How ski lifts could break the gridlock in African cities

Think of ski lifts soaring over a city such as Nairobi or Johannesburg. These cable cars would be built not just for tourists but for everyone, from bankers and cleaners to gardeners and jobless slum-dwellers.

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For a demographic that is growing, urban Africans spend a lot of time sitting still. In Nairobi, Kenyan motorists spend hours a day in their cars; a standard seven-mile commute can take up to two hours. One driver I know uses his time stuck in traffic to cut his toenails. Miles-long queues are good for hawkers and for the thieves who prey on drivers distracted by their phones but the deputy governor of Nairobi estimates that traffic jams cost Kenya’s economy almost $600,000 per day.

The story is similar in almost any fast-expanding city in the developing world: construction is booming and populations are growing but transport systems are struggling to keep up. We are undergoing the fastest urban growth in history. More than half the world’s population lives in cities and that proportion is rising. The UN Population Fund estimates that the greatest urban growth will be in Asia and Africa, particularly in smaller towns and cities with fewer resources to respond to change. These cities will have no space for extensive road and overland rail systems and no money to build underground railways, which can cost between £150m and £300m per mile.

Now think of ski lifts, a symbol of Alpine decadence, but imagine them soaring over a city such as Nairobi or Johannesburg. These cable cars would be built not just for tourists but for everyone, from bankers and cleaners to gardeners and jobless slum-dwellers, venturing into the wealthier side of town.

The world’s largest ski lift manufacturer, a century-old Austrian company called Doppelmayr, could soon revolutionise transport in cities across the developing world. Over the past seven years, the idea of urban cable cars has taken off, Ekkehard Assmann, Doppelmayr’s head of marketing, tells me. “Many huge cities are seriously thinking about solving their traffic problems with them.”

Following the success of cable cars in Caracas, Rio de Janeiro and Medellín, almost every major city in South America has expressed an interest, Assmann says. In sub-Saharan Africa, the construction of a cable car in Lagos, Nigeria, is nearly complete. A feasibility study is under way in Kampala, Uganda, and the World Bank has approved a $175m financing loan for the project.

Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, built its first cable car in 1952. Four years later, Algeria constructed an aerial tramway in Algiers. Today, Algeria is considered a world leader in modern urban cable cars; it has aerial transport links in four major cities, including four lines in the capital, Algiers.

Doppelmayr built the UK’s first urban cable car, Emirates Air Line, which opened in 2012 and makes a ten-minute journey across the Thames between the Royal Docks and Greenwich in south-east London. The service, dubbed the “Boris cable car” after the Mayor of London described himself as its “Yuri Gagarin” at its opening, has been criticised for being underused. But Danny Price, who oversees the “air” line, says it is already covering its operating costs.

The economic arguments in favour of urban cable cars are compelling. They can carry 5,000 passengers an hour in each direction – this is fewer than subways, which can transport more than 20,000 people an hour, but cost ten times as much. Provided they are well used, cable cars are more energy-efficient than most transport systems because the engines run at a constant speed. The upfront costs are also comparatively low. A typical two-kilometre line might cost £5.1m, experts at a 2012 urban transport conference in Ethiopia estimated.

They can be cheap for users and quick to pay back the capital investment. In Constantine, Algeria, a cable car system carried 4.5 million passengers in its first year, at a cost of 12p per trip. Even at that price, it covered its operation and maintenance costs.

What’s more, cable cars are an exhilarating way to get around. Faith Kangai Njeru is a second-hand clothes trader, domestic help and mother-of-two in Nairobi. She travels for at least an hour to and from work each day. Because of this commute, she has to employ her own domestic help and nanny, although she earns just £4.30 per day. I show her a video of Alpine ski lifts. Faith has only ever seen snow on TV and she watches carefully, as if searching for the snag. Next, I show her a video from Tlemcen, Algeria, where cable cars hang like blue glass baubles high above the streets.

She sits back, smiling. I ask her how much she pays for her bus fare and run her through the arguments in favour of cable cars – but her worries about money seem forgotten. “It’s fun!” she says, settling the debate. 

Jessica Hatcher is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi

This article appears in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten