The Dream of Urban Cable in Austin

Jared Ficklin is a partner and the chief creative technologist of the local firm called argo design. He is also a bit of a pragmatic dreamer and has become an evangelist for a mass transportation vision that he co-created. The project is known as Wire Austin and has been creating a steady buzz since 2011 when Ficklin and his colleague Michael McDaniel did a TEDxAustin Talk that received a standing ovation from the audience. If you’ve cursed the traffic gods while sitting parked on I-35 this week, it’s definitely worth a watch. 

The gist is this: Imagine a gondola system, similar to what you are used to seeing at a ski resort, that takes riders high above the congestion and capacity woes of Austin’s roadways. Ficklin and his team believe that a climate-controlled urban cable system could not only be the answer to many of our problems, it could be an attraction for tourists, and a pioneering investment in our collective quality of life.

As highway improvement projects stretch on forever, and previously sleepy neighborhood streets become busy routes for drivers avoiding the main arteries, Ficklin thinks we should look to the sky for the next big thing. We wanted to know more … much more! So we called him up. 

365: So what is urban cable? 

Jared Ficklin: Well urban cable is a kind of mass transit similar to what you would ride at a ski area—cars that ride on a cable, which is hung on towers and they go on a loop. We call them detachable high-speed gondolas. They clamp onto the cables, and when they get to a stop, they are lifted off the cables and go to a platform which is perfectly level, where the passengers get on and off. So you can imagine in a stack of six cars with one coming every 30 seconds from one end, and one leaving every 30 seconds from the other end—the cars are big enough to hold 10 people and some climate-control equipment—so it’s this continuous system. It’s basically aerial ropeways, greatly elevated for application in urban settings.  It has the capacity of about 25 buses per hour in each direction. That’s like a bus stopping every 40 seconds.

Where has this been successful?

The case study most people point to is Medellín, Colombia. They deployed a three-line system and they are working on a fourth line to add to it. Their version of the suburbs, places where low-income families live, are very tightly packed and dense. There was no eminent domain to add roads and run busses. If they were going to put in transit, they would have had to tear down a whole bunch of houses. So instead they put in urban cable and they could hop over a lot of people’s houses just using these towers. It revolutionized their system and it functions as a true mass transit system there, three lines that come together at a central hub. Throughout South America it’s been quite popular. It’s also deploying in Europe and Asia. We have some small forms of urban cable in North America, but a true urban cable line that would approximate mass transit really hasn’t been deployed yet.

Why is Austin a good candidate for something like this?

We’re just big enough to feel the problem but not big enough to afford the traditional solutions. We also have river, greenbelts, and freeways in place and all of the eminent domain has been claimed. These are very expensive things to work around when adding mass transit. Urban cable can cross all of these things nearly for free. So it’s a way to add mass transit on the routes that we already use. All it needs is a straight shot. We have a few streets in this city where we could run these. South First is one of those streets. It’s a nice straight shot from Slaughter right into Downtown. You could jog over the river and then ride it right down Guadalupe until you meet the corner of campus. We could build this with a very good cost profile.

Is that the pilot line you have proposed?

Yes, recently we’ve been looking at a pilot line called Wire One. It has the potential to serve basically all of those people who live south of the river. It’s a route we couldn’t achieve any other way. South First is one of our four major north-south arteries. We could add a fifth right above it with urban cable. Because it’s above the street, it doesn’t remove any supply from the street. If you put something like surface rail, you are actually removing supply from the street. People could still leave their house the way they do now—you can build parking garages at certain retail areas—and head into Downtown. A good 30,000 people do that every day. These days the congestion line starts at Ben White, a good 25 minutes from City Hall. On a bad day it could be worse and five years from now it’s going to be way worse. It could be basically the same journey people already take—start at home, park in a garage—with one extra step of getting on urban cable. 

Where does the proposal stand right now?

There is a citizens group that is working with city officials to try and get this in action. But ultimately we do need to convince the city to invest in this form of mass transit. We need the citizenry to agree with us, because we all may need to pay for it.

How much would it cost?

Well I can say this about cost: I’m not trying to be competitive here, but we all know what surface rail costs, so I will use it as a comparison. I actually believe that to solve the transportation crisis in Austin, we need to add supply whenever and wherever we can. For each route we want to achieve, we should look for a technology that best matches the need. We shouldn’t think in terms of only roads and only trains. There is no single solution to traffic. But surface rail lays out at about 100 million dollars per mile and I think we could get twice the mileage with urban cable. Some cities have done it for far less than that—some have done it for around 13 million per mile. But I think for the climate in Austin and the commuters we have, we are going to spend for a more luxurious system. We need climate control; we need stops that are civic in nature; we need an up time of 19 hours a day; and we are hoping we’ll need a high capacity for this thing and those attributes will make it more expensive. But the fact that we are only doing construction where there is a stop and a tower, and we are going to cross the freeways and the rivers for free, and the fact that you actually just couldn’t put anything else on South First, means that this is a very sensible thing to do from a cost perspective. And I think when the tourists are in town, there is a certain number who are going to jump on a ride it just for the experience.

It does seem like this has an appeal beyond just getting from place to place. Most mass transit systems aren’t fun to ride.

This is what our tourism needs. I think it was recently proclaimed that we have a festival economy—people are coming to experience our culture, and traffic and congestion are a threat to that. Urban cable would get people around, and be a real mass transit system, but it goes up in the air and over the river, and there are beautiful views. Everyone is going to take that selfie and a lot of people will pay just to get on it while they are here. It will become the thing to do in Austin. There are a lot of cities considering this and I think there is this feeling of well, who is going to go first? That also makes it pretty exciting. 

And other than it just being cool, what are some reasons people might be quick to adopt it?

I think the fact that it isn’t on a schedule and the pilot route is on a route that everyone can imagine using and is growing in popularity. The fact that someone could walk out their door and be downtown in 22 minutes, people are going to start doing that. Another thing that urban cable has is an amazing amount of predictability. In other words, it’s always going to be that same amount of time between gondolas. 

What is the biggest challenge about getting this off the ground? 

I just got back from the New Cities Summit in Montreal and we were discussing just this: What are the barriers to entry for North America? Familiarity is one. You can’t call up your sister city and say, “Hey! How was implementing this?” There is no lobby because there are only two urban cable companies. And no one is quite sure about the funding yet. The good news is those are all surmountable barriers, but it’s going to happen at the speed of civics. We have a policy of figuring out what’s best for the commuter, rather than figuring out what makes sense for the city.

If people like the idea, what can they do to help?

Right now they could write their city council member and ask them to consider urban cable. If they saw a good show of support from the public, I think it would happen. It’s a good time for folks to rally around something like this.

They should also like Wire Austin’s Facebook page. That’s how they will learn more and hear more in the future. In about a month’s time we’re going to be releasing the vision. Right now we’re just talking about it. 

Above: A rendering of the Wire One pilot route. Image courtesy argo design.