Seattle has plenty of hills and waterways which makes a subway system attractive in comparison to road-based solutions. But even a subway needs to worry about steep hills and water unless you’re willing to spend a ton of money building deep stations and maintaining escalators and elevators. This issue helped kill the First Hill Link station in 2005. Instead of deep stations or building huge ramps or bridges, it might make more sense for Seattle to focus on building a fast and efficient subway spine and use urban gondola technology to scale our hills branching out from that spine.

Gondola lines would run continuously using electric power and less labor than a subway, bus or streetcar while also not competing with existing roadways. There are other cities with similar geography which have already proven this technology. In particular in already densely populated neighborhoods, gondola lines are far easier to build and require less housing displacements than elevated lines. Gondola stations require a smaller footprint and therefore disruption than underground subway stations, and the stations can even get integrated into other buildings. Recent projects even integrate the gondola station into both rail and bus stops.

A dramatic promotional video highlights gondola’s urban transport potential. (Credit: Doppelmayr Urban Solutions)

After Portland’s gondola success, Vancouver, British Columbia is planning to spend $150 million (USD) to do the same. Various manufacturers point out that this is proven technology and available for less than a streetcar and at about one tenth of the cost of a subway.

Most of these projects provide transportation between 2,500 and 4,000 people per hour in each direction. This is not as much as light rail provides, but usually plenty for the last mile connections.

Let’s explore some such opportunities.

West Seattle

West Seattle might be the most obvious opportunity: Sound Transit 3 (ST3) includes plans for an Avalon and a Junction station. Residents have complained about the huge ramp going up towards Avalon Way since the inception of the line. They pointed out the considerable housing displacement and soon suggested a subway alternative with somewhat reduced displacement, but with an additional cost of $700 million. Either way the line would probably dead-end at the Junction for the foreseeable future as California Ave SW is too tight to run an elevated line and a subway line may be too costly for the expected number of boardings. Earlier articles already pointed out that it would be a bad investment.

An option for a gondola route to reach California Avenue. (Google Maps with edits by author)

Instead of dead-ending Link at the Junction, Link could run along Delridge further South (White Center, Burien, airport, and connect with South Link there). For less than the original ST3 budget, a gondola could be built to go up the hill from the Delridge station, to Avalon Way and the Junction. The support towers would require far less housing displacement and would be easier to build than high ramps and/or tunnel. Later we could even run another gondola up along Admiral Way. Once we extend Link further towards White Center, we could add additional gondolas going up to High Point or even to the Fauntleroy ferry terminal.

First Hill

Avoiding a deep subway tunnel, a gondola could run from the Pioneer Square Station up Cherry Street to serve the First Hill hospitals and Seattle University and/or run from the Library along Madison and provide a much faster connection to downtown than the streetcar.

Upper Queen Anne

It has been challenging to serve Upper Queen Anne due to its location, but it would be easy to run a gondola from the new Lower Queen Anne Link station up Queen Anne Avenue to the center of Upper Queen Anne.

Kirkland

There has been discussion to run Link along the Eastrail corridor but it wouldn’t have connected downtown Kirkland and therefore got deprioritized in favor of running “Stride” bus rapid transit along I-405. The current plan calls for an elaborate station on NE 85th St, but does not provide a quick connection to the Kirkland transit center downtown. A gondola might be the perfect connection.

Issaquah

Once Link runs to Isaaquah, a gondola might be an attractive way to connect downtown Issaquah with the Highlands.

Lake Sammamish

The towers of London's Emirates Air Line gondola lift cable car, from the north bank of the River Thames. (Credit: Nick Cooper via Wikimedia Commons)
The towers of London’s Emirates Air Line gondola lift cable car, from the north bank of the River Thames. (Credit: Nick Cooper via Wikimedia Commons)

As shown in London, gondolas can also span water or great distances for far less than building a bridge. A gondola may connect the Overlake Link station along NE 24th St with Sahalee and therefore the Sammamish Plateau. Rather than reintroducing ferry services, it might make more sense to connect Sandpoint Way with Kirkland.

Route 44

There have been discussions to run an east-west Link line from Ballard to Children’s Hospital in Laurelhurst. Unfortunately there are many hills along the line making it challenging to build gondola stations at various heights. For example, it would be difficult to connect with Link at Brooklyn Ave NE and then drop down to U Village thereafter. Route 44 carries 9,300 daily weekday riders even though it’s mired in traffic, the ridership potential of rapid transit in the corridor is high.

