PSFK is excited to welcome Michael McDaniel as a speaker at PSFK CONFERENCE SAN FRANCISCO. Michael is a Principal Designer at frog, the global design and innovation firm. frog works with the world’s leading companies to design, engineer, and bring to market meaningful products and services. On November 1st, Michael will discuss developing an aerial mass-transit solution that is scalable for 21st century cities.
Can you introduce us to the Wire? What was the need?
The Wire is a mass transit solution geared specifically for the city of Austin, Texas. The interdisciplinary team behind the Wire concept is based in frog’s Austin studio. As local residents, we saw an absolute need for a valid mass transit solution in our fast-growing and complex city.
Austin needs a mass transit system that doesn’t compete for the same real estate as everything else. It needs to go above, not through, the city’s existing infrastructure.” We began to look at ski lifts because they’re cheap and they can be implemented very quickly. We asked the question: “Why haven’t ski lifts or cable‑powered transit been considered as a viable solution for mass transit in a place like Austin?”
Rather than reinvent the wheel, we decided to approach the city’s mass transit problem from a completely different perspective.
What are the obstacles to implementing mass transit solutions?
With the exception of the Northeast, most Americans prefer the freedom and mobility of automobiles. People dislike being dependent on a schedule. Furthermore, most mass transit systems are incredibly expensive to implement, which is a non-starter for cash-strapped cities.
Light rail, on average, costs $50 million per mile to implement. A subway costs about $150‑300 million per mile to actually dig. The materials and manpower alone are expensive, but the additional cost comes from competing for the same real estate as buildings, cars, and roads. By comparison, it costs rough $1-3 million dollars per mile to expand a freeway by one line. So most cities opt for the interim solution of freeway expansion, even when a mass transit solution may better suit the long-term needs of the city.
How did you begin the process of designing a solution?
We asked, “Is there a way that we can get something that actually appeals to the American culture of wanting freedom and flexibility that’s economically viable to actually put in?”
Most of mass transit, especially for cities in the Western US, is over 100 years old and runs on an open grid structure. These cities aren’t geographically confined, so there’s no financial incentive to build mass transit, and if you look at the cost of rails, it’s just exorbitantly expensive.
After our research, we found that a gondola actually seemed like a valid solution. When you start thinking about gondolas, overhead cable‑powered transit, it’s extremely cheap to put in, per mile. You can typically install it for under $10 million dollars per mile.
It gets to be really fun, as a designer, when you start thinking about architectural principles like denial and reward. You can design processions or entrances into cities, where you pop up and you have these grand vistas of the skyline, or a beautiful portion of the city, and then you can literally drop down and skim the grass and skirt right through a park or down a waterway. You have this variance in elevation, so it can offer you a scenic view, which no other form of mass transit can.
It became even more powerful, because if you think about ski lifts, they’re constantly in motion. They’re not trains, so if you intersperse them properly, you can have the cars coming through at one-minute intervals, and if the system is always running, you’re not tethered to a schedule. Now you have the freedom and flexibility similar to that of a car.
Once we had the concept, we began to ask, “How could we actually implement this thing, or make it real? What would be the economic incentives for the city?” We started looking at the necessary real‑world conditions to make it happen.
Can you talk a little more about the cultural implications?
In Austin we had a light rail system voted down on ballot measures strictly because the businesses didn’t want to be disrupted for five years. Beyond the pure installation and infrastructure costs of implementing the mass transit system, you also have to think about the economic impact on local businesses. The construction can obstruct foot and automotive traffic to those businesses for as long as three to five years. Even if a mass transit system is a boon for them later, most business owners will not want to endure three to five years of reduced revenue.
We designed The Wire to align with the cultural context in the U.S., where people want freedom and mobility. When you start looking at the cost of the infrastructure, ski lifts are designed to be installed between ski seasons and are engineered to be implemented quickly.
The Wire can be built without disrupting local businesses, which eliminates significant upfront cost and ensures community buy-in.
What are the social benefits of connecting communities together in this way?
Threading the community together with a transit system like the Wire offers a multitude of economic benefits.
Austin is a very heavy bike town. Everybody here likes to put on spandex and get out in the middle of traffic and think that they’re in the Tour de France. It actually causes a host of problems common to other cities, in which you have people using disparate modes of transit and competing for the same real estate. What about eliminating the competition by coordinating transit? The advantage of the Wire is that it ties different modes of transit together. Instead of ripping up infrastructure to create new bike lanes, encourage cyclists to use the Wire to leapfrog from spot to spot. They can actually roll their bikes onto the gondolas, hop over a couple of traffic spots in the city without any fear of mortal danger, and continue on their way.
Combining modes of transit creates new opportunities to augment the travel experience altogether. For example, you could pay more per month to the transit authority, and actually have access to Amsterdam style city bikes, rental cars, or services like Car2go simultaneously. By integrating them under one, easy‑to‑use fare system, you create a system that is a lot more powerful and flexible.
The key is not to ask people to change their behavior, but to design the system to adapt to their needs.
Please join us on November 1st to hear how Michael is developing scalable, aerial mass-transit solutions for 21st century cities at PSFK CONFERENCE SAN FRANCISCO.