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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.