The Emirates Air Line (as we must call it by the law of corporate sponsorship) has been open since June 2012. A short jaunt linking the O2 arena with the Excel Conference centre at the Royal Docks, the cable car has proved controversial: confusing some and baffling others. So just how many Londoners are commuting to work like a villain from a bad James Bond film?
During the Olympics it reportedly got 70,000 visitors a week, but in those heady days Londoners believed they could fly and there was wiff-waff at the Excel Centre. Annoyingly, TFL figures don’t stretch back that far, but numbers hovered around 40,000 in the months afterwards, glimpsing their former glory in the first week of November, when 70,704 took to the sky.
But then winter struck, the Olympic euphoria wore off and Londoners remembered they are miserable. Visitors dropped to around 20,000 a week, barring the odd low caused by maintenance or spike around a holiday. It’s only in the last month, when the sun finally emerged from our endless winter, that visitors have picked up again. The day after I recorded these videos – a shining, chiffon day – the queue stretched down the dock.
This stampede points towards something that Boris Johnson has long denied: this is a subsidised tourist attraction, rather than public transport. Certainly, the set-up has a retro-futuristic charm – seeing it whir overhead reminds you of a low-rent Epcot. As you can see from our video, the views are decent enough if you ignore the cement works. Yet the Dome and Canary Wharf are such massive structures that the extra height doesn’t really change your perspective. It’s akin to climbing a ladder to get a better look at the Moon.
People in the area seem to have a real affection for the whirligig, revealing two trends:
1. Many of them loved the cable car.
2. None of them used the cable car, even the people who worked at either end of it.
This is borne out by TFL’s customer satisfaction survey, which interviewed 782 people between September and January 2013. While overall satisfaction was around 93% (75% among actual Londoners), eight out of ten of those surveyed were first time flyers. Moreover, while about half said they would use the service again in the next 6 months, 40% said they might or didn’t know. (Interestingly, there isn’t a ‘No, I won’t use it again’ option listed: the closest is ‘Not applicable – not returning to London in the forseeable future’.) Finally, satisfaction took a major hit in wet weather, and was among the highest with those visiting ‘just for the experience’. Put that together and what have you got? Sightseers. Day-trippers, yeah. It took us so long to find out, but we found out.
So it seems the Air Line is a heavily-sponsored, tax-payer subsidised tourist attraction. But what about commuters? Well, figures from last October revealed that only 16 people (16!) took enough trips to qualify for a regular user discount. In November, they accounted for less than 0.01% of all trips, with just 1,400 discounts being given out in the 400,000 journeys since the Olympics.
The problem is that few people need to move between the Excel conference centre and the O2 arena, unless they are attending a dentistry seminar in the morning and a Beyoncé concert at night. From both ends, the DLR or Jubilee lines are much more useful routes into the City, and by 2018 the Crossrail station at Custom House will leave this looking like a flying Segway. Plus, who commutes by hanging gondola? Blimp salesmen?
I live nearish the Royal Docks, and occasionally take a ride into the cinema at the O2. Not only does it double the price of my ticket for Iron Man 3, but it’s less handy than you think. The service stops at 8:00, stranding you at the end of your movie or concert. Plus, the pick-up line “do you want to get the cable car back to my place?” only works if you’re a ski-instructor and live in a chalet.
It is still early days. The Air Line is less than a year old and has only gone through one winter season thus far: summer is sure to be more popular. Londoners prefer to soar through clear blue skies, rather than hang from leaden clouds. What’s more, looking down on The Dome is a reminder that London has a habit of taming white elephants.