Are cable cars the future of public transport?

Ben East
Ben East

Cable cars are efficient, environmentally friendly and inexpensive to install. We explore the mode of transport's revival as its uses grow from tourism and sightseeing to include commuting

They were once synonymous with ski-resorts and sightseeing trips. But the skies of Mexico City, Kampala and Lagos will all gently thrum to the sound of commuting cable cars in the next few years. The Emirates Air Line already takes passengers on a precipitous ride across the distinctly unmountainous River Thames in London, and the horizons of South American cities are dotted with wires, towers and gondolas. How did this most gentle mode of tourist transport suddenly become a valuable part of the urban transit network?

Interestingly, the cable car revival wasn’t born in a go-ahead European city - despite Barcelona boasting an aerial tramway and a cable car for decades. Medellin in Colombia opened an integrated mass transit cable car network in 2004 - and while it might have been inspired by the Caracas Aerial Tramway in Venezuela, the motivation was very different. In Caracas, the initial intention was simply to ferry people from the city to a luxury hotel and national park. The Metro De Medellin network, however, had the capacity to move thousands of people from hilly barrios to the workplace - cutting commutes that were taking over two hours down to a matter of minutes.

Other South American cities took note - and it wasn’t difficult to see why. Here was a cheap to install and efficient transport system that had no emissions to speak of and could meet social inclusion targets. A cable car network could also project the notion of a modern city while still offering a tourist attraction after the rush hour. And to that end, in 2011 Rio De Janeiro opened a 3.5km line to connect one of its most notorious favelas, Complexo do Alemão, with the city. Each resident enjoyed a free return ticket, the operation of the line subsidised by tourists curious to experience favela life. 

Last year, La Paz in Bolivia opened the first three lines in what is already the longest and highest cable car network in the world, interminable commutes reduced immediately. And since then, the clamour for the cable car has reached African cities also battling with the simultaneous problem of huge population growth and lack of transport infrastructure. Most Ugandans currently move around capital city Kampala in minibuses or motorcycle taxis belching out fumes - encouraging its Cabinet to seek a $175m World Bank loan to fund a cable car system. In Nigeria, meanwhile, work on the 12km-long Lagos Cable Car Transit system is about to begin in earnest.

All of which is a long way from an Alpine ski resort - or even the graceful gondola ride over Dubai Creek. But the new versatility of the cable car means it’s likely to be flying high for many years to come.