London’s Cable Car: Is this an Olympic gimmick or a new sustainable transport concept for cities around the world?

By Tierney Smith

London’s new cable car was launched last month to great acclaim – mainly it has to be said from Mayor Boris Johnson and sponsors Emirates.

The Air Line soars 90 metres above the river Thames, linking the ExCel exhibition centre at the Royal Docks in east London to the O2 Arena in Greenwich, south-east London.

For visitors to the city this summer’s Olympics it offers stunning views of the financial district, the Olympic Park and the Thames Barrier (providing it’s not raining).

Following cities such as Barcelona and Lisbon, launching the line, London Mayor Boris Johnson said he hopes the cable car can strike a balance between the needs of commuters and tourists. But how green is this new cable car, and is this really a form of sustainable transport – as has been suggested by the Mayor’s office.

The cable car can transport 2,500 people across the river hourly (Source: David Catchpole/Creative Commons)

With the capacity to transport 2,500 passengers every hour in each direction the cable car could replace 30 buses in the same time frame – and it offers better views for those that use it.

It also allows cyclists to travel with their bikes, promoting foot and cycle journeys – a major plus for promoting sustainable travel around the city.

Each pod can hold 10 people (Source: Dave Catchpole/Creative Commons)

The cable car spans 1km from the North Woolwich Peninsula to the Royals Victoria Dock – for those of you who this means nothing too, it goes from the 02 Area at North Greenwich to the Excel Centre the other side of the river.

To offer not only a nifty new form of transport for those wishing to travel across the river – and in between Olympic venues over the next two months – the cable car slows it speeds from five to ten minutes during the day to offer an added benefit to the City’s visitors.

At £4.30 a go (£3.20 with an Oyster Card – London’s electronic ticket system) it is more expensive than other transport options, compared to bus fares at £2.30 (£1.35 with your Oyster).

Criteria laid down by the UNFCCC stipulate that how ‘green’ cable cars are depend on what is used to power them, capacity and how people actually get to the ‘stations’ in the first instance. In other words most Alpine ski-resort lifts are not that green.

And as campaigning group Friends of the Earth pointed out yesterday – commenting on the UK government’s decision to invest £9.4 Billion in the national rail system: “electric rail lines are only as green as the electricity used to power them – and with energy firms relying on gas and coal to supply a massive three quarters of our electricity, we need to make big changes and soon.”

My experience (Monday 16 July, 2012)

The cable car is easy to reach by public transport – I took London’s Jubilee line and got off at North Greenwich Underground station.

But arriving a little after 9am in the morning (the end of rush hour) it would appear that any novelty there was when the cable car first launched is gone.

As I buy my ticket (I was disappointed to see my travel card couldn’t be used) I saw one man coming out the station. He was dressed in a suit – so it looks as though he was commuting.

Going inside to catch my ‘pod’, I didn’t encounter anyone else but staff.

Onboard the route I only saw two other cars pass by with people in them, one with a family and one with just one person on board. Perhaps the rain put people off?

The journey takes between five and ten minutes (Source: Dave Catchpole/Creative Commons)

And yet in terms of the ease of travel, it rates highly.

Once you have found the pier at North Greenwich – for those with an Oyster Card – you can swipe and go. If you need to buy a ticket, there are both machines and manned desks to choose from.

It takes five to ten minutes in a pod to travel between North Greenwich and Royal Victoria. That’s a similar journey time to the same trip via  Underground services, and it does offer a reliable alternative for those who make the journey regularly.

It’s also a wonderful way to travel. The views of the financial district and the Thames Barrier are great from this height – even on a muggy Monday morning.

First timers may be a little nervous – the pod does swing a little as they begin their journey – but once you are up and over the Thames, the journey is enjoyable and with few other people travelling this morning, it gave me a nice break from the busy trains I am used to.

The cars offers views of the city's financial district, the Thames Barrier and the Olympic Park (Source: Dave Catchpole/Creative Commons)

Designed to help promote foot and bicycle travel across London, if the cable car continues to allow bikes on board it could be a major plus – offering a great way across the river for cyclists.

So far cyclists appear happy with the service they are getting on the new cable car, but if this continues if the high numbers predicted are hit remains to be seen.

Final verdict

I am still not convinced it will be the new ‘sustainable’ way to commute*.

Even with a bike friendly staff, however, the biggest issue I see standing in the cable cars way is the price.

With a single journey significantly higher than other forms of transport – even with an Oyster Card – and travel cards not accepted, it is unlikely it will become a realistic alternative to a daily commute.

And while I imagine the Olympics will give the visitor numbers a boost, both in terms of people trying to get between Arenas (the O2 hosts basketball and gymnastics, while the Excel is home to boxing, table tennis, weightlifting, and wrestling), and tourists wanting a new way to view the city, the real test will be how the car will be used after the Games have finished.

Much like the river buses, the cable car could be a relaxing way to travel for those living and working in the area, but whether it becomes part of people longer routes, I am less sure.

Last but not least, as Friends of the Earth have pointed out electric transport is ultimately only as ‘low carbon’ as the electricity used to produce it.

So long as London still relies on coal and gas to generate electricity – electric cars, cable cars, the London Underground and electric trains will lack that glowing green sheen.

*A spokesperson for Transport for London got back to us this morning. While they do not have the exact figures for the carbon emissions of the cable car, they stressed the system is run electrically and as more renewable energy is added to the grid the green credentials of the Air Line would also improve. 

They also said the design incorporated a solar roof installation and rain harvesting system. 50 trees have been planted in the vicinity to ensure they are “a responsible neighbour”. 

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