The London Cable Car Fares: Unfair to Locals?

Post by Steven Dale

The fare-pricing structure for the Emirates Air Line / London Thames Cable Car was recently announced and it doesn’t look good for commuters.

Single-trip fares will be £3.20 with an Oyster fare card and £4.30 without. Frequent users of the service, however, can opt to buy a 10-trip pass for £16, essentially reducing the fare by 50% to £1.60 per single trip. 

This effectively renders the Thames Cable Car a Toy for Tourists and adds little to the overall London Transport Network. Is that a problem? Yes and no.

Had Transport for London (TfL) positioned this as nothing more than an additional attraction for the city’s 30 million annual international tourists, that would be fine. After all, at €8.60 per round-trip, it will take a very small percentage of London tourists to both pay for the system’s annual operating costs as well as pay off TfL’s £24 million share of the project’s total £60 million price tag.

Let’s assume, for example, that this system costs £5 million per year for operations, maintenance, spare parts and the annual payments for capital costs. That’s reasonable and probably on the conservative side.

In the above scenario, only 2% of annual tourists to London need to ride this system to keep it afloat (assuming a round-trip fare of £8.60). I’m not going to comment on whether or not 2% of annual tourists to London will ride this system, but it’s a bet that most people would be willing to make.

The question, then, is why local commuters – already paying some of the the highest transit fares in the world – are being forced to pay an additional fare to use what is, honestly, a minor transit connection?

Maybe an even better question is whether or not any commuters will?

My gut says no.

A quick history:

When New York’s Roosevelt Island Tram (RIT) was first built, there was no other higher order connection between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island. If you lived on Roosevelt Island, you had no choice but to pay the additional fare to ride the RIT. But then when the subway finally arrived on Roosevelt Island, ridership collapsed. Why? Because riding the subway didn’t require an additional fare.

It wasn’t until the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation struck a deal with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that fully-integrated the RIT into the wider New York transit grid. The RIT was thereafter treated just as any other part of that city’s transit network and no additional fees were required to ride the RIT.

After that, ridership on the RIT returned.

This is really basic economics. If people have the choice between paying for something or not paying for something, they’re going to opt not to. Plain and simple.

The area around the Emirates Air Line has several other public transportation options for local commuters wishing to get around the city. People wishing to get from the areas serviced by the Emirates Air Line need only travel from Royal Victoria Station of North Greenwich Station – which are only two stops apart. Granted, such a trip requires a transfer at Canning Town, but the point that needs to be highlighted is the existing method of crossing the river by public transit is not particularly onerous.

Without doubt, the Emirates Air Line makes the journey easier, quicker and with lessened wait times. But how many London commuters will be willing and able to afford the additional minimum of £3.20 per day to take advantage of that ease? Not likely many.

Assuming 250 work days per year, a commuter who uses the Air Line every day get to and from their respective job would have to come up with an additional £800.00 per year to pay for such a service. How many people do you know who would be willing to pay that just to shave a few minutes off their daily commute? Me neither.

Had the Emirates Air Line been constructed as a subway, tram or bus there is no way an additional fare would be required to use it. That’s the bizarreness of this project. It pretends to be transit, but it’s not.

That the Air Line is being passed off as actual public transit is highly misleading. Commuters might use it one or two times just to experience it. Maybe the limited number of straphangers who have a singular need to cross the Thames at that specific location – and nothing more – will use it, but if they have to go anywhere else in the city, they’ll opt for the free transfer.

Allow free transfers to and from the Air Line and that situation would change dramatically.

Given the money this system will generate – and it will make money – it seems unfaithful of TfL to use local transit funds to build something that gives limited benefit to local transit users. There is little reason TfL couldn’t allow local riders to ride the Air Line as a fully-integrated component of the network (meaning: free from additional fares) while still charging tourists a premium.

The latter would easily subsidize the former.

Note: I have no idea how onerous the journey from Royal Victoria to North Greenwich is. It would be useful if others more familiar with that issue could chime in with their opinions.

