Some city layouts come with unique obstacles for typical modes of transport. Yet despite facing steep slopes or bodies of water, humans around the world have found ingenious ways to get to work on time. Ready for take-off?

If your morning commute doesn’t involve soaring above your city or sailing down a river, consider yourself lucky, if a bit boring. As urbanization collides with unusual geographies, people all around the world have to incorporate uncommon and even comical methods of transportation into their routines. From Portugal’s old public elevators to Israel’s upcoming skyTran, we take a look at global public transport solutions that defy convention.

Santa Justa elevator

In Lisbon, you can go up, down, and all around. The Santa Justa elevator takes travelers from Baixa (Portuguese for ‘low’) up to the streets around Carmo Square. The system was conceived and executed at the turn of the century and remains a critical link between the two neighborhoods. Since the elevator is part of Lisbon’s public transportation network, locals and visitors alike can access it with their metro pass. Moreover, the elevator treats users to great panoramic views of the city – to get an idea, see the smart magazine film “One fine day in Lisbon.”

Elevador Santa Justa
The Santa Justa elevator connects the two neighborhoods Baixa and Carmo Square.
Photo: Chris, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr

Central Mid-Levels escalator and walkway system

Wish you could use your 20-minute commute to read the paper, check stocks, or finish your book? Hong Kong Island’s Central Mid-Levels escalator and walkway system, a product of the area’s sloping geography, might be the perfect way to work. Connecting the Central and Western districts of the city in a mere 20 minutes, it is the world’s longest covered outdoor escalator system and considered one of the globe’s “coolest commutes” by CNN. Cinematic trivia: Wong-Kar Wai`s “Chungking Express” and the Batman movie “The Dark Knight” were filmed here.

central mid level escalator
Hong Kong Island’s Central Mid-Levels escalator and walkway system is the world’s longest covered outdoor escalator system.
Photo: Dr. Norbert Heidenbluth, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr


Your destination is 3 kilometers away. It’s too far to walk, it’s too rainy outside to bike, and it’s the middle of rush hour. What do you do? If you happen to find yourself in the small town of Franschhoek, in South Africa’s Western Cape Province, take a Mellowcab! These pedaled electric vehicles are a novel alternative to using a car or bicycle – combining the best of both modes of transportation. As an added bonus, they’re completely free and equipped with tablets for smooth navigation.

Mellowcab open door
Mellowcabs are pedaled electric vehicles and a novel alternative to using a car or bicycle.
Photo: Mellowcabs

Gondola lifts

Once exclusive to carnival rides and ski resorts, gondola lifts are becoming an urban staple, particularly in cities spread across different altitudes. Unfettered by the constraints of ground traffic, gondola lifts facilitate swift, dependable commutes across long horizontal distances or steep vertical ones. From Portland, Oregon, to Kharkiv, Ukraine, gondola lifts are becoming an increasingly popular urban transportation system and tourist attraction.

portland gondola lift
Gondola lifts are becoming an urban staple all over the world, like here in Portland.
Photo: Eric/Fredericks, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr


Somewhere between a cable car and a subway, the skyTran takes the technology of magnetic levitation (maglev) tracks and applies them to two suspended passenger pods. Invented in 1990, this technology still awaits official public use, but the first ever skyTran is currently under construction in Tel Aviv. Starting in 2016, Israeli passengers will be able to fly to work – no aeronautic experience required.

Skytran Tel Aviv
Starting in 2016, Tel Aviv will be the first city using a Skytran.
Photo courtesy of


Contrary to popular belief, not all citizens of Venice ride gondolas to work. Nonetheless, the image of Venice’s iconic canals as the main way to get around the city is not a myth. As the city’s layout and geography restrict both above and below ground modes of transport, the swift water taxi, locally known as a “vaporetto,” has remained the most convenient form of public transportation for Venetians.

Vaporetto venice
Venetians commute to work with a swift water taxi, locally known as a “vaporetto”.
Photo: Chris Van den Bossche, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Geographic limitations often spark creative reworks of public transport. A cliff between A and B might inspire an outdoor elevator or gondola system, and even hopeless gridlocks can prompt us to turn our sights to the skies. Such alternatives turn what is often a stressful part of the day into an experience by itself.

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