New public transport idea for Austin, Texas has high hopes

Cable cars seen passing over the River Thames on May 16, 2012 in London, England. The gondola-style cable cars are  part of a commuter route spanning between the Greenwich Peninsular and East London that was constructed for the 2012 Olympics. Michael McDaniel would like to see a similar cable-car system installed throughout the city of Austin, Texas. 

There's an idea floating around Austin, Texas. Instead of expanding the city's light rail system to get commuters around, why not reach for the sky -- literally -- and install a network of gondolas?

"If you're actually thinking about navigating around urban environments," says Michael McDaniel, the man behind the idea, then gondolas make sense. "That's something where we don't compete for the same congested real estate that you do with lots of other mass transit systems."

The cost of installing a gondola system also makes sense when compared to other transit systems, McDaniel says. He points to the numbers. Running subway lines under a city can cost about $400 million per mile. Light rails systems run about $36 million per mile. But the aerial ropeways required to run gondolas cost just $3 million to $12 million to install per mile. In the end, McDaniel says the entire 35-mile system would only cost the city of Austin around $550 million.

While the idea seems far-fetched or futuristic to some, McDaniel points to a slew of other cities that have adapted the ski-lift technology. In the U.S., Boulder and Telluride, Colorado, have both extended their ski resort gondolas to replace city bus lines. And in places like Medellin, Colombia, and Barcelona, Spain, gondalas are an integral part of mass transit systems.

McDaniel doesn't imagine large cities in the U.S. adopting gondolas systems any time soon. But, he says: "If you're talking about an area that's small enough and dense enough. And just from a pure economic standpoint, when you're looking at medium-sized cities that don't have the tax base to support such large civic projects like subway systems, it just makes a lot of economic sense."

About the author

Jeremy Hobson is host of Marketplace Morning Report, where he looks at business news from a global perspective to prepare listeners for the day ahead.

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