If an imaginative real estate executive gets his way, New Yorkers soon will have a new way of crossing the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Instead of slogging across a traffic-snarled bridge or cramming into a packed subway car, they’d soar over the river in … a gondola.
Dan Levy, head of CityRealty, is totally serious about this. He came up with the idea for the East River Skyway a few years ago while skiing. He thought it could work in New York, given that other cities, including Portland, London, and Rio de Janeiro have similar systems.
This week, Levy published a bold plan for an aerial network connecting Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. He figures it could be built for between $75 million and a $100 million, a fraction of what New York’s spent on recent subway expansion projects. The idea has a lot going for it, but if built as Levy envisions, it would be useful to only a small, affluent subset of the city.
Much of the proposed network includes waterfront stations, which wouldn’t be much help to commuters who need to get inland. There’s also the fact those stations could be put to better use.
“In practicality, I don’t know why we would connect perfectly good boating docks with gondolas,” says Sarah Kaufman, adjunct assistant professor of planning at New York University and digital manager at the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation. “We should be connecting those areas with boats, water taxis, ferries.”
Kaufman sees more value in the Skyway’s first phase, which would include a connection between Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood and Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Installing a gondola there is appealing for several reasons. It could alleviate crowding on the L line, which runs from Brooklyn into Manhattan. The line is always packed at rush hour, and trains run so frequently it’s all but impossible to add more.
Levy’s cost estimates are tricky to verify, but he’s right when he says a gondola would be easier, faster, and cheaper to build than a new subway line. It has taken five years and $2 billion to add a single station to the 7 line.
The new Second Ave subway line for the Upper East Side has been delayed so many times that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg quipped about having “a 50-50 chance of living to see the first person on it.”
In a December 2013 report advocating better bus service in New York, the Pratt Center for Community Development wrote, “there is no realistic prospect of expanding the subway system to serve outlying neighborhoods.”
No new bridges are coming either, so spanning the river with a gondola that requires little digging and minimal acquisition of land rights is tempting.
There’s precedent, too. Not only are other cities trying aerial public transit, New York already has its own system in place, the tram connecting Roosevelt Island and the East Side.
(You may know it from the climactic scene of 2002’s Spider-Man.) If Levy’s right, the gondola could move move 5,000 people an hour over the East River, with a crossing that would take just four minutes.
And then there’s the fact that it just seems like a cool idea, an opportunity to get a new, terrific view of New York City.
If Levy (or another developer) could acquire land rights to build stations, get approval from a rat’s nest of city and state agencies, and raise the necessary cash, New York could get the gondola system he’s dreaming of.
But don’t expect it to be used by many people who ride the L train. The line is overcrowded because it’s the easiest way for folks in Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Greenpoint—popular and growing neighborhoods—to reach Manhattan.
The proposed location of the Brooklyn gondola station essentially is on the water, nowhere near most of these people. The gondola could, however, be quite handy for those filling the very expensive condos going up on the Williamsburg waterfront. “It would serve new developments along the water,” Levy says.
“This is a real estate project,” Kaufman says. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite unusual, in a good way. “It’s not very typical of a real estate developer to consider the bigger picture,” to account for the need for added transportation infrastructure that comes with packing more people into an area.
The residents of those condos may get little sympathy from those struggling to make rent in New York, but they too need good transportation options, and it’s a long walk to the nearest subway station. And, as Levy notes, every person riding the gondola leaves a bit more room for those of us stuck on the train.