One Question Quiz
Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyNovember 29, 2023

Never mind the light rail, here’s a gondola?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The world’s biggest ski lift manufacturer wants to build 10 high-frequency gondola routes in New Zealand that it says will be cheaper and faster than light rail. Joel MacManus digs into its new report.

Could gondolas be the future of New Zealand’s urban transport? Austrian-based company Doppelmayr thinks so.

The Spinoff was given an early copy of the Urban Transport Solutions report, which Doppelmayr is presenting at a BusinessNZ event tomorrow morning. The report has a forgettable name but unforgettable content, setting out a fantastical vision of high-frequency gondolas soaring above Aotearoa’s busiest cities. It seems silly at first, but Doppelmayr is not joking around. 

“We are concerned that New Zealand is missing out on a new mode being adopted internationally that can help unlock the transport networks of our major cities,” the report says gravely. 

Doppelymayr claims to be able to build a new line in two years or less, for about a third of the cost of light rail, while taking up far less space. 

Doppelmayr’s report outlines 10 routes it thinks it could viably build in New Zealand. It includes a connection between Auckland’s Airport and city centre along the proposed light rail route and two in Wellington along the debated mass rapid transit routes from the airport and Island Bay.

There are also some less conventional options that wouldn’t be possible for any other transport mode, including an eight-minute shortcut up the steep hills from Wellington CBD to Karori, and a path from Queenstown airport to the town centre over Queenstown Hill.

The full list is at the bottom of this story. 

Who is Doppelmayr? 

In the world of gondolas and ski lifts, Doppelmayr is king. The multibillion-dollar company has been making various kinds of cable-propelled transport systems since 1892. It’s built more than 15,000 around the world, including most of the big lifts in New Zealand: those at Skyline Queenstown and Rotorua, Christchurch Adventure Park, Cardrona, The Remarkables and Porters to name a few. It is also an equipment supplier and maintainer for the Wellington cable car (which is a useful reminder that even in New Zealand not all public transport has to be a boring old bus, train or ferry). 

In New Zealand, like the rest of the world, gondolas have mostly been used for tourism and recreation. In the past two decades, Doppelmayr has been making a big push to convince cities around the world to adopt aerial cable cars as public transport modes. 

The company has already built urban gondolas in a handful of cities. Portland, Oregon has a 1km line up a steep hill connecting a university and hospital campus to the waterfront centre city. Paris, France has a route currently being built to connect outlying suburbs to its metro system. 

Gondolas in La Paz, Bolivia (Photo: Supplied)

La Paz in Bolivia is the most extensive example. The mountainous city has built a 33km network of 10 cable car lines, which has served 315 million passengers in six years.

In terms of financing, Doppelmayr says it is open to exploring public-private partnerships or equity arrangements in New Zealand, which could mean a full publicly funded operation, a privately built and operated line, or something in between. 

A gondola in Portland (Photo: Supplied)

Could urban gondolas be a good idea for NZ? 

The underlying context here is that Doppelmayr is a company that makes gondolas and this report is trying to sell gondolas to New Zealand cities. Doppelmayr’s report lays out a big list of advantages of gondola transport, but there are plenty of questions as well. 

From a construction standpoint, gondolas need a lot less land than light rail, busways or roads. You just need towers every 150m to 1km, with five to 10 square metres of land for each tower. Building one would be a lot less disruptive than shutting down a key road for years in order to put in a light rail track. 

The systems are fully electric and highly energy-efficient on a per-kilometre basis and don’t require drivers, though staff are needed at each station to organise queues. 

A slide from the Doppelmayr report highlighting how gondolas can connect to other public transport.

For commuters, gondolas are very reliable because there’s no congestion or intersections with other forms of traffic. They are weather-dependent, however, and need to be shut down in high winds, though modern systems are getting more versatile.

There’s effectively no wait time because a new cable car shows up every few seconds. They’re accessible for wheelchair users, but pretty awful if you’re scared of heights. 

On the downside, Doppelmayr’s proposals have way less capacity than light rail. The (now dead) Auckland Light Rail route was estimated to be able to carry 8,400 passengers per hour in each direction. Doppelmayr’s proposed alternative for the same route has a capacity of 3000 per hour, which is more comparable to a busway. However, the company says it is capable of hitting a capacity as high as 8000 per hour. 

Doppelmayr’s report claims gondolas have benefits for sustainability and commuters

Aerial cable cars are also less flexible than buses or trains; there’s no ability to put on cars at peak times, which could be important, especially for airport routes. 

