Once regarded as little more than a tourist attraction, cable cars are now proving to be an environmentally friendly method of commuting, writes Len Williams.
Scroll to view the gallery
In 2004 the Colombian city of Medellin became the first place in the world to fully integrate cable cars into its existing metro system. Since then, a growing number of urban areas across the globe have begun installing cable car systems of their own, offering a clean, relatively cheap and innovative method of moving people around.
Len Williams looks at the growth of this unique new form of urban transport.
For decades Colombia’s second city was synonymous with violent crime. Built along a steep-sided valley with poorer neighbourhoods arranged on the slopes far from the centre, many inhabitants were effectively excluded from jobs because of the time and effort it took to travel to work.
Since 2004, however, the city has invested in connecting these high-up neighbourhoods with the rest of the city through its innovative MetroCable system – an investment which has been widely credited as helping cut the city’s crime rates.
Since then, cities around the world have begun to follow Medellin’s example. From Caracas in Venezuela to Constantine in Algeria, New York in the US to Russia’s Nizhny Novgorod, authorities are turning to cable cars as a means of overcoming common transport challenges.
Gondola systems, as they’re sometimes known, offer urban planners a way of traversing challenging topography such as steep hills and rivers. But, these aren’t the only benefits.
Cable cars offer other pluses too. They’re quiet, emit no direct air pollution, and in contrast to new railways, tunnels or bridges, are significantly cheaper to build.
Their ability to connect hilly and hard-to-reach areas is winning them recognition. In less economically developed cities that can’t afford light railway systems, they offer a faster and more comfortable method of commuting long distances than buses and can also help reduce congestion.
There’s also the view while you’re travelling.
A World Bank study of urban cable cars notes that the average journey length for today’s system is 2.7km, with stations every 800 metres or so. They typically reach speeds of between 10-20km/h (6.2 to 12.4mph) and can carry up to 2,000 people per hour in each direction.
Depending on the city and the neighbourhoods served, a single cable car line can carry upwards of 20,000 passengers daily. One line in the Bolivian capital La Paz carries up to 65,000 people every 24 hours.
Most urban cable cars hang from a cable above, although some are also pulled by an attachment below. In either case, the fundamentals of the technology are roughly the same. At its simplest, one long steel cable rotates between pulleys at either end of the route, not unlike a traditional outdoor washing line.
The cable cars are often (though not always) attached to the cable with a detachable grip, which automatically releases when it arrives in a station, before reattaching itself once passengers have left the car.
Not all urban cable cars have met with resounding success. In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro’s system came in for criticism for the sheer cost of its construction when it was completed in 2012 – around 210m reals, or £44m/$54m in today’s money.
The Rio system was intended to provide a service to marginalised communities in hillside favelas, yet was criticised as being a vanity project built without their consultation – many would have preferred the money spent on improved sanitation and basic public services.
An unexpected side effect of urban cable cars is their pull as a tourist attraction, and therefore as an agent of economic growth. In cities such as Medellin and La Paz, a cable car ride is rated as one of the main attractions.
The world’s longest metro cable car system, at over 16km, is in La Paz, Bolivia. The Mi Teleférico functions as La Paz’s principal public transport system and currently has 25 stations and six separate lines running across the city. Four additional lines are planned to open in 2019. A one-way ticket will set you back just 3 Bolivianos – around £0.33 ($0.42).
Since 2016, visitors to Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay can view the unique rock formations that the Unesco World Heritage site is famous for from a new perspective. The cable car leaves Ha Long City and glides over the bay to a viewing point on the nearby Ba Deo Hill and is supported by the world’s tallest cable car pylon, at 188.8m (623ft).
The Ha Long Queen Cable Car is also a record breaker for the number of passengers each gondola can carry – the double decker cars can transport up to 230 passengers.
Cable car craze
A growing number of cities are expressing an interest in building their own urban metro cable car systems. Industry website The Gondola Project lists cities that are in the process of either exploring, planning or building their own systems. Current cable car plans include the likes of Tasmania, Gothenburg (Sweden), Jerusalem (Israel), Mombasa (Kenya) and Chicago.
Don't look down
Not all cable cars are a relaxing ride, however. Some of the individual cabins in the Yeosu Cable Car, which connects the South Korean mainland to a nearby island, feature clear reinforced glass floors – and are not for the faint of heart.