The Georgetown Business Improvement District and neighborhood leaders have been floating the idea of a gondola linking Georgetown with Rosslyn. But many transit experts seem skeptical. Who’s right?

Image from the Georgetown BID.

Georgetown BID head Joe Sternlieb says it could be an inexpensive way to build a high-capacity transit link. On the other hand, the National Park Service and other agencies would have to approve any wires over the Potomac, and jealously guard this territory against encroaching structures.

This week, we asked the contributors, why does Georgetown seem so enthusiastic but most others aren’t? Is there a good transportation reason that these aren’t the best choice (and why most US cities don’t have them)? Or is it just that people don’t believe it could ever get federal approval?

“Two words: ‘Wire ban,’” retorted Matt Johnson.

“A zip line would be my preferred alternative,” Tracy Loh joked.

Gray Kimbrough said, “I heard that there are wireless gondolas in development which will solve this problem,” but Matt Johnson said the technology is “in its infancy.” “A wireless hoverboard is much less complicated than a wireless gondola,” he claimed. Steven Yates reminded us all, “Sadly, you need extra power to make hoverboards work on water.”

Dan Malouff weighed the meta-questions:

Transportation people, at least the ones who aren’t hopelessly close-minded, roll their eyes because the Georgetown idea specifically puts the cart before the horse, not because gondolas are inherently useless.

It’s sort of like a transit fantasy map. There’s been no analysis about what problem it’s supposed to be solving, or about whether it’s the best way to solve whatever problem that is. It could be, but nobody knows.

So my position on the gondola is “skeptical but open-minded.” It could totally work, maybe even very well, but so far I just don’t feel strongly enough about it (either pro or con) to become particularly vested in its outcome. I’d like to see some actual analysis on it, and maybe after that I’ll feel differently.

Payton Chung laid out the reasons why one might use a gondola:

Any technology will have its proponents, and I’m prone to eye-rolling whenever someone claims that the technology is what will make or break a transit project. (They’re wrong: it’s the corridor.) As Malouff says, it’s putting the cart before the horse.

However, having talked about gondolas with the relatively technology-agnostic Jarrett Walker, there are a few situations where a gondola makes sense:

  • Few stops
  • Challenging topography or limited ROW/footprint
  • Relatively level passenger flows through the day

I can think of worse corridors than Georgetown to Rosslyn. In particular, surface transit will require too large a footprint in a corridor that’s heavily restricted by NPS, and the shopper/tourist traffic this would draw isn’t sharply peaked.

However, there are better ones, like ski resorts or universities on mountaintops (e.g., OHSU [Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, which has one today] and SFU [Simon Frasier University in Vancouver, which has considered one]).

Gray Kimbrough relayed the history of New York City’s Roosevelt Island Tramway:

Much of [Roosevelt Island] was redeveloped in the 1970s, and as an interim solution until the promised subway station opened, they built a tramway with one stop on the island and one in Manhattan.  It opened in 1976, and ended up being so popular that when the subway station opened in 1989, they kept the tramway running.

For many people, it’s a very convenient way to commute into Manhattan.  It’s also one of my favorite ways to view the city from a different angle, and I encourage tourists to ride it whenever they go.

Finally, Topher Matthews, who served on the steering committee that wrote the Georgetown 2028 report which recommends a gondola study, explained why the community is excited about the possibility:

I understand the eye rolling that transit people are doing in response to this proposal. It’s tiresome, but I understand it.

Here’s why this could be a good idea:

  • It’s much cheaper than streetcar and Metro
  • It can be built incredibly fast (months not years)
  • It can be an attraction in and of itself

The best argument, though, is this: the plan is not simply to go from Rosslyn to M Street, but rather to continue to end at Georgetown University. Currently the GU GUTS bus carries 700,000 people from Rosslyn to campus every year. That’s just a starting point to what the gondola would expect in terms of ridership. I have no doubt the ridership from GU alone would increase substantially with a gondola. And that’s before even considering a single tourist, resident or worker wanting to use it to get to M Street faster.

Lots of the eye rolling comes from supposedly more level headed pro-transit people thinking that a cheaper more effective solution can be found with less exotic technology. But with the exception of Metro (which the plan admits will make the gondola no longer necessary), all the ways to improve the Rosslyn to Georgetown/GU connection go over Key Bridge and through Canal Road.

Do you really think transit only lanes on these routes is remotely politically feasible? Arguing this way is no different than Matt Yglesias saying that to improve streetcars we just need to completely smash the car lobby.

[Joe Sternlieb] is obviously a big booster of it, but he makes it clear: all he wants to do now is a feasibility study. If it comes back as unfeasible, then that’s it. He’ll drop it.

It’s easy to laugh it off. But, seriously, if you can’t even consider it while simultaneously defending streetcar without dedicated lanes, I’m not sure how you’re making a distinction between what’s a fanciful waste of money and what’s worth defending.

Sounds like doing a study of the gondola concept isn’t such a bad idea.

Do you have a question? Each week, we’ll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing ask@ggwash.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

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Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC’s NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College (BA) and George Mason University (MA, Transportation Policy), he is a consultant and writer on transportation, travel, and sustainability topics and a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable mobility and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own.