A few years ago, Williamsburg resident and real estate entrepreneur Dan Levy went skiing and marvelled at the efficiency of the mountain's new gondola lift. The cabins were so large that he felt like he was on a New York City subway car. And then it dawned on him: Why not build a gondola lift in the city?
When I first covered Levy's plan to connect Williamsburg and Manhattan with a gondola lift, I laughed. But now that repairs stand to shut down the subway connecting the two boroughs for years, I'm feeling very serious. Brooklyn needs this gondola now.
This week the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced that L train service between Brooklyn and Manhattan could be closed for years at the end of 2017. The Canarsie Tube that runs under the East River remains damaged from Hurricane Sandy, and closing it entirely would be the most efficient way to fix it.
This is a particularly daunting scenario for the growing number of people who live in Williamsburg but work across the river, because there's no redundancy built into the system. The MTA say it will modify other train and bus services to get people across the Williamsburg Bridge. But the plan still leaves thousands of Williamsburg residents with no easy way to get to the office.
"Thousands" is a bit of an understatement. Ridership on the famously overcrowded L train has increased by 250 per cent since 1998. Just last year, the MTA announced plans to spend $US300 ($438) million to increase capacity and even add two extra sets of stairs to handle the 50,000 odd people who use the station every day. In total, 300,000 people a day use the L train, largely to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan and vice versa.
This is where the gondola plan comes into play. In the past four years, Levy's been working on turning his idea — which he calls the East River Skyway — into a reality. I wrote about the project in 2014, when it just seemed like a clever way to improve NYC's ageing infrastructure. But when news of the L train's imminent hibernation hit, the whimsical gondola plan suddenly felt like a necessity. (The fact that I live in Williamsburg and take the L train every day contributes to my sense of dread.) So I got in touch with Levy to find out what's happening with the East River Skyway. Long story short, he's working on it — very seriously.
Levy did his research first. After reading about similar urban gondola projects in cities like London, Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro, Medellin, and La Paz, home of the world's largest urban cable car network, Levy hired engineers to investigate how one might build one in New York. Much to his delight, it's actually not that tough a task.
"It's very feasible from an engineering perspective that it can be built," Levy told me. "It can also be built quite quickly and inexpensively. Unlike building another bridge or tunnel which can cost billions and take decades, the gondola system can be built in as little as 18 months."
The most convincing part of Levy's pitch is the efficiency of a gondola lift. Engineers say the East River Skyway could transport about 5,000 people per hour in either direction. It could also make it possible to get from the south side of Williamsburg to the Manhattan's East Village in less than five minutes. The subway takes at least 15 minutes to make that same trip.
Gondolas are historically safer than cars or trains. They're also incredibly durable and can operate in all types of weather. The East River Skyway will be designed to sustain winds as high as 121km/h. Finally, Levy's design will be all electric so there would be no on-site emissions.
According to Levy, building the gondola means navigating a "significant regulatory process" but adds that he anticipates funding the project privately rather than obtaining city or state money.
Unfortunately, there's not much the average gondola enthusiast can do to help Levy with the regulatory approval process. What you can do is voice your support for the project on the East River Skyway's website. Levy said the list of supporters is helpful when dealing with regulators.
Urban gondola lifts are becoming more popular around the world, and they should. As we continue to look for ways to make our cities cleaner and more efficient, transportation is a major challenge. Projects like the East River Skyway are an innovative solution. Levy already has his sights set on a series of similar projects that could connect New York's many boroughs and even stretch across the Hudson River to New Jersey.
As a Williamsburg resident, I'm obviously biased in my enthusiasm. But it's also objectively laudable when improvements in infrastructure make the lives of city dwellers easier. Instead of watching stuffed L train after stuffed L train roll through the Bedford Avenue station, we could all be chilling in the sky drinking tea and squinting at skyscrapers. The subway is getting worse. Riding a gondola sounds much better.