The Arlington-to-Georgetown gondola inched one step closer to reality this week when the city council put forward a budget that included $35,000 for a feasibility study. Putting aside the obvious question of how much demand there actually is to move people from Arlington to Georgetown (I mean, they’re sort of the same place, aren’t they?), what would the gondola actually be like?
Funny you should ask. Weirdly enough, I’ve ridden not one but two urban gondola systems – one in Medellin, Colombia, when I was traveling around South America, and one in New York City – so I’m something of an expert on the subject. I’m like the Forrest Gump of gondola lifts. So go ahead, ask me anything.
Not that long, probably. The Roosevelt Island Tramway in NYC, which dates from the early Seventies, travels 3100 feet in only three minutes – about 18 miles per hour. The Metrocable in Colombia goes at about half that speed – 10 miles per hour. The distance traveled by the Georgetown gondola will probably be less than the Roosevelt one – maybe as little as half that distance. (Measuring likely crossing routes on Google Maps puts the distance at about 1400 feet, though that might be a bit short.) So all told, probably less than five minutes. Long enough to take several gondola selfies that no one will be impressed by, but not long enough to have gondola sex, unless you’re really bad at sex.
It’s actually pretty safe. How safe? It’s safe enough that if you googled “are gondola lifts/sky trams safe?” on your iPhone while you were paranoid on mushrooms, the safety record would be reassuring enough that you’d be like, “oh, I’m safer in here than I am on the ground, I should stop hyperventilating.” (The only time I rode the Roosevelt Island tram was when me and a few friends had eaten mushroom chocolates we bought from an old English guy who insisted we call him ‘Willy Wonka,” and decided that we were going out to the abandoned island in the East River where they’d quarantined Typhoid Mary. Then we found out that you could only get there by kayak, so we opted for Roosevelt Island instead, since we were far too high to rent kayaks, much less paddle them. I think our reasoning in opting for Roosevelt was that any island would be interesting, since all islands are, by nature, interesting. (That’s mushroom logic for you.) This turned out to be not true and we wasted our mystical mushroom trance state wandering the streets and parks of boring ol’ suburban Roosevelt Island. I blame Willy Wonka.
But yeah, if you look up the safety record of all the gondolas in the world, the last accident involved a kid who fell ten feet into snow, incurring “minor injuries.” Not exactly bloodcurdling. Gondolas are pretty safe. (One of the only really bad gondola accidents involved a helicopter accidentally dropping a massive concrete construction block onto a gondola, which to me is less of a gondola accident and more of a one-in-a-billion “Worst luck ever” thing.)
What do you mean, “what happens”? You sit and wait. The NYC tram broke down in 2006 and some passengers were trapped for 11 hours before being rescued! Trapped in a metal box above a river with a bunch of strangers – that’s like the M. Night Shyamalan version of “Lord of the Flies.” After that debacle, ever tramcar was outfitted with a restroom and a diesel backup system, in case of another electrical failure. I think we can assume that the people behind the Georgetown gondola will learn from these mistakes and install similar fail-safes. I’m taking a bucket on board with me, just in case.
Gondola lifts are actually a pretty common mode of public transportation around the world, and not just at ski resorts. Think about it – with a subway you have to spend decades and billions of dollars digging tunnels, and with trolleys, you have to integrate them with existing traffic. (The District is learning now just how complicated that can be.) But with a gondola, you just throw up some wires and poles and you’re set. It’s actually a much lower-maintenance medium of transportation than most other options.
That’s not the entire answer, though. The other part of it is that DC is now all grown up and looking to start making a splash. Look at the prestige projects that have been greenlit for the next decade – the Anacostia Bridge Park, the world-class waterfront being built up around The Wharf, the cutting-edge floating Kennedy Center addition, the cycle-tracks and trolleys and stadiums. For a long time, DC was struggling just to get by, but now that it’s flush with cash, it’s ready to show off a little bit. Until the mid-Aughties (look it up), DC was like a recent college grad eating microwave ramen in their cubicle and getting disconnection notices every month, but now it’s like a 35-year-old who just got promoted to VP and put a down payment on a condo in Logan Circle. Think of this (yes, slightly ridiculous) Georgetown gondola as that 35-year-old’s rooftop hot tub – not really necessary, but definitely impressive when you have friends over. (Actually, this whole analogy makes so much of recent DC development make a ton more sense, doesn’t it?)