Sky Lifts: The Future of Tampa Transportation?

Be sure to read Part I of this article talking about the future identity of Tampa. Click the pic!

Why could an urban gondola system be the solution to our transportation woes? Well, I’ve said before that transportation isn’t our #1 problem in Tampa; it’s the #1 effect of our #1 problem. Our #1 problem, put quite simply, is that we don’t know what we want to be as a city when we grow up. We don’t have an identity or a sole reputation that is recognized worldwide. In fact, it’s not even known inside of our city! But every city of influence – every city with a powerful economy – is known for something. And it’s usually one thing. When you think of Sydney, Australia, most likely, you think of their Opera House. New York? The Empire State Building. St. Louis? The Arch. And it doesn’t have to be a building, it could be a way of life, like “The Sin City” is Las Vegas or “Keeping Portland weird” is Portland. Here in Florida, Orlando is known for the Mouse, Daytona for the cars, Miami for the Latin culture, St. Pete for the arts, and Clearwater for the beaches. But when you think of Tampa, what are we known for? Most likely, you are staring blankly now; most people do when I ask them that question. And the answer is typically, “That’s a good question. I’m not sure.”

Until you have a clear answer for “What is Tampa known for?” or a cabbie can answer that question in one short sentence, then we haven’t got that identity. And we need it. We are overdue for it. You can read more about my idea for our identity in my article, The Rooftop City, but the name alone gives you a pretty clear idea on what I think we could be. If we as a city decide to move toward that theme then this crazy idea for transportation all of a sudden seems quite sensible: Sky Lifts. Or what others might refer to as Sky Pods, or Ski Lifts, or Urban Gondolas. Think about it. If we keep trying to solve our transportation issues with the ground-level answers, we will always have to compete with roads. In the words of Doc Brown, “where we are going, we don’t need roads.”

The Urban Gondola is Not a Cure All

Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t make our roadways more efficient. We should. I’m not saying we shouldn’t invest in autonomous vehicle technology. We should. I’m simply saying that one of the most effective strategies to solve the “first mile/last mile” problem in our core area is sky lifts (urban gondola). And here’s why:

1. According to Jeff Speck, author of The Walkable City, when thinking about mass transit solutions you need to develop solutions that appeal to the middle and upper class, not the working class. Never mind that the working class may in fact use it more often; the reality is that the middle and upper class are the ones who will fund the majority of the projects, so it better appeal to them. It’s a question of behavioral economics. Nothing more. When I’ve interviewed people about whether they would like to take a sky lift across the river to get to their office downtown, the answer is nearly always an enthusiastic YES!

Sky Lifts could easily transport students to the new USF facility in Waterstreet

2. Lifestyle Quality: When we think about the future of transportation it’s easy to think about the Jetsons, and flying cars or drones that carry us from our home to our office. The technology exists, but I don’t think it’s the solution we are looking for. At least not right now. The noise pollution of drones flying all over our residential and business cores would be unbearable, and the anxiety created by low flying aircraft over our heads would discourage people from wanting to go outdoors. And in our outdoor culture in Tampa, I don’t see that making people very happy. Let human transport drones 2.0 come along firs, which will be silent and cool. In the mean time, sky lifts (urban gondola) will create a peaceful, beautiful addition to our skyline and whether you are in the sky lift or below, it creates a calmness in a culture, that frankly, I think we could all benefit from. And, when human transport drones finally do come along, and are silent, they will still not replace an urban gondola that will still be used for the normal, every-day worker. VTOLS, (vertical take off and landing systems) will be the transportation for the upper class.

3. Footprint: To create an advanced light rail system to connect transit areas to our city center would require us to move urban mountains. It’s not just about building a rail, it’s about moving buildings and that’s not something that happens quickly. Do we really want to wait another decade to finally get a transit solution? But urban gondolas? They need just a pole in the ground! The foot print is significantly less.

