Photo of the ropeway in Mexico City, which gondolas above the rooftops and connects the workers' cuautepec district with the city's metro network.

OVER THE CITY’S ROOFTOPS

TEXT ANNA FRIEDRICH AND SANDRA WEISS

—— An aerial cableway across the city? While countries in Latin America are leading the way, Europeans view such cableways with more skepticism. Yet the technology offers enormous possibilities for climate protection, mobility and society as a whole. A look at Bonn, where German politicians want to give it a try—and Mexico City, where people have already fallen in love with the aerial cableway.

Johannes Frech is standing at the “Hariboschiff” playground in Bonn in the Rheinaue Park on the bank of the Rhine River. It’s windy on this Thursday afternoon in mid-July, and the sky above the green meadows here is filled with dark clouds. Yet Frech, in his cycling gear, is ready for any sort of weather. For thirty years, he’s been a member of the German Cyclist’s Association ( Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrrad-Club, or ADFC) and for twelve years was the spokesperson for the Traffic Planning Group of the ADFC Bonn/Rhein-Sieg District Association. But at some point, he got tired of arguing with the city of Bonn about “incorrectly placed traffic bollards,” which is why he’s now focusing on the next big thing: Bonn’s new aerial cableway.

Portrait photo of Johannes Frech looking into the camera from glasses and a black rain jacket.

Frech believes that the aerial cableway in Bonn solves many of the former capital’s infrastructure problems.

Johannes Frech, Activist

If everything goes smoothly, it’s supposed to start operations in 2028—and will change everything, if Frech is to be believed. From the playground, you can already imagine how one day the cableway will soar from the Rheinaue up to the top of the Venusberg (Mount Venus), where the University Bonn Hospital is located. The street up the mountain is a notorious traffic bottleneck, a nuisance that the aerial cableway could help alleviate.

Yet Frech is certain that the cableway in Bonn could solve not only this problem, but a number of others in one fell swoop. Aerial cableways are regarded internationally as the transportation means of the future. This has already been proven in parts of Latin America, where they bring modernity and mobility to poorer neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities and integrate these districts into overall urban planning. In contrast, transportation policies and politicians in Europe have long been reluctant to add this “+1 dimension” up in the sky. But here, too, a rethinking of the issue is underway. Germany’s federal government is currently developing guidelines to facilitate an expansion of the use of aerial cableways and the German Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport (BMDV) is planning to provide incentives to encourage thinking about transport beyond only “Level 0,” or street level. Is this going to be a mobility transformation that will change the lives of millions of people? And if so, can it succeed?

The trend toward aerial cableways has become stronger over the past decades. Increasing numbers of projects have been realized and more and more cities are jumping on the bandwagon—or rather the cableway. Toulouse, France, now has one, the one in Bonn is in the planning stages, in Leipzig one is being considered and in the Turkish metropolis of Ankara, the cabins are already in the air. The megacities of Latin America, where aerial cableways have long been a successful alternative to streetcars, buses and cars, are much further along. In the Colombian metropolis of Medellín, for instance, the Metrocable, built 25 years ago, is considered to be the first urban cable-propelled transit system in South America. Another aerial success story is in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, where there’s a real transportation network up in the air, with hundreds of thousands of passengers using the small gondolas every day. This success is unsurprising when you consider the enormous advantages of aerial cableways: they can quickly overcome steep changes in elevation and pass over watercourses or chasms that would otherwise require expensive bridges. In addition, they are fairly energy-efficient, have low emissions profiles, are nearly silent when running and are often cheaper than other types of transport.

Fueled by the mobility revolution, the hope for aerial cableways as a solution is finally glimmering on the horizon in European cities. In Germany as of yet there’s no flagship project, but is that about to change?

Satellite image of Bohn. In this, the possible route of a future cable car is marked in color.
Aerial view of the Friedrich-Ebert-Brücke, which connects the Bonn district of Beuel with the district of Bonn.
Photo of three people in the backlight with backpacks in a glazed hall walking in one direction.
INCREASINGLY CONGESTED Bonn, the former capital, suffers from the same problems as many major metropolises: more commuters, more vehicles, more traffic jams. If people switch to taking the cableway, it could reduce car traffic.

