London's useless cable car is still useless, getting more so every week

Boris Johnson's time as mayor has been marked by expensive vanity projects masquerading as practical transport upgrades.

East London's cable car, connecting the Greenwich peninsula with the Royal Victoria Docks, is - to the surprise of absolutely nobody - proving itself quite the failure. The latest revelation is that only four people used it as part of their commute in the week ending 19 October, according to ridership figures uncovered by Snipe London.

Taking the cable car more than five times in any week triggers a discount for those who pay with Oyster cards, but considering the cable car connects two conference centres on either side of the river it’s unsurprising that so few people find it of any use. Here’s Darryl Chamberlain of Snipe:

23,029 journeys were recorded that week – well down on the 42,463 a year previously. The sharpest drops were seen at the weekend, indicating the cable car’s novelty as a tourist attraction is fading.

Indeed, the cable car’s second busiest day that week was Thursday, with 3,521 journeys, a figure likely to have been boosted by a teachers’ strike that day. Across the week, 468 students and teachers were carried free as part of a schools’ scheme.

On top of the four regular Oyster commuters, just 18 multi-trip passes – allowing users to pay in advance for 10 journeys across a year – were sold, compared with 41 last year.

This is, of course, just for one week. It might seem unfair to look at such a small dataset and declare the whole project a failure, especially seeing as there might have been some kind of post-Olympics boost last year that is no longer present.

I’ll direct you to the work of Boris Watch, a blogger who has been doing excellent work keeping on top of the data that comes out of both Transport for London and the office of the Mayor of London. Here’s a chart he’s made of ridership data for the cable car so far in both 2012 and 2013:

It started out not-great (if you exclude the Olympics, when it provided a direct link between two venues), and from there it’s been getting worse. This is why TfL has started referring to it as a tourist destination in itself - after all, despite what the Tube Map might claim, neither end of the cable car is particularly close to either North Greenwich or Royal Victoria stations - instead of pretending any more that it's of use as a commuter link across the river.

I actually took the cable car last week, as I was heading to Royal Victoria Docks and it was on my (admittedly, unusual) route. Here's what it's like to take it, at night:

It's hard not to feel that if the cable car had been located somewhere in central or west London (that is, somewhere tourists might want to visit) instead of east London - and its views of mudflats, the Beckton Sewage Works, and yuppie apartment blocks - it might have done considerably better.

Boris' own transport projects are all in some kind of trouble, to an extent (unlike the ones, like the Overground, which he inherited from Ken Livingstone and which are exceeding all expectations). The New Bus For London is being rolled out to more routes around the capital despite being more expensive to run and, apart from aesthetically, arguably inferior on all the counts that matter (emissions, manoeuvrability, capacity) compared to the standard hybrid buses it is replacing. Boris’ attempts to sell it to Hong Kong were thwarted as the transport authorities there pointed out that its air conditioning is - as many Londoners discovered this summer - completely ineffectual. Their frequent breakdowns don't help sell them either.

Barclays Cycle Hire also seems to be in trouble, with ridership slowly declining year-on-year, which means it is unlikely to (as originally hoped) eventually cover its own operational costs. This is despite £5m sponsorship per year from Barclays. The cable car is called the Emirates Air Line on the Tube Map because Emirates was supposed to have underwritten the costs of building and running it, but a budget overrun had to be footed by the taxpayer

These are needless, frustrating expenses for TfL, which has some pressing issues to sort out elsewhere. Having to raid the budgets of things that are actually useful (like, say, the Underground) to finance boondoggles, while also dealing with a decreasing subsidy from central government, makes those inflation-busting London transport fares even harder to take.

Not a particularly spectacular view. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Show Hide image

Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital