Post by Steven Dale
The fare-pricing structure for the Emirates Air Line / London Thames Cable Car was recently announced and it doesn’t look good for commuters.
Single-trip fares will be £3.20 with an Oyster fare card and £4.30 without. Frequent users of the service, however, can opt to buy a 10-trip pass for £16, essentially reducing the fare by 50% to £1.60 per single trip.
This effectively renders the Thames Cable Car a Toy for Tourists and adds little to the overall London Transport Network. Is that a problem? Yes and no.
Had Transport for London (TfL) positioned this as nothing more than an additional attraction for the city’s 30 million annual international tourists, that would be fine. After all, at €8.60 per round-trip, it will take a very small percentage of London tourists to both pay for the system’s annual operating costs as well as pay off TfL’s £24 million share of the project’s total £60 million price tag.
Let’s assume, for example, that this system costs £5 million per year for operations, maintenance, spare parts and the annual payments for capital costs. That’s reasonable and probably on the conservative side.
In the above scenario, only 2% of annual tourists to London need to ride this system to keep it afloat (assuming a round-trip fare of £8.60). I’m not going to comment on whether or not 2% of annual tourists to London will ride this system, but it’s a bet that most people would be willing to make.
The question, then, is why local commuters – already paying some of the the highest transit fares in the world – are being forced to pay an additional fare to use what is, honestly, a minor transit connection?
Maybe an even better question is whether or not any commuters will?
My gut says no.
A quick history:
When New York’s Roosevelt Island Tram (RIT) was first built, there was no other higher order connection between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island. If you lived on Roosevelt Island, you had no choice but to pay the additional fare to ride the RIT. But then when the subway finally arrived on Roosevelt Island, ridership collapsed. Why? Because riding the subway didn’t require an additional fare.
It wasn’t until the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation struck a deal with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that fully-integrated the RIT into the wider New York transit grid. The RIT was thereafter treated just as any other part of that city’s transit network and no additional fees were required to ride the RIT.
After that, ridership on the RIT returned.
This is really basic economics. If people have the choice between paying for something or not paying for something, they’re going to opt not to. Plain and simple.
The area around the Emirates Air Line has several other public transportation options for local commuters wishing to get around the city. People wishing to get from the areas serviced by the Emirates Air Line need only travel from Royal Victoria Station of North Greenwich Station – which are only two stops apart. Granted, such a trip requires a transfer at Canning Town, but the point that needs to be highlighted is the existing method of crossing the river by public transit is not particularly onerous.
Without doubt, the Emirates Air Line makes the journey easier, quicker and with lessened wait times. But how many London commuters will be willing and able to afford the additional minimum of £3.20 per day to take advantage of that ease? Not likely many.
Assuming 250 work days per year, a commuter who uses the Air Line every day get to and from their respective job would have to come up with an additional £800.00 per year to pay for such a service. How many people do you know who would be willing to pay that just to shave a few minutes off their daily commute? Me neither.
Had the Emirates Air Line been constructed as a subway, tram or bus there is no way an additional fare would be required to use it. That’s the bizarreness of this project. It pretends to be transit, but it’s not.
That the Air Line is being passed off as actual public transit is highly misleading. Commuters might use it one or two times just to experience it. Maybe the limited number of straphangers who have a singular need to cross the Thames at that specific location – and nothing more – will use it, but if they have to go anywhere else in the city, they’ll opt for the free transfer.
Allow free transfers to and from the Air Line and that situation would change dramatically.
Given the money this system will generate – and it will make money – it seems unfaithful of TfL to use local transit funds to build something that gives limited benefit to local transit users. There is little reason TfL couldn’t allow local riders to ride the Air Line as a fully-integrated component of the network (meaning: free from additional fares) while still charging tourists a premium.
The latter would easily subsidize the former.
Note: I have no idea how onerous the journey from Royal Victoria to North Greenwich is. It would be useful if others more familiar with that issue could chime in with their opinions.
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