Cableway to solve traffic issues

Frech sees no alternative to the aerial cableway. Traffic in the city is on the verge of collapse, with increasing numbers of people working and living in Bonn, or commuting there—and the traditional mobility infrastructure of streets, bridges, bicycle paths, trains and buses simply cannot keep pace with the city’s growth. Bonn is thus confronting the same problem as almost every other big city in Europe—with almost no way to cope with the increasing traffic. “Additional buses or a higher frequency of bus trips alone won’t be able to solve all the traffic problems,” says City Planning Officer Helmut Wiesner. There’s not enough space for more bus lanes or streetcar tracks. The airspace over the city could be a fallback option.

That’s why urban planners in Bonn are now seeking a solution up in this third dimension. The aerial cableway will run 4.6 kilometers and connect the hospital on Venusberg with the Telekom Group corporate campus, which is located in the former government district adjacent to Rheinaue Park. The concept may be familiar from winter ski areas: the gondolas hang from a cable, there are 30-meter-tall masts every few hundred meters, and the cableway will take 20 minutes from one end to the other—transporting some 15,000 people across this former capital of West Germany. At peak traffic hours in the mornings and evenings, all 95 gondolas will be in use. One gondola with 10 seats could then leave the stations every 20 to 24 seconds. At less busy times, “You can take a number of gondolas off the cables to save energy,” Wiesner says.

The aerial cableway is expected not only to relieve congested streets and rail lines, but also to help curb carbon-dioxide emissions. The cableway could replace some 12 million kilometers of car trips annually and create an urgently needed Rhine River crossing. Aside from relieving the pressure on traffic on and around Venusberg, it would also encourage commuters to leave their cars at the city’s periphery—or even to leave them at home and come directly to the city by train. Around 100,000 employees make the daily commute into Bonn—a majority of them to the UN Campus and to Venusberg. “The aerial cableway only makes sense if it’s connected to the rest of the public transit system and doesn’t end up isolated from it all,” Wiesner says. Three of the five planned stations connect directly to rail lines, including the city railway Line 13, which will connect Bonn directly to the Cologne-Bonn airport starting in 2030.

Close-up of three people in a gondola over Mexico City. A person sits in the wagon wearing a mask and holding two children in her arms. Both wear masks, look into the camera and form victory signs with their fingers.
Aerial view from the gondola of colorful painted roofs of the workers' district of Cuautepec. Two hands are painted on one of the roofs holding three corn cobs.
GREAT VIEWS The aerial cableway in Mexico City offers ­convenient access to transportation for ­secluded neighborhoods and wonderful views of sometimes very colorful rooftops.

The Nimbys are out in force

Of course, not everyone is inspired by the idea of so much traffic up in the air over the city. In Bonn’s Civic Center there’s a dark-blue bulletin board where citizens can post orange-colored sticky notes expressing their opinions of the aerial cableway. “Would you like an aerial cableway running above your private garden?” is written on one of the paper slips. Its author ignores the fact that the cableway actually passes almost exclusively over public land. The Telekom Campus is the only private area overflown by the cableway—and they gave their go-ahead ages ago. Other notes contain even more negative critiques from the not-in-my-back-yarders: the project is too expensive, it will spoil the beautiful view of Venusberg, the cost-benefit analysis was inadequate.

A citizen’s initiative “Bonn stays cableway-free” is also sniping against the infrastructure project. Among their arguments: it does almost nothing to reduce traffic, harms the environment, costs too much and fails to provide any benefits for Bonn’s residents. Which of the arguments is City Planning Officer Wiesner most worried about? “None of them,” he says. He’s confident that the cableway’s advantages will prevail.

In the coming months, the city of Bonn intends to prove this point by commissioning the numerous expert opinions required for the planning process, including an environmental impact study, a geological survey of the Venusberg, wind measurements in the area and an investigation of noise pollution. In 2023, Wiesner expects to submit a construction application, and its review will take another two years. It is hoped that the results from the expert opinions will appease the critics and convince them of the advantages of the aerial cableway as much as possible.

