Intelligent Energy

A cable car for - London?

A cable car for - London?

Posting in Cities

Keep an eye on this financially winding project. It might not be ready for the Olympics, unless taxpayers rescue it.

Air Line: London is testing its new aerial cable cars, which might not be ready for the Olympics.

This SmartPlanet story is as much a lesson in planetary language differences as it is about smart ideas in energy and transport.

It reminds me of hoagies, grinders, heroes and submarine sandwiches - whatever you call a long piece of bread stuffed with fixings of your choice in your region (make mine a meatball and cheese please).

London, yes London, is getting a cable car/gondola/funicular/tram thing - choose the word from your part of the world for when an enclosed cabin hangs from a cable and scoots along high in the air with the assistance of pulleys and wheels to get from Point A to B.

A pylon supporting the London scheme.

Londoners and many others refer to that as a cable car. My well-spent 1990s in San Francisco means I can't think of a "cable car" as anything other than the clunking, clanging terrestrial wagon that lumbers up and down Nob HIll, Chinatown, and Union Square.

Okay, vocabulary class dismissed.

I live in the UK now, where this morning a BBC video about London's nearly completed 1.1 kilometer (0.7 mile) cable car line across the River Thames caught my attention.

What a striking addition to both the cityscape and to the means for getting around town. The 36 cars will soar over the Thames in east London, out near the sites of Greenwich, home to the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory (where you can straddle the prime meridian), the Cutty Sark, and The O2 arena.

Oh, the summer Olympics will take place out in that direction too, beginning in late July.

And therein lies the meat of this grinder. Will the aerial cabins be rolling by the time the stadium torch lights up?

"We open this summer - whether it's before the Olympics or not is something we're working on," an unidentified spokesman for the project says in the video. "Clearly we have plans in case it is, but at this moment in time, we're not planning for it to be open."

If you want to get near these stairs at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, you might want to take the funicular, once it's running.

How can that be? Shouldn't this fit right into a grand public transport scheme to efficiently ferry around millions anticipated to visit London during the two weeks?

According to the BBC, the project was never part of Transport for London's official Olympics Transport Plan. TfL is the agency under Mayor Boris Johnson that runs London's public transportation. Never mind that Johnson and TfL have ballyhooed the project in the past as "a much needed river crossing in the area - reducing travel time to five minutes."

It also hailed the project as a low-emissions scheme that helps get vehicles off the road by shuttling up to 2500 people per hour, and that underpins urban regeneration.

The £62.5 million ($100 million) cable car system is also not a publicly financed project per se. Rather, it's funded by Emirates Airline, who will brand the aerial tramway as the Emirates Air Line (Get it? Plain, simple, clever, and potentially effective).

But as is often the case in projects like this, it seems the private financing has run into a shortfall. One angry taxpayer in the video complains that it looks like tax money will end up funding about a third of the project. London is confident that it can bridge the shortfall by selling more sponsorships and retail space.

In another criticism, the website BusinessGreen has even questioned the low-emissions aspect of the cable crossing.

There's plenty to chew on in this hoagie of urban transport issues. For a taste, click on the BBC link further up in this post (media rights prevent me from properly embedding it). Or check out the lower budget YouTube video below. In both, the cloud-sodden skies leave little doubt what city you're in.

Photos: Cable car test from Wireon via Wikimedia Commons. Pylon from geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons. Maritime Museum stairs from Jeff Oliver via Flickr.

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure