Yesterday’s confirmation of the contract to build London’s first cable car across the Thames is welcome news. Inevitably, there are detractors, many with justified criticism. Despite the Mace-led consortium’s ambitious aim to deliver the scheme before next year’s Olympics, the tight timescale means that many are rightly sceptical. The £50.5m price-tag has also raised eyebrows, particularly as this is double the £25m cost the mayor identified last year. Boris Johnson also previously claimed that the scheme would be entirely privately funded, whereas TfL and the public purse are now footing the total bill.
And perhaps most importantly, it is unlikely that the scheme will fundamentally address the thorny and long-standing issue of a new East London River Crossing. Its continued absence is partially responsible for multiple traffic problems in several east and south-east London areas and many campaigners argue that only a new road crossing between Tower and Dartford Bridges will stimulate the economic development and transport improvements sorely needed.
Nevertheless, the cable car proposals are undoubtedly a brave and ambitious project that will mark a major new addition to London’s public transport infrastructure. While accusations of Olympic gimmickry are seductive, the proposals will provide a vital new connection across the Thames in east London and represent a real and long-lasting improvement to public transport provision in a part of London that has suffered gravely from municipal neglect in the past. They also proudly recall the pioneering civic zeal and vision of past, bolder chapters in London’s planning history, from the Victorian obsession with metropolitan railway expansion to the architectural glamour of the Jubilee Line Extension.
The scheme is also a symbolic commitment to the ongoing redevelopment of east London and the Thames Gateway, as well as yet another example of the astonishing regeneration potential of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Additionally, while the bill is far from insignificant, it costs only a third of the mayor’s infamous bike hire scheme. And of course, assimilated into the Oyster card system and carrying an estimated 2,500 passengers an hour, the cable cars are destined to become a huge tourist attraction and visual spectacle in their own right.
And yet, the scheme’s greatest credentials may be even less tangible. There is also something inherently romantic and exotic about cable-cars, with their glacial speed and panoramic vistas of clouds and sky they represent a curious, anomalous collusion between urbanity and nature. London will join only a select band of major cities worldwide that can lay claim to this most whimsical form of transport, such as Barcelona and Rio de Janeiro. This is one grand ambition for which the mayor should be congratulated.