11
Jan

2018

What Does the Future Hold for London’s First and Only Urban Cable Car?

Post by Gondola Project

On a recent trip to London over the holidays, we had a chance to tour the Emirates Air Line Cable Car again and examine how its role may evolve in the future. Image by CUP.

In less than half a year, London’s Emirates Air Line Cable Car (EAL) will be six years old. This means the system’s £36 million, 10-year sponsorship deal with the Emirates will have just four years remaining on its contract.

As the system matures, we thought it would be interesting to not only provide readers with a brief update of the gondola lift but to mull over what the future may hold for the cable car.

For those who have followed the ropeway’s history since its inauguration in 2012, you’ll be aware that EAL has received its fair share of praise and criticism. As a result, the cable car has been a fascinating and often discussed case study for industry observers.

For the critics, they have been able to aptly point out several mistakes made by the cable car’s project developers: 1) It was incorrectly described as public transit at the start; 2) It had signed a sponsorship deal without vetting potentially controversial terms; 3) Its alignment, location and pricing made it unattractive for commuters; and 4) It experienced some pretty serious cost overruns.

For all of its shortcomings however, the system does have its own fair share of successes: 1) It has been ranked as one of Transport for London’s (TfL) best transport lines; 2) It operates without a subsidy; 3) It continues to attract a steady flow of riders; and 4) It operates with an outstanding level of reliability at 99.4%.

AFTER THE OLYMPICS

During the system’s first year run when the Olympics were in town, average weekly passenger boardings reached ~46,000. As expected, ridership naturally decreased as the athletic competition and its scores of tourists left town.

To reposition the cable car and improve public relations, TfL stepped up its advertising game by adding a slew of new features including an “Emirates Aviation Experience”, revised ticket packages (e.g. valentines day ride), and commercial partnerships (e.g. pop-up dining, and book clubs).

It’s hard to say what effects these new services have had on the system, but from a cursory review of passenger numbers, it can be argued that six years in, the system is still performing with very respectable numbers.

Advertising panels placed throughout North Greenwich Tube station to increase user awareness about the EAL. Image by CUP.

Information booth is strategically placed at the top of the escalators once passengers emerge from the subway below. It serves to help customers looking for the cable car as well as to notify unaware customers that a cable car exists nearby. Image by CUP.

SYSTEM RIDERSHIP

In the last four years, the urban gondola had transported an average of ~28,000 passenger journeys per week (~4,000 per day) which allows the system to pay off its operations and maintenance costs.

Despite these results, the news media has continued to sensationalize the system’s “low” passenger numbers by ranking it as London’s 407th busiest transit route and claiming that it’s using liquor to “save” the “underused” cable car.

While these comments are not necessarily inaccurate, they do represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the technology’s context that is common in the Western English-speaking world. Arguably, the relative rarity of aerial ropeways in developed cities combined with a gondola lift’s “unusual” nature makes it an easy target for the press.

If one were to personify gondola technology or the EAL at this time, it would be akin to a strong-minded and sure-footed countryside teenager coming to live in the city. Unfortunately for him, some of his friends made some mistakes on his behalf, he is misunderstood, has trouble speaking out, and is still trying to find his way during this confusing stage of life.

Without a doubt, anyone can tell that the ridership figures of the cable car are unimpressive when compared the total passenger numbers seen on the Tube network. However, this is obviously not a fair comparison as the EAL is not a fare-integrated and commuter-oriented system — rather it is a short, non fare-integrated 1.1km recreational transport system that serves two areas with little current need for cross-river transport.

For a more accurate assessment, it is necessary to develop a more comparable reference class. As an example, within its own league of urban recreational cable car systems such as those found in Singapore, Hong Kong, Barcelona, Taipei, Medellin and Chongqing, the system’s daily ridership is par for the course.

The recreational ropeways located in Hong Kong (Ngong Ping 360), Barcelona (Teleferic de Montjuic), Singapore (Mount Faber Cable Car), and Medellin (Line L) all have average daily ridership figures of ~2,500 – 4,000 per day.

The EAL’s ridership holds its ground compared to recreational urban cable cars found in other big cities. Image by CUP.

On a per kilometre basis, the EAL performs even better. Except for the Teleferic de Montjuic in Barcelona, every other recreational urban cable car is longer than the EAL (1.1km). Image by CUP.

