joining the dots

Safeguarding the Cable Car network; same principles, new constraints.

As with most new transport proposals seeking to open up or benefit from regions of cities that may be subject to piecemeal development, the principle of safeguarding should come early in the proposals. This is not, as some believe, an authority that denies opportunities, but rather one that seeks to combine the needs of transport providers and the desire of developers to ensure a mutually beneficial arrangement of structures otherwise vying for the same space.

Safeguarding is helpful because it’s helpful to the councils and developers to have and respond to new public transport, it’s helpful to the transport promoters to gain long term certainty, and it’s helpful to those of us that are eager to encourage and support joined up thinking in the planning of our cities. It’s what happened on the NLE, what we most recently did on Crossrail 2, and what we didn’t do on the BLE until very late last year for reasons I never quite understood.

The safeguarded route is a socio-economic business case underlain by technical capability. In preparing a safeguarded route there are many people to consult and many socio-economic views to filter and adopt.  For the purposes of our network and as we languish in Covid-isolation I have assumed the OAPFs provide a strong foundation born of just such a process. 

For most recent public transport schemes in London, the underlying technical criteria for the safeguarded route are for structures that underlie our city, with areas of surface interest defined where a station, a ventilation/intervention shaft or a portal would ideally pop-up. The determining factors in between are geology, utilities, sub-structures, speed/curvature, track gradients, platform widths and the like. The cable car system is in many ways less technically demanding than these proposals, and in a few ways more so.  

  • The cable car needs far less surface space to construct and operate than all those tunnels and shafts, but it doesn’t offer the flexibility of horizontal radii between its areas of surface interest with which to skirt around the impenetrable.
  • Unlike Crossrail and BLE, the paths between cable car stations must be straight, rather than ideally straight, and of course the routes of all considerate infrastructure should be untrammelled by things it can’t jump over or dodge under and therefore need to remove.
  • The cable car route doesn’t have the equivalent of clay layers to aim for and sand lenses to avoid, while it’s structure-evading gradients are pronounced; 45 degrees changes your altitude dramatically if the need arises.
  • Structures tunneled underground but as close to the surface as practical have matters of ground born acoustics and ground bearing subsidence to address, while the cable cars, being suspended and relatively silent, nevertheless have to gain acceptance for their looks and their overlooking.
  • In our region the cable cars do have occasional but defined zones of air to avoid, be they for shipping or aircraft, in much the same way as tunnels seek to avoid London’s environmentally delicate and less-well determined thirst-quenching aquifers.
  • There is also the not small matter of local reference, for while the Crossrails, NLEs and BLEs remain eagerly awaited despite their delays, disruption and burgeoning costs, London’s only cable car had a spirited but ultimately more nuanced reception. But that said, we now have far stronger reasons for the need, and we press on…

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Just like the Crossrail/BLE/NLE proposals, our network has a primary need to carefully consider where the stations are placed, that they should serve the people and the uses that are most benefiting and beneficial.

I noted previously the reams of virtual paperwork that record and promote the many Opportunity Areas identified for our region, all based on Good Growth aspirations and long evenings of local consultation.  Having been encouraged by their ambition and by the broader benefits capture opportunities recognised in the new Green Book, my cable car route objectives are that the stations should not simply encourage expanded and complementary living and working opportunities; but they should now be concerned with people and goods travelling between and around well designed urban locations that enable a whole-life function – from home to work to play to services, from production to distribution to delivery to disposal – all within a socially and environmentally sustainable network that’s enjoyable too.

And of course our route also seeks interchange with onward travel for we don’t just wish to Make Docklands Great Again by some self-serving means, but to offer our services beyond our borders and to provide opportunities for others to come and enjoy, to enhance and to benefit from our region as it develops its many latent and environmental strengths.

I have now delved deeper into each Opportunity Area, and I have sourced some mapping, albeit doubtless out of date before I started and changed again before I posted it here.  I have overlaid the physical, urban and societal ambitions for the various neighbourhoods with a cable car network that enhances, while not altering or critiquing, the hard-worked opportunities identified.

Out of this I have drawn some more tangible proposals for a cable car network, knowing full well that drawing anything elicits challenge and as such may be used as a focus and a target for comment and a medium for adjustment.  These are a first step for defining and safeguarding the opportunities the cable car provides.

