New Roosevelt Island Tram in NYC

Cities employ myriad modes of transportation for commuters and tourists. From subways to rickshaws to monorails to water taxis, there is no shortages of ingenuity when it comes to moving people around. In 1976, however, New York City became the first city in the world to operate a tram for urban transportation. The Roosevelt Island Tram transported people between Roosevelt Island and east side of midtown Manhattan up until March of 2010 when it was shut down for renovations. Today, a brand new, modern, state-of-the-art tram once again allows commuters and tourists alike to sour over the East River and enjoy views of Manhattan unavailable anywhere else.

Gadling took a ride on the new tram before it even opened to the public. Can urban transportation be exciting? Keep reading to find out.

%Gallery-108524%The new tram was fabricated by Leitner-Poma. You might not know the name but, if you ski, you very well may have enjoyed their products. They’re responsible for many of the gondolas, ski lifts and trams you find on mountains around the world. Perhaps that’s why the new Roosevelt Island Tram looks significantly sleeker and more sophisticated than the rest of the bland, utilitarian vehicles that comprise the rest of the New York City transit system.

For those of you worried about a repeat of the 2006 incident in which 47 Roosevelt Island Tram passengers were stuck 250 feet in the air for several hours, rest assured that this new tram has several backup systems and fail-safes. The two trams run on four motors but can operate on only one. There are four independent braking systems. Perhaps most importantly, the tram can run completely off the grid and keeps a hefty supply of gas to power its generators.

The ride is smooth and silent. Unlike the subway, there’s no jerky start to jostle passengers. Suddenly, seemingly effortlessly, you begin elevated above Second Avenue as traffic flows right below you. Huge windows provide 360-degree views of Roosevelt Island, the East River and the east side of Manhattan. As you gently pass the upper floors of high rise buildings, it’s certainly amusing to spot people at the desks as you’re pretending not to stare. Before you know it, you’re at the apex of the ride, high above the East River.

The trams themselves are spacious. The windows keep claustrophobia at bay. A tram operator rides with passengers and controls everything using a touchscreen interface. This is a far cry from New York’s 100-plus-year-old subway operation. Everything about the tram seems modern and sleek.

With the new tram in place, Roosevelt Island is once again accessible via public transportation beyond solely the F train. And while more people may know about the Staten Island Ferry, the Roosevelt Island Tram is another wonder of New York City transit. For just a swipe of your MetroCard ($2.25), you can take a three-minute ride above the East River. Not too shabby for a New York City attraction that actually serves a very useful purpose.

Undiscovered New York: Roosevelt Island

The average visitor to New York has already seen Roosevelt Island. Or rather, they’ve seen it from a distance. You know that crazy island sitting in the middle of the East River across from Midtown? The one with the tram ride that lets you use your public transit card? Everyone knows it’s there, but not nearly as many make the effort to go for a visit. You know what? Let them miss out. A five-minute ride in an alpine-style gondola to arrive at one of the city’s least-trafficked destinations, boasting spooky abandoned hospitals, lush walking trails, quirky architecture and million-dollar views of Manhattan.

Ironically, from the 1820’s until the 1950’s most people on Roosevelt Island weren’t there for the scenery: they were trying desperately to get away. After the Blackwells sold their private island to the city in 1828, it was renamed Welfare Island and given a very different purpose as home to the city’s most notorious prisons, insane asylums and smallpox hospitals. Welfare Island was for many years a forbidden and isolated place, with a reputation that kept the curious at bay.

Want to learn more about this strange island’s history? Ready to leave your assumptions behind? Join Undiscovered New York as we investigate Roosevelt Island. Click below for what we found.The Tram Ride
Visiting Roosevelt Island doesn’t require any special boat trips. To get there, all you need is a New York City metrocard. By far the most popular way to travel is the Roosevelt Island Tramway. You can pick up the tramway at 59th Street and Second Avenue, with trips leaving every 15 minutes or so.

As the Swiss-engineered gondolas briskly lift you hundreds of feet above Midtown Manhattan, you’ll be treated to bird’s eye views of the 59th Street Bridge, the East River and the Manhattan skyline. Just 5 minutes or so later and you’re back on the ground, ready to explore Roosevelt Island. Afraid of heights? Travelers can also take the F Train to the Roosevelt Island stop.

Exploring the Smallpox Hospital
Get off the Tramway and head South towards Roosevelt Island’s premier attraction, the ruins of the 19th Century Smallpox hospital. This Gothic Revival hospital was first constructed in the 1850’s to help quarantine patients suffering from this particularly contagious diseases. More than 150 years later, the stone structure lays in ruins, empty windows whistling with the ghosts of lonely river breezes. A short walk away is the island’s empty southern tip offering visitors unbroken views of nearby Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens along the East River. This proverbial waterway, always the butt of New Yorker jokes, never looked so grand.

The Blackwell House and Octagon
Head back North the way you came. As you walk, make sure to enjoy the picturesque views of Manhattan’s UN Headquarters and Chrysler Building towering above you just across the river. We’re heading towards The Octagon, a famous architectural landmark on the Island’s northern edge. Take your time – this walk will take you about 20-30 minutes, bringing you through the island’s center.

About 15 minutes north is the Blackwell House, a remnant of the Island’s history as a private farm. Built in the late 1700’s, it is the oldest surviving structure on the island. The structure predates Roosevelt Island’s purchase by the city and its conversion to a large welfare complex of prisons and hospitals.

Finally as you continue your stroll, you’ll come to The Octagon, another of the Island’s most famous structures. Like many of the buildings on Roosevelt Island, this intriguing landmark started life as the entrance to a lunatic asylum opened in the 1840’s. Today you’d have to be crazy to turn down one of the building’s luxury residences, as it’s been turned into upscale condominiums. How times change.