Kaval Call Part III – Gondolas not BART

The late, long-lamented Key System once provided an efficient, well-planned streetcar network that operated in Oakland, Emeryville and Berkeley. In the wake of the Great American Streetcar Scandal, streetcar lines were replaced by buses. That led to the eventual development of the BART system, which in 1972 was a then-futuristic regional network that decidedly was not a streetcar replacement.

It helped somewhat that Oakland started as the heart of the BART network, with eight stations within city limits and the first main trunk line (Fremont-Richmond) running through Downtown Oakland. What remained was a hub-and-spoke system in which AC Transit buses fed newly established transit hubs at the BART stations. While buses had more route flexibility than streetcars, they lacked the permanence and service quality of streetcars or light rail.

60 years after the streetcar-to-bus debacle, the modern era of light rail passed by Oakland. Meanwhile, light rail proliferated in San Francisco in the 80’s and San Jose in the 90’s. The 21st century introduced BRT – light rail in terms of station infrastructure, but buses by motor and wheels.

Construction continues apace on the San Pablo Ave and International Blvd lines. However, both terminate in or near Downtown Oakland, short of Jack London Square and Howard Terminal. Practically, that makes them no better than BART in terms of getting to the ballpark. If Howard Terminal becomes its own non-BART transit hub, it will be necessary for those BRT routes to extend to the waterfront. To accommodate BRT properly, at least one of the north-south streets running downtown (Broadway, Jefferson, Washington) will need to be modified to add BRT stations, eliminating parking or traffic lanes.

The free Broadway Shuttle provides a decent transfer option, though to properly handle the crush of pre-game and post-game riders transferring from BART, Broadway will still need to be modified. What could be the solution besides walking or street-clogging buses? A gondola, of course.

Wait. A gondola?

Saffron Blaze, via http://www.mackenzie.co

We’re not talking about the Venetian kind of gondola, as Oakland lacks the kind of canal system that could support a fleet of gondolas. Instead, the type of gondola discussed hangs in the air. Using similar technology as the Oakland Airport Connector, the gondola system the A’s are proposing would run above Washington Street between Jack London Square/Howard Terminal and 11th Street in Downtown Oakland.

Portland Aerial Tramway (via Tim Adams, flickr)

A scaled down gondola system was installed at the Oakland Zoo last year as part of the zoo’s California Trail expansion. Implementation was predicated on the notion that visitors should be able take the 1,780-foot span and 309-foot elevation change from the entrance to the new Landing Cafe at the California Trail; all while minimizing impact the wildlife beneath the gondolas. Gondolas tend to be reliable – zoo operational hiccup being an exception – and don’t use a lot of energy. Austrian vendor Doppelmayr, which also built the Airport Connector, claims that the system can carry 6,000 riders per hour. Neither of the American systems come anywhere close to approaching that capacity. Single lines in Bolivia and Colombia can carry 3-4,000 per hour. Those examples are among the busiest in the world.

The trip from the 12th Street/City Center BART station to Howard Terminal will run over flat land, though not without a transition. A rider disembarking from a Fremont or San Francisco-bound train will do so on the lowest level, the third subway deck beneath Broadway. From there fans have to take a two-story escalator, elevator, or stairs to the concourse level, walk towards the 11th Street exit, then take another escalator/elevator to street level. Once on the street, the fan would have to cross 11th Street to the Marriott City Center, then find a way to move past the hotel and up 5 floors to what is now the Warriors’ practice facility atop the Oakland Convention Center. From there there should be a gondola station that will whisk fans to Howard Terminal.

It’s not an elegant solution. It beats walking, right? While I’m sure Marriott would enjoy the uptick of baseball fans staying at the City Center hotel location, the company may not be so enthused at the idea of thousands of people not paying anything to trample the facility’s elevators. There will be many fans who decide it’s better to walk especially on a sunny day or take the Broadway Shuttle to the water. Others will have to herd like cattle up or down EIGHT flights to transfer From the subway to the gondola. A better solution may be for the City of Oakland to extend the station’s concourse level and build a separate exit from the BART station to the Convention Center that could include banks of escalators and elevators to navigate the other 5-6 levels.

