a cat’s cradle

My new year break has been spent exploring the numerous cable car proposals that are beginning to emerge.  Usually discreet but functionally and topographically similar to the context of east London, Europe already has its fair share. One in Vancouver is already recognising the benefits in a Covid world.

Google is also awash with the various development and infrastructure proposals that border the River Thames, many of which were the context of my earlier foray into cable car considerations, so please bare with me for the next few paragraphs. 

Each of the development proposals has been reported at length and widely published. Most are progressing slowly or are temporarily on ice as they await the demise of Covid and the inevitably cautious resurgence of funds and travelling people. The GLA, local authorities and private enterprise are certainly not short of ambition for the region, with copious proposals that explore and promote the potential for dockland regeneration and the opportunities for the much-needed swathes of new housing.

First impressions are that there is a striking similarity between the proposals. Apart from the not unpleasant but unerringly homogeneous visual language, and a slightly troubling emphasis and reliance on an influx of creative young family types, the housing and urban essence of the proposals seem to closely adhere to the London Plan. However, the London Plan also recognises that diverse neighbourhoods, characters, age, skills and social offering underpin London as an attractive global city. The principles of the London Plan avert the potential for another Thamesmead. The London Plan promotes Good Growth, including the benefits of demographic diversity, breadth of uses, availability of essential services and opportunities for employment and connectivity that caters for all ages and situations. Hopefully these less directly profitable nuances will become more evident as the proposals develop and each area begins to evolve into a richly textured and distinctly identifiable neighbourhood. 

In a fanciful moment I even surmised that my cable car carrying cat’s cradle that connects these areas may also be a metaphor for a net of social, functional, environmental, architectural, planning and funding considerations that appear to be required to drive individuality, mutual benefit and economic reciprocity between the proposals. But that’s for another day; I decided instead to focus on their transport connections. 

Read together, and with one eye on my cable cars, there is similarly a degree of similarity in the Opportunity Area transport proposals. On the one hand this makes sense, but it inevitably raises some questions. The pent-up demand in Thamesmead, together with the proposed Peabody-Lendlease developments, will benefit from and absorb a not insubstantial portion of the increased capacity of the recently commissioned DLR extension and its long anticipated new rolling stock.  This is the same increased capacity promised to support the plans for the Royal Docks and part of that promised to assist in the development of South Poplar. It is inevitable that the extension of the Elizabeth line to Ebbsfleet will generate growth in North Kent, but this will inevitably absorb a significant proportion of the inner London train capacity before it reaches Custom House and Canary Wharf. Will the demands of development at Canada Water finally exhaust the Jubilee line, or is it assumed that the long awaited and oft-deferred increased frequency of new rolling stock will arrive in time? Does the new Rotherhithe/Canary Wharf ferry really satisfy the forecast demands that drove the exploration of the now abandoned lifting bridge?  Does an extra bus route or two through Charlton really cater for the potential scale of the new population? Can the omnipresent reliance on walking and cycling satisfy the needs of multi-generational neighbourhoods?

It is inevitable that, should the investment be available to deliver the Jubilee, Elizabeth, DLR and bus enhancements large steps will be achievable in some areas.  It is also evident that this investment will now take many years to secure and that additional, more rapid and more affordable solutions are needed to avoid further years of studies, further years of torpor, or worse, another Thamesmead.

– • –

In much the same area as is addressed by these development plans, the cable cars of La Paz have a two-way hourly capacity of 30,000+ passengers, each of whom accept the cable car as the primary and suitably efficient means of public transport. While it is a tad strained to directly compare Bolivia to the UK, the cost of delivery of 20km of La Paz cable car was just shy of the anticipated price of one lifting bridge across the Thames.  In replacing a substantial proportion of the clog of buses that pollute the La Paz streets the cable car system stands on its own one foot, both environmentally and economically, and the benefits have been achieved rapidly and with minimum land take.

La Paz Teleferico has been inserted into an existing and tightly packed urban context.  In and around our nascent Opportunity Areas there may be more that can be achieved.

Within the emerging OAPFs there is a notable demand for directly encouraging and servicing local employment and production, and there is a desire to ensure the quality of the air meets the environmental aspirations of the expanding population.   A cable car system is quite capable of carrying goods as well as people (and bikes and mobility scooters and prams and construction materials). It is quite possible to design the cable car system on the basis of a National Rail rather than an LU/DLR; carrying passengers yes, but also goods and so reducing the passage of white vans transiting the region, while still encouraging the range of products/employment. Such a multi-functional cable car system would extend the useful daily life of the cat’s cradle and potentially offset (zero?) the ticket prices.

Within the Isle of Dogs and South Poplar OAPF there is an aspirational section on the potential centralisation of freight and waste management. Available technologies for inserting and maintaining the cable cars would, with a little adaptation,  quite readily support such multi-functionality. 

Amongst all the Good Growth of the Opportunity Areas there is the Silvertown Tunnel, seemingly adding to the urban dissection and desiccation that presently results in a most extreme example of urban severance that is the north Blackwell quarter.  Should the tunnels not progress, or even if they do, the site that distributes traffic and that is so convenient as the hub of new and existing cable cars could act as a focus for the local distribution of goods, both into and out of the cat’s cradle.

Carrying people and goods would expand the practicality and fiscal endurance of the system. It would reduce the carbon footprint and expand the local catchment of the Royal Docks Enterprise Zone, of Canada Water, of Canary Wharf, of the Isle of Dogs and of South Poplar. It would make connections with other transport systems from presently isolated locations, providing an overlay of local connections to the present through-systems. In the most part the location and form of the cat’s cradle can be determined in a manner unconstrained by existing infrastructure corridors, a new transport infrastructure placed largely in advance of and therefore in harmony with the desires and detail of the urban plan and its architecture. It would be a transport network that could be expanded in an entirely non-disruptive manner as funds allow – to Thamesmead, to Beckton, to Lea Valley, all links that could benefit from the movement of both people and goods. 

– • –

This of course is all still supposition born of a socially distanced new year break, but it’s looking very promising as a way of overcoming some of the connectivity, environmental and funding issues that underpin Good Growth.  As I continue to ponder the potential of the system, and as I begin to consider the tenets of safeguarding, my guru Mr David Rhys Jones is investigating how all of this will work effectively and safely.  We will report further as our answers emerge. 

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