wellington: a sensible tourist on the cable car

This blog rarely goes on about interesting transit vehicles, since my main interest is in getting people where they're going in whatever vehicle makes sense for the purpose.  But while working in Wellington last month, I made early morning ritual of climbing to the Botanic Gardens summit just west of downtown, and on one such walk I took some time to admire the cable car


"Cable car" generally means any vehicle attached to a cable that provides the locomotion.  The car has no engine, but an engine of some kind is moving the cable.  The cable can be aerial (gondolas, aerial trams) or underground (San Francisco cable cars) or it can just lie on the surface in a special guideway, as in most funiculars.  Wellington's is essentially a funicular: it runs in a dead-straight track up the side of a steep hill.  The two cars are fixed to the ends of a single cable, connected at the top, so that they move in counterweight fashion, one car rising as the other descends. 

Unlike most funiculars, though, it has more than two stations — five in fact.  At Talavera station in the exact middle, tracks widen out so that the cars can pass.   Everywhere else the cars share one track, but with two separate rollers for the two cables:


(In this case, the presence of just one cable means that one car is below us, the other above.)

The spacing of the other stations is limited by the design or the system, because when a car is at the station one up from the bottom, the other is stuck the same distance below the top.  In Wellington, even spacing of stations — not always ideal for local geography — ensures that both cars are at stations whenever they stop.

But enough with technology fetishes.  Why is this thing useful?

Easy: it's a straight line, running at high frequency, through high density, where competitors are at a disadvantage.

Cable cars (aerial or surface) can make sense in settings where you want a straight line up the side of a steep hill — especially if there's no straight road that a bus could follow.  That's exactly what the Wellington line (marked by the five yellow pins) is:

   Wlg cable car stns 1

The terminal stations are Lambton Quay in the heart of downtown and the Botanic Gardens summit.  There's demand everywhere on this dense hillside.  Botanic Gardens station offers a level walk into the fairly dense Kelburn district to the southwest, while Lambton Quay is right on the Golden Mile, where buses come every minute or less to take you north or south through downtown, and beyond. 

The other stations are Victoria University, one down from the top, Talavera in the middle, and Clifton, one up from the bottom.  Victoria University's campus is visible on the south side of the above image.  It has its own bus services, but it's a short level walk along a terrace to its station.

And while climbing this hill is something I might do as early morning exercise, it's understandable that you might want an alternative to that.  The climb is 120m of elevation gain in only 612m of horizontal length, a grade of nearly 20%.

But the real reason I thought to write about it is the interesting feature observable at the top.

DSC00110The vehicles themselves are designed for their constant slope.  The floor is always parallel to sea level while the car's structure is tilted 20% from the floor, to match the grade.

As a result, it's possible to open the car on both sides and produce a level boarding from the surrounding ground.  Where the car dwells at the top, as in this image, you can even walk right through the car as though it were part of the sidewalk.

I'm always interested in ways to make transit feel more continuous with the pedestrian realm.  I long for buses with precise docking for absolute level boarding — not just to eliminate the delay of wheelchair ramps but also to create a feeling that the bus is a moving piece of sidewalk, that you are not leaving the street to crawl into an oppressive enclosure.  Local transit won't really feel effortless to use until we have this effect.

So that's why this image appealed to me, so much that I even indulged some uncharacteristic technology-fetishism.  Because the effect in this picture in important, and if I need a cable car to get it, I'll take a cable car.


25 Responses to wellington: a sensible tourist on the cable car

  1. Walt Roscello October 1, 2011 at 6:21 pm #

    A lot of these features are also in the original Metro in Lausanne, Switzerland.

  2. Alon Levy October 1, 2011 at 7:59 pm #

    I’m always interested in ways to make transit feel more continuous with the pedestrian realm. I long for buses with precise docking for absolute level boarding — not just to eliminate the delay of wheelchair ramps but also to create a feeling that the bus is a moving piece of sidewalk, that you are not leaving the street to crawl into an oppressive enclosure.


