This is part two in a series, examining cableways and how they are transforming modern public transportation. For a conceptual overview of their potential, read the previous article on Austin, TX. A preliminary examination of how they might be implemented in Buffalo was touched upon here and has been further explored at the Queen City Cable Car Facebook Page.
Today, we will be looking at the ways in which cable car transportation has changed the cities of London and Rio de Janeiro, as well as our very notion of how public transit works.
A stitch in time, a spoonful of sugar, whistle while you work… We are all familiar with the concept of making an arduous task less unappealing by adding an element of fun. Anyone who turned strained Brussels sprouts into a make-believe airplane knows that even infants understand how this works. Even a bit of sidewalk art can turn an otherwise boring stroll into a fun activity.
Getting there can be MORE than half the fun…
Automobile drivers who are deprived of their radio or unimpeded 65mph speeds can quickly learn how unappealing their morning commute can truly be. Transit riders are particularly vulnerable to the harsh realities of getting around any time they miss a bus or are forced to sit next to someone of questionable continence. Books, newspapers and earphones have become the standard accessories to make public transit more bearable.
As Volkswagon explored in their viral marketing campaign, The Fun Theory, the simple act of making things fun can trump many other factors which affect our decisions. As shown in the following video, they managed to increase the use of stairs over escalators by 66%, simply by adding an element of whimsey.
By now, we are all aware that walking and bicycling is healthier, yet many of us continue to supplement our easy daily commute with expensive gym memberships. Most of us complain about the high cost of gas or car insurance, yet we still pay to own and operate a car. We are even willing to routinely pay extra for such simple conveniences like pre-cut vegetables and commercial-skipping television recorders.
Everybody understands that public transit reduces traffic and improves air quality. Yet few of us choose to sacrifice our own convenience unless we absolutely must, simply because we are not the recipient of the benefits. Why add 20 minutes to our commute to get somebody else to work 5 minutes faster? We fall back on incorrect perceptions of safety, neglecting the fact that automobiles are among the most dangerous forms of transportation. We then go on to cite some rare incident concerning a bus or airplane while we take our lives in our hands with every meal we eat, prescription we fill, or mile we drive.
Buffalo Rising has covered many of our groans over the parking issue downtown, whether because of buildings demolished for surface lots, or aesthetically questionable parking ramps. We have endlessly discussed the impact of highways on our parks, waterfront and neighborhoods, yet the only changes in our driving habits have occurred during price spikes at the pumps, or the slow progression of one generation to the next.
It would take a LOT to change the way we view public transportation. Some of us would rather ride the roller coasters at Darien Lake than get on a MetroRail train (we even wait 45 minutes in line for the experience, while cursing a 15 minute wait at a bus stop). That is where cableways change transit. They reduce wait time to as little as 15 seconds. Their safety record is proven, even “ancient” cableways like the Niagara Whirlpool Cable Car have operated for 97 years without a single incident.
Cable cars allow us to fly like the birds, get new views and perspectives on our surroundings, and let’s face it… they’re fun!
Rio de Janeiro – Turning slums into hotspots
The Complexo do Alemão is a dense collection of favelas on the hillsides northwest of downtown Rio de Janeiro. Originally constructed as an industrial center, the area quickly attracted haphazard worker shantytowns, and by the early 21st century had become notorious for its drug trade and police killings. Even after military occupation of other parts of the city, Alemão served as a haven for drug lords.
In July of 2012, SuperVia Trens Urbanos, the local commuter rail system, opened a 3.5km (2.25 mile) gondola system connecting six stations with 152 gondolas, each capable of carrying 10 passengers. Ticket prices started at the equivalent of 50 cents, with local residents being guaranteed two free rides per day.
Increased popularity of the line has raised the price for non-residents to nearly $2.50 (residents still enjoy the 50¢ fare and free rides). On any given weekend, up to 65% of riders (36% on weekdays) are tourists, gladly paying the increased but still-reasonable fare, for the chance to soar over neighborhoods that were off-limits to anyone but armed drug dealers just a few years ago.
