Perhaps the most commonly cited example is Medellín, the secondlargest city in Colombia, where around one million people now ravel on three ‘Metrocable’ lines every month (and two more lines are planned). But there are also urban cable cars in London, Barcelona, Berlin, New York, Singapore, Ankara, Rio de Janeiro and many more cities worldwide.
This automated mode of transport is especially useful for crossing difficult topography, such as mountains and rivers, but it has other advantages too. Unlike the alternatives of metro, light rail and high-frequency bus services (BRT), it does not require expensive tunnelling or reallocation of road space. Cable cars have a comparatively small footprint (stations and supporting towers), and can therefore offer a relatively low cost option that is quick to implement. Smaller, less complex systems can take as little as one year to design and build. As well as being energy efficient and environmentally sound, cable cars are easily accessible for people with reduced mobility. They are also one of the safest forms of transport.
Furthermore, cable car transport is flexible. Not only can the number of cabins vary, but the size of cabins can differ dramatically, with capacity for between two and two hundred people. Line capacity has reached 3,000 pphpd (persons per hour per direction) in Medellín and Caracas, and theoretically it could be much higher. And while cable cars cannot compete with light rail and metro in terms of average operating speeds (20-40 km/h for light rail, 40-60 km/h for metro), the system in Medellín, for example, achieves speeds of up to 16 km/h.
Contrary to common perception, they don’t necessarily have to travel in a straight line. The Caracas Metrocable, which opened in the Venezuelan capital in 2010, was the first cable car system to implement 90 degree turns – there are two of them on the initial 1.8 km line. Meanwhile, the Mount Faber Line in Singapore, which has linked the main island of Singapore with the resort island of Sentosa since 1974, features a mid-station on the top floor of a skyscraper.
From a passenger’s perspective, it’s a very pleasant way to travel. Cable cars enjoy their own right of way, allowing their passengers to glide serenely over whatever mayhem is taking place on the streets below. The bird’s eye views attract tourists, providing extra revenue for the system and enhancing the appeal of a city (Tripadvisor.com ranks Metrocable as the Number 1 thing to do in Medellín). And adverse weather conditions do not disrupt these services as often as some land-based transport modes, such as trams. Cable cars operate in some of the world’s harshest and most unforgiving climates, but there are two forms of extreme weather that are likely to disrupt services – the threat of lightening and very strong winds.
Arguably, the urban cable car has had its greatest impact in South America. In cities like Rio, Medellín, Caracas and La Paz it has transformed the lives of citizens by ending the isolation of hillside barrios.
In Medellín, thanks to two ‘Metrocable’ lines, disadvantaged neighbourhoods have effectively been brought into the city, providing opportunities for their residents. Cable car stations have also become hubs for community facilities such as health centres, schools and libraries, further enhancing the social benefits for residents. A study by Columbia University in New York City found the homicide rates in the slums of Medellín where Metrocable serves dropped by twothirds between 2003 and 2008.
And this mode of transport is about to take off in other regions of the world. Since November 2016, Brest, in France, has been home to
an urban cable car known as Line C on the public transport network. Its two cabins can each carry up to 60 people, or 1,200 persons per hour, on their 400-metre journey over the Penfeld river. The success is undeniable: in August 2017, the attendance levels are four months ahead of the forecasts with 600,000 passengers recorded and, as a result, local shops close to Line C have seen visitor numbers grow by 40%. The local government had originally thought of building a footbridge instead, but this would not have allowed enough clearance space for the naval vessels that pass underneath, and pedestrians would have been exposed to high winds.
And all this for three times the cost of a cable car.
Other French cities could soon follow in the wake of Brest. There are 13 cable car projects under investigation in Île-de-France, the region surrounding Paris. The most advanced is the 4.5 km ‘Câble A Téléval’ in the department of Val-de-Marne. There was an overwhelmingly positive response to a public consultation by the region’s transport authority, IDF Mobilités, on this project last autumn.
There are limitations to this mode of transport, of course. First, the capacity is not as high as metro, light rail or BRT. Maintenance and electricity costs are relatively high, caused by the continuously moving cable. There are also aesthetic disadvantages – many people consider the overhead wires unsightly, while others fear the visual intrusion of cable car riders passing over their homes. Brest has solvedthis problem by equipping its cable cars with ‘smart glass’. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer panoramic views, but they turn opaque when the cabins pass over nearby homes.
Some sceptics point to the Emirates Air Line cable car in east London. The city opened this 1.1 km link across the River Thames in 2012, ahead of the Olympic Games. During the Games it attracted up to 10,000 passengers a day, but these numbers decreased soon after and they remain below expectations.
Cable cars can overcome obstacles that are impossible for other modes of transport. In some circumstances they can offer a unique and costeffective solution that extends the reach of public transport. But, some cities have shown that cable cars are like any other mode of transport – if you don’t fully integrate them into the wider transport network, they won’t perform to their potential.