Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
France has a grand plan for remaking urban transit, and it’s full of aerial cable cars.
In 2021, Greater Paris may be leading Europe’s most unlikely transit revolution: It will put its first-ever urban gondola in service. Starting at a suburban metro terminus, the aerial cable-car link will join up with four other neighborhoods just to the southwest of Paris Proper’s official city limits. Called the Téléval gondola, it will cover a 4.4 kilometer (2.7 mile) route, passing through five stations and transporting up to 14,000 people a day.
It certainly won’t be the first ever urban project of its kind. Cities around the world have already scored major transit successes with the mode, particularly steep-sited Latin American cities such as Medellin. In the U.S., as my colleague Laura Bliss recently reported, Austin, Texas, is now pondering an elevated cable line.
What marks Paris’ plan as different is that it will be the first European city to use a gondola as a genuine commuter route across relatively flat terrain. It’s also being pitched as the beginning of a wider national network: The Île-de-France region is currently considering 12 other gondola plans. The region’s premier, Valérie Pécresse, has all but staked her reputation on gondolas, telling newspaper the Journal Du Dimanche last week that:
“Cable-based transit is clean, silent and regular. It costs a lot less than a streetcar, takes half the time to install, overcomes existing obstacles and offers a capacity of 5000 travelers per hour in each direction, with a guaranteed journey time. Who can say better than that?”
It was London, Paris’ longtime rival, that got in on this action first: The city launched the cross-river Emirates Air Line during its 2012 Olympic year. But the system as proved to be a disappointment so far. It’s been so underused that its operators are now considering luring on more passengers with the promise of liquor.
On hearing of Paris’ plans, Londoners might be tempted to allow themselves a delicious little shiver of schadenfreude. But Paris’ first planned elevated cable link seems to be avoiding most of the mistakes the U.K. line made. Here’s how.
It’s not trying to be a tourist attraction
London’s Emirates Air Line was waved through partly thanks to an Olympic infrastructure fever that pumped cash into anything that might please the tourist crowd. The link, however, isn’t even that near the Olympic Park and sits in an area away from the city center that has no real other sites for visitors. That’s one reason why ridership is so low—if the gondola was a bus line, it would be London’s 407th busiest.
No one is pretending Paris’ new gondola will attract visitors. If tourists have ever ventured near its site, they probably fell asleep on the subway. Starting at the metro terminus at Pointe Du Lac, the gondola will cross an area whose whose only tourist attractions are a smallish pond, a furniture warehouse and a Burger King. By not factoring in visitors, whose seasonal numbers invariably fluctuate, as possible passengers, Paris has succeeded in choosing a site where a gondola might actually be needed, more of which later.
It doesn't replicate existing transit
London already has a public transit link across the Thames near its gondola, as passengers can trace its path via the Docklands Light Railway. Though they need to change trains to do so, it isn’t necessarily slower, because many riders arrive in the area on the light railway anyway. They would have to disembark and walk to reach the gondola. Few bother.
Paris’ gondola, meanwhile, will cross an area segmented by a highway and scale a steep ridge in part of town that is fairly densely populated but poorly served by public transit. Crossing this by bus currently takes 40 minutes. By gondola it should take no more than 17, meaning that far more people will be tempted to leave their cars at home.
It addresses a real problem
Greater Paris’ public transit is often excellent, but connections between its metro and suburban rail systems can be far from ideal. Residents of Paris Proper use the underground metro system, which rarely extends more than a station or two beyond the borders of the central city, while suburbanites use the far more extensive RER network. Transferring between the two (something suburban commuters often have to do) can require long walks, while the two separate networks contribute to a sense of social and cultural disconnect between central Parisians and residents of the outlying suburbs, which despite their name are sometimes even more densely populated and urban in character than the city core.
The new gondola should make access to the metro easier for the suburbs it serves. Only a small area, of course, but then this is just the first installment of a potential 12 new links. The proposals are mostly sited to feed more passengers towards both old and new metro and RER stations, and could well help to coax some commuters away from their cars.
To be fair, London’s gondola also tried to address a wider problem—East London’s lack of crossings across the river Thames. Indeed, this week Mayor Sadiq Khan threw his weight behind three new river crossings in this district. Neither funding nor planning permission have yet been secured, however, leaving the gondola dangling as a failed answer to a problem otherwise unresolved.
It’s not the only trick up Paris' sleeve
Relying on gondolas alone to fix the suburbs’ transit issues would be ludicrous, but that’s not what Greater Paris is doing. Last year, the region started a huge expansion of its metro network under the name the Grand Paris Express. This will create four entirely new lines (all of them beyond the city’s official limits) and greatly extend two existing lines out from the city center to meet and provide interchanges for the new suburban routes. It’s primarily to help feed this network that Greater Paris’ proposed new gondola links are being considered. They would connect outlying neighborhoods with stations on this wider rail network, increasing its ridership by broadening the drainage basin it can conveniently serve.
It could have wider economic benefits
France is on something of gondola-building tear. A new elevated car service launches in the city of Brest at the end of this month, while another should arrive in Toulouse, France’s fourth city, in 2020. The good news here for France is that the country doesn’t just install gondola systems—it makes them. The Brest Gondola was constructed in the French Alps, where cable cars to feed ski resorts have run since the 1920s. Not only will the small amount of land that gondolas require slash the cost of installing them, much of the money spent on cars, cables and supports will also likely be plowed into French manufacturers.
Still, it’s not all clear skies for the Gallic gondolas: Like similar projects, aerial cable cars often face resistance from residents who resent the visual intrusion and possible views it affords riders of their homes (a subject Citylab will be discussing later this month). By avoiding road spaces, the Paris line may also do nothing to reduce motor vehicle traffic in the area. As a cheaper alternative to short-stretch streetcars in truncated (but not necessarily steep) terrain, however, cars elevated on a wire may be about to truly come into their own.