development transport

Using cable cars for sustainable public transport

One of my children’s favourite things to do in London – and one of mine too – is to ride the cable car across the Thames. There’s an amazing view over the old docklands, for a fraction of the price of other tall things such as the London Eye or the trip up the Shard. The reason it’s cheap is that it was built as an integrated part of the city’s transport infrastructure for the 2012 Olympics.

London isn’t the only city with a cable car system of course, and the one I wanted to feature today is the Transmicable in Bogota, Colombia.

First of all, it’s practically zero carbon. Each gondola has solar panels on the roof, and they provide enough power to run the cars for seven or eight hours a day. Because they are replacing buses over a particularly congested two mile stretch, it saves fuel and carbon emissions, reducing traffic and air pollution. Pollution is a particularly serious problem in a city that has 8 million residents and no subway system.

Secondly, this is not a cable car put in for the tourists. London’s and many other urban cable car systems are there to serve a visitor attraction or mountain viewpoint. The Transmicable serves a hilltop barrio called Ciudad Bolivar, where residents used to endure a three-bus, two-hour journey to work. A ride costs a dollar, making it a mass transit option for the poorest in the city. For once, it’s not just the rich that get to soar above the traffic, and it’s a nice example of how good public transport infrastructure can drive social inclusion.

Transmicable might be the newest and the nearest to zero carbon, but it’s now one of many public transport cable car systems. One opened in Medellin, Colombia, in 2006.

Medellin’s wasn’t a world first, but it is credited as a breakthrough idea. It won the ITDP sustainable transport award and sparked something of a boom in cable car building. Several other Latin American cities were inspired, and systems operate in Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico and elsewhere in Colombia. Algeria and Turkey have them. Many others are in the works, making cable cars an increasingly common technology in public transport.

  • For more, including notes on new proposals, see the dedicated cable car blog The Gondola Project.
  • Here’s a video from Medellin that highlights the role of the cable car within cycling infrastructure, bus rapid transit and even escalators – a true integrated public transport network that we just don’t seem to be able to get right in Britain.

6 comments

  1. Terrible idea. It sounds unsafe and I would not fancy being trapped in one, or suddenly needing to meet a call of nature, or sharing the car with a psychopath, and psychopaths do not come colour-coded.

    They abolished compartment trains for safety reasons even though they were the optimum configuration for seating the maximum number of passengers. These replicate the exact same problems. They are planning a route in Gothenburg, but it seems to be likely to overshoot the budget by a long way.

  2. It’s a mature technology, so there’s no reason for it to be inherently unsafe, though of course it could be badly constructed or operated wrong. I wonder if the height involved makes it seem more unsafe than it is – air accidents loom larger in the imagination after all, despite it being statistically far more dangerous to cross the road than to fly in a plane.

    As for psychopaths, I’ve been stuck on buses and tube trains with violent people, and that’s really no better. The best way to stop that is with platform attendants or bus conductors, which we don’t bother with in Britain any more – though there are attendants at the cable car.

  3. This article reminds me of the zero-carbon cable car system which has been in continuous use to link Lynotn to Lynmouth in Devon since 1890, which I’ve used a few times. See the Wikipedia article “Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway”. Unfortunately only suitable for steep slopes with ample access to water at the top.

    1. A good point. I’ve seen this at the Centre for Alternative Technology as well, which welcomes visitors with a water powered lift from the car park. The gravity ropeways used in mountainous regions such as Nepal are similar too, and also zero carbon.

  4. This seems like an intelligent analysis of cable cars:
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3csv3hk
    Note the warnings at 15 mins and especially at 18 mins. Note that Rio’s one shut down, and London’s only had 4 regular commuters.
    I think some caution is required re advocating these: they are cheap, but have very limited capacity, and in many situations may not represent good ‘bang for buck’. Would also have to take care on environmental footprint calcs (haven’t seen any, but given limited throughput, not a given that footprint is favourable vs other solutions. Maybe is a niche solution that may make sense sometimes, IF part of the right package?

  5. Absolutely, they are very much a niche solution for particular urban environments. I’m sceptical of those suggesting they should be put over the top of flat cities – just do buses, light rail and cycling infrastructure properly. Where they have worked best they have been part of a high quality integrated transport system, Medellin being a good example.

    Both Rio and London’s systems are leftovers from their respective Olympics, built to serve the event first and the city second. The Olympics are notorious for leaving behind white elephants, and any assessment of the cable car’s success would need to bear that in mind.

    That’s a good programme, thanks for the link.

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