4. Affordability. Subways cost $400 million per mile. Light rail is between $35 – $140 million per mile. But Sky Lifts? They run about $3 million per mile. For the cost of 1 mile of light rail we could literally have an entire network of sky lifts connecting our downtown core to Harbour Island, Davis Island, Ybor City, Hyde Park, Julian B Lane Park, University of Tampa, Waterstreet (Channelside), and if you really want to think big and be bold, why not run a connecting lift from our city center to the airport? Maybe even over the bay between Tampa and St. Pete? Or better yet? Create landing pad in the middle of the bay with boat docks, tiki bars, and water sport activities that you can stop at, enjoy the bay,then continue on the rest of the way, or turn back around? With some creative ingenuity, anything is possible.

Some of the concerns that people have with Sky Lifts would be efficiency and speed. Who wants to be in a pod that keeps starting and stopping as they onboard and offload people on either end? Great concern, and answered. The Sky Lifts will be in perpetual motion, and utilize a queuing system that allows the pods to have a 4 pod buffer at either end allowing them to slow down to such a speed that it’s easy to safely walk on and walk off the pods.

Another concern, and this applies to all forms of public transport, is whether or not people would even use it. It’s a legitimate concern, and this is why the lifts must be designed without tourism in mind. Sure, tourists can use them, but we shouldn’t build it for them. It needs to be designed for our local residents. This means making the connections to places that are frequented by the locals, not the tourists. This could easily provide a solution to one of our concerns in the city as we progress toward making the Hillsborough River the centerpiece of our city, not the border to it. By providing ways to connect the two parts of our downtown we could encurouag more intelligent growth on the east side of the river. In my most recent trip to London, I had a chance to experience their urban gondola. We too could enjoy sweeping views of our river just like this:

What about safety? We live in a place that has hurricanes and lightning! Yep, and during a hurricane, trains won’t be running, cars won’t be on the roads, and buses won’t run either. When we are in hurricane mode, we hunker down and don’t go outdoors anyway. We will do the same with Sky Lifts (urban gondola). And with regard to lightning, the pods are no different than planes flying through a lightning storm. All of the pods are grounded and there’s no risk of electrocution. The fact is, this technology has been around for a very long time. They can withstand high winds, harsh temperatures, and have one of the lowest accident rates of any transportation system ever created. According to the research I’ve found at on a fatality rate per million passengers, not just urban gondolas, but all gondolas worldwide, is 0.001154. That’s about 1 death for every 900 million passengers. For comparison, traditional transit systems average 1 death for every 31 million passengers. All Cable Propelled Transit (CPT) systems are designed to meet very high safety standards. Each of these systems has stringent daily inspections and a culture of prioritising safety. And the statistics further strengthen that argument. In Switzerland, which has the higher per capita use of cable cars in the world, a person is 3 times more likely to get injured in a tram, bus or train and 50 times more likely to get injured in a car as compared to while in a cable car. Studies in North America have shown similar results. Between 1990 and 2010, there were only 6 fatalities involving CPT systems (NONE of which involved enclosed gondolas) while other transit systems had 5,681 reported fatalities. When I rode the gondola in London, I felt safe the entire time. Here’s a play by play of my experience:

By embracing a rooftop culture now, we set ourselves up for future tech like UberAir

VTOLS (vertical take off and landing systems) are inevitable. By making Tampa the “Rooftop City”, we position ourselves to welcome companies like UberAir to select our city as their launchpad for their flying craft. They’ve already selected Dallas and Los Angeles as their beta cities, and that’s fine, because UberAir 2.0 will be far more successful in my opinion. By creating a sky transportation culture in Tampa we automatically create a natural complement to the future of aerial transport. It’s important to realize that this transportation is coming. The question is, do we want to be on the forefront or waiting at the end of the line?

Want to Learn More?

Click the pic to purchase your copy of the book. (I did!)

Check out to read the most current intel on how urban gondolas are transforming the landscape of innovative cities willing to explore unique transportation options. They even have a book you can purchase (I did!) that covers so much more than the website, and lists all the different types of gondolas, their advantages and disadvantages, and much much more!