However, unlike the EAL, none of these systems are subject to the same level of scrutiny — perhaps except the Ngong Ping 360 — and most are viewed quite favourably. While this is a cursory analysis, it does suggest that the system is not performing as poorly as the general media has historically portrayed it to be.

One could argue that there’s really nothing unusual with the cable car’s ridership, except that it’s fairly standard from an industry, international and best practices standpoint. Of course, such a dull headline wouldn’t get many eyes on the paper.

 

FUTURE FARE INTEGRATION?

Based on the recent site visit, it is clear that the Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks is undergoing massive change. On the Greenwich side, development schemes worth £8.4 billion are expected to bring in 34,000 new residents and 13,000 jobs over the next twenty years. Meanwhile, another 25,500 new residential units and 60,000 jobs are being planned for the Royal Docks side.

As part of the Upper Riverside (Greenwich Peninsula) development plan, more than 1,000 residential units spread over five 22-31 storey towers are currently being built within 10-50m of the cable car’s North Greenwich station. Image by CUP.

View of the condo towers located next to the cable car (looking southbound). New residents will be living literally steps from the cable car. Will these new residents and office workers increase system ridership? Image by CUP.

While the cable car is not the sole catalyst for the development activity in the area, the system has been successful in bringing attention to the two riverside districts, and arguably, has been a significant component of the City’s overall plans to boost regeneration in east London. These goals, if one recalls, were a central component of the former Mayor’s cable car plans to showcase the Docklands to investors.

Existing connections such as the Jubilee Line and the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) combined with future infrastructure improvements (e.g. planned Silvertown Tunnel and DLR extension) will inevitably form the backbone of transport linkages in the area. However, given the intensity of jobs and residents in the future, demand for river crossings on both a commuter and recreational basis will likely increase.

In this scenario, it is not farfetched to think that the EAL will one day become a fully fare-integrated transit system. In fact, history tells us that the role of a transport line often evolves with the time and context of its surroundings. For instance, San Francisco’s cable cars were once commuter lines until they evolved into one of the City’s top tourist attractions. Similarly, the Yangtze Cable Car in Chongqing (China) — once a vital transit link — has now been repurposed as a massively popular tourist line (3.2 million riders per year).

In terms of commuter ropeways, it might be easy to forget that the beloved Roosevelt Island Tram (built in 1976) was not fully fare-integrated with the wider MTA network for nearly 30 years. The aerial lift suffered a period of low ridership when a subway station opened on the island in 1989. However, when the system was finally fare-integrated in 2004 with the MetroCard, ridership quickly recovered to levels equivalent, if not higher, than those seen before the subway’s arrival.

The Roosevelt Island Tram is a great example that demonstrates how passengers will go out of their way to experience and ride aerial systems for no other reason than the “joy of the journey itself“.

While the EAL’s past has been a story of failed marketing, that does not mean the cable car can’t transform itself into a success story in the future. Given the attractiveness of the EAL combined with the future recreational/commuter transport demands from a rapidly growing community, it seems foolish for TfL to not consider fully fare-integrating the system into the transit network one day.

Let’s be honest, if EAL was the same price as the Tube, but is less crowded and provides good views, a lot more riders would take advantage of the cable car. The likely increase in ridership plus the goodwill that it’ll create amongst the general public will not only boost the cable car’s reputation, but may perhaps truly transform it into a beloved landmark for future residents.

 

A big thank you to Chris G. for taking time to show us the cable car.  

 



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Comments

  1. Would this system really pass a cost-benefit test though? I mean, if you compare the benefits (recreation, and a bit of transport, and arguably the beauty of the towers) with the costs ($, and arguably the whole thing being a bit of an eyesore), how well does it do? Also, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on how a theoretical Thames cable car might have compared with, say, a pedestrian bridge, from a transport rather than a recreational perspective. In other words, if a cable car had been built not high in the air like the Emirates line, but instead much lower to the water (like, for e.g., the Millennium Bridge), could it have competed with a bridge from a cost-benefit perspective?
  2. Hi Joseph - I suppose the results would depend on which factors the cost-benefit analysis is measured on, when the study is conducted and who commissioned the study. It's hard to give a definitive answer without doing the analysis because, as you can tell, the system has had such mixed results. I think an argument can be made for both a bridge and cable car. For instance off the top of my head, perhaps a cable car was favoured as it enabled marine traffic to easily bypass beneath, a cable car has yet to be built in London (bridges are common), and because a cable car could reasonably impose an user charge (bridge could not). What are your thoughts on the cable car? Do you think it is a success or a failure?

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