For A New Kind Of Commute, Some Eye The Sky | KCUR

For A New Kind Of Commute, Some Eye The Sky

Oct 31, 2013
Originally published on October 31, 2013 1:21 pm

This story is part of a series on commuting in America.

Orangutans Kiko, Iris and Batang have a short commute — only about 500 feet between the buildings at the National Zoo where they sleep and pass their days. But it's a tricky trip.

They travel 50 feet above the ground on what's called the Orangutan Transit System — the O Line, for short. It's a series of eight towers connected by red cables, and helps Kiko and his fellow orangutans get from the Great Ape House to another building, constructed about 20 years ago, called the Think Tank.

"We knew the new exhibit was going to have orangs in it, and we wanted them to be able to go back and forth and not just be stuck in one area," says Laurie Thompson, a biologist at the National Zoo.

So the zoo decided to gamble that the orangutans would be willing to swing or shimmy their way along cables, strung high above the heads of human visitors. (In case you're wondering, electric wires on the towers keep the animals from clambering down mid-commute. Like human commuters, the strolling orangutans are creatures of habit, Thompson says, so they generally don't even try to deviate from their routines.)

Most mornings, Thompson or another keeper opens the door from one building to let the orangutans out so they can travel via the O Line. Some days they'll scoot back and forth five times, some days just once. "You never know," Thompson says. "It's totally up to them."

Michael McDaniel, at Frog Design in Austin, Texas, says we human commuters have something to learn from Kiko and the gang.

"Something as simple as a wire to connect two points, just like the National Zoo is doing, makes a whole lot of sense because you're not paying to build all that infrastructure between two points," McDaniel says.

McDaniel's dream is that Austin will make a human version of this system — which he calls The Wire. Think ski lifts.

"But we don't mean chair lifts, by any means," McDaniel says. "There would be way too many dropped iPhones." Instead he envisions "high-speed, detachable gondolas."

Each gondola would carry up to eight people and would be able to hop off the cable for loading and unloading. McDaniel says a system based on overhead wire would cost far less than more traditional streetcars. And the system he imagines could carry 3,000 people per hour in each direction. He's now trying to convince his fellow Austin residents to take the idea seriously.

"They generally think it's hysterical and laugh," McDaniel says. "Then as you starting talking more about it, they go, 'Oh, that would be a pleasant experience. Now is it practical?' And then you go into the numbers, and they realize this actually is a valid solution."

Medellin, Colombia, has three gondola lines, he says. So, why not American cities?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

MORNING EDITION is bringing you stories about many different kinds of commutes and commuters. This morning let's hear about one of the world's most unusual commutes. NPR's Richard Harris discovered it at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Kiko, Iris, and Batang live at the zoo. They have a short commute, only about 500 feet between the buildings where they sleep and pass their days. But it's a tricky trip.

LAURIE THOMPSON: This is called the Orangutan Transit System, or the O-line, for short, is what they call it for short.

HARRIS: Laurie Thompson is looking up at one of eight towers, each 50 feet tall, that are connected by red cables. The O-line is here to help Kiko and his fellow orangutans get from the Great Ape House to another building, constructed about 20 years ago, called the Think Tank.

THOMPSON: We knew the new exhibit was going to have orangs in it, and we wanted them to be able to go back and forth and not just be stuck in one area.

HARRIS: So the zoo decided to gamble that the orangs would be willing to swing or shimmy their way along cables, strung high above the heads of human visitors. Most mornings, zoo biologist Thompson or another keeper opens the door from one building to let the orangs out so they can travel on the O-line.

THOMPSON: Sometimes it can be five times a day. Sometimes it's one times a day. You never know. It's totally up to them.

HARRIS: Well, let's see what happens.

THOMPSON: All right.

HARRIS: Thompson disappears for a moment to open the door. Gradually, three orangs appear at the base of the first tower. First goes Iris, and then the larger, and shaggier male, Kiko, appears.

THOMPSON: He is actually the most exciting to watch cross the towers, because he will actually brachiate and do the hand-over-hand, usually at the very end. But he's pretty impressive to watch. But it looks like he's getting ready to go.

HARRIS: Oh, yep. There he is.

Kiko makes his way to the top of the tower effortlessly and then walks along the cables, behind Iris.

THOMPSON: Sometimes they wait for each other to move to the next tower before finish. Or they go to the bathroom.

HARRIS: Oh, nice.

THOMPSON: So I have to go clean that up now. So I'll be back.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Every commute has its moments.

Michael McDaniel, at Frog Design in Austin Texas, argues that we human commuters have something to learn from Kiko and the gang.

MICHAEL MCDANIEL: Something as simple as a wire to connect two points, just like the National Zoo is doing, makes a whole lot of sense, because you're not paying to build all that infrastructure in-between two points.

HARRIS: McDaniel's dream is that Austin will make a human version of this system, which he calls The Wire. Think ski lifts.

MCDANIEL: But we don't mean chair lifts, by any means. There'd be way too many dropped iPhones. What we generally are talking about when we say ski lifts are high-speed detachable gondolas.

HARRIS: Each gondola can hop off the cable for loading and unloading and carry up to eight people. McDaniel says a system based on overhead wires costs far less than more traditional streetcars. And the system he envisions could carry 3,000 people per hour in each direction. He's now trying to convince his fellow Austin residents to take the idea seriously.

MCDANIEL: They generally think it's hysterical and laugh. And it's like, is this person actually being serious? Then as you starting talking more about it, then they go: Oh, that would be a pleasant experience. Now is it practical? And then when you go into the numbers and they realize this is like: Oh, this actually is a valid solution.

HARRIS: Medillin, Colombia has three gondola lines, he notes. Why not American cities?

Back at the Zoo, Kiko has now made it to the seventh tower. One more to go and he will be in the yard of the Great Ape House. Laurie Thompson looks up to see if Kiko will dazzle the crowd by swinging hand-over-hand, as his grand finale.

THOMPSON: Come on, Kiko. There, he did it one time.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: One tiny, little swing-down before he got down. So not a bad commute, I mean...

THOMPSON: Yeah, it only takes less than five minutes to get back and forth.

HARRIS: And this was rush hour, right? This is the worst of it.

THOMPSON: That's right.

HARRIS: And, in case you're wondering, electric wires on the towers keep the orangs from clambering down mid-commute. Thompson says, like human commuters, they are creatures of habit, so they generally don't even try to deviate from their routines.

THOMPSON: Sometimes they'll pass each other on the O-line, which is a little scary. But...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: ...one will just hang out in the middle and one will come along and crawl over them. So it's exciting.

HARRIS: Too bad all our commutes aren't so easy.

Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.