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Envisioning Boston’s Transit Future: It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a …?

Image © Gensler

Let’s start with a riddle. What moves 3,600 people per hour, is completely silent, runs on renewable electricity, has a small infrastructure footprint, doesn’t clog streets and is just plain fun to ride? Not Uber, not a ferry and not your Vespa. Not a subway, bus rapid transit or hydrofoil either.

Urban gondola. Boom. These cable-propelled people movers aren’t just for the ski slopes. They have been moving commuters and tourists in cities like New York, Portland, LaPaz, Medellin and London for years. In the U.S., major gondola projects are being planned or constructed in New York, Orlando, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

Here in New England, we are blessed with an expansive hub and spoke rail network centered around Boston, which reaches to our edge cities and distant suburbs. Our city, which Oliver Wendell Holmes called the “Hub of the Universe,” has a horizontal crack down the middle—surprisingly, there is not a fast, direct connection between North and South Station, which are the major commuter rail termini from these cardinal points. For those commuting from the northern suburbs to fancy new offices in Boston’s burgeoning Seaport district, driving is a common choice that is turning the seaport into a traffic and parking nightmare. Driverless cars cannot be the answer to all our transportation woes.

Image © Gensler

With these urban mobility challenges in mind, our 2017 summer interns developed a credible plan to connect these dots with an urban gondola system and associated stations. They imagined a string of high-volume cabs, floating quietly over the Rose Kennedy Greenway, with the most dramatic views in town. After the elevated roadway was demolished and tunneled underground in the “Big Dig” it was replaced by the surface Greenway, a linear park that stitched the city back together with its waterfront. Planners conceived major buildings on select parcels of the Greenway, including a large Boston Museum and Horticultural building, which were never realized.

Image © Gensler

The intern team worked to develop an architectural vision for three gondola stations on the Greenway with subtle references to Boston’s maritime history. These bold urban interventions continue Boston’s history of transportation innovation, starting with the first subway in the U.S., which opened in 1897. The interns researched technical aspects of the systems and consulted with engineers on tower design, cable routing and station layouts. The system could have nearly continuous utilization and revenue, with commuter peaks early and late in the day, and tourists filling up the middle. With robust street-level retail and gondola platform above, these could be the new transportation icons of 21st century Boston.

As we talk about elevating the human design experience in our airport, workplace, retail and hotel designs, why should urban mobility be any different? This talented group of summer interns have shown us what is possible by changing our perspective. With homage to Longfellow: One if by land, and two, if by sea, I, above the streets shall be!

Image © Gensler

Jim Stanislaski, AIA, LEED AP, will go to great lengths to help teams create a more sustainable and resilient world through the power of design. As a member of Climate Ready Boston and the Massachusetts AIA Board, Jim works with legislators, designers and environmental advocacy groups to improve building performance. Contact him at jim_stanislaski@gensler.com.