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Traditionally used to bridge major altitude gaps, cable cars are making an earnest comeback in cities. This should come as no surprise, as the cable car offers a range of benefits: it’s efficient, environmentally friendly and cheaper and faster to set up than other transport infrastructure. At a time when populations in cities are growing exponentially, we firmly believe that cable car systems offer a fitting response to urban mobility issues.
Crédits : © Mats Silvan
Cable cars generally conjure up images not of urban public transport, but rather of tourism and the mountains; whether it’s the Sugarloaf cable car in Rio de Janeiro, inaugurated in 1912, the French city of Grenoble’s “bubbles,” in operation since 1934, or the very many ski lifts in the Alps. There are 3,350 cable transportation systems in operation in France, chiefly in winter resorts. In fact; France leads the world by number of installations, accounting for 18% of the global fleet. Between 2005 and 2015, an average 665 million cable car journeys took place in France, with a peak of 761 million in 2010, significantly exceeding the number of air travel passengers in France!
For the inhabitants of the Breton city of Brest however, cable cars have since 2016 taken on a totally different image: a truly urban cable car service which has been incorporated into the public transport network. On a 420-metre line, the two cabins, christened Charlotte and Lewin take passengers across the River Penfeld, crossing between the left and right banks of Brest in less than 3 minutes! This first new-generation cable car in France serves as a reminder that New York adopted the same solution 40 years ago with the Roosevelt Island Tramway crossing the East River. But although France and Europe are the world leaders in terms of number of cable transport systems in ski resorts, they are lagging behind when it comes to their use in cities.
Innovative, smart and effective, the ropeway offers a simple way of passing over obstacles such as rivers, motorway bridges, railway tracks and steep slopes. By definition it is a segregated transport system and therefore offers a guaranteed ridership throughput around the clock. But it can also avoid the drawbacks of urban disruption, whereas tram lines, BRT lanes and metro systems require lengthy and costly construction schedules. Quiet, energy efficient and greenhouse gas-free, easily connectable with other public transport modes, the cable car can also be used on flat ground to pass over dense urban zones.
The best example of the deployment of cable technology in an urban setting, out of proportion compared to all other existing systems, is also the largest network in the world using 10-seat cars, built by Doppelmayr in La Paz. The project was launched in 2012 and the first section was commissioned in under two years (Phase 1: 10 km in 3 lines, 11 stations, 450 cable cars; Phase 2: 20 km with 6 lines, 20 stations, 850 cable cars; a total of 1,300 cabins offering a capacity of 13,000 passengers at any one time in the sky above La Paz). This incredible system, interconnected like a tram or metro network, carries 160,000 passengers on average every day, and is even listed in the 2018 Guinness Book of Records.
Cable transportation reshapes cities and gives fresh impetus to an entire community by introducing welcome services in hard-to-reach neighbourhoods. It also offers local councils the promise of shorter and cheaper installation works. From decision to commissioning, the system can take a mere 2 years to complete, in comparison with 4 to 5 years for a tram line!
Finally, through its overhead view, it offers users a brand new and spectacular perspective of the urban landscape and heritage – and all for the price of a public transport ticket.
The world population is expected to include 6 billion city dwellers by 2050. In view of this challenge, cable transportation has become an ally for the future of the cities and communities of tomorrow.
However, because it shakes up urban patterns and entails new precautions and regulations, a cable car project must, before becoming a reality, first overcome the hurdle of acceptability. In essence, getting all stakeholders on board and behind its cause.
The French Energy Transition Act of 2015 lifted the legal obstacles to the development of this mode of transport in France. In theory, if the system is deemed to be of public utility, there is no reason to stop it from being built. In practice however, this newcomer raises many questions and fears. What about privacy in the event of residential overflight? What about the “eyesore” aspect? What other rules should apply to this new type of transport? How efficiently will it connect with the existing transport infrastructure? As with any other innovation, the urban cable car still has to make its case and reassure people.
Whether in Brest, Saint Denis de la Réunion, Salvador de Bahia, Orleans or Cairo, our experience in infrastructure engineering everywhere has shown that the success of this type of project depends above all on a good consultation process. We strongly believe that in the coming years, in Créteil, Toulouse, Grenoble and Chambery, the decisive factor will be how all the different stakeholders react and adopt the project, whether they be public transport authorities, local councils, economic stakeholders or residents.
Technological innovation will continue to constantly offer new solutions. Today, for example, we have the possibility of making the cable car windows become tinted and turn opaque when the cabin passes over dwellings.
It is crucial to set aside the necessary time for public debate and consultation – this is the soil in which a sustainable project will take root and grow. It is also the time required to design this highly complex and “tailor-made” system. No, the Créteil cable car will not look like the Toulouse version. Each community has its own functional needs and its own technical solution.
Téléphérique de Brest - Crédits : © Egis - B. Plumey
Designing a cable car project is largely dependent on transport service needs: how many stations are planned, how many passengers are expected? But beyond these considerations, the task is to design a solution in keeping with the actual territory, its topography, infrastructure, urban make-up, the daily patterns of users, consideration for the environment and architectural appeal. Because, while on the surface it appears to be very similar to cable cars in ski resorts or tourist destinations, an urban ropeway must in fact deal with other quite different constraints; working almost around the clock, impeccable availability, different safety standards, residential overflight, urban integration, PRM access, etc.
As we know, each system has its own limitations in terms of crossings, user comfort and operation which should all be closely examined before drawing up the ideal project. From the feasibility study to the inaugural flight of the first cable car, an urban ropeway is a highly complex project requiring contributions from many different skills: civil, electrical and mechanical, telecom and environmental engineers, system manufacturers, architects, city planners, future operators… as well as politicians, council technical departments and resident and passenger associations.
Today, the major system manufacturers from all over the world all have offices in France, in the heart of the Alps. Poma is based in Voreppe in the Isère department; Bathloet BMF is established in neighbouring Gières. Doppelmayr and Leitner are headquartered in Modane and Francin in Savoie.
We firmly believe that this new market deserves to receive a boost and be augmented by a wealth of new innovation and technical solutions. Stimulating the creativity of everyone in the industry will help every region to come up with an efficient solution which reflects local patterns. To this end, our role as an engineer is central in opening this market to innovative solutions and new market players.
We have been stimulating the development of tramways in France in the same way since the 1980s by designing a modern, revisited and innovative tramway. To enable it to deliver on all its promises, we intend to mobilise the same energy in developing the urban cable car.
Transport par câble de Sainte-Clotilde : Vue de la station Moufia - Crédits : © CINOR - Atelier Architecte et Atelier Richez