Wiring Chicago With Cable Cars

Chicago's first cable car system, seen in 1933.

Chicago's first cable car system, seen in 1933.

Chicago has always been a city that looked “up.” We invented the skyscraper. When trolley traffic became too much, we elevated our railroads. We have the tallest building in the hemisphere. Heck, we even have a supermarket on the 44th floor of one of our buildings. Not too many cities can claim that. Maybe it’s time to elevate something else: Pedestrian traffic.

There’s a group out there campaigning for Chicago to tackle some of its lakefront congestion with a cable car system. Chicago’s been here before, with cable cars running along the lakefront during the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933. The small system was dismantled in November of 1934, but there’s talk of rebuilding something similar.

The Aedas-led redevelopment plan for Navy Pier

The Aedas-led redevelopment plan for Navy Pier

The biggest credible notions of a cable car system for Chicago come from two places: Aedas Architecture/Davis Brody Bond/Martha Schwartz Partners, which included a cable car in its redesign plan for Navy Pier; and from The Gondola Project, a quasi-grassroots organization out of Toronto.

The Aedas-led group didn’t end up getting the Navy Pier gig. That went to a team led by James Corner Field Operations. The Aedas proposal, however, included a cable car landing station just to the north of Navy Pier, somehow squeezed into the corner north of the northern Navy Pier access road, and east of the CTA bus terminal. It’s shaped like a tube, like the structure that envelopes the CTA Green Line just north of the 35th/IIT/Bronzeville station.

From the Aedas cable car station, it looks possible to ride a mile down to the far end of Navy Pier, or go roughly south-southeast along the lakefront to destinations unknown.

While the Aedas proposal appears mostly for entertaining tourists, the one that Julia Padvoiskis of Creative Urban Projects writes about for The Gondola Project is far more practical.

Chicago cable car route plan envisioned by Creative Urban Projects

Chicago cable car route plan envisioned by Creative Urban Projects

She envisions a cable car network connecting Navy Pier with other popular places like Millennium Park, the Field Museum, and the lamentably isolated McCormick Place. Cable car stations would allow people to transfer to other transit options at key locations.

In our view, a lakefront cable car system would be a great asset to the city of Chicago, with a reasonable cost compared with traditional mass transit options. Let’s face it — the lakefront is in dire need of a north-south subway. But the CTA lacks the money and will to make it happen. If it can’t expand the Red Line past 95th street, there’s no way it could build a Lakefront Line. But there should be a transit option along the lake, with stations at Rainbow Beach, the east side of the University of Chicago, McCormick Place, Soldier Field, Navy Pier, Lincoln Park Zoo, and Montrose Harbor before turning inland as part of the Circle Line. It won’t happen as a subway, but maybe as a cable car.

The idea may seem absurd at first blush, but it’s no more strange than building an elevated railroad loop through the middle of downtown, or reversing the flow of a major river, or turning an abandoned naval training pier into the most visited tourist attraction in the Midwest.

People in lots of cities use cable cars to get around every day. Portland, Oregon and New York leap to mind. I’ve been on both of those lines. And a quick bit of Googling shows that other American cities are considering it, including Saint Louis. There’s even a mine in Colorado that uses cable cars to move ore around. Even the fattest Bears fan and harshest Chicago winter is no match for a mining operation in Colorado.

Internationally, I’ve been on the small one in Istanbul, and the one connecting Singapore with Sentosa Island. I missed the opening of the one in Hong Kong, but can totally appreciate its necessity. The alternative was a bumpy hour-long minibus ride up and down the mountains of Lantau Island. I never saw a trip made on that route without at least one passenger barfing her guts out.

Rendering of The Emirates Air Line in London

Rendering of The Emirates Air Line in London

London recently installed a new cable car system.  It will debut for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, but is contracted to operate for a minimum of ten years. Rio de Janiero uses cable cars to supplement its rail system. That seems like a logical idea for Chicago, as well.

However, Chicago has one big legal problem — the Lakefront Protection Ordinance. Both of the Chicago plans mentioned above envision cable cars sailing over Grant Park. That’s going to have opponents chanting the ordinance’s “forever free… open, and clear” provision faster than you can say “tramway.” If there’s a way around this, it will have to be solved by people with better maps than I have, because the ordinance doesn’t just apply to Grant Park, but to a lot of already-developed areas beyond the grass. During the Daley administrations, such ordinances were mere guidelines to be abided or ignored as needed. But after the recent victory by parks groups to keep the Chicago Children’s Museum out of Grant Park, the law may actually be the law once again in Chicago.

To be sure, a lakefront tramway would be primarily used by tourists, but then so is the #124 bus. But that doesn’t keep the locals off of it. And if the network could be expanded into lakefront neighborhoods currently underserved by public transportation, it might stand a chance through improved local support. Imagine sailing home in the warm safety of a gondola while looking down at thousands of cars abandoned in the snow below you on Lake Shore Drive.

It’s a new idea for Chicago, but not a crazy one. No crazier than using funicular railways for mass transit, like Pittsburgh does. Or automated people-movers like Morgantown, West Virginia. Or even putting multiple subway lines in the sky and having them meet in a “loop” in the heart of a major city. I know we’ve seen that done somewhere before.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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