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.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Show Hide image

How will British science survive Brexit?

What the future of science and tech looks like in the UK, without the European Union.

Science and tech are two industries most likely to be affected by Brexit. British science and tech companies were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining. A Brexit survey run in March by Nature found that of the 907 UK researchers who were polled, around 83 per cent believed the UK should remain in the EU.

UK scientists receive close to £1bn annually for research from the EU – a testament to the quality and influence of the work done on British soil. Between 2007 and 2013, the UK sector supported EU projects by spending €5.4bn, and was rewarded in return with funds of around €8.8bn; it’s a give and take relationship that has seen growth for both.

The combined science and tech sector has laid down the framework and investment for some of the most important research projects in the world. To date, the brightest minds in the UK and Europe have combined to work on highly influential projects: the Large Hadron Collider headed by CERN discovered the Higgs Boson particle, the Human Brain Project set itself the gargantuan goal of unravelling the mysteries of the human brain, and the European Space Agency has helped expand space exploration as European and British astronauts have headed into the ether.

In May 2016, chairman of the Science and Technology Facilities Council Sir Michael Sterling announced that UK scientist Professor John Womersley will lead Europe's next major science project – the European Spallation Source  which is a "multi-disciplinary research centre based on the world's most powerful neutron source." It's the type of project that creates openings and opportunities for researchers, in all fields of science, to really materialise their most ingenious ideas.

The organisation techUK, which according to their website represents more than 900 companies, said in a statement that the result has created many uncertainties but has attempted to appease concerns by declaring that the UK tech sector “will play its part in helping the UK to prepare, adapt and thrive in a future outside the European Union.”

BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, has reinforced techUK’s concerns surrounding uncertainty, highlighting areas which need to be addressed as soon as possible. The institute believes that discussions with the EU should focus on ensuring access to digital markets, freedom to innovate and growth of “our academic research base and industrial collaborations in computing . . . to shore up and build on a major driver of UK economic success and international influence in the digital sphere”.

Confusion over the UK’s position in the EU single market has prompted questions about the freedom of movement of labour, raising concerns among researchers from Europe about their future role in UK-based projects. The naturally collaborative nature of STEM research, the cross-breeding of ideas which foster scientific and technological advancement, could be severely hampered if limitations are imposed as a result the UK’s separation from the single market.

Speaking to the BBC, Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and director of The Francis Crick Institute said: “Being in the EU gives us access to ideas, people and to investment in science." The Royal Society reports that researchers at UK universities house more than 31,000 researchers of EU origin. The danger of losing much of that support is now imminent.

Many other leading voices in the community chimed in too. Paul Drayson, former Minister of Science in the Department for Business, told Scientific American: “The very idea that a country would voluntarily withdraw from Europe seems anathema to scientists.” Remain advocate Jo Johnson, the Minister of State for universities and science (and brother to the leave campaign’s front man, Boris Johnson), stated his concerns to a House of Lords committee of there being very little means to make up for severed EU finances. The referendum result means that a solution to replace that money from a different source must now be sought. He also tweeted:

Despite the science and tech sector favouring a Remain vote, there were some who were leaning towards Brexit pre-referendum. Scientists for Britain, a group of UK scientists who, according to their website were “concerned that pro-EU campaigners are misusing science for political gain”, issued a statement after the referendum. They thanked leave voters for sharing their vision of the UK “outside the political structures of the European Union.”

Though there are many new policies which will need to be drawn up, it is evident that the UK’s requirement to prop itself up once outside the EU will only serve to hinder science and tech growth. The industries best served through European and global outreach are now at risk of being marginalised.

Currently in place is “Horizon 2020” – an enterprise touted as “the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever” as almost €80 million is available to researchers seeking to take their ideas “from the lab to the market”. Once Article 50 is invoked, it is crucial that any negotiations that take place ensure the UK’s spot within the programme is maintained.

There are options to maintain some European integration; gaining an “associated country” status like Switzerland could continue to strengthen the STEM sector, for example. But prioritisation of science and tech seems bleaker by the day. As a new landscape takes shape post-Brexit, we must work tirelessly to prevent our most progressive and forward-thinking frontiers caving in.