Aerial joy is lost in a toy

Barcelona's cable-car is a practical pleasure. In London, it would be a gimmick, writes Jonathan Glancey
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When city councils hear the word millennium, they reach for designs for giant ferris wheels, arts centres covered, Dan Dare-like, in glass domes or cable-cars built to carry tourists on high-tech tightropes across brave new vistas of the Lottery-fuelled city of the 21st century.

All of these have been recently suggested for the centre of London, and though each has eager, even distinguished, proponents, all ring a little hollow.

Take the cable-car suggestion announced on Monday by Westminster City Council as part of its millennial proposals. At a cost of pounds 10m, a new generation of cable-cars, each seating 120, would carry 4,000 people an hour between the shops and cafes of Covent Garden and the music and arts of the South Bank Centre. The aerial journey would take just two minutes, but in that brief time would offer tantalising views of the Strand, the Thames and the South Bank.

The case for the cable-car proposal, aside from the fact that it might be fun, is that it would shift some of the 24 million annual visitors Covent Garden over to the South Bank, which woos a mere four million. The reason for this, Westminster believes, is that the South Bank is hard to reach, despite a well-established pedestrian walkway cantilevered out from Hungerford railway bridge and mainline railway station incorporating two Tube lines. (Of course, the imbalance in numbers may simply reflect the fact that visitors to London prefer shopping to Schubert.) A subsidiary case in favour of the cable-car is that Barcelona, Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro and great tracts of Alpine mountainscape in central Europe have them, so why not London?

And the case against this example of millennial fever? It is this: unlike cable-cars in Barcelona, Rio, the Alps and Hong Kong, London has no need of one. Part of the joy of riding cable-cars, or any form of unusual city transport (funiculars in Lyons or Istanbul, horse-trams in Douglas, river buses in Venice and Cairo), is that the most interesting of these are an essential and integral part of a particular city's pattern of movement. River buses in Venice might be crowded with tourists for much of the year, but they would run with or without them. Uniformly liveried, functional, delightfully matter-of-fact, these water buses are fascinating precisely because they are nothing special.

The same quiet thrill can be had from riding funiculars up and down the steep hills of, say, Barcelona. These are packed with commuters at rush hour and shoppers and schoolchildren the rest of the day. It is much more exciting to ride a drably-painted funicular with newspaper-reading commuters oblivious to this bizarre form of urban transport than it can ever be to ride in a cable-car across the Thames full of camcorder-toting tourists where everyone is expecting something special.

Swiss hills are alive not just with the sound of hikers trying to yodel but also with the hiss of olive-green or postbox-red cable cars winding up and down vertiginous rises. While these may well be giving tourists mechanical piggy-backs, they are also an everyday form of transport. One never feels the same when crammed on to a theme park or a designated tourist ride.

The most exciting public transport rides in European cities offer views that no journey by road can rival. There are blissful moments to be had, nose pressed to rattling windows, on elevated sections of the S-bahn in Berlin or where the Paris Metro skis up sudden slopes alongside the Seine. The point where the Toy Town trains of the Docklands Light Railway in east London romp up a concrete ramp to reveal surrounding stretches of water and would-be American skyscrapers in all their vain glory never fails to stir the imagination.

No tourist ride can offer such ordinary experiences. All can be had for a pound or less and at clockwork frequencies. It is hard not to suspect that the cable-car rides across the Thames and other such exotica are dreamt up by designers and councillors who rarely travel by public transport. If they did, they might well stop looking around for millennial novelty and seek, instead, to improve existing forms of city-centre transport.

How about designing proper new red and regulated double-decker buses for central London routes instead? As Mr Gladstone said, it was from the top of these, that one had the best views of London.