The cableway originates in the city - not the mountains

Are cableways really suited for urban transport? An absurd question for someone who is familiar with the history of this means of transport. About the origins, development and future of urban cableways

The urban cableway celebrated its comeback in Algeria. Photo: Doppelmayr

This means that the first urban cableways did not glide in the air but were firmly grounded. These installations resolved mobility problems especially in hilly city quarters whose slopes could not yet be overcome by any other means of transport. The first cableway in Lyon from 1862, with its three-car trains transporting up to 324 persons, shows how efficient they were.


While traditional funiculars going back and forth prevailed in Europe, cable cars with cabins clamped during the ride to an endlessly circulating cable were mostly employed in the US. It did not take long before the first funiculars built for tourist purposes emerged, for example the one used on Leopoldsberg near Vienna since 1874.

Aerial cableways as an attraction

Since about 1900, high-performing aerial cableways were built also for personal transport, initially carrying people over urban areas. As today, aerial cableways were built for large exhibitions or leisure parks to bring people a special mobility experience, for example in Berlin, Milan, Venice, Geneva, Stockholm, Vienna and Turin.

The first urban cableway in south america was opened in Medellin (Columbia) in 2004. Photo: POMA

Cars pushing out cableways

The victory march of automobiles— starting from 1920 in the US and from 1945 in Europe—pushed the cableway out of cities into the mountains. People there realized their potential for transporting material and people, mining, every-day life, as well as winter tourism. In the following decades cableway technology went through a rapid development. Today, cableways are a fully developed, efficient and comfortable means of transport.

Comeback in Algeria

Except for connecting cableways between isolated Swiss mountain villages, for a long time the subject of inner-city cableways was off the table. It is true that 26 cableways for personal transport were built in the Georgian mining town Chiatura (and 116 for the transport of material) but only industry insiders knew that. But there were rare exceptions every now and then, such as the gondola lift connecting the main island of Singapore with the island of Sentosa in 1968.


The number of passengers grew over the years to more than 10 million per year. The Roosevelt Island Tramway in New York has been connecting Roosevelt Island with Manhattan across the East River since 1976, while Tbilisi gained five inner-city aerial tramways between 1959 and 1986. In Chongqing (China), inner-city aerial tramways serve as bridges over the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. However, most installations, such as those in Gothenburg, Barcelona, Zurich or New Orleans, were built on the occasion of various anniversaries or events – and often dismantled again afterwards.


A true comeback of the urban cableway happened first in Algeria. In 1982, the cornerstone of a detachable gondola lift as a permanent inner-city means of mass transport was laid here. First, in the capital of Algiers, crossing the mountains, then in other cities.

Urban cableways are still struggling in Europe. But examples such as Koblenz show that they are to be reckoned with in the future. Photo: Tornow

Victory march in South America

Then, around the turn of the century, someone came with the idea of exporting the concept of an inner-city cableway from Algeria to Columbia or applying the tourist mountain cableway system to inner-city transport. The first means of transport of this kind was opened in Medellin in 2004, with the next line opening in 2007 (both together ten kilometers long) and the idea soon travelled further.


Manizales (in Columbia) launched the operation of its first cableway line in 2009, Caracas in 2010 and Rio de Janeiro in 2011. The greatest expansion of urban cableways is taking place in La Paz where four cableway lines have emerged since 2014 – and further ones are to follow. Urban cableways are taking up root also in Mexico, North America and Asia. In Vietnam and other countries, they are mainly built for tourism. It is only in Europe that this transport solution is still struggling. But examples such as Brest, Koblenz, London or Berlin show that urban cableways are expected to take wing even here. ts