Pink Line

The Canada Water development has two multi-storey car parks.  I am old enough to remember when these were considered to be a good thing.  Temptingly, they are to be located next to the NR station providing helpful interchange, and fortunately they present an interface between the new retail and residential areas on the Town Square at the confluence of two very straight lines to Millwall Docks and Canary Wharf. An ideal location for the most westerly of our cable car passenger stations and the furthest node of our goods distribution network.

Heading north east our pink line becomes the much-debated and ultimately unsuccessful continuous river crossing between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf, and links the public-transport-poor areas of Rotherhithe to the DLR and my new Crossrail station. With the aspirations for megatowers where once there were fish, I’m expecting things to get busy at the North Dock and have two pink stations to absorb the flows, spread the load and turn the corner.  The megatowers will also demand goods and generate waste, and the GLA OAPF is eager to see this controlled innovatively and centrally. Heading south west the pink line therefore lands at the primary people and goods distribution stations, close to the O2 Arena, the Emirates cable car, the A2 and within recycling distance of the river barges.

Blue Line

The Blue line heads west from Canada Water, stopping as needs be to connect to river boats before crossing the river to attract, service, enliven and encourage the peninsula population of the seamless housing and the new opportunities that fringe Millwall Basin.  The GLA proposal for a new neighbourhood centre with onward bus routes, where now an unlovely but probably much needed Sainsbury shed sheds blight on the urban landscape, is given enhanced purpose with its accessible neighbourhood now spreading out of the peninsula across the river to the east and west. Unsurprisingly the Blue line also arrives at the primary people and goods distribution stations at North Greenwich.

Black Line

Turn right and the Black line heads past the new biscuit brick, too-closely spaced mono-purpose tower developments of North Greenwich into the industrial shed jungle that comprises north Charlton.  The GLA aspirations for Charlton are not considerable. While it is good to see that the existing employment is maintained and supported, the existing miserable PTAL is also largely assumed, and there is probably an underlying fear of flooding that, counterintuitively, causes the housing aspirations to be low rise.  I don’t have a difficulty with this, from a taste perspective the biscuit sandwiches in North Greenwich are not my cup of tea, but some balance of density and improved PTAL introduced by the cable car is surely needed before anything happens at all.  And when it does happen, at least the character of the new neighbourhoods are planned to be varied and diverse. I have hope for this response to Good Growth. The Black line then crosses the river to North Woolwich to provide a walkable connection to the Green line, offering respite to the otherwise linear pattern of north Charlton, trapped on the marshes between the river and the North Kent lines, and in anticipation of a future short hop to Beckton and Thamesmead.

Green Line

The Green line presently completes the radiating and encircling nature of our cat’s cradle network.  It provides the north shore link between London City airport and Canary Wharf through the Enterprise Zone and Cultural Hub that is Royal Docks via the industrial and emerging housing areas that lie along the river. The airport has ambitions to expand not only its flight timetable but its goods handling. Tate & Lyle won’t be slow to realise the potential of its swathe of riverside land. ExCel is proposing to expand eastwards to accommodate post-Nightingale growth.

Inevitably the OAPF’s European and sales exhibition travellers, its omnipresent ‘creatives’ and its enterprising production prospects will require onward interchange and distribution. The primary people interchange is again Crossrail and DLR, with the new DLR station adjacent to the GLA HQ being a further interchange or a cost saving. The northern goods distribution centre straddles the space between the viaducts of the DLR and Silvertown Way, in easy reach of the A12 and A13 and adjacent to the Docklands Waste Disposal centre and its access to the river. Our western station joins the Pink line amongst the megatowers of South Poplar, with the opportunity for a short northward hop to the wider range of employment prospects in Lea Valley. 

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Within our cat’s cradle some 200,000 new homes and 200,000 new jobs are forecast. If our network was based on the La Paz Teleferico our 18km cable car route could carry 32,000 people each hour.  With the off-peak potential for transporting goods the passenger journey could be low cost, the number of white vans could be reduced, and the urban and environmental benefits would enable more pleasurable walking and cycling.  As part of a multi-modal and multi-functional solution to urban integration and the opening up of new opportunities without substantial investment the cable car pulls above its weight. How does it all work on the ground?  David and I are now immersed in AI, networks and moving block passenger and goods handling, and will report as the ideas evolve.

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