(BTW the $1 million Warriors practice facility was thrown into the Coliseum Arena renovation deal. The City’s half of whatever settlement comes from the Warriors for breaking their lease could be put to good use once the remaining debt is paid off.)

Curiously, in 2007 the City of Hercules in Contra Costa County researched a gondola to help alleviate traffic on CA-4. It seemed somewhat outdated given recent advances in ropeway technology, but the basic tenets of the pro/con debate appear sound.

1. Capital costs are low. Aerial cable transit typically has the lowest capital cost (on a per mile basis) compared to other fixed-guideway technologies.
2. Operating and maintenance costs are low.
3. Environmental impacts are minimal. Cable systems leave only a small footprint, require little space for a guideway and towers, and can be easily retrofitted into existing streets.
4. Construction impacts are minimal. Except for a limited number of foundations for towers or terminals, much less site preparation is necessary than for other types of fixed guideway.

1. Expandability is impossible or difficult at best. Since current technology makes it difficult to have systems consisting of more than two stations, future expansion to other areas of the city may not be feasible.
2. Alignment tends to be limited to a straight line. Angle stations both increase costs and consume relatively large amounts of land, the latter being undesirable in urban areas. Concrete or steel guideways carrying self-propelled vehicles are preferable if a curved alignment is needed.
3. Availability, while high, is not as great as for other technologies.
4. High winds and electrical storms force shut downs which would not occur with other technologies.
5. Evacuation techniques are dramatic and unnerving. Cautious public officials are unlikely to feel comfortable with them. Although the techniques are proven safe
and effective, media may emphasize their dramatic aspect.
6. Insurance premiums are high. This tends to cancel advantages to low operating and maintenance costs.

Compared to other modes of transportation, there aren’t a lot of studies on gondolas in urban settings in the USA. There are successful examples of the technology in Portland (Portland Aerial Tram) and New York (Roosevelt Island Tramway). Yet the tech has had difficulty escaping the notion that it’s meant primarily for ski resorts. The Roosevelt Island Tramway may be the most apt comparison for a Howard Terminal Gondola, as it runs on a BART-like schedule and has cabins that can hold up to 125 people each. Newer cabins used in Vietnam can carry 200. That’s a lot more than cabins at the Oakland Zoo (8) or even Portland (78). My concern about the gondola is that with its limited availability it will be looked upon as an exclusive toy for the well-heeled. At least compared to the OAC it shouldn’t cost half a billion to build it.

And now there are rumblings that Howard Terminal could be just the thing to close down underutilized I-980, re-use the old Interstate right of way for both BART and high speed rail or Caltrain tracks, while offering a station at Howard Terminal AND offering the long-sought-after Southern Crossing via another Transbay Tube to reach San Francisco. This is a clear example of wishing for things with no regard to how much they cost. If the combined Howard Terminal ballpark and transit center and trains on 980 and expanded ferry service and water taxis and redesigned Oakland streets end up costing eleven figures, what’s a few billion extra among friends?

I asked Dave Kaval how the gondola would be operated. Would it have a separate fare, or something rolled into the ticket price? Kaval response was

That’s not really determined yet. There’s an operating agreement with the operator (Doppelmayr or Garaventa), then we work out the details from there including fares.

Presumably that would include integration with the Clipper Card system, though BART saw fit to create its own app to handle payments for the Airport Connector as well.

My friends, Jeffrey and Kevin August, walked from the 12th Street City Center BART station to the open house at the A’s Jack London Square headquarters. They’re planning to do at least one more trip including Lake Merritt, then I plan to join them for the walk when FanFest happens, weather permitting.

Look, we all know how much of a cluster the Bay Area’s transit situation is. Could we all get on the same page and set some priorities? A fanciful double-tunnel based on a non-existent train extension incumbent upon a mega-development based on a small ballpark that is far from being approved? Pardon me for thinking it’s a bit of a stretch. Oakland is blessed to be the heart of the BART system. Why spend so much effort dreaming of ways to avoid BART? Or why does a second Transbay Tube have to connect through Oakland when there are so many other communities that don’t have BART at all? Answers to many of these questions will be revealed in the forthcoming EIR.