Residents have warmly greeted the visitors, and seized upon the influx of tourist dollars. Kiosks and stands have sprouted up near the stations selling hand-made crafts, while barbecue and beer sellers are doing brisk business filling the bellies of tour groups from as far away as Japan and Norway. Recognizing the unexpected benefits of the cableway, volunteer greeters have kept the cars and stations clean and organized, in stark contrast with the unpredictable-at-best public transit in other parts of the city. With gondolas departing every 15 seconds between 6AM and 9PM, it has also become the most reliable form of transit in the city.
Why would any reasonable tourist venture into a drug-laden foreign slum? The experience is unique, and it can be fun.
The Bondinho do Alemão cost $74M (USD) to build, was constructed in approximately seven months, and carries 30,000 passengers per day.
London – The glass 10% full
Emirates Air Line, which crosses the River Thames between the Royal Docks and the Greenwich Peninsula (near the O2/Millenium Dome), is the most expensive cable car system ever built. The total construction cost of the project was about £45M ($70.4M USD), with an additional £15M ($23.4M USD) spent on planning and advertising. 80% of the construction cost was offset by Emirates Airline in exchange for naming rights, with an additional £5.5M ($8.6M USD) provided by Mace Group Ltd., the lead contractor, to cover operating costs for the first three years.
The 1km (.62 mile) crossing is capable of carrying 2,500 passengers per hour. Its greatest critics, however, are enraged that post-Olympics ridership has averaged 3,570 per day, approximately 10% of its capacity. Less than 1% of riders are regular commuters.
Widely derided as a failure, the Thames cable crossing has carried over 1.8 million riders in its first seven months of operation, greatly surpassing the 1.3 million targeted for the first full year. The lack of regular commuter ridership is unsurprising, as the cable crossing duplicates a tube crossing of the Jubilee Line only meters away. Its only real advantage to commuters is that it provides access to the Docklands Light Railway, which is also served by the Jubilee tube line.
In fact, it is rather remarkable that this redundant transit link would attract any riders at all, much less the millions who have chosen to ride between the struggling O2/Millenium Dome and an industrial naval yard. Why would people pay $5 ($10 round trip) to go from nowhere to nowhere, when they could do so more quickly and cheaper on a subway or train? Perhaps for the view… at 295′, the distant London skyline is far more interesting than the view below. More likely, it’s just for the novelty. It’s fun. The amusement value of the cable crossing will ensure its viability even if it never catches on with daily commuters.
The question of success is not always tied to capacity. Is an SUV a failure if it only carries one driver instead of the eight it is capable of seating? Would a restaurant go out of business if 35 people were eating in a dining room large enough for 350? Is an airport obsolete if it serves 110 turboprops per day when its runway is long enough to land 747s?
The Grandmother Test
There will always be a segment of the population that finds the prospect of traveling by cableway anything BUT fun. Steven Dale of Creative Urban Projects has described this as the Grandmother Test. There will always be people who are afraid to fly, afraid to ride a subway, or afraid to ride any roller coaster that doesn’t involve horses going around in a circle. This doesn’t mean that the airline industry has collapsed, enough people still fly even with the indignities we face at the security gate. The NTFA and countless other transit systems still transport billions of people each day. Carnivals and amusement parks pop up in church yards and big-box parking lots every weekend.
There will certainly be people who refuse to ride a cableway. My sister took some great photos from terra firma while the rest of the family rode the Whirlpool Aero Car. It has managed to survive for nearly a century, dutifully taking passengers from point A to point A, and made a profit the whole time.
Next Up: The potential for cableways in and around Buffalo…
Newell Nussbaumer is 'queenseyes' - Eyes of the Queen City and Founder of Buffalo Rising. Co-founder Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts. Co-founder Powder Keg Festival that built the world's largest ice maze (Guinness Book of World Records). Instigator behind Emerald Beach at the Erie Basin Marina. Co-created Flurrious! winter festival. Co-creator of Rusty Chain Beer. Instigator behind Saturday Artisan Market (SAM) at Canalside, Buffalo Porchfest, and Paint vs. Paint. Founder of The Peddler retro and vintage market on Elmwood. Instigator behind Liberty Hound @ Canalside. Throws The Witches Ball at Statler City, the Hertel Alley Street Art Festival, and The Flutterby Festival.