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Gondolas In San Diego Have Powerful Backer But Still No Liftoff

Gondola cars on the

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: Gondola cars on the "Skyfari" at San Diego Zoo Global, Dec. 17, 2017.

Anyone who’s been to the San Diego Zoo has seen and likely ridden a gondola.

There’s typically a long line of visitors queued up to ride the Skyfari. They share a look of excitement as their four-person gondola car sweeps them into the sky, on their way to the other end of the zoo.

"The first inspiration I had was the zoo,” San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts said. “I was looking at the zoo ride, and I was thinking, ‘You know what, if we just kept going across the freeway to Sixth Avenue and went downtown.’ That would be fun.”

For Roberts, it is not just fun - it is a practical way to transport people over San Diego’s crowded and hilly landscape.

“I recommended this to someone and of course my friends. An architect who was very close to me told me I was total nuts!" Roberts said.

Crazy or not, Roberts has led a passionate campaign to make gondolas a part of San Diego’s public transportation system. And if anyone has the gravitas to make it happen, it’s Roberts. Along with being a county supervisor, Roberts has served for decades on San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System board. He’s currently the chairman of the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, the regional planning agency.

Photo by Tom Fudge

San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts in his office, Nov. 7, 2017.

Gondolas are probably best known as ski lifts and they go by several names. Roberts prefers to call it a skyway, for fear that “gondola” will make too many people think about boats in Venice. Roberts said the argument for gondolas in San Diego largely comes down to cost and environmental impact.

“The cost of the system, compared to the trolley, it's a fraction of the trolley. Probably 15 percent a mile what you would spend on the trolley," he said.

A consultant with the planning company WSP said a gondola system would cost about $50 million a mile, though Roberts called that estimate high. A feasibility report on a two-mile gondola line, between downtown and Balboa Park, put the cost at $65 million. That is a lot less than a trolley.

Advantage number two, Roberts said, is the impact on the environment.

“You don't have to acquire right of way. You don't have to compete on the streets. You're up in the sky so you sort of have a free environment to deal with," he said.

With a gondola, the only terrestrial footprint are the towers to hold the suspension cable or to support an aerial station, where travelers board a gondola car as it is temporarily disengaged from the cable. Construction of bridges, grading or condemnation of property are not big issues when you build a gondola.

"Wherever you've got grade, and you've got freeways and other things you've got to cross or you've got traffic, just fly over it!" Roberts said.

In San Diego, planners say gondolas would make short connections, linking up with the trolley system to bring people to places one or two miles away. SANDAG has done feasibility studies on three proposed gondola routes: Bayfront to Balboa Park, Mid-Coast to Sorrento Valley and Balboa Avenue to Pacific Beach. Another possibility that has been talked about but never studied would connect the Mission Valley trolley line to Hillcrest.

Some urban centers in South America – Medellin, Le Paz – already use gondalas to transport people to those cities’ higher elevations. Maybe the best example in the U.S. is in Portland, Oregon.

Getting up a hill in Portland

A tramway connects the two campuses of Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) in Portland. A tram is essentially the same thing as a gondola, just a different take on the technology. The tram was built after OHSU acquired property along with Willamette River and decided to locate a second campus there. The property was 500 feet below and a little less than a mile from their main campus.

“We needed to find a way to connect it. So we looked at funiculars and gondolas and tramways. We looked at different train options up the hillside,” said Brett Dodson, operations manager for OHSU.

The Portland Aerial Tramway has been in business for 11 years and carries 10,000 passengers a day. Dodson said most of the passengers are employees, patients, medical students and others linked to the university. Every day the tram also attracts a handful of pleasure seekers who ride it to take in the views.

Photo by Randy Glary

Portland Aerial Tramway in Portland, Oregon in a undated photo.

In bike-friendly Portland, Dodson said 450 bikes a day are parked at the tram’s riverside station, belonging to people headed up the hill. The system costs $2 million a year to operate; a good price, Dodson said, for something he calls a Portland icon that has taken a lot of cars off the roads.

“You know when you can move 10,000 riders over a day, and not have any vehicles to do that, it’s a huge benefit,” he said.

So if gondolas and trams are such a great idea, why are they still not a part of San Diego’s public transit system?

Ask gondola supporters that question and you get a certain answer: People don’t take them seriously. People think they’re just ski lifts, they say, which are fine for tourists at the zoo but not for serious commuters.

Nicole Capretz, executive director of the Climate Action Plan in San Diego, is a powerful backer of public transit. She’s not a fan of gondolas. She stood on a trolley platform to make her point as a trolley sounded its horn and continue along it’s Mission Valley path.

"It's kind of a fancy new bright and shiny object,” she said of gondolas. “But at the same time we have to focus on solutions we already know work and are fit and tailored to San Diego, before we explore these theoretical, conceptual ideas."

A lack of political support for gondolas in San Diego was seen last year. That's when Roberts removed funding for gondolas – or skyways – from a plan to pass a new Transnet transportation tax before it went to voters as Measure A.

“As chairman of SANDAG,” Robert said in a written statement, “when it became clear that my support of skyways would be miscast by opponents of a mobility plan, that dedicated a record 42 percent of its spending to transit, I decided it was best to remove the skyway funding to improve Measure A’s chances.”

In the end, Robert’s move was irrelevant. Measure A failed to get the two-thirds majority it needed to pass.

An enduring faith in gondolas

Ron Roberts county supervisor’s office is full of memorabilia. There are photographs of him with Ronald Reagan and Bill Walton, signed baseballs and a bat, autographed by Ted Williams. A conceptual drawing of a Bayfront-to-Balboa Park gondola sits on the floor, leaning against a bookshelf. Roberts’ chairmanship of SANDAG expires at the end of the year. He’ll be termed out of his supervisor’s seat at the end of 2018.

He won’t say whether funding for a gondola may appear in a future Transnet proposal. But he said there are other avenues for funding a pilot project.

“The federal government has grants for smaller projects that are innovative,” he said. “California has this incredible effort going on. What do we do on greenhouse gas? They’ve got a pile of money and they’re looking for innovative projects. So there are different sources out there that could be put together.”

And if that happens, Roberts says that would be just the beginning.

“You get one line in and, I guarantee you, in less than 15 years, you’ll have four of them operating.”

Supporters say mass transit gondolas are affordable and have a light touch on the urban landscape. So why hasn’t San Diego built any?

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