Pie in the Sky (the Emirates Air Line, London, UK)

London mayor Boris Johnson has some pretty peculiar ideas when it comes to transport. His greatest successes – the completion of the London Overground orbital rail network and the rapid construction work now taking place on the east-west Crossrail scheme – are the fruits of endeavours started by others. Transport projects which he himself can take the credit for have often tended to the bizarre.

The cycle hire scheme is good, though it has been plagued by difficulties around the logistics of getting the right number of cycles in the right place at the right time, as well as high subsidy levels. But his big election pitch in his first mayoral election of 2008 was the removal of articulated buses from London and their replacement by a new version of the 1960s London Routemaster bus. Johnson seemed (and still seems) to be obsessed by a desire for London buses to have open rear platforms, because, well, they used to, and it’s a bit of buffoon-ish fun of the sort which Johnson enjoys.

It illustrates Johnson’s biggest mistake when it comes to London’s transport. He has always seemed confused into thinking that London’s public transport network is primarily a tourist attraction. It isn’t. It’s a means of efficiently moving millions of people from place to place within London. Although it has appeal to tourists as a side-effect (red buses, sitting at the front of driverless Docklands Light Railway trains, amusingly tiny tube trains), the moment that you start viewing its main function as entertaining tourists is the moment that things start going wrong.

So it was with Johnson’s New Bus for London. Instead of designing a new bus for London which would meet the needs of a modern city and employ great design work throughout (nothing wrong with that), Johnson required that the bus must have a rear platform. So there are stairs at the rear which serve that platform. But at night the platform is closed off (the extra conductors needed on a rear-door bus can’t be justified at night, you see) and the bus reverts to the traditional London operation of front door entry/mid-door exit. Yes, if you’re not familiar with it, Johnson’s New Bus for London (see one here) does indeed have three sets of doors and two staircases. Given that an increasing proportion of the population find the stairs on a moving double-decker bus difficult to navigate, and want to remain downstairs, the design is hopeless. All those staircases and door areas occupy spaces where seats (or indeed wheelchair spaces) could be provided. And the problems with the design don’t stop there. Because the old Routemasters had shallow windows upstairs, so the New Bus for London had to have them too, to pay homage to the earlier design. Which means that if you’re of any significant height, and you’re sitting upstairs on the New Bus for London, you can’t easily see much from it unless you bend down. For the sake of evoking the old Routemasters, the new version has simply replicated many of the flaws in their design. This is what happens when you specify a bus after giving an answer (we must have a new version of the Routemaster) rather than asking the right question first (what would be the best design of bus for modern London?)

On a more serious note, another of Johnson’s initiatives, a network of “Cycle Superhighways” were launched in the inspirational form of a rather dramatic-looking blue cycle lane painted along some of London’s busiest roads; roads on which several cyclists have since died. A coroner investigating the death of two cyclists on Cycle Superhighway 2 said they were confusing and lulled cyclists into a false sense of security. A fatally false sense, as far as I can tell. Never has so much expectation been so unfairly placed on a humble tin of blue paint.

It seems almost trite to cover another of Johnson’s initiatives in this blog, after something like that. But it’s yet another scheme which illustrates the gigantic gulf between Johnson’s madcap transport ideas based on giving tourists something fun to do, and their practical use in meeting London’s mobility needs. It’s beautiful, but in transport terms it’s almost completely useless, a stupid vanity project of the highest (in fact, 90m high) order. Crossing the River Thames between North Greenwich on the south side and the Royal Docks on the north, it’s the London cable car, or to give it its official title thanks to a sponsorship deal that part-paid for it, the Emirates Air Line.

The Air Line seen from North Greenwich, London. By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
The Air Line seen from North Greenwich, London. By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

Its three pylons are simply exquisite, possibly the most attractive cable car towers anywhere in the world; they’re that good. Twisting upward from the water, their design is eye-catching and dramatic. They look like overturned Olympic torches, writ large against the wide sky. Double helices spiral within, the cable car’s DNA on show to the rest of the world. Bright white, they gleam in the sun like the promise of a new transport future. At the top they gracefully split into two arms which support the machinery over which the cables run.

Pylon detail. By Stuart Herbert [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page.
Pylon detail. By Stuart Herbert [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via this flickr page.

The pylons (and indeed the stations at each end of the route) were designed by architecture practice Wilkinson Eyre, famous in the realm of transport for (amongst others) the Gateshead Millennium Bridge (Newcastle-Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, UK) and the Gatwick Pier 6 connector bridge (Gatwick Airport, West Sussex, UK). The cable car was, however, actually built by construction company Mace to an engineering design by consulting engineers Buro Happold, a move which sadly led to some compromises such as the emergency staircases within the pylons being built as straight ones punctuated by landings, rather than being a single unbroken spiral all the way¹. To illustrate why Wilkinson Eyre’s work on the London cable car is so good, it’s necessary to recognise that most cable car systems do not put nearly so much thought into the appearance of their pylons. Here’s the cable car line in Medellin, Colombia. Functional (to be generous) grey pylons of tubular construction support the cables there.

Metro Cable, Medellín, Colombia. By SajoR (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Metro Cable, Medellín, Colombia. By SajoR (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Inside the cabins on the London system, the seats are covered in a unique red version of the classic District Line / London Buses moquette. It’s a very nice touch.

Emirates Air Line moquette. By x [CC BY- 2.0] via this flickr page
Emirates Air Line moquette. By Ed Webster [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

Meanwhile, clever bespoke vinyls by Studio Am (of Brighton, UK), give the outside of each cable car cabin a different abstract representation of one of the destinations served by Emirates.

