I'm a year late with this one. But do you know why a cablecar was built where it was?
Events were set in motion in 2008 when the Mayor decided not to pursue plans for the Thames Gateway Bridge, but instead decided to investigate the provision of alternative river crossings for pedestrians and cyclists. TfL produced a 61 page business case, and this recommended that a cablecar be built between North Greenwich and the Royal Docks. A Freedom of Information request released the report into the public domain last November, and you can read the whole lot (bar some financial detail) if you like. Alternatively, here's the report's conclusion with some commentary.
This report has reviewed the need for improved cross-river connectivity in east London, and found that:
• The strategic plans for London envisage a high level of new development in east London, including areas close to the River Thames in Tower Hamlets, Greenwich and Newham;
One reason that the cablecar's been built is forward planning. The three aforementioned boroughs are due to grow in population by more than 20% by 2031, with a lot of that additional housing near the riverside. A new crossing would be really useful. But one connection could only link two of these three boroughs, and in what follows, the Isle of Dogs misses out.
• Investment in rail links has provided many new opportunities to access regeneration areas in the east London, but the Greenwich Peninsula in particular is forecast to host significant development but is dependent on a single rail station and line;
• A new link to the Royal Docks would provide much greater resilience to the Greenwich Peninsula, encouraging investment to bring new jobs and homes to the area, and would link two areas of potential complementary growth.
A key issue was resilience. By rail there's currently only one way across the Thames from North Greenwich, and that's the Jubilee line. When this goes wrong the only way across the river is by boat or by 108 bus, and these services can't handle large numbers of passengers. Another link would allow visitors to escape the O2 more easily, and also make people more likely to live and work here. The Royal Docks got the nod over the Isle of Dogs because this would create a completely new connection, rather than simply duplicating the underground. It might also help create a cross-river entertainment destination and development zone.
A range of potential options has been considered to address the need for improved crossings, and a cable car has the potential to provide a new crossing from the Greenwich Peninsula, which meets the geographic constraints at a much lower cost than a footbridge, and would deliver pedestrians and cyclists to the area around Royal Victoria, which provides opportunities for complementary development linking the leisure hubs of the O2 Arena and ExCeL.
Five different options for a new river crossing were reviewed, in some depth.
1) Do nothing: This would have been OK for a few years, but would have restricted local development in the longer term. 2) New/improved passenger ferries: A ferry link from the western banks of North Greenwich to the eastern side of Canary Wharf would be much more direct than the existing Clipper service, but there'd be a long grim walk at each end. Future development will change this, so TfL didn't rule the idea out completely. 3) New foot/cycle bridges: A new bridge sounds like a great idea, but would be very expensive to build because the Thames is a working river and around here it's very wide. A 50m-high permanent bridge would require expensive lifts or escalators. A low level lifting bridge would need regular lengthy closures. A transporter bridge would have high maintenance costs. TfL could have made this a toll bridge to help recover funding, but that would have deterred most people from using it. A bridge option was not recommended. 4) New cable car: "It could traverse the Thames without the need for a long and heavy structure such as a bridge deck, allowing cost savings; it could link the key attractors more directly without the need for pedestrians to follow a long walk through industrial areas; it is an attractive proposition to seek commercial sponsorship and raise advertising revenue; and it would be possible to charge passengers for its use, thus making a contribution to maintenance and operating costs." 5) Amphibian bus service: Seriously, that was option five. But with the need to use existing slipways, the route would be circuitous and slow, hence a very unattractive alternative to the Jubilee line. Again, not recommended.
So the cable car option won out, being direct and relatively cheap. But where to build it? Nine different alignments were considered in an attempt to find an alignment that avoided existing or future residential development. Some passed too close to people's windows. Some would have required oversailing of buildings, requiring land rights to be acquired (at a cost) in case an emergency evacuation was ever required. Two landed too far away from a station on the northern side. In the end only one route was acceptable, the route that was built, and future development in Silvertown will be tweaked to leave a clear line underneath.
Furthermore, a cable car would be an innovative scheme offering a spectacular view of London’s Docklands, and is likely to provide a point of interest for those already visiting the O2 Arena and ExCeL, making these more attractive destinations for events. In addition, it is likely to attract some new visitors to the area, who would be likely to visit other local attractions; this would create new secondary jobs in the local area.
The business case forecasts 1.3 million visitors riding the cable car in 2013 - 90% of them as an addition to their day out, and 10% as the main focus of their visit. I suspect the latter percentage will turn out to be an underestimate. In contrast it predicts 678,000 public transport users, suggesting that tourists will outnumber genuine passengers by two to one. That makes a total demand of about 2 million passengers a year, rising to 2.6 million by 2021. The initial forecast equates to around 5500 passengers a day, or just under 40000 passengers a week.... which, interestingly, is pretty much what the cablecar is delivering at the moment.
In its first year of operation the report predicts 930 pedestrian trips per day, each saving an average of six minutes compared to the tube/DLR trip they would have made otherwise. The equivalent total for cyclists is 670 trips per day, but with a much greater time saving (28 minutes) because it's so far from North Greenwich to the nearest foot tunnel. Added together that's the equivalent of 120 public transport users per hour, or two every minute.
The cost of the cable car is significantly less than a footbridge, and its ability to attract users who are visiting the O2 Arena or ExCeL, or especially to visit the cable car, allows revenues from these visitors to contribute to scheme costs. It is also likely to attract secondary revenue from sponsorship opportunities, due to its innovative nature and high profile location on the Rover Thames.
Genuine spelling mistake, that.
The central case has a Benefit:Cost Ratio of 2.7:1, delivering transport benefits (captured within this business case) and wider economic benefits (which are not captured within this ratio).
That's a pretty good ratio, and that's what will have encouraged TfL to construct the cablecar. We can't identify all the costs because part of the report has been redacted, plus this is an 18-month-old planning document and therefore likely to be inaccurate. But the numbers didn't rely on sponsorship. "A conservative assumption has been made that TfL would be responsible for the full capital costs." Emirates' funding is seemingly a bonus, not a necessity.
Given the uncertainties around demand and impacts, the scheme impacts should be monitored, and the operations and fare structures kept under review, to ensure that the right balance is maintained between delivering local benefits and providing overall value for money for TfL.
Let's hope this last paragraph is heeded, and somebody reviews the fare structure downwards or allows those with Travelcards to ride for free. But the business case suggests that's not going to happen. Passenger numbers may be low, but they're very much in line with forecasts which always expected that this would be the case. Bosses hoped the new link would be "in local transport terms, equivalent to the number of passengers using the DLR to/from Beckton." And so it's turned out, even if it's curious tourists who are making up the numbers rather than pedestrians and cyclists. If the cablecar looks mostly empty, that's because it was always planned that way.