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The urban cable car, a mobility solution on the rise

urban cable car

Once restricted to ski resorts, cable cars are becoming a feature of the urban landscape. Cleaner, quieter and cheaper than rail or road transport, the aerial tram could be the future of green mobility.

Is the answer to urban mobility in the air? Since the mid-2000s, the urban cable car has been making a comeback in cities across the world. This mode of transport is nothing new, however. Rio de Janeiro inaugurated the first heavy-duty cableway for passengers in 1912. 

Medellín, one of the precursors

The congestion of land-based and underground transport networks has sparked new interest in cable-propelled transit, largely thanks to the example of Medellín, which has inspired many a city worldwide. In 2006, the Colombian city launched “Metrocable”, an elevated transit system linking the city centre in the valley to the poverty-stricken neighbourhoods in the hills. It has cut the journey time from these communities to the centre from two hours to 15 minutes. Most important, the system has reduced the social marginalisation of a large swath of the population by giving it access to jobs, schools and hospitals, as well as sports and cultural activities. It has also proven to be an effective means of thwarting drug traffickers. By soaring over their hangouts, it has led to a dramatic decline in the crime rate.

Ending the isolation of disadvantaged areas

The most impressive example of this phenomenon is in Bolivia. The “Mi Teleférico” cable car, inaugurated in 2014, passes through the Andes mountains at an elevation of 3,200 to 4,000 metres. Not only is it the highest aerial tram in the world, it’s also the longest, with 10.3 kilometres of ropeway serving 11 stations. The network links downtown La Paz to El Alto, a former western suburb of the capital that has grown become Bolivia’s third-largest metropolis. Travellers used to spend more than an hour in heavy traffic getting from one city to another, but the commute now takes only 15 minutes. Moving at a speed of five metres per second, the network has a daily ridership of over 40,000 passengers and can move 25 million people annually.

Avoiding natural obstacles

One of the merits of the cable car is that it can cross natural obstacles and service hard-to-reach areas. Take the Eastern European country of Georgia, for example. Surrounded and criss-crossed by mountains and rivers, Georgia is home to around 20 urban aerial trams. 

In France, the city of Brest began operating a cable car in 2016. The line crosses the Penfeld River, uniting the city centre on the left bank to the Capucins district on the right. The new connection has fostered the urban and economic development of the former port area, which was previously accessible solely by two bridges, often clogged with cars. It was built at half the projected cost of a new bridge. Installed at a height of 65 metres, the cable car lets boats pass beneath and can carry up to 1,200 passengers per hour.

Scenic, cost-effective and environment-friendly

Emissions-free and noiseless, the aerial tram is the green solution par excellence. One hundred percent electric, it uses three times less energy than a tramway, five times less than a bus and ten times less than a car. It saves an incredible amount of space, since it needs virtually none on the ground. The construction and installation of a cable car system costs one-third to one-half as much as a road or rail link, and the system can be built in one year, or one-fifth to one-twentieth of the time needed to construct a tram or metro line. The cable car is also the world’s safest means of transport. 

And last but not least, the aerial tram has tourist appeal. It offers users a bird’s eye view of the ground below, allowing people to discover the city from a different angle. In London, for example, the Emirates Air Line provides panoramic vistas of the River Thames, while in Berlin, the Leitner Ropeways enables passengers to view the floral park from the air.

The urban gondola conquers France

There are around 50 cable transport systems in operation worldwide today. In France, the passage of the energy transition law has made it legal, since 2016, to operate a cable car over a residential area. Approximately 10 projects are in the pipeline in Toulouse, Grenoble, Chamonix, Orleans, Saint-Denis (Reunion) and, especially the Paris region, which is intersected by highways, industrial warehouses, railway tracks and other infrastructure. The Câble A-Téléval project, expected to break ground by 2021, will connect the Val-de-Marne towns of Créteil and Villeneuve Saint-Georges and shorten the journey between the two from 45 minutes to 15.

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