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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change