Cable cars: urban Mobility in the third dimension

April 20, 2020

Our cities are becoming increasingly crowded. At the same time, rents for office space and housing are rising – and not just in large urban centers, but also in economically strong medium-sized towns. Rent inflation is being driven by the sustained influx of young people, who are increasingly choosing vibrant city life over the countryside.

Cable cars as mobility solutions for urban centres

Rent inflation is being driven by the sustained influx of young people, who are increasingly choosing vibrant city life over the countryside. In many places (including Germany’s traffic jam capital Hamburg, and Munich, which is urgently awaiting the construction of its second main commuter rail line), both public transport and private vehicular traffic are on the verge of collapse. On cycle paths, meanwhile, there is nowhere near enough space for all the bicycle couriers, e-scooters and pedelecs. Anyone hoping to solve these growing traffic problems will have to abandon well-worn paths – literally.

Cable Car La Paz
Photo via iStock, saiko3p

Austrian cable cars in Bolivia

Skiers will probably be among the fastest to a solution: Where surface lifts are no use, skiers climb – you got it – into a gondola lift. Cable cars take people to the most rugged peaks, conquer deep valleys and span raging rivers. Shouldn’t we be thinking about using them in the urban jungle? We should! Here’s a real-world example: Since 2014 in La Paz, Bolivia, several cable cars have been providing relief to the chronically congested, narrow inner-city alleyways and serpentine streets. Every day, as many as 100,000 people use the eight lines in the city’s 27-kilometer cable car network. Behind the La Paz cable car system is Austrian manufacturer Doppelmayr.

Low cost, low risk, but not exactly uncomplicated

Bolivia’s beguilingly successful, affordably priced cable car system has an understandably seductive effect on German traffic planners. The Green Party in Munich’s city hall, for example, has called for an official assessment of three potential cable car routes in the north, south and west of the city in order to relieve pressure on certain sections of congested roads and to bridge terrain that is worthy of protection or impassable.
The most obvious advantages of inner-city cable cars include:

  • environmentally-friendly electric drive systems and brake energy recuperation,
  • low levels of noise pollution,
  • comparatively low construction, maintenance and personnel costs,
  • practically zero risk of collisions with other vehicles or transport users.

So, could cable cars represent a quick and easy solution to inner-city traffic problems in Germany? Unfortunately, the situation is not quite as straightforward as one might hope:

  • Cable cars traveling over privately-owned property could give rise to legal privacy concerns.
  • The system is static, which means it is not possible to temporarily expand capacities to satisfy peaks in demand.
  • Passengers need more time to get in and out of gondolas because of the difference in height between cars and platforms.
  • Masts and cables can have a negative visual impact on historical cityscapes.

Cable cars as an opportunity for diversification

These were among the concerns that led to the failure of a proposed cable car project in Wuppertal: In a 2019 survey of residents, 62% objected to a new cable car system.
Setting up a cable car with a route over private property is therefore quite complicated. Fortunately, the same difficulties do not arise when it comes to developing practical cable car routes over otherwise impassable terrain – Cologne, for example, recommissioned the 1957 Federal Garden Show cable car, which now crosses the Rhine River from the city’s zoo. Since Cologne’s sandy soil makes tunnel construction comparatively difficult (who can forget the collapse of the city’s main archive 11 years ago?), a cable car could create several zig-zagging links across the river. In Bonn, city planners have been analyzing potential cable car routes for some years now, although their final cost-benefit analysis is still pending.

Cable cars are certainly a hot topic – and not only on ski slopes, but also among town planners. In some cases, such projects are driven forward by cable car manufacturers, who see them as a welcome opportunity to diversify in the face of ever-warmer European winters.

Stephanie von Keudell

Independent journalist