A gondola might be able to provide more stations than a subway at a far reduced cost while at the same time not getting stuck in traffic. It could connect with U Village and Children’s Hospital or continue along Sandpoint Way and cross Lake Washington at Magnuson Park towards Juanita Point or even downtown Kirkland to connect with I-405 RapidRide. This would provide far higher speed and transportation capacity than reintroducing ferries.

The featured image of a gondola in Jounieh, Lebanon is credited to FunkMonk via Wikimedia Commons.

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28 COMMENTS

  1. Wow, I’ve been watching “City Beautiful” vlog and thinking about Seattle for a long time. I love your ideas about connecting the junction at West Seattle with South Link via gondola, the Kirkland-Sand Point and Sand Point-Northgate connections, the Upper Q Anne connection, and going up to First Hill. I would say, why not go from the Bremerton Ferry Terminal to Pike Place, to Westlake, to Capital Hill, to Madison Park and then prepare to resurrect the Leschi Ferry as a Water Taxi to Kirkland (and maybe add one to Bellevue). Then, Amazonians could zip between Bellevue and SLU campuses with water taxi, gondola and monorail, and Kirklanders could zip over to Kitsap Penninsula with water taxi, gondola and ferry. I would also suggest extending the Upper Q Anne route to Magnolia via Interurban. So encouraged to see Portland already has one!!

  2. Gondolas will create lift lines and special lines for some people and express lines for others. We will be creating equity issues when none existed before.

  3. Let’s get some REAL Gondolas, Venetian style! No carbon footprint, no displacement, great for affluent tourists and affordable.
    Might provide employment for the marginalized and historically underserved.

  4. Re: Route 44 “there are many hills along the line making it challenging to build gondola stations at various heights.” I think you meant rail stations, yes?

  5. When the owner of the Great Wheel proposed a gondola from the Convention Center to the waterfront going down Union Street, some downtown residents’ heads popped off because they didn’t want something going by their apartment/condo windows. I agree that it is a lower-impact solution, but the height of the support lines will be a big factor. And would they be suspended over I-5, in the example proposed up Cherry Ave? I would only use them if they were covered by my Orca card. Good idea, but individual neighborhood needs will be quite the conversation.

    • West Seattle is complaining that Link would displace a lot of housing along the line. What’s better: Loosing your house or have gondolas go over your house?
      Yes, the line would need to be suspended above I-5 when going up First Hill.

  6. I’ve been saying that for years we can put gondolas at Renton Landing to connect with the Boeing Plant and Seahawks Practice Facility as well as from Tukwila International Blvd light rail station to Starfire Sports

  7. The West Seattle idea deserves to be taken seriously. The population centers on California Avenue and 35th don’t merit an expensive light rail station. Delridge is the natural route to White Center and beyond.

    An advantage of a gondola is that it runs continuously. People show up and board immediately. Gondolas store potential energy going up hill and give it back as kinetic energy on the way down, helping to lift other cars on the way up.

    • Are you calling White Center a population center that warrants a light rail station while being negative about West Seattle’s junction? What potential spot in White Center is already more dense than the Alaska Junction?

      • White Center, which is mostly unincorporated and not part of Seattle, could potentially become much denser whereas Alaska Junction’s potential growth area is of a limited size and surrounded by single family neighborhoods that are not about to change anything.

        The studies done prior to ST3 showed that the Alaska Junction line had a much higher cost per transit rider than potential sites on the Ballard Line, or the two potential crosstown lines further north that were never considered. The Urbanist covered this very well.

        Light rail to Alaska Junction is a white elephant. The neighborhood doesn’t seem interested in the elevated project that could be completed with ST funds (assuming I976 is killed in court). How will this line go anywhere after it reaches Alaska Junction?

        Despite the poor economic prospects of the Alaska Junction line, we are supposed to build it first, and wait five more years for much more worthwhile projects. And we are building expensive stations for four car trains in West Seattle as well, although West Seattle’s limited population can never fill them. This should have been a small, branch line.

        The ST ballot process favors giving projects first to the areas that support them the least. That’s how West Seattle got in line in front of Ballard and several other more worthwhile projects that will probably never be built.

  8. A gondola from Southlake Park to Pier 70 with a Seattle Center stop would serve tourists, sports, music and culture audiences, bicyclists, pedestrians. It would also significantly help off-peak ridership on the streetcar.

