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Buffalo’s Outer Harbor: Candidate for an Urban Cable Car?

By Dean Evaniak (DeanerPPX):
Buffalo’s waterfront is buzzing with development and brimming with possibilities… CanalSide, Ship Canal Commons, Elevator Alley, the Outer Harbor. But the entire area has long suffered from a lack of access. Whether the Skyway stays or goes, it will never be an optimal solution for connecting all these sites that have so much potential. Many are even convinced that Route 5 and the Skyway do more to separate Buffalo from its waterfront than it does to provide access. Automobiles have to follow odd routes, while pedestrians and bicycles are almost completely blocked by meandering rivers of water and pavement.
Plans have been put forward to build new pedestrian bridges, reconnect Michigan Avenue, and possibly even extend MetroRail. They’re great plans that quite honestly don’t have the momentum to be realized anytime soon. I’d like to suggest another option that isn’t nearly as daring as it sounds: an aerial tram, cable car, or sky gondola.
Most of us would never consider such a form of transportation as being appropriate for anything other than ski resorts or a novelty ride at some theme park. But cities across the globe have been successfully adapting this seasoned form of transport with new technology and making it an integral part of their transportation networks.
London’s Emirates Air Line opened last year to supplement their tube system with an aerial crossing of the Thames. Portland installed a half-mile cable car to connected their streetcar system to a medical center that had previously only been accessible by 4 miles of winding roads. Roosevelt Island in New York has long been best accessible by its famous tram. Cities in Asia, Europe and South America have added aerial gondolas to extend their public transportation to neighborhoods separated by mountains, rivers, or urban fabric too dense to allow any other method.
Numerous Advantages
Initial construction costs are significantly lower than rail, bridges or tunnels. Areas with developing economies need only put up a few towers and stations, then string a cable between them. Cities with the means to do so can create extravagant systems that explore innovative architecture and engineering while providing the ultimate in comfort and technology.
Photo credit and additional info:
Aerial systems are widely flexible, allowing for straight-line crossings from point A to point B, or meandering paths with multiple stops along the way. Individual gondolas can carry as few as two passengers or as many as 120, including bicycles and wheelchairs. Stations can be placed at ground level or hundreds of feet above the street. Cable paths can travel high above shipping channels or within inches of street traffic below (or both, as the cable can ascend or descend at fairly steep angles).
A technology that matured on Alpine ski resorts, cable cars are obviously capable of operating safely and efficiently in all weather conditions. When streets are clogged with snow or water taxis are blocked by ice, cable cars can still be gliding through the air. Modern systems even dampen against s
waying due to wind or rowdy teenagers. There is a LOT less traffic 25 feet in the air, so travel speeds remain comparable to street traffic – but without stop lights to contend with, and travel can truly be ‘as the crow flies’. Individual gondolas arrive and depart within minutes of each other, so there is never a wait or a missed train.
Maintenance and expansion are simplified, as propulsion is provided by bullwheels at the terminals. The gondolas simply grasp or release the cable to move or stop, and can be automatically transferred to adjoining cables to move on to the next destination. With the cable in constant motion, it can carry two gondolas or two hundred. Gondola systems can be constructed incrementally, adding additional stations and bullwheels as the line is expanded. High-capacity tram cars like the one at Rossevelt Island, however, generally require two cars balancing each other out, and usually require a straight-line path. 
Even while being practical, gondola systems carry a sense of novelty that attract both tourists and commuters. Some are built with interior or exterior bike racks. A few have glass floors. Luggage racks are included in systems that serve rail stations or airports. Singapore runs VIP gondolas (at an extra charge) for special events or commuters who enjoy traveling in style. Portland’s tram even has cup holders! London’s Air Line has yet to catch on for commuters who prefer the tube, but carried thousands per hour during the Olympics and remains popular for tourists.
Some of the most common questions and concerns about gondolas have been addressed at:
A Plan for Buffalo – see Facebook page
If implemented in Buffalo, the most important job for a cable car system would be connecting the inner and outer harbor areas for pedestrians and bicyclists. There are dozens -if not hundreds- of ways to do this with a device that is so flexible. The cable supports could be placed above, below, or even through the supports for the Skyway, or at any crossing point that allows the cables to cross the river unobstructed. While cable/tram systems do exist that can carry automobiles, they are far more limited and expensive, to the point of not being worth consideration.
Because systems can be constructed in stages, it is entirely possible to build a single crossing to start with, and then expand it later. If successful, an aerial transport network could be constructed that connected the inner and outer harbors to other points south of downtown (including elevator alley, the casino, and even the Amtrak station). A connection to the existing MetroRail would be highly advisable, as well as an anchoring point to CanalSide development – both for commuter purposes as well as a tourist attraction.
Anchoring a cable car system to CanalSide would be consistant with the site’s history of innovation in transportation. Getting there truly would become half the fun! It would also serve to distribute visitors to the surrounding areas, making it a centerpiece for development across the entire harbor area. 
Our city’s industrial heritage could be viewed and appreciated from an entirely new perspective by seeing the grain elevators from the air. The walls created by our expressways would be more easily breached if we could glide right over them. Thirty years from now, we will not need to revisit the idea of sharing this form of transit with anything other than a flying car.
Thinking ahead to the future, plans could be made to connect points as far away as South Park or Front Park. Views of the lake would not be interrupted the way they are by bridges and expressways. As a commuter option, the development of Ship Canal Commons would be within easy reach of downtown, not to mention the myriad dreams of stadiums and convention centers on our waterfront. Even our long-held hopes of rapid transit to Niagara Falls and the Airport might one day be possible for far less money than expanding MetroRail!
Buffalo’s next great idea is the one so obvious, we never saw it coming!
*Images courtesy of Creative Urban Projects and Creative Commons, including derivative photo-manipulations.
For much more information about cable transit systems, please visit The Gondola Project:

Written by queenseyes


Newell Nussbaumer is 'queenseyes' - Eyes of the Queen City and Founder of Buffalo Rising. Co-founder Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts. Co-founder Powder Keg Festival that built the world's largest ice maze (Guinness Book of World Records). Instigator behind Emerald Beach at the Erie Basin Marina. Co-created Flurrious! winter festival. Co-creator of Rusty Chain Beer. Instigator behind Saturday Artisan Market (SAM) at Canalside, Buffalo Porchfest, and Paint vs. Paint. Founder of The Peddler retro and vintage market on Elmwood. Instigator behind Liberty Hound @ Canalside. Throws The Witches Ball at Statler City, the Hertel Alley Street Art Festival, and The Flutterby Festival.

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