How cable cars could boost public transport links in Germany

IGA Cable Car Berlin
Berlin Marzahn's cable car sails over the Gardens of the World. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jens Kalaene
Berlin is the first German city set to completely integrate a cable car into its public transport system - but soaring transport links could soon arrive in many other major cities.

In South American cities like Mexico City, Le Paz and Bogota, it’s become an everyday sight: commuters and tourists travelling from A to B above the rooftops. But until now, cable cars in Germany have been primarily reserved for the ski slopes. 

That could all change under plans released by the new government.

According to information obtained by DPA, the traffic light coalition wants to make it easier for cities in Germany to build cable cars to complement their bus and train network – and it is already drawing up guidelines that should be released in 2022.

READ ALSO: E-cars and sleeper trains: How Germany’s new government will reform transport

“Our public transport in big cities is well organised, but is reaching its limits,” project manager Sebastian Beck from the consultancy Drees & Sommer told DPA. “The cable car is about closing gaps, relieving, extending, bridging.”

So, could people in German cities soon be soaring over houses and traffic jams to go shopping or to school just like they do in Mexico? If new plans in Berlin and other major metropoles come to fruition, this could certainly be the case.

As it stands, the capital looks set to be the first city in Germany to completely integrate a cable car into its public transport system. Under plans released by the SPD, Greens and Left Party coalition, the existing cable car in Marzahn’s Garden of the World will be linked up with the U5 station Kienberg by the end of 2022. 

What used to be mainly a visitor attraction for garden shows in Germany is now becoming the focus of transport planners – and Berlin isn’t alone. According to DPA, a number of cities are now considering transferring part of their traffic to the air on cable cars.

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Bonn, Stuttgart, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Munich and others are said to be considering whether the soaring cabins are the answer to congestion on the ground. And so far, the plans have mostly received a warm response from commentators.

Scaling an 100-metre ‘mountain’

For people in some of South America’s big cities, riding a cable car is a perfectly normal part of everyday life. La Paz, for example, has a total of 27 kilometres of cable cars, the densest network in the world. Bolivia’s capital has up to 1,000 metres of height difference to overcome, while Berlin’s IGA cable car only has to scale the Kienberg.

Like many of Berlin’s other hills, the Kienberg was erected using war debris and building rubble and, at 100 metres high, is high enough to be called a mountain in the notoriously flat capital. This is where, on the far eastern edge of the city, the cable car runs. 

READ ALSO: Record-breaking cable car for tallest mountain in Germany to open Thursday

Leaving the U5 station at Kienberg, passengers are just a short walk from the cable car, which operates 64 separate gondolas. At the highest point, visitors can see the sun appear behind Marzahn’s famous Plattenbauten (prefabricated high-rise blocks) and gaze down on the Gardens of the World – a hugely popular attraction in Kienberg Park. The cable car has been part of eastern city’s skyline since it was built for a garden exhibition in 2017.

As it stands, however, those who descend the 100-metre ‘mountain’ find themselves on a four-lane road, because the cable car was originally intended as a visitor attraction, and as such, an end in itself. Unless the transport network is extended on the other side of Kienberg Park, it won’t get anyone to their destination any faster. Nevertheless, in deciding that it can be used with the normal public transport ticket, the Berlin government is setting an example. 

IGA cable car
The cable car takes flight above the Plattenbauten of Marzahn. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jens Kalaene

So far, the plans haven’t been piloted yet – but arguments in favour of cable cars could soon be backed up by concrete research.

Experts are currently working on a study – due to be published in 2023 – which will determine whether further cable cars can usefully supplement local public transport. Of course, the answer could also be ‘no’. But the discussion about cable cars has been preoccupying the capital for a long time. Who wouldn’t want to simply float over the daily traffic jams, without even having to scour the daily timetables? 

In spring, proposals for five cable car routes were circulated among Berlin senators. Visitors could ride past the skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz, or across the former Tempelhof airfield – or even over the Wannsee. At present, however, these are all just ‘what ifs’. 

More concretely, Munich is already thinking about a cable car several kilometres long in the north of the city, while Bonn is considering utilising the airborne transport to create links across the Rhine. “Back from the car-oriented city to a living space with better air and less noise,” is the motto in the former West German capital. 

Climate-friendly, cheap, reliable 

The federal government also has something to gain from the mode of transport, which is hailed for being eco-friendly, cheap and reliable. Furthermore, cable cars can spring up quickly to close gaps in the public transport system, replace bus services or connect rural areas.

READ ALSO: 55 million people in Germany have ‘inadequate public transport’

“A cable car alone is not the solution to all transport problems,” the Federal Transport Ministry said, dampening enthusiasm. As a continuous conveyor, the cable car can’t bring lots of people from A to B in a short time. “Our question is rather: when can a cableway be a sensible supplement to public transport? Where can it play to its specific strengths?”

The Transport Ministry added that cities would have to carefully weigh up the advantages and disadvantages.

Study author Sebastian Beck from the consulting firm Drees & Sommer says that although the public transport system in big cities is well organised, it is reaching its limits. “The cable car is about closing gaps, relieving, extending, bridging.”

River Rhine Hagenbach
Ships sail along a stretch of the Rhine in Hagenbach, Rhineland-Palatinate. Cities such as Bonn are considering using cable cars as a means of scaling the river. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Einsatz-Report24 | Aaron Klewer

This is also how local transport operators in Germany see it. “You can build cable cars quickly, they need little space and deliver permanent traffic,” said Lars Wagner, spokesman for the Association of German Transport Companies. However, it’s important for it to genuine offer a benefit in terms of public transport, since this is key to unlocking state funding, he said.

According to Wagner, however, there are some obstacles to throwing up a transport network of cable cars: “They get little applause from those who live along the route.”

In Hamburg, for example, a cable car plan failed years ago. In a referendum, residents rejected the railway from St. Pauli across the Elbe and to the other side of the harbour. Opponents said they were concerned about its effect on the cityscape, among other things.

This is where the Ministry of Transport’s guidelines will come in.

“For all infrastructure projects, open and transparent communication with the citizens is necessary at an early stage,” consultant Beck explained.


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