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The cable car as a mobility solution

26. April 2021

Common in ski resorts for more than a century, cable car technology is ideal for coping with steep gradients over both short and long distances. High above the landscape, eco-friendly gondolas glide autonomously and almost silently from A to B, which is why they have become firmly established in the transport systems of South American cities such as La Paz and Medellín in recent years. In mid-latitude countries, however, cable cars are not yet seen as aC, although there is great potential.

Cable Cars as serious alternative

Mobility alternative in urban areas. Photo: ©iStock / jikgoe

Unique potential

Whether as a ski lift on a winter sports holiday, a mode of transport in an amusement park or a means of linking an urban area to the Federal Horticultural Show (Bundesgartenschau) – in Germany, the use of cable cars has so far been largely event-related and primarily aimed at tourists. Their unique potential to cover long distances with reliable punctuality and without concerns over road layouts and structures on the ground would seem to be overlooked.

In addition to new technologies in private transport , the transformation of the transport sector calls for innovative mobility concepts in public transport too. Although drivers only use their cars for an average of about one hour a day (link to car sharing text here), the German passenger car fleet is growing by between 500,000 and 700,000 vehicles every year. The resulting increase in demand for car parking ultimately means that the space that would be urgently needed to expand road-based local public transport is in short supply. One place where private transport does not interfere with public transport is underground – an area that has already been extensively exploited. Another could now be the aerial realm.

Floating free

Ever since the Giessbach funicular railway opened in the summer of 1879, passengers have experienced the cable car as a highly efficient and fast means of transport. The first funicular in the world to be built for tourist use runs from Lake Brienz in the Swiss canton of Bern up the adjacent hill and masters an elevation difference of 93 metres over a distance of 345 metres – now in four minutes, then in six. An impressive speed given the technical state of the art of the time.

Starting in the Alps, the cable car concept gradually spread and is now used on every continent. The original purpose of the cable car was to travel between different heights, and this is still the main reason for implementing such a system today. For example, a cable car network opened in 2014 that now spans a distance of more than 30 kilometres through the metropolitan area of the Bolivian city of La Paz, which has an elevation difference of more than 1,000 metres. Mi Teleférico has two aims – to relieve the pressure on the road transport network and to ease mobility-related segregation dynamics. With ten lines currently in operation, the capacity of the public transport network, which consisted only of minibuses before the cable car system’s construction, has increased exponentially. Every day, more than 300,000 passengers now use the cable car network, which runs between the low-lying outskirts of La Paz, the steep slopes at the heart of the city and the high plateau of the immediately adjacent El Alto, a city with a population of one million.

Similar effects can be seen in the Colombian metropolitan area of Medellín, where the outlying districts situated in steep, hilly terrain have been connected to the centre of the city since 2004. As in La Paz, mobility has been improved here too, and the acute segregation problem has been resolved. As a result, even the crime rate dropped within five years of the gondola lift system going into operation.

Europe remains hesitant

With a market share of 60 per cent, Doppelmayr, headquartered in Vorarlberg, Austria, is the global leader in the cable transport business, followed by Leitner AG in South Tyrol, which occupies a 35 per cent share. The remaining market share is distributed among smaller companies also based in the Alpine region. But although the production and the concept of cableway systems are deeply rooted in Europe, cities in this part of the world are still comparatively sceptical about implementing the technology within their transport networks. This is demonstrated, among other examples, by the numerous projects proposed but ultimately abandoned by various large German cities (e.g. in Wuppertal, Hamburg and Cologne), sometimes reaching the final stage before being rejected by local referendums or district councils. In each of these cities, the aim was to increase the accessibility of certain districts cut off from the city centre by barriers (differences in elevation, waterways, building developments) by constructing a cableway. The outcome: three clear votes against. Among the most prominent counter-arguments were a perception of the costs being too high and the possibility of local ecosystems being disturbed by the erection of the supports.

As a result, most urban cable car systems are still merely tourist-oriented for the time being. The Koblenz cable car, for example, runs from the Rheinanlagen park on the left bank of the Rhine over the river to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, 112 metres higher up, and offers an attractive view over the Rhine and Moselle. It was opened in 2010 as part of preparations for Germany’s Federal Horticultural Show (Bundesgartenschau).

Koblenz as a role model

But even if the Koblenz cable car is more suitable for Sunday outings than for commuter traffic due to its poorly connected top station, its advanced technical data show what can be achieved. With an ability to carry 7,600 passengers per hour, Germany’s first tricable gondola lift boasts the largest transport capacity in the world. Taking just one year to build, and in this case at a comparatively low construction cost of Euro 12 million, a system like this one is entirely suitable for practical applications.

The system’s carrying capacity demonstrates that installing a cable car as means of transport in an urban setting would be worthwhile not only due to the infinite improvement of the city’s carbon footprint and the decrease in noise pollution, but also due to its much more efficient performance compared to road-based transport options. What’s more, a lot of time would be saved on inner-city commutes. For example, at a speed of about 21 km/h, the Wuppertal cable car would have covered a distance in nine minutes that would take a car in rush hour traffic about twice as long and a local bus three times as long.

From the Alps to the city

These examples show that cable car systems have the potential to be much more than attractions and means of transport for tourists. Companies like Doppelmayr and Leitner could significantly alter urban mobility in Europe in the long term and, above all, bring about positive change in the direction of sustainability and efficiency. Realising this vision, however, requires a great deal more courage and the will to innovate. One thing is certain: the know-how and the necessary technology are available. The only missing pieces are partners at municipal level who are willing to take on this “high-wire act”.

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