  3. Rob October 1, 2011 at 9:47 pm #

    I think it’s not technology fetishism when the use of technology is a good fit for the problem at hand. Then it’s just sort of cool.

  4. Max Wyss October 1, 2011 at 11:51 pm #

    An openness of the station to this extent is indeed rare. Most of the time, the stations are closed buildings. This is mostly for safety reasons, but also for ticketing.
    BTW, funiculars with intermediate stops are not uncommon, kind of similar to intermediate levels on an elevator.

  5. Daniel October 2, 2011 at 2:37 am #

    This is a nice post! I like the way you link issues of transport design to the perceiving of the public, the people who use it.

  6. James A. October 2, 2011 at 3:04 am #

    I also object to the term “technology fetishism”. It implies that an interest in transit technologies is negative and that therefore an ignorance of them is desirable. Yet, transit planners who are uninformed about transit technologies (whether intentionally so or not) can inadvertently make poor planning decisions with results that are equally disastrous as those made by pushers of a specific mode to the exclusion of all other considerations. Transit technologies are not always interchangeable — they are a tool for solving a problem. Would you call a handyman who knows the fundamental difference between two kinds of power tools a “technology fetishist”? Would that be productive?
    Ok, rant aside. My contribution to the funicular discussion is to call attention to the Hungerburgbahn of Innsbruck, Austria: a modern funicular that begins under the city center in a subway before surfacing to cross the river Inn on a cable-stayed bridge and then climbing the Hungerburg. Because there is no constant grade, the vehicles were designed with the passenger compartments suspended as pendulums. Regardless of the incline, the floor of each compartment is always level to the ground. There are some good photos on the German Wikipedia page: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungerburgbahn_(2006)

  7. Brent Palmer October 2, 2011 at 5:22 am #

    James A.: “Would you call a handyman who knows the fundamental difference between two kinds of power tools a ‘technology fetishist’?”
    Clearly not: A technology fetishist would insist on using only one of those power tools for any sort of job.

  8. Alan Howes October 2, 2011 at 7:06 am #

    OK, I can empathize with a certain sensitivity about being labelled a transit-geek.
    But whatever, this interesting post does call attention to the poverty of the English language in respect to “cable cars”, Indeed, they may run on rails or be suspended from aerial cables. German has a much broader range of names, at least for the aerial variations (luftseilbahn, gondelbahn etc.). We need a few new words.
    But thanks for drawing attention to the Hungerburgbahn – a good reason to re-visit Innsbruck!

  9. Joseph E October 2, 2011 at 8:18 am #

    ” I long for buses with precise docking for absolute level boarding”
    Heck, we could use that on the light rail trains in Portland!
    There’s still a 3 inch vertical gap between the low platforms and the train floors, necessitating at wheelchair ramp deployment, which requires the rider to push a button, and wait for the doors to close and reopen.. At least there are no stairs, like in the older cars still in use.
    It baffles me that Trimet didn’t procured train cars that matched the platform height.

  10. Eric O October 2, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    Jarrett, long ago you’ve convinced me that, if anything, you want the vehicle to become invisible ha ha.

  11. JJJJ October 3, 2011 at 12:10 am #

    Joseph E, dont blame trimet, theres not a single low-floor LRV in the US that offers true level boarding, even with brand new trains at brand new tracks. I dont understand it.

  12. Zoltán October 3, 2011 at 5:28 am #

    It puzzles me when various relatively recent LRT and BRT systems in the US use completely ground-level platforms, without even a curb, requiring a considerable step up. See, for example, the underground platforms of Boston’s silver line. Surely they can do better than that.

  13. Bob G. October 3, 2011 at 7:30 am #

    Why keep this piece of antiquated rail technology? Can’t this be replaced with bus service? It’d be a lot more flexible.

  14. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org October 3, 2011 at 7:43 am #

    Bob.   The cable car is much straighter than any bus line could be.  Look at the street pattern.  Cable cars are also much more energy efficient climbing such steep hills.

