What a cable car between Pyrmont and Barangaroo might look like. Source: Sydney Morning Herald (1)

The CEO of the Sydney Business Chamber, Patricia Forsythe, describes the organisation’s proposal for a cable car running between Pyrmont and Barangaroo as “a little bit out of left field”.

Indeed; but this is the city that built the (then) glamorous Sydney Tower in 1981 and the late and unlamented Sydney Monorail in 1988, so a cable car flying across Darling Harbour shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand as fantasy.

Sydney’s been known to take risks and some, like the decision in the 1950s to build Joern Utzon’s fantastical vision for the Opera House, have paid off handsomely.

So however unlikely, it’s best to assume that what Sydney Morning Herald reporter Peter Munro describes unkindly as “the latest public transport plan for Sydney…soaring like an albatross above Sydney Harbour”, is meant to be taken seriously.

According to Ms Forsythe, the justification for the Chamber’s idea is that Pyrmont Bridge – formerly a vehicular bridge but reserved for pedestrian and bicycle traffic since 1981 – is at capacity due to an increase in the number of cyclists using it.

Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner agrees the bridge is full and that riders have something to do with it:

If you walk across Pyrmont Bridge at peak-hour you will get run down, it’s at capacity.

That might smack a bit of cyclist bashing, however it also confirms that riding and walking in the city centre are modes that can’t be ignored any longer. They need better infrastructure.

But if the problem to be addressed is congestion on Pyrmont Bridge, there are other solutions that seem more obvious than the Chamber’s proposal. One is simply to build another walking and cycling bridge; that’s what Brisbane, Melbourne and scores of cities around the world have done in recent decades.

Cable cars have novelty on their side but they’ve also got drawbacks compared to a footbridge. A key one is there’s only limited experience of whether or not they’re a viable form of commuter transport in the centres of sophisticated western cities like Sydney (e.g. see here and here).

For example, there are only two operational systems in the US, the Roosevelt Island Tramway and the Portland Aerial Tram in Oregon. Neither carries large numbers of passengers compared to a bridge. The Roosevelt Islander carries an average of 6,400 people per day and Portland Tram carries 3,370 per day.

Cable cars have much lower capacity than a pedestrian bridge. As a substitute for Pyrmont Bridge a cable car would also require another mode change. There’s bound to be concern about the impact on the skyline too, especially if larger gondolas are used to create greater capacity.

The attraction of a cable car solution for government and business is that travellers can be charged for the trip. There’s consequently scope to rely wholly or in part on private capital to build and operate the system.

Any prospective investor would be foolish not to take notice of the experience with the now-demolished monorail. They’d also have to consider why commuters who currently walk and cycle in peak periods over Pyrmont Bridge for nothing would be prepared to pay to use a cable car (the cost of a single trip on the monorail was $4.80 when it closed).

The most plausible market is probably tourists, not commuters. That’s consistent with the image in the Sydney Morning Herald of cable cars terminating on the top of the planned new casino. (1)

If Ms Forsythe and Mr Stoner are keen to help commuters by addressing congestion and cyclist/pedestrian conflict on Pyrmont Bridge, they should be pushing for a new footbridge. Heaps of cities have built them, some of them quite spectacular. If that’s too hard they could look at a ferry. (2)

But I doubt this proposal is really about helping commuters; it seems to be more about supporting businesses that rely heavily on tourism.

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  1.  I don’t know where the Herald sourced the picture; I assume the Sydney Business Chamber is too smart to put an image as provocative as that in the public realm.
  2. I’m accepting for the purposes of this discussion the Chamber’s contention that there really is a congestion problem that can only be solved by providing additional capacity in some form or another; of course the options for managing existing infrastructure more efficiently should be exhausted first.
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