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.

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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war