For some time, government has been encouraging local transport authorities to consider all the public transport options when trying to solve problems. These usually end up centring on light rail, bus rapid transit and other land-based schemes.
There is now though a new option open to them. It has a lower cost, high passenger throughput capacity and is quicker to deliver. Enter the cable car.
Since the Emirates Air Line cable car opened in June 2012 it has carried almost two million passengers between the Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Victoria Dock in East London. The system is the first of its kind in the UK and demonstrates the possibilities of cable cars as an additional form of urban transport.
Despite this success, one of the biggest obstacles that cable cars (or cable ways, technically) have still to overcome is image. Many, wrongly, continue to believe that the technology is only suitable for mountain resorts and tourist attractions. If the cable cars is to become a mainstay of the local public transport offer then it has to overcome this prejudice.
The signs are already encouraging. A number of cities are seriously considering the option of a cable car but in helping to solve specific transport and access issues. With the right type of system cable cars can be a mass transit solution.
Cable cars offer a number of advantages over more traditional fixed modes of urban transport. They are separated from traffic congestion, require little land take, have a relatively low capital cost, can transport up to 5,000 passengers an hour in each direction, are energy-efficient and can be implemented much more quickly than other transport schemes. For instance, the time from when the cable car in London was formally announced until the Emirates Air Line was delivered was just two years.
Cable cars also use proven technology and have lower operating costs compared to more conventional schemes such as tramways. As a means of connecting areas separated by rivers, railways or major roads, cable cars are significantly cheaper and quicker to build than bridges and tunnels. The construction cost of the Emirates scheme has been criticised, but cable car manufacturers are quick to explain the exceptional nature of that project with its sensitive design requirements and point out that off-the-shelf systems can be delivered for much less.
Although cable cars have smaller land-take requirements than other guided transport modes, they give rise to specific challenges in urban contexts. Finding straight alignments can be difficult in crowded urban spaces, and simply over sailing obstacles may not always be feasible. The visual impact of tall towers may present planning difficulties, and routes over densely populated areas can create problems of overlooking.
The designers of the Emirates system faced unique problems. In particular, the scheme had to be tall enough to allow shipping to pass beneath, but not so tall that it would interfere with the flight path of the nearby London City Airport. There was also the strong desirability to have the system open in time for London 2012, which posed additional challenges.
The Emirates scheme has provided a much- needed river crossing for pedestrians and cyclists east of Tower Bridge and is integrated with the public transport network through Oyster ticketing and short connections to the Jubilee line and the DLR. The system serves the O2 and the ExCel centre, and the presence of these venues is clearly a significant factor in the business case for the scheme.
Initial opportunities for other cable car schemes in other UK cities are most likely in contexts where a similar combination of local and tourist demand exists. However, in the right context, cable cars can also perform a complimentary public transport function and offer real advantages over other fixed modes of urban transit.
In other cities around the world, such as in South America, cable cars have been used for years as feeder systems, freeing up roadways and removing the need for car and bus journeys into city centres. It is only now that the UK is waking up to the opportunities presented by cable cars.
The Emirates scheme is an important first step which enables transport planners and developers to see the wider potential of cable cars in UK cities. Other authorities can learn the lessons of the London scheme and should be able to reduce costs still further.
A cable car will never be the total answer but it is a valuable addition to the usual range of public transport solutions.
This article appeared in the February 2013 edition of Passenger Transport magazine.