  15. Matt October 3, 2011 at 8:09 am #

    There used to be funiculars in Duluth, MN. If the downtown and lakeside re-emerges as a dense employment center, it might be worth considering a funicular or cable car at some point in the future. They could have East-West buses along the hillside which connect back to the funicular.

  16. Eric Doherty October 3, 2011 at 10:15 am #

    “I long for buses with precise docking for absolute level boarding”
    I keep wondering if Volvo’s system of ramps on every bus door used in Curitiba Brazil could be modified to work with low-floor buses. However, I worry that they would jam up with snow and ice or be damaged in traffic since they are on the outside (at least I think they are on the outside of the doors and just hinge down).
    With ramps you don’t need to be absolutely level, only within 3 inches or so vertically. And you can span a considerable horizontal gap.

  17. EngineerScotty October 3, 2011 at 10:52 am #

    One reason paired cable cars such as this are energy-efficient at climbing hills is that the two vehicles each serve as a counterweight for the other. Aerial tramways, such as that in Portland, have the same property.

  18. Pete October 3, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    Kerb guided busways such as the recently opened one in Cambridgeshire (UK) provide rail-like precise docking at busway stops. The nearside guide wheel is also used to assist docking at on-street bus stops.
    Most conventional bus stops here also have raised kerbs, sometimes knkwn as ‘Kassel Kerbs’ after the German city of that name. Basically these have a curved profile that ‘captures’ and guides the leading nearside tyre to assist with docking.
    Typical UK bus stop (in Wales hence bi-lingual road markings):
    Regarding funiculars, we have a couple of historic examples – The Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway, worked by water balance, and the Great Orme Tramway:
    Jarrett’s Christchurch example reminds me of the Peak Tramway in Hong Kong which also has intermediate stations:

  19. Wanderer October 3, 2011 at 9:44 pm #

    Angels Flight in Downtown Los Angeles is often regarded as a toy funicular, but it runs in a straight line, through a dense area, on reasonably high frequencies. You can get up the steep hill by walking or driving, but Angels Flight does a better job.

  20. tomtakt October 4, 2011 at 7:57 am #

    Thanks for sharing the Kassel kerb idea again; I find it really interesting.
    The downtown Munich S-Bahn trains are really notable in their double-sided level platforms, the most important outcome of which is the efficient on- and off-loading of passengers at busy stations. (couldn’t find a similar photo to yours, but this gets the idea across http://www.flickr.com/photos/cdspit/3129133479/) Alas, it’s not efficient enough, as they will soon start building a second parallel tunnel across the entire center city.
    Also, if you’re curious to read more on a related subject, check out a blog post on cable-propelled transit and PRT that I contributed here: http://streetwise.kittelson.com/posts/113-new-forms-of-mass-transit-gaining-steam

  21. Alan Howes October 4, 2011 at 9:37 am #

    @Pete – you took the words from my mouth. the Cambridge Busway is most impressive wrt level boarding. Do you know if Kent Fastrack and Gatwick Fastway (UK’s other notable busways) have similar level boarding? I’m not aware of it.

  22. Rob October 4, 2011 at 11:56 am #

    “theres not a single low-floor LRV in the US that offers true level boarding, even with brand new trains at brand new tracks.”
    San Jose’s light rail has level boarding. Here are some pics I found on the web.

  23. emdx October 5, 2011 at 4:33 am #

    Cable cars are not limited to straight lines…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhiIDNrFF_0 (Lyon, France).

  24. Nathanael October 23, 2011 at 8:04 pm #

    “I long for buses with precise docking for absolute level boarding — ”
    You do know that elimination of the ‘gap’ is done by putting it on tracks. (So far nobody has found a better way.) At that point you have a train…. (You still need aligned suspension or you have a step.)
    Of course, for mystifying reasons many rail systems have been installed badly, with unnecessary gaps between train and platform. Sigh.
    Anyway, if you’re forced to go with vehicles which aren’t on tracks, short ramp deployments and the quasi-track of the Kassel curb are as good as it gets.

  25. Michael Borr April 14, 2012 at 5:00 am #

    Wow, very nice post! Welcome here phdworks.org!