Cabins on the Emirates Air Line, with vinyls illustrating destinations served by the sponsor. By Martin Pettitt [CC 2.0] via this flickr page
Cabins on the Emirates Air Line, with vinyls illustrating destinations served by the sponsor. By Martin Pettitt [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

When the cross-Thames cable car scheme was announced in 2010, there was a degree of scepticism. For a start, many commentators didn’t think that a cable car had any business acting as part of a city’s transport system. This misconception came about, as usual, because the UK lags behind the rest of the world in many areas, with huge swathes of the population believing there’s nothing worth learning from “over there” (i.e. anywhere outside the UK). In fact, cable cars came down from their traditional mountain homes years ago and into cities around the world. They’re a quite rational response to providing new mass transit routes in heavily urbanised cities because they have a remarkably small footprint (only the stations and the pylon bases). They’re also a lot cheaper to construct than an underground metro and less disruptive to install than a tram line. They can have intermediate stations, and at those stations, the route of the cable car can turn through a corner. Cities such as Singapore, Caracas, and Medellin have proper urban cable car systems that provide genuine public transport links.

The second criticism was more serious and more justified, and it was to do with the route chosen. London’s cable car was built to address the need for a new crossing over the Thames between the Royal Docks and North Greenwich. It was a need that Boris Johnson seemed to perceive rather more keenly than others did. After all, getting between the two locations was already possible in just two stops from the London Underground Jubilee Line North Greenwich station to the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) Royal Victoria station. Although a change between the two lines is necessary at Canning Town station, the time penalty isn’t so bad when you consider that if you want to use the cable car to cut out this interchange, neither of its stations are anywhere near the Jubilee Line or DLR stations, or indeed near anywhere very useful at all for that matter. Not to mention that if you hold a London Travelcard (the multi-modal ticket which gives travel on most of London’s public transport) the DLR and Jubilee Line come at no extra cost, whereas you have to pay quite a lot extra for a trip on the cable car.

The London cable car scheme was announced in summer 2010 with a price tag of £25m and a promise that it would be entirely privately financed. Its height was an issue – it needed to clear the River Thames with sufficient headroom to allow passage for tall ships and cruise liners travelling further upstream towards London. That meant towers of some 90m in height, at a location close to London City Airport, but the height was considered (just) acceptable. Despite sceptics expressing somewhat hysterical concerns that aircraft from the airport might crash into the cable car (I have rather more faith in the abilities of professional pilots than that) construction on the 1.1km line proceeded remarkably quickly, and it opened in June 2012, in time for the Olympic and Paralympic Games being held in London that same summer. By that time though, the price tag had risen to a whopping £60m, and although Transport for London (TfL, the London Mayor’s executive transport body) signed a 10-year £36m sponsorship deal with airline company Emirates, the shortfall had to be made up from TfL’s rail budget. So much for it being entirely privately financed.

In summer 2012 there were lots of tourists in London because of the Games, and TfL were proud to announce that within two months of the cable car opening, it had carried one million passengers. It has been less keen to publicise the fact that this year, passenger numbers are down considerably. In its busiest week during 2012, the cable car carried 180,804 passengers. The busiest week of 2013 has seen it carry 62,236 (the full horror can be seen on the usage statistics TfL helpfully posts on its website). A ‘regular user’ discount offered to holders of London’s Oyster smart card who use the cable car as part of their commute has been triggered by only four users.

TfL has previously said that passengers numbers are in line with expectations (blimey, if that’s true it must have been the world’s most depressing patronage forecast when it was made) and that the cable car is a key tool in regenerating the local area, i.e. it’s a proper part of the public transport network. Johnson’s opponents in the London Assembly (and quite a few people outside it) suggest that it’s not proving popular enough with tourists to pay its way, and it can’t play a proper role in London’s public transport network until it is brought into the Travelcard regime so that regular London travellers can use it for no additional cost.

Just like Johnson’s New Bus for London and his Cycle Superhighways, the Emirates Air Line is heavily flawed in transport terms. But just like the New Bus for London and the Cycle Superhighways, it looks fantastic.

By James Petts [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
By James Petts [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

How to find the Emirates Air Line

The green arrow marks the location.

References and further reading

¹ Pearman, Hugh. (2012). Aprés Ski. RIBA Journal (web version here)

Wilkinson Eyre’s project page for the Emirates Air Line, here

4 thoughts on “Pie in the Sky (the Emirates Air Line, London, UK)

  1. The new bus for London (NBL) suffers from all the flaws that you have stated.
    I would add that the NBL is more claustrophobic than the old Routemaster, it’s like sitting in a post box.

    It smacks of being designed either by a bureaucrat who is doing every thing by code irrespective of whether those rules make sense or someone who does not use buses, possibly both.

    However I would disagree with respect to the back platform that makes a lot of sense if properly implemented. If you have a conducter running around collecting fares, not what happens with NBL, then you’ll reduce dwell times at stops, giving you faster buses so greater capacity on the route.
    The economics will never work when the people paying benefits, are different from the people running the buses and when the minimum benefits(£72 a week) is less than minimum wage (£220 a 35hr week).

    As for the cable car I’m slightly surprised at how little patronised it is. but the money should have been spent on the railways.

    As for Boris he doesn’t like working and will spend as much time as possible sitting on his hands, you have to wonder why he would even want the job when he doesn’t want to do the work. (and he’d be no different as PM).

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