If the cable car were a bus route, it'd be London's 407th busiest

Look at all those happy punters. Image: Scott Heavey/Getty.

Great news, everyone! London's favourite cable car has hit a major milestone!

 

Five million people! Isn't that brilliant?

Let's put that amazing number in context, shall we?

Over the last year, just under 1.6m people have used the cable car. That's so many it's approximately one tenth of the number that used* London's smallest tube line, the Waterloo & City line shuttle.

Approximately 50,000 passengers a week use the nearby Woolwich Ferry to cross the Thames; that means that the cable car is attracting nearly 60 per cent as much traffic as that.

And if it was a bus route, it'd be London's 407th busiest! Take that, H14 from Hatch End to Northwick Park Hospital. How’s it feel to be in 408th place? Loser.

To sum all this up, here's the passenger traffic on the cable car compared to selected other transport routes in London:

Here’s another version of the chart which includes the Central Line. That’s London's busiest route, and even that only receives a mere 168 times as much traffic as the Emirates Air Line.

And it only did that well by having 49 stations and cheating by actually going to places people want to go. Watch your back, Central Line!

But we shouldn’t just think of the route itself of course: we should think of the stations, too.

Those 1.56m people each, presumably, used both Emirates Greenwich Peninsula and Emirates Royal Docks stations once each. (If they didn't, that raises some worrying questions.) That gives each of them an annual consolidated "entries + exits" figure of, yes, 1.56m.

Compare that figure with those published for the London Underground network, and you'll find that, if the cable car's two terminals were tube stations, as the tube map seems to think they are, they'd be joint 248th most popular! That’s ahead of around 20 other contenders, including such big names as Mill Hill East, Chalfont & Latimer and Upminster Bridge. Amazing.

To finish up, let's check out the long term passenger usage trends on the cable car route. Here's a graph showing average weekly passenger numbers over the past three years:

And here’s another version, this time using a 10 week rolling average, so you can see the long term trend and the effect of the seasons more clearly. 

 

Two things jump out at you here. One is that the cable car's traffic is seasonal, hitting its peak in summer.


The other is that nearly a quarter of the people who have ever used the Emirates Air Line did so in its first three months of existence – a period which, coincidentally, included London's Olympic Games. Since then, passenger numbers have been gently, but gradually, falling.

But never mind all that on this joyous day. Congratulations, to Transport for London and the Emirates Air Line, for hitting this amazing milestone.

The Emirates Air Line cost an estimated £60m to construct and £500,000 a month to run.

 

*Incidentally, tube passenger figures are for 2011-12, the most recent year we could find. Given the network-wide trend towards growth, it's almost certainly an underestimate. 

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.