18 thoughts on “Kaval Call Part III – Gondolas not BART

  1. The gondola is a stupid expensive way of solving a problem that can be solved at ground level. And hey, in 100 years they can probably do Venetian-style gondolas.

  2. @ ML

    I get you on the 980 project probable won’t happen in our life times if at all (at least perhaps not mine), however the second transbay tube probably will happen and even if its another 25-30 years away it could still benefit the A’s.

    If the southern crossing/tube extended BART from 12th street to JLS, then to Alameda (a much talked about stopping point) and on to a southern point of the system in San Francisco ( there is already a strong case for that route without a ballpark), as A’s fans with a potential park at Howard Terminal that’s a win.

    Thearedicly if that route was chosen the first work that would/could be done would be to extend 12th street to JLS, that’s a mile of track to a JLS new station, that would be a short two block walk to HT while avoiding the train tracks if the exit could be placed on the southern end of JLS.

    This part of a potential plan could be completed by 2030, that’s only 5 years after a ballpark would probably be completed at Howard Turmanel, 7 if Dave is correct about a 2023, in the mean time all the increased forms of public transportation would be fine, especially with us eagerly awaiting a new station opening in the parks neighborhood.

  3. It just seems like a lot of fuss and complication for a whole new feature that will likely only operate for 81 home games. A small postage stamp type station with a minimal parking lot could be built around 4th and Clay St. It would require no extra track and could be primarily worked on in the off hours and on slower commute days. It would also have the benefit of being JLSq’s bart stop for all 365 days a year. The A’s gondola idea and BART’s proclamation that they won’t build a BART stop both sound like opening negotiations.

    • Yes, it’s a lot of fuss.

      But, we are not talking about JLS only, you have major housing, jobs, and sports facilities along the same potential line.

      JLS (and slightly east), even without the ballpark has/is exploding with new housing, Alameda point. (which is also exploding presently/future plans)

      You could possibly configure the San Francisco side to go by Mission Bay/Chase center/UCSF, as an A’s fan I may only care about a JLS stop, but it potentially could fit conventionally into an overall transition plan.

      And, as I said in original comment, it actually makes sense that the first option of that potential project would start with an extension of 12th steet to JLS. (As you indicated would actually take less new track to get to JLS then I thought)

  4. I agree with the above comments. The gondola won’t happen. Ugly infrastructure, hassle to get to and from the stations, $100M to build.

    Building a second BART tube through 980 will probably never happen, certainly in the lifetime of the ballpark. A bridge, tube, may be more feasible, if could go to the Transbay Terminal, not King Street.

    The Howard Terminal ballpark is got so much hair on it, it will never happen. The A’s will move to Portland or Las Vegas first.

    What makes the A’s think they will get the Coliseum site for knock down price.It is public land and should be bid out.

  5. A gondola could potentially add a unique attraction and visual element to the City of Oakland beyond just the ballpark. Urban gondolas are rare (maybe for good reasons). Were it to be built, every “Best Places to Visit” type article about Oakland/Bay Area would feature the gondola, and there would be a certain amount of non-baseball use. But in my view there needs to be consensus that it adds value from a non-baseball standpoint because I’m not sure there is enough bang for the buck when it comes to game day use. I could easily see game day ridership being inconsistent and overall light. So in my view it’s got to add material value in non-baseball ways to justify the contribution of public funds towards it (which I am assuming will be the ask).

  6. This is the first I’ve heard of the tram starting atop Warriors building. Was this common knowledge?
    Prior to this ballpark plan, Oakland had been studying a Broadway Circulator project, comparing buses & streetcars. (Running from Jack London up Broadway to Macarthur BART.) A parallel study was done with Emeryville & Berkeley exploring a streetcar network, which would extend West from JLS and connect to West Oakland BART & then North.
    With a ballpark in play, this certainly seems like added justification, and seems like a natural way to get people to/from the adjacent BART stations to Howard Terminal.
    Did you ask Kaval about piggybacking on that plan?

