with El Alto at al­most 14,000 feet and charg­ing just 3 bo­li­vianos (44¢)—a bit more than the cost

of a bus ride. Since then, two more lines have opened, each iden­ti­fied by color. The sys­tem works much like a tra­di­tional sub­way or bus net­work: Rid­ers can board a 10-pas­sen­ger car at any sta­tion, with gon­do­las leav­ing about ev­ery 10 sec­onds from 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Com­muters can change lines at hub sta­tions and make their way to their des­ti­na­tion miles from where they be­gan.

The idea isn’t new. Since the 1950s, Chiatura, a min­ing town of dra­matic cliffs and deep val­leys in the coun­try of Ge­or­gia, has been served by a net­work of more than a dozen aerial tramways. Al­giers and other Al­ge­rian cities have used ca­ble cars as public tran­sit since at least 1956. And New York opened the tramway from Man­hat­tan to Roo­sevelt Is­land in 1976.

The ad­van­tages of gon­dola lines are sim­ple: They’re rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive and easy to build, re­quir­ing lit­tle of the on-the-ground in­fra­struc­ture needed for sub­ways or street­cars. Cre­ative Ur­ban Projects, a trans­porta­tion con­sult­ing firm, es­ti­mates that the cost is usu­ally about half that of a street­car cov­er­ing the same dis­tance, though gon­do­las are typ­i­cally bet­ter suited to, say, cross­ing a river or climb­ing a moun­tain, where rail would be ex­pen­sive or im­prac­ti­cal. The big­gest is­sue is of­ten find­ing lo­ca­tions to place the tow­ers that sup­port the ca­bles.

The down­side is that gon­do­las can carry a max­i­mum of about 6,000 peo­ple per hour in each di­rec­tion, around 10 per­cent of what a sub­way can, and they’re more sus­cep­ti­ble to in­clement weather. While high winds can be mit­i­gated by new tech­nolo­gies and heat­ing or cool­ing the cab­ins is pos­si­ble, both can jack up the price quickly. In some places there’s con­cern about the cab­ins pass­ing too close to build­ings, al­low­ing rid­ers to peer into apart­ment win­dows.

An­other is­sue is main­te­nance. Lifts at ski ar­eas typ­i­cally run less than eight hours a day for a bit more than four months a year, with oc­ca­sional light duty in the sum­mer—leav­ing plenty of down­time for re­pairs. A city gon­dola must run ev­ery day, from early morn­ing un­til late into the evening. “A one-week in­ter­rup­tion isn’t ac­cept­able on a tramway or any ur­ban trans­porta­tion ser­vice,” says Ni­co­las Tul­loue, an ar­chi­tect at French ur­ban plan­ning firm MDP Con­sult­ing who’s worked on a ca­ble car pro­ject near Paris.

So while a few places may build full­blown net­works like La Paz, ca­ble cars are more likely to be a com­po­nent of a broader tran­sit sys­tem. A Rus­sian city is con­sid­er­ing a gon­dola to link sub­way lines across a river, Paris is study­ing a pro­ject to con­nect two train sta­tions sep­a­rated by the Seine, and a real estate en­tre­pre­neur in New York has pitched the idea of a gon­dola span­ning the East River from Brook­lyn to Man­hat­tan. “Ca­ble isn’t an al­ter­na­tive to the metro or the bus but a com­ple­men­tary trans­porta­tion mode,” says Chris­tian Bou­vier, Poma’s com­mer­cial di­rec­tor. “Ca­ble sys­tems can be built faster than bridges, and the cost is far cheaper.”

For the lift mak­ers, ur­ban sys­tems pro­vide an av­enue of growth as their tra­di­tional mar­kets—the Alps and the Rock­ies—reach sat­u­ra­tion. The busi­ness of pro­vid­ing lifts to ski ar­eas is likely to show lit­tle growth in com­ing decades as global warm­ing threat­ens the fu­ture of snow sports and op­po­si­tion in­creases to the open­ing of new re­sorts or even the ex­pan­sion of ex­ist­ing ones. Dop­pel­mayr in 2012 cre­ated a di­vi­sion for ur­ban trans­porta­tion, and such projects last year rep­re­sented about 15 per­cent of rev­enue, triple the share four years ear­lier. “In our core busi­ness in ski ar­eas in

Europe and North Amer­ica, we’re not do­ing much more than re­build­ing ex­ist­ing sys­tems,” Pich­ler says. “Cities are grow­ing fast, and our in­stal­la­tions can re­ally im­prove daily life.”

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