Engaging with the public

This is important, because the planning approval process allows any person affected by a project to file a complaint against it. To intercept as many of these objections as possible beforehand, the city is relying on a process of civic dialogue. The bulletin board in the foyer of the Civic Center building is as much a part of this as informational events and open question-and-answer sessions. “You have to take the opponents seriously and see how valid their arguments are,” Wiesner says. “If we can’t provide answers to their concerns, others are likely to become skeptical as well.”

Frech is still standing on the playground. In light of the critical dissenting voices, he can only shake his head. He points towards the Venusberg: “For example, wind is an ongoing issue. But it isn’t a problem until there are wind speeds of more than 60 kilometers an hour, and it rarely blows that hard here.”

Photo of the ropeway in Mexico City, which gondolas above the rooftops and connects the workers' cuautepec district with the city's metro network.
Photo of gondolas of the ropeway, in the background the Mexico City panorama of rooftops and mountains.
Photo of the entry and exit point of the cable bus. You can see several gondolas in a row, which are empty and whose doors are open.
FLYING HIGH The gondolas on the new cableway in Mexico City travel around 20 meters above the ground, with eight stations along the newest line.

Mexico City shows the way

In Mexico City, Victor Jasso would probably just laugh it all off. He’s sitting in one of the sparkling clean blue gondola cabins that silently float over the rooftops of one of Mexico City’s poorer districts. It’s considered a dangerous neighborhood, but 20 meters above the ground, any danger is far below. Jasso is a stocky man with a graying full beard and a firm handshake. He’s not someone who builds castles in the sky, but rather is partly responsible for the fact that one of the world’s most interesting infrastructure projects is located here.

Mexico City has one of the largest aerial cableway networks in Latin America. The cableway is an important addition to the urban transportation network in this metro area with a population of more than 21 million people. The main mode of transport is the Metro subway system, the lines of which radiate outward from the city center towards the periphery. From there, the journey usually continues in a diesel minibus. The aerial cableway now connects the end stations of two of these subway arms with each other—and it’s all much quieter, faster and more environmentally friendly than the minibuses. The pioneer was Line 1 in the north of the city. There were numerous concerns and a lot of resistance at the time. Since then, the cableway has proven itself and become accepted by the populace, which is why a second line is already in operation and two more are in planning.

Photo of two people sitting on a bench on a mountainside in Toulouse, France, above which is a gondola of the Teleo ropeway.
Photo of a market in La Paz, Bolivia. In the middle there is a stand with colorful fabrics where people stand. At the edges you can see stalls with hanging garments. The ropeway runs above the market situation.
OVER TOWNS AND COUNTRYSIDE Both rural areas in Toulouse, France, and cities like La Paz, Bolivia, benefit from cableways.

EARTHQUAKES, CRIME, BEDROCK: ENORMOUS CHALLENGES ALL

Construction was certainly no easier than in Bonn—on the contrary. The area is in an earthquake zone and construction workers had to struggle with three geological formations at once: volcanic rocks, sandy soil and the much-dreaded swampy soil, whose physical properties are responsible for the fact that so many buildings in Mexico City sink a few millimeters per year. And the cableway was not constructed in an uninhabited mountain landscape, but in the middle of a densely populated poor neighborhood, where narrow streets wind through an intricate maze of houses and the crime rate is high.

It was incredibly challenging. “Erecting the towers, which are up to 40 meters tall, was a logistical nightmare,” Jasso recalls. But it's worth it, formerly isolated and neglected neighborhoods have benefited from the new means of transport. Students can get to university more quickly and safely while older people need half the time to get to the next hospital. For the people living in these neighborhoods, there's a life before and a life after the cableway. And most find the one after much better.

PHOTOS:

Getty Images/LIONEL BONAVENTURE/contributor (couple on bench); Getty Images/Markpittimages (market); Gerardo Magallón; Getty Images/NurPhoto/Kontributor (gondola); Getty Images/Future Publishing/Kontributor (cableway station); Marcus Simaitis/laif (portrait); Ingenieurbüro Schweiger (map); Getty Images/golero (bridge); Getty Images/DuKai photographer (people); Getty Images/Denis Schaal/EyeEm (Bonn); Getty Images/Future Publishing/contributor (Mexico)

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