  7. I would love to hear more about the rest of the transportation picture Kaval has in mind. For instance, what do they envision for pedestrian bridges? I’d love to see massive crossings – on the scale of 100′ wide or so, large enough to feel like plazas in and of themselves. Leveraging the ballpark’s height, they’d start above grade, and they’d land on the other side of the tracks somewhere between Market & MLK. There’s lots of land that could be in play once the PGE substation gets replaced. If I’m not mistaken, the A’s lead rendering of the project faintly shows a bridge crossing at Market. If the bridge & landing was the full width of the lot between Market & Brush, that would be an amazing reconnection across the train tracks.
    Also, the proliferation of scooters & bike lanes will help get a large minority of people to the park, as will walking & ferry service. Important to remember the big project solution (BART/gondola/streetcar) need not carry all.

    • Cont’d: In fact, I’d argue transport capacity to ballpark *should* be less than what’s needed to carry all. SF’s Embarcadero is alive prior to games between Ferry Bldg & AT&T Park precisely because so many people are stuck walking. Businesses spring up to make it enjoyable: hot dog stands, pedicabs, cafes. All this adds vibrancy to the neighborhood that wouldn’t exist if there was a slick & seamless transit connection.

  8. I really don’t like this whole project. If this even happens will I still go to games? Of course I will, I just won’t be happy about the place. Yes, I’m spoiled as I like the on-site parking. I hate the off-site parking solution they presented since I have experienced similar at AT&T. Many ballparks around the country have off-site parking, but they have trains that drop you off right in front of the park. The A’s can’t provide that because BART doesn’t stop there. Besides, BART is not friendly for folks like me who come all the way from the Sacto area. I don’t like the fact that tailgating is all but dead at the new site.

    I also don’t like the stadium design. From the kitten ears to the Hobbit holes, it just looks ridiculous. Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see any serious outfield bleachers. Now I’m not a bleacher dweller, but I have to say the diehards who make up the bleacher sections are part of the heart and soul of the game day crowd. Call me sentimental, but I feel there needs to be significant bleachers.

    On a side note, to the Oakland A’s, if your going to hold a presser with the developer in the future, please make sure they actually know something about baseball and the culture. That presser was so painful to watch.

  9. Amy Trask:

    “This was certainly not the case while I was with the @raiders – the @Athletics told me repeatedly that if we were ready to build on that site that they would vacate it to facilitate our so doing – they were not an obstacle.”

    Of course we will never know the full story, but Trask verifies something I speculated on in the comment section (on this website), over, and over…

    Which was the A’s where not a hindrance to the Raiders putting forth a plan to build at the coliseum, not that Wolff was ever going to help Davis, but he would have not hurt any effort Davis would have made.

    As I have also speculated, it’s my belief that Wolff would have welcomed any reasonable effort by Davis as he then could have told MLB that Oakland was giving him the boot, in hopes to garner support for his effort to get to San Jose.

    Of course none of that matters now.

  10. What do people think about the Dolich hit piece in the Merc? Agree with him on the gondola being impractical, but not that the park is unworkable.

    • I thought it was pretty much all fluff, not that his point of view isn’t valid but no true evidence to support anything eaither way.

    • I found it to be really unfair. The A’s are at step 1 of a 20 step process and he is criticizing them for not having completed all 20 steps yet. Sure, there are potential pitfalls on the horizon and it is perfectly legitimate to point out what those might be. But to say it is already doomed because they aren’t all completed yet is silly. Every project has to begin before all those steps are completed. That is the process that the A’s are just starting.

      Like you, I do agree with him that the gondola idea is ridiculous and they should move on from that to real solutions sooner than later.

  11. Those Gondolas are NEVER going to happen how many days are the public willing to have ALL 8 Lanes of 880 shut down while it is built maintained and God forgives breaks down. It would be quite a show watching the Oakland hook and ladder team practice evacuation s at least once a year while traffic backs up to Gilroy and Sacramento. IMHO

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