Emirates Air Line: Success or Failure? It Depends

Post by Steven Dale

Emirates Air Line in London. Image by Flickr user snappyhopper. (Creative Commons)

Emirates Air Line in London. Image by Flickr user snappyhopper. (Creative Commons)

Over the holiday season, the British media picked up on the story that, apparently, the number of commuters on the Emirates Air Line has literally dropped to zero. Numerous publications (such as here, here, and here) argued this was evidence of the folly of the project and proof of how much of a white elephant it’s become. 

Sure. Okay. Fair enough.

The problem is that this white elephant is getting 20,000–30,000 riders every week. For those keeping track, that’s up to 1.5 million riders a year. Those aren’t white elephant numbers.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not the biggest fan of the Emirates Air Line, largely due to the fact that the capital costs of the system are so completely out-of-whack with industry norms. 

But what gets lost in this whole debate is that as a piece of tourism infrastructure, the system appears to be a success.

More than half the system’s capital costs were covered by the combination of a naming rights deal with Emirates and a Eurozone grant. And if Transport for London management is to believed, the system is managing to cover its annual running costs.

Now having said that, we don’t know if those annual running costs include the amortized payments on the system’s original capital costs. If not, then we have a bigger problem to deal with. But if that is the case, then it’s hard to conclude anything other than the system is a marginal success as a piece of tourism infrastructure. 

Here’s where things get complicated: As a piece of public transportation infrastructure, the Emirates Air Line is a complete failure. It connects nothing to nothing, duplicates existing transportation links, and — as has been pointed out — moves virtually no local commuters. 

The fundamental mistake Mayor Boris Johnson and Transport for London made here is one concerning narrative. Emirates Air Line was pitched as a piece of essential public transportation infrastructure when anyone with even a modicum of understanding of transit knew that it was decidedly not.

What’s more, their pricing strategy put this system out of reach of virtually every public transit user in London, but was also priced far too low for the piece of tourism infrastructure that it is. 

In their attempt to position this system as a commuter line, Transport for London trapped themselves in a situation where tickets are priced too low for the tourists and too high for the locals. 

A system such as the Emirates Air Line could easily charge a couple of pounds extra for a round-trip ticket, which would have virtually zero negative impact on ridership. That increase would only bolster the system’s financials and potentially create a feel-good story whereby Transport for London could take credit for creating a system that generates a profit that is used to help subsidize the other parts of the London Transit system.

That situation, for any interested readers, is exactly what the Barcelona transit agency has been doing with their cable car for years.

What Transport for London and Boris Johnson should have come out and said was this:

“Listen, guys: We’re building a cable car across the Thames to connect some Olympic venues. This is primarily a piece of tourism infrastructure that will be priced as such so that it remains an economically viable signature attraction long after the Olympics depart.”

No one would be able to criticize the statement because that’s (predictably) exactly what happened. 

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  1. Fabrizio Carippo
    The project was potentially a success. The problem is that it is still not clear the final user of the system (commuter or tourist?). The system is a kind of an hybrid solution and it doesn't satisfy any user in terms of service and ticket price.
  2. I think that's exactly the point. I don't think the fact that it's a "hybrid" is a problem. There are all sorts of systems that act as both commuter and tourist system. The fact, however, is that this is clearly a tourist-oriented system but wasn't sold or priced as such.