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  1. Maybe the Mayor of London wanted to ensure that London stays at the top of the list for most expensive commutes in the world when they thought of the pricing scheme. If one includes this "toy for tourist" mode, they'll be untouchable. http://www.forbes.com/2009/07/06/worlds-expensive-commutes-lifestyle-commute_slide_2.html?thisspeed=25000
  2. Is it just me or is calling something an "air line" which is not an air line, just really confusing?
  3. Yes, it is confusing Julia... but that's been the case from the start with this project, using terms that shouldn't be. lol I think i found where some of the money was spent: http://youtu.be/9g0yZSJWXpE Let's hope they get full cabins after the Olympics and it's not like in the video, lol
  4. More about the Thames cable car. Haters gonna hate. The problem I think is that proponents of cable so desperately wanted this project to be a shining beacon of what first-world cable transit could and should be. And so anything that is perceived to deviate from this ideal causes head shaking and disappointment. Fact of the matter is that there is a lucrative sponsorship deal in place and there will likely be a fairly solid stream of paying tourists waiting in queue, and so the system is going to generate a solid revenue stream. Not bad for a public project. So we didn't get the transit solution we were hoping for. So it goes. But we did get a tourist attraction that is integrated into the public transit system. I'd call this a success regardless.
  5. Agreed. I think the problem I have with it is it being sold as some kind of transit solution when it clearly isn't. If they sold the public an amusement ride - particularly a profitable one that could be used to spur further transit improvements - then the discussion's over. It just feels more like a bait-and-switch. But I'm still pleased it's been built.
  6. Its simple : they intend to make a profit from Gondola (or at least break even) when the rest of public transport (even if costly) covers at max the 40% from tickets... If they would break even on tube , busses etc. the fare have to skyrocket at least by 3-3.5 times.
  7. Matt the Engineer
    When a bridge is built, a common model is to charge a toll until the construction cost is paid off, then it's free. Would that model work for transit?
  8. That's funny, I was asking myself the exact same thing. I don't see why it wouldn't work - except that it's different from the norm.
  9. Not for "usual" mass transport - subways, LRT and Buses too can't repay the operating costs with tickets...
  10. except when they "forget" to stop charging a toll ... so convenient
  11. I had a look at the TfL journey planner and the Tube-DLR trip between North Greeenwich and Royal Victoria (Emirates Air Line termini) is only 7 minutes. With the Air Line journey being advertised as "less than 10 minutes", and most commuters likely requiring use of Jubilee Line and/or DLR at either end, the debate over the Air Line fares being too high for regular local travel seems a little irrelevant. If you don't want to pay the premium, you can avoid the Air Line at no extra time cost, and probably save time since the walking connections at either end of the Air Line look a little long.
  12. North Greenwich to Royal Victoria is Easy. It's a quick change down up one flight of stairs to the DLR at Canning Town. Maximum wait time is 10 minutes, routinely much less. Plus, the DLR is actually good fun, offering good views and both stations are modern and pleasant. It bothers me is that we've paid (through the local rail budget) for a tourist attraction between two immensely profitable private businesses (O2 and ExCeL) that offers almost no public transport utility. You can call me a hater, but there are better things we could have spent our money on, and better things we could have convinced Emirates to pay for if they were so desperate to give their money away.
  13. It's a tourist attraction through and through. And why my tax money has gone on paying for a tourist attraction is a question I'd dearly like answering - along with the second question of "Why on earth has TfL built and is running a tourist attraction?" If a commercial company wanted to build and run a cable car as a tourist attraction, fine. That's fine. I just don't see why a state owned organisation is doing it. This is the kind of thing the Conservatives usually set out to stop, yet here they are with one of their own having built it!
  14. What people appear to be overlooking is that this thing might actually be fun. You guys remember fun, right? There are a third class of potential users which are overlooked in the piece, and that's what one might call "local tourists". There are something like 8 million of us Londoners, and I'd wager a good proportion of us are going to pitch up with our Oyster cards and take a trip on the shiny sky car thing over the coming weeks and months. For the fun of it. I certainly will.
  15. It's a legitimate point and I think it is something we've overlooked. Especially given the fact that we try to position ourselves as people who appreciate the novelty factor of things like this. We probably got blinded by the "transit issue" a little bit.
  16. And that's the ultimate question, I think. What's TfL's role in providing tourist attractions?
  17. But how many times? I'd wager that very few will use it more than once for the novelty experience. Reports from the first day (I've not seen any for the second day) suggest that even by early evening the novelty was wearing thin. My main beef with this, as a Docklands resident, is that a tourist attraction has been built with money from the (already too shallow and shrinking) transit pot. Boris promised that there would be no tax-payer money involved in this, but that's no great suprise as he has plenty of form for factual errors/telling porkies of this nature (delete as approprate to your political persuasion). The private sector didn't want to get involved though (which suggests to me that it isn't going to be as easy to profit from this as others are thinking), but he went ahead regardless, raiding the DLR budget to pay for it. If TfL wanted to make a profit, it would do much better to look at the Metroland model than the theme park model.
  18. Michael Toman
    I would certainly agree with the thrust of the discussion above. This is a tourist attraction. It was funded from public money even though it will likely prove profitable with even modest tourist traffic. For pricing and geographical reasons, it doesn't connect easily with the rest of the TfL network and thus has very limited commuting potential. I wonder however what you all make of a couple of points which struck me in the last few days as I considered the point of this new toy. Firstly, and to me at least unexpectedly, may there not suddenly appear a new breed of commuter on the Thames Clipper service? There is a hefty supply of (expensive) housing stock on the North side. It stands to reason a fair proportion of these people will hold jobs in Canary Wharf, The City or perhaps even slightly further West. I appreciate the Jubilee Line is the sensible option, but perhaps not ideal in an August rush-hour. How many of these people may be persuaded by suddenly having easy access to North Greenwich Pier, direct to CW, London Bridge, Blackfriars or Embankment, at only marginally higher cost of crossing the river to North Greenwich and without having to set foot on the tube? Secondly, it strikes me there are an awful lot of hotel rooms around the ExCeL, within walking distance of the cable car, and a distinct lack of these around the O2. The last time I went for a show it cost an absolute fortune. If you happen to be coming from outside London and have already spent another hundred pounds or so to stay the night, will you begrudge another few quid to be whisked across to start your evening out? And who knows, if the cable car stays open late you may spend another few quid to come back.
  19. Atlantic Cities also concludes this is a tourist thing: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2012/07/you-can-now-travel-really-boring-part-thames-air/2479/

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