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'Flying' Into Balboa Park By Cable Car

Pondering aerial gondolas as San Diego’s next transit options

enerations of San Diegans have pondered a better link between Downtown San Diego and Balboa Park. Well, how about a cable car line? 

Imagine stepping off the trolley at the Gaslamp Quarter station and onto a cable car that flies you up Sixth Avenue and then into Balboa Park. The line can carry up to 1,600 people an hour, about the same as a bus a minute on local roadways. It would be as fun and useful to tourists – think Batman during Comic-Con – as it is to San Diegans who are the primary users of Downtown and Balboa Park. It also could be the start of something big.

This is an artist’s rendering of how a cable car connecting downtown San Diego with Balboa Park might appear.

The route also would honor the 1908 bay-to-park vision of planner John Nolen, who wrote: “The people of San Diego will do well if they recognize today that the two great central recreational features of the city now and always are the City Park of 1,400 acres and the bayfront, and that the value of both will be increased many fold if a suitable connecting link, parkway or boulevard can be developed, bringing them into direct and pleasant relations.” 

This is not a dream based on new technology. Rather, cable cars are among the world’s oldest, most efficient, cost effective and safest forms of transportation. While many of us have experienced them on ski slopes or in amusement parks – Big Bear and the San Diego Zoo come to mind – interest and use of gondolas as linkages to existing transit systems is surging worldwide. 

In the United States, the Roosevelt Island tram in New York City is beloved.  Portland’s new aerial tram is a smash success connecting the city’s waterfront to a medical research center. Kirkland, Washington, is exploring a futuristic gondola along a congested highway while private investors in Seattle, and Austin, Texas, seek aerial connections between popular destinations in both cities and a new plan has emerged in Brooklyn

My first experience with an urban cable car was in Singapore, where riders travel from an island in the bay, through a downtown high-rise to a mountain park. Coming a year after I removed a gondola concept from a draft plan to invigorate our waterfront greenbelt, that fortuitous 2007 journey gave me the confidence the idea could work in San Diego. 

The San Diego Association of Governments, which oversees regional transit projects, has used a county grant to hire Parsons Brinkerhoff, a globally-renowned engineering consulting firm, to study whether the concept has any fatal flaws. If none are found, I would expect a more detailed study, and plenty of public discussion, next year. 

Gondola-excited San Diegans already are approaching me with new route ideas.  I, too, foresee future extensions to other appropriate areas because of the relatively low capital and operational costs for cable cars.  My focus now remains solely on this two-mile segment. You, on the other hand, are free to dream about where we fly next.

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