The real area where gondolas stand out above any other transport method is their ability to go over things, whether that is city congestion, motorways or natural terrain like hills and harbours. A short route over a difficult hill, like a route to Karori or an alternative crossing over Waitematā Harbour is probably a better use case than a 40-minute ride from Auckland airport. 

Inevitably, some people would complain they are an eyesore, and there would be complexity with building in protected natural areas, though those arguments could apply to any transport project. 

The biggest thing holding this scheme back is probably just plain old scepticism. Gondolas seem kind of silly – we are familiar with them as a novelty experience while on holiday, but don’t take them seriously as proper transport ideas. Politicians are scared to put their necks out on something they could be mocked for, and that’s going to make advocating for gondolas a pretty tough prospect. I’ll admit I’m no exception. When this report landed in my inbox, I was mostly excited because I thought it was funny and a little ridiculous. Now, I’m kind of convinced.

The 10 proposed routes for New Zealand

Auckland Airport to Botany

  • Alternative to bus rapid transit
  • Aerial cable car departs every 36 seconds
  • Capacity of 2,000 people per hour, per direction
  • Travel time of 41 minutes
  • Stations: Airport, Puhinui rail station, Manukau CBD, Botany

Auckland Airport to Onehunga

  • Alternative to light rail
  • Aerial cable car departs every 24 seconds 
  • Capacity of 3,000 people per hour
  • Travel time of 26 minutes
  • Would cross Manukau Harbour
  • Would require a tunnel underneath the airport runway
  • Stations: Airport, Māngere Town Centre, Māngere Bridge and Onehunga

Te Atatū to Northwestern Busway 

  • Extension of bus rapid transit 
  • Aerial cable car departs every 36 seconds
  • Capacity: 1,000 passengers per hour
  • Travel time of 10 minutes
  • Direct connection to Northern Busway interchange
  • Stations: Te Atatū, Te Atatū South, Northwestern Busway, Henderson

Wellington Airport to CBD 

  • Alternative to bus rapid transit
  • Aerial cable car departs every 36 seconds 
  • Capacity up to 2,000 passengers per hour, per direction
  • Travel time of 22 minutes
  • Would need to go under Wellington Airport runway via a tunnel or run a shuttle bus to the cable car station
  • Substantially cheaper than bus rapid transit, if the cost of a second tunnel is included. 
  • Could be built over Mt Victoria
  • Stations: Airport, Mt Victoria, CBD, Wellington Railway Station

Island Bay to Wellington CBD 

  • Alternative to light rail 
  • Aerial cable car departs every 15 seconds
  • Capacity of 3,000 passengers per hour
  • Travel time of 20 minutes
  • Up to two year construction period compared to 5-8 years for LRT
  • Stations: Wellington Rail, Wellington Hospital, Newtown, Island Bay

Karori to Wellington CBD

  • New route to relieve congestion
  • Aerial cable car departs every 36 seconds 
  • Capacity of up to 2,000 passengers per hour, per direction
  • Eight-minute travel time
  • A new route to ease congestion through the hillside suburb
  • Could navigate hilly terrain faster than bus or car 
  • Stations: Karori West, Karori East, Wellington Railway Station

Wainuiomata to Hutt Town Centre 

  • Extension of existing rail line
  • Aerial cable car departs every 72 seconds 
  • Carry up to 1,000 passengers per hour, per direction
  • Directly connect Wainuiomata to Waterloo railway station
  • Would provide a second route over the Wainuiomata hill, which currently has only one access road. 
  • Stations: Wainuiomata, Waterloo Railway Station, connection to rail 

Christchurch Airport to CBD

  • Aerial cable car departs every 36 seconds
  • Capacity up to 1,000 passengers per hour
  • 25 minute travel time
  • Crossing Hagley Park is identified as a challenge
  • Stations: Airport, University of Canterbury, City Centre

Belfast to Christchurch CBD 

  • Alternative to mass rapid transit 
  • Aerial cable car depart every 36 seconds
  • Capacity of 1,000 passengers per hour
  • Travel time of 23 minutes
  • Stations: Belfast, Northlands, Papanui, City Centre, Bus interchange 

Queenstown Airport to Town Centre 

  • New route to relieve congestion
  • Aerial cable car departs every 48 seconds
  • Carry up to 1,500 passengers per hour, per direction
  • Could be built over hillside
  • Would need to go under the airport runway through a tunnel 
  • Stations: Airport, Frankton SH6/SH6A corner, Queenstown town centre
Keep going!