In 2004, Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city and formerly also the most dangerous one in the world, opened the first urban cable car. It connected the most menacing and excluded parts of the metropolis, situated in mountains, with the centre, lying below in a valley.

The effect was astonishing. No-go zones eventually turned into tourist attractions, the isolated quarters became better integrated into the city, and the number of homicides dropped from 293 in 2001 to only 15 in 2016.

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Other Latin American cities followed Medellin’s example. From Rio de Janeiro to Caracas and La Paz, urban cable cars appeared. Even though the most successful stories remain in Latin America, today urban cable cars, or aerial tramways, are on every continent.

Ode to cable cars

There are many reasons the innovation spread. Cable cars are a convenient supplement to conventional transport and can be relatively easily integrated into existing infrastructure.

Why build an expensive bridge to cross a river or dig a costly tunnel through a mountain when cable cars are a cheaper, rapidly realisable alternative? They can also bypass congestion, and the possibility of accidents is very low. When considering emissions and noise, cable cars also beat many conventional means of transport.

Their low speed (10-20km/h on average, says the World Bank) is compensated for by no waiting time as cabins keep arriving at a station. And if there are not enough cabins, more can be added easily.

Lastly, a nice view is not just a pleasant bonus but a real advantage, as installing a cable car attracts attention to an area. Cable cars drive economic growth and social development, as Medellin showed.

The other side of the coin

While Colombia’s case is an inspiration, the story of Rio de Janeiro shows that introducing cable cars can be a failure. Like Medellin, Rio’s administration tried to use the aerial tramways to integrate disadvantaged quarters to the city below. But today the stations are closed. Even though the local residents could ride for free, they didn’t do so. Inconvenient geography, meaning many hills, made it difficult to reach the stations. The cable car was also not high on the residents’ list of pressing needs, which started with housing and sanitation. Lastly, the project was implemented without consulting residents.

In German Wuppertal, a proposal to build a cable car between a university campus and a main station was abandoned after a survey. The locals feared loss of privacy, devaluation of houses below the route, hidden costs associated with the project, and the scale of construction.

And the drawbacks do not end here. Even though the world’s leading company in the sector, Doppelmayr, has its headquarters in Austria, Europe still lacks technical expertise in the field of urban cable cars, and municipalities need more standards and templates to follow. Additionally, only a few cable cars on the continent can be classified as more than a tourist attraction.

Montjuïc cable car in Barcelona, an aerial tramway that is a tourist attraction

Opening the door to cable cars in Europe

Success in introducing cable cars can be summarised in two words – appropriateness and urgency. Any project must be tailored to local conditions, and residents must be consulted. The main obstacle to introducing this means of transport in industrialised countries is fear of loss of privacy and property values falling. 

Some solutions already exist. Brest’s cabins turn opaque when passing over certain areas, making the cable cars much less disturbing. Another important tool in overcoming citizens’ reluctance is cooperation with the property development sector.

To transform cable cars from tourist attraction to everyday transport, the lines must connect actual neighbourhoods or productive districts and they must be integrated into the public transport network.

Moreover, aerial tramways aren’t just an option, they are becoming a necessity. Many cities are reaching or have reached the capacity of their transport systems, and building underground is no longer preferable as the subterranean environment gets crowded. Consequently, we need to start building up. Further, we have to keep in mind the urgency of climate change and the pressing need to decarbonise transport. Given their energy efficiency, as the individual cabins do not need brakes or engines, cable cars are a promising alternative that can make it easier for cities to reach carbon neutrality while moving citizens around.