London Cable Car Averages “Just” 20,000 Trips Per Day

Post by Steven Dale

The London Thames Cable Car (or “Emirates Air Line” if you so prefer) is quickly becoming not only one of the most expensive cable cars ever built – but also one of the most talked-about. It seems that no day goes by without someone coming up with something to criticize the system about.

Problem is, oftentimes those criticisms amount to little more than political posturing.

The latest volley against the system comes from Mayor Watch, where columnist Martin Hoscik criticizes the system for running “significantly below capacity.” Hoscik states that while the system has a maximum daily capacity of 35,000, the system’s 20,000 trips “averaged just over half that.”

Now before anyone accuses me of being a gondola apologist, let me restate that I’ve been critical of the London Cable Car in the past (herehere, and here). Notwithstanding my problems with the system, Hoscik’s criticisms are completely off-base and inaccurate. His arguments are flawed and of the politically-motivated sort that try to turn non-issues into issues while ignoring all nuance and statistical relevance.

While never explicitly deriding the system, he crafts the piece in such a way to suggest that the system is somehow a let-down because it is not operating at maximum capacity. But let’s take Hoscik’s basic thesis at face value and extrapolate it. Let’s conduct a few quick thought experiments because we haven’t done one of those in a while:

  • The Dark Knight Rises was one of the most anticipated summer movies since, well, the last Dark Knight movie. It has been making insane amounts of money. Imagine you’ve just gone to see the movie and the theatre you’re in is half empty. Does that make TDKR a failure?
  • You hear about a hot restaurant with an up-and-coming young chef. All reports indicate the restaurant to be a success. You try to get reservations for the prime 8pm slot but are told there are only seats available for the 10pm seating. Upon arrival at 10 pm, only half the seats are full. Does that make this restaurant a failure?
  • You live in a large, cosmopolitan city and the subway line you take to work each day is one of the only lines in your transit network to be self-sustaining. As such, the rush hour commuter crush that characterizes your subway line is horrific. You therefore decide to adjust your work schedule so you can travel on off-peak times. Much to your delight, you discover that when you travel on your subway line at 10 am instead of 8am, the train is half-empty. Does that somehow invalidate the line’s clear success?

The answer to all three is obviously, resoundingly no.

Even at “just” 20,000 trips per day, the London Cable Car is a success. Heck, even half that number at the lowest ticket price possible, the system is still a strong performer. Hoscik conveniently ignores this economic reality and judges the system based upon a metric that is simply and entirely irrelevant.

Very few enterprises – public or otherwise – operate at maximum capacity at all times. Mr. Hoscik should realize that and stop trying to make a mountain out of a molehill.

(Not to split hairs here, but Hoscik also doesn’t address whether those 20,000 journeys were round trips or single trips. He also makes an error when he states that the total capacity of the line is 35,000. Not that it really matters, but that’s only in one direction, not both.)

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  1. Just a week ago your site was proudly telling everyone "we told you so" in regards to alleged low weekday ridership. Now you are proclaiming the gondola a success due to strong ridership. Which is it? You've consistently jumped to conclusions about many aspects of this system. And in most cases I believe you have been wrong.
  2. What I've maintained about this system (I think from the beginning is that it's a) likely to be a strong draw with tourists and b) is unlikely to be used in any significant numbers by local commuters for local commuting purposes. An extension of that argument: Should this system prove to be financially viable based solely on the tourists who use the system, then it should be fully-integrated into the local fare scheme - for Londoners. You are, of course, more than entitled to your opinion, but I don't think anything in either of those posts you mention demonstrates a change in my position.
  3. I am not inclined to agree or disagree since reasonable ridership data has yet to be collected. And it is for this reason that I took issue with your post last week regarding low weekly commuter numbers. The source article you linked to offered no quantitative information and itself linked only to a rider's tweet. I think need to wait 6 months before discussing this system again in order to ensure we approach it properly.
  4. My own opinion (and wish) is that TFL improves integration by lowering (or waiving) commuter fares, and that it uses revenues to bolster services elsewhere. Ultimately, however, if the system makes money this will all likely become a moot point.

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