    • Agreed. A gondola line along Denny from Uptown to Capitol Hill Station with a midway stop at Westlake would be a no-brainer. Denny is horribly congested at rush hour due to handling both cross-town and freeway-bound traffic, and ridership demand is very high. Meanwhile, route 8 gets stuck in this traffic, even with some dedicated lane treatments.

  9. Gondolas are only useful when there is no convenient road leading up the hill and the majority of passengers are trying to go from the bottom of the hill to the top. In West Seattle the majority of people live on the sides of the hill. And there are plenty of roads going up the hill already to run buses on.

  10. YES!!!!! Gondolas are way better and safer than my idea of ziplines, and more practical and safer than my other idea of jet packs (especially given how people drive here). DO IT SEATTLE!!!

  11. Urban gondolas seem like they would be a pretty good investment for Seattle. Due to it’s geography and poor road planning, and heavy traffic, Seattle has a lot of challenges that other, flatter, gridded cities simply don’t have.

    Here’s my goofy armchair urban planner proposal: Have a gondola line that goes from around King Street Station to up near Yesler Terrace Park and then continue along the i5 ROW to end at Freeway Park. Every day there are ton of people who get off the Sounder and then commute up to First Hill for their job at Swedish or another hospital and the bus service between King Street Station and First Hill is slow and unsatisfactory due to topography. Many of my coworkers at another large hospital would simply walk for 20 minutes because it was faster than the bus or the street car. This route has the additional benefit that it would run over very few NIMBYs backyards so the city wouldn’t have to waste tons of money in useless litigation to build this already likely cheap line.

    Please shoot this idea full of holes, I’d like to hear your criticisms.

    • “NIMBY backyard” You shot your own idea down! Those people have invested their lifestyles into their homes. Properties provide virtually all the voter-bond revenues to pay for urban planning pipe-dreams. Insult the people paying who also have their sense of place on the line? Arrogance, not civic leadership.

      • I think you missed Ice’s point: That a gondola would be one of the LEAST DISRUPTIVE options. Less houses to seize and less people to displace than other, more disruptive, methods of transport. That’s called “bonus”.

      • Yes, thank you for your feedback, Jules.

        As you so skillfully pointed out, many people will resort to childish self-victimization when what they actually have is a deficit in reading-comprehension skills.

        I will keep this in mind as I continue my career in the civic leadership position of generating half-baked urban planning schemes for my own amusement.

        Thanks again, Jules.

    • “Please shoot this idea full of holes, I’d like to hear your criticisms.”

      OK, here goes: It would be better as a bus. Not one bus, mind you, but two. Increase the frequency of the 27, or build a truncated version of it (that ends at 23rd). That bus could even start at King Street Station (as you suggested). Then you have a bus on Boren. This bus goes from South Lake Union to Beacon Hill or Rainier Avenue. It really doesn’t matter. The key is that it connects Yesler Terrace, First Hill and South Lake Union. You would pick up a ton of people on such a bus, which means that it be frequent. It would be faster than a gondola, because it is a bus.

      Gondolas have their advantages, but mainly because they avoid physical obstacles. There are no physical obstacles with the route you described. You could easily operate a bus following that entire route, start to finish, with lots of extra stops, and it would be a lot cheaper and more effective than a gondola. But it would be better as two buses (as it would get lots more riders for the money).

  12. A high bridge or a tunnel into Ballard is also hugely expensive for only servicing one additional stop in Ballard for ST3. I bet there’d be considerable cost savings if the ship canal crossing was a gondola and ridership for that ballard-to-seattle segment is largely driven by the core, not the lone ballard station.

    • Yes, you could run Link to Fishermen’s Terminal and then NW to Ballard and East towards Wallingford (Route 44). In Ballard Link would at least have the option to continue further North, in West Seattle there isn’t any realistic option to continue.

    • If you don’t go to Ballard, there is no point going north of Lower Queen Anne. Everything between there is expensive (miles of rail are expensive) while having very few riders. There are only two stops, and both are relatively weak. Ending in Lower Queen is definitely an option, but then you are back to building the Metro 8 subway, and (hopefully) the Ballard to UW subway. Neither are part of ST3 (unfortunately) so neither will be built. Unless there is some big financial mistake (which is always possible) it doesn’t make sense to truncate the Ballard line (especially since it is the most cost productive part of ST3).

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