If you drive around the Cottonwood Heights neighborhood in Salt Lake City, which I have done multiple times over the last year, you will invariably see lawn signs shouting for “no gondola!” And the reason for this is that last summer, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) came forward with its preferred solution to traffic congestion in Little Cottonwood Canyon: an eight-mile long gondola all the way up and into the mountains. If built, this would apparently be the longest and most expensive urban gondola in the world.
To try and explain why this is being recommended, I’ll give the example of what happened to us when we were there last week. We drove into Little Cottonwood Canyon on Tuesday morning when it was not snowing. We left Park City around 8am, passed through the valley (Salt Lake City), and arrived at Snowbird (resort) in around 45 minutes. This is normally how long it takes. But on the way up it started snowing, and it didn’t stop all day. (Nice!) So our drive home took significantly longer and looked like this (we were going 8-10 miles per hour all the way down):
This is what happens when it snows in the canyons. Which is why a wise bartender at one of the resorts advised us that, “on powder days, you need to leave the valley at 6AM. Because at some point, some asshole is going to think they can get up the canyon in a Tesla, and they will ruin it for everyone. It’s better to nap in your car at the resort than white knuckle for 2-3 hours.” During our drive home, we learned that he was not at all joking. This is what happens. And it is why UDOT wants to build one really long urban gondola.
There are, however, some very good reasons why urban gondolas aren’t really that common. Portland has one. Medellín has one. And apparently both are quite successful. But other than these examples, they generally aren’t thought of as the most effective tool in the transportation arsenal:
Gondolas are low-capacity vehicles that quickly get cramped if turned into high capacity ones. They don’t work well for multiple stops. As a result, they are a point-to-point transportation method with low capacity. They are also expensive, especially relative to how many people they might serve, making them financially unattractive options for most applications. At their best, gondolas work when traversing difficult terrain with a consistent but low ridership, which is why they’re most often deployed on ski resorts.
But this situation is maybe a bit unique. It’s kind of urban transport, but really it’s for people to get up the canyon and shred deep powder. Here’s more on how it might work:
The Cottonwood Canyon gondola would be a hybrid of sorts between urban transportation solution and resort-based gondola. The proposal is to build a massive 2,500-spot parking garage at the base of the canyon, about 20 miles from downtown and the airport, where people will park. They will then ride the gondola for 27 minutes to Snowbird or 37 minutes to Alta, a trip duration which has no parallel in the urban or resort gondola scene (the Snowbird tram, one of the most famous in the world, fits more than 100 people per tram but takes less than 10 minutes to ride). Even though the gondola would serve two ski resorts, it belongs more to the urban gondola concept because it is being proposed and recommended by the state’s transportation department as a solution to a recurring traffic problem.
As a snowboarder, this sounds great. But it is, of course, complicated. Conservation groups are objecting, and some/many taxpayers don’t want to pay for a gondola that will largely benefit two ski resorts. Especially one that doesn’t permit snowboarders (I made this part up). So we’ll see. A final decision is expected by UDOT this summer. In the meantime, if you’re interested in urban gondolas, check out this recent article in Vice Magazine by Aaron Gordon (quoted above). He does a good job explaining both sides of this debate. And if you are interested in this topic, I’d be curious to hear whether you think this is a good idea or not.
A good comparison would be the Olympe gondola in the Alps, between a small village (the 1992 Olympic village) and the Meribel resort. It’s shorter (6km long), with an 800m elevation.
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If it is for such a specific audience would the economics work for it to be privately funded? What is the motive for the municipalities; removing congestion, safety, or what? What percentage of skiers are local, drive to the area, vs fly in and rent? If the numbers work, why not take the gondola to the airport- why build another parking lot?
All very good questions, John
Growing up in Utah it has been an interesting experience hearing about the local opposition and support for this gondola. In reality, the canyon gets packed only a few days throughout the year (holidays) and most people decide to skip out on skiing those days. Sure you get the occasional powder panic, but with the resorts charging to park we are seeing more and more people starting to use the bus system. Sorry, you had to experience the red snake firsthand, but great coverage on the topic.
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Thanks William. It was worth it for a great day at Snowbird 😉