Michael McDaniel & Jared Ficklin are designers at frog design, a firm in Austin, TX responsible for a multitude of products, from ovens to compost systems to apps to breast scanners. At this year’s TEDxAustin, the pair introduced their plan to re-invent urban mass transit through flying cars: high-flying gondolas running via cables stretched over cities — a little bit like ski lifts. 

How would this crazy idea work? From their talk:

What if I told you — in the whole area of mass transit, there is one industry that competes on the basis of how many people they can carry per hour without a schedule? Further, they do it moving only 1 to 6 people at a time.

I’m talking about the ski industry: the Zillertal ski area in Austria — they hold the record for lift capacity. They have a system of 174 chairs and gondolas that can move 298,000 people per hour. So if you ran that on a 24-hour cycle, that would be 74 million people a day,and if they weren’t skiing down, and you were carrying them down, that’d be 14 million people per day. That’s a lot of people. And to put those max capacity numbers into perspective, the New York City subway only has to carry 5.3 million people on a given weekday…

Now we’re not exactly saying chairlifts are the best solution for urban transit — there would be a lot of dropped iPhones — but if you were looking for inspiration on how to move a lot of people without a schedule, the ski industry is an excellent place to start. And one innovation you’re going to find there is called the high-speed detachable gondola.

Now these are essentially 4-6 person cars that cruise along at about 12 to 15 MPH attached to a cable supported by towers. For all practical purposes, they are flying cars. So they’re called “detachable” because as they come in through a station, they actually let go of the cable — release from the cable — and slow down to just below walking speed (about 2 MPH) as they glide through the station. Now this allows people to easily load and unload off the cars across a flat, level platform. Then the cars essentially accelerate back up and to line speed and reattach to the cable.

Now, the operation is continuous — it doesn’t stop — so you catch the first available car as it drifts through the station. Some of the other advantages of it being a detachable car is that, essentially, we can add and remove vehicles to the line in real time. Now this really eases maintenance, cleaning, and also helps us save energy by matching peak demand…All of this together forms a new form of mass transit for cities called urban cable.

The Wire
is our vision for a user-centered, practical mass transit system for cities like Austin.
..The Wire can cover the exact same routes as [urban light rail], but it can go places surface rail simply can’t go.

…Imagine flying into Austin, and catching The Wire at the airport. The stop could be located right on top of the attached parking garage, so you would simply walk and roll your luggage right on the first available car and fly out. There’s not waiting and no schedules because it’s constantly in motion…there’s no stoplights in the air; these things run constantly…The ability to put [stations] in the air means they can sit on top of parking garages or they could be over the top of intersections…You could have one that had a rooftop pocket park, or one integrated with retail.

With all these possibilities, it creates new opportunities for public / private partnerships. You could even envision a stop integrated into the lower floors of an existing high-rise building. This means more ways to share costs. It encourages smart growth. It allows us to build community around commuting. 

For more information on urban cable and The Wire, watch Michael and Jared’s entire talk, "A mass transport system in the sky" from TEDxAustin 2013.

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    I wonder how handicap-accessible this could be made in practice?
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