Race and Place: How Urban Gondolas Address Segregation

Austin is the United States’ number one economically segregated large metro area. Within it, race and poverty are well-studied. The city has the 8th fastest growing poverty rate in the country with almost a quarter of its black and Latino populations living below that rising poverty level. Most minority citizens live in one common geographic location: east of I-35.

This partitioning spells out a disaster for both diversity and equality. Being separated by an interstate inhibits the suburban poor from equally contributing to and participating in the city proper. This condition drastically limits their access to the resources of the urban core including diverse jobs and city amenities like parks. Inside the city, this lack of integration shapes public perception of who is integral and whose needs must be addressed. Unfortunately, the state of Austin’s segregation is unlikely to change largely because of its limited public transportation options. Social mobility, in part, requires geographic mobility.

However, there is a proposal in the works that might improve this inequality: an urban gondola system. Elevated urban cable car systems have proven effective in other cities across the world with similar connectivity challenges as Austin. If urban gondolas could be adapted to a major US market, the social change could be significant.

Buses serve as the main form of public transit in Austin, yet they are unpredictable and molasses-slow because of the city’s traffic. This is hardly a reliable method for time-sensitive, work-related commutes. Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute, confirms the reality of these limitations, explaining that, “part of the problem [with suburban poverty] is access to transit.” Currently, Austin’s public transportation only gets lower-income populations outside of the urban core to “about 12 percent of the region’s jobs in a 90 minute commute,” notes Kneebone.

In an effort to address these problems, the city has tried several solutions. Austin expanded its western highway, MoPac, to ease commuter congestion through use of a pay lane, the cost of which increases with demand, similar to Uber’s surge pricing system. While this expansion aids in relieving congestion for Austin’s more well off (and largely white) population, this change does little for the poor on the east side of the city who may not be able to afford cars, let alone the cost of extra toll fees.

Another recently attempted solution was the MetroRail, a 32-mile line with nine stations that runs between the north of the city and its center. The problem with MetroRail and other rail systems like it is that they come with an expensive price tag for cities, its taxpayers, and its riders, especially when it comes to expansion. Construction in general, and rapid construction specifically, is costly and often prohibitively troublesome because routes have to be constructed across rivers and freeways, often interfering with infrastructure that is already there. Municipalities, therefore, have to pay for every square foot these developments touch, resulting in cities fronting massive bills until the systems can pay themselves off.

In Austin, traditional ground-based transit offers little hope. The city is characterized by a tight layout flanked by two highways, which means that expensive construction is necessary anywhere ground infrastructure needs to be built. As the city urbanizes, this situation will only be exacerbated as there is less space, more development, and more heavily trafficked roads. While these problems proliferate, higher income commuters will continue to whiz through toll lanes, insulated from the dearth of public transit, while the compounded effects of transportation scarcity on minorities continue to grow.

The poorer communities at the city’s fringes rely on public transportation for convenience and cost-effectiveness. They continue to invest more and more time to get to a shrinking sub-selection of jobs from a shrinking sub-selection of neighborhoods. Austin’s expansion continues to outpace access delivered by public transportation. Fewer options for work, more hours committed to transit, and less control over when one arrives and leaves leads to a job fragility that substantially inhibits upward economic mobility.

Continuing on its current trajectory, Austin will only become further and further segregated with less and less of a way out — or rather, a way in between.

In the 30s, with the boom of electric power in transportation technology, urban gondolas were relegated to the recreational market, but recently they’re making a comeback in the public transportation sector in emerging markets. According to the Gondola Project, elevated cable cars have been implemented as public transit options in Mexico City; La Paz, Bolivia; Caracas, Venezuela; Medellín, Colombia; Ankara, Turkey; and Constantine, Algeria, among others.

Gondolas are a form of public transit that is reminiscent of ski lifts — they move continuously in a straight line using interspaced towers. Individual cars can generally carry between six and 15 passengers, turn at specific stations, and be added or subtracted depending on usage. Gondola cars arrive at stations every few seconds, slowing for travelers to exit and board.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of urban gondola systems is that they operate in a city’s “second story” of development, gliding over existing infrastructure and geographic obstacles that impede ground transportation systems. This makes gondola systems relatively cheap to implement since the costs of interfering with or working around current infrastructure is greatly reduced by rising above them. Gondolas free public transportation from being bound to the streets and improve travel time. Instead of 90-minute bus rides along pre-determined roadways, riders can commute much like birds fly — in a more direct path above everything else. Aerial transportation solutions like gondolas have strong tangential benefits as well; for example, they allow ground-based transportation to be more effective and less congested by taking passengers and their cars or busses off the road.

Jared Ficklin, a partner and creative technologist at argodesign, has proposed a new urban gondola system called The Wire. A pilot of this system called Wire One is designed to move between south Austin and the University of Texas, just north of downtown. The culmination of work and research from 2012 when Ficklin and his colleagues interviewed locals about their troubles with the city’s traffic, Wire One spans an eight-mile line moving from the south of Austin to just north of the city center.

This pilot line alone would move 6,000 riders an hour 19 hours a day with no schedule to memorize, since the cars simply operate on a non-stop rotation. While limited in its initial iteration, once future lines of The Wire that move east-to-west are implemented, the system will have the ability to connect Austin’s segregated minority communities to the rest of the city in a way that other traditional transportation systems cannot. While the exact cost of a ticket is still to be determined, once completed The Wire would ultimately offer clear benefits for the city’s disconnected poor by providing the access, flexibility, and reliability that current public transit systems lack. A rough comparison is evidenced by other gondola systems in cities around the world like Medellín, Colombia.

One of the most violent cities in the 1980s and 1990s, Medellín implemented the world’s first urban cable-propelled transit system in 2004. The Gondola Project details that jobs increased over 300% because of the cable and a report from the National Institute of Health found that the city’s connection of “isolated low-income neighborhoods to the … urban center,” greatly reduced violence through neighborhood transformation. Medellín — and similar cities — suggest that urban gondola systems have the ability to dramatically improve the lives of suburban poor by providing the structures of support, engagement, and dialogue necessary for connecting communities.

While Austin might not have Medellín’s degree of violence, it has similar access issues that Medellín’s poor faced before the gondola system was implemented. In the vein of Medellín, Austin’s disconnected communities could greatly benefit from the increased access that a system like The Wire would provide. Of course, there is no perfect solution: Austin’s isolation of minorities is at least as old as 1928, dating back to the city’s creation of its Negro District, and The Wire (or any other urban cable solution) is not going to fix segregation entirely or instantly.

The Wire will still face common public transportation challenges such as getting riders from their homes and jobs to the stations, which becomes more difficult the farther out from the urban core one gets. However, The Wire lends itself to integration with both infrastructure and other transportation systems, like city bike shares, that can help to meet some of these challenges.

Despite the many challenges, the undertaking of solutions like The Wire are worth advocating for because they move and mix communities in a way that current structures inhibit. To uplift communities, cities must invest in transportation that is as inclusive as possible. Creating systems that enable minorities and the poor to have access to a wider range of job opportunities and the ability to represent themselves in wider swaths of their city is an essential step towards equality in Austin and beyond. Of course every new project poses a cost to a city but, as Ficklin put it, “the most expensive mass transit system you can build is the one that no one uses.”

Mobilizing disconnected communities is a movement, in more than one way.

A version of this story ran in Impact Hub Design on October 12, 2016.

David Schwartz is a designer, researcher, and strategist at argodesign who specializes in emerging markets and social impact. He regularly speaks, teaches, and writes about design theory and practice.

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