We need to talk about Vienna’s obsession with cable cars

Year after year, Vienna is voted the most liveable city in the world.

Of course, no one is quite sure what ‘liveability’ means. The surveys talk about controlled rents, museums, a vast amount of green space per head and low crime statistics. If you asked a local, they’d crow about the water quality or the fact that Viennese customer service is so grumpy that you never have to make small talk with anyone in a shop.

The journalists and the Viennese agree, however, that the city should be proud of its public transport system. With a yearly pass, the underground, overground, trams and busses cost a euro a day and can get you almost anywhere in the city in 40 minutes or less. They’re clean, reliable, and constantly improved upon. We already have self-driving buses and sleek new low-floor trams. Coming soon, there’s a whole new underground line.

Alas, with a budget to burn and a committee of people who care deeply about infrastructure, the great ideas sometimes come with a dose of blue sky thinking. Vienna made the news this year by pumping perfume into the air conditioning of its underground carriages. When the people were asked to vote on whether they wanted their commutes to be fragranced in the long term, the answer was a resounding no.

There’s one idea more madcap than any of the rest, but it’s one the planners just can’t shake. They want, fervently, earnestly, against all advice and in spite of the experiences of other cities, to give Vienna a cable car.

The idea of a Viennese cable car is not new. In the spring of 1873, the World Fair came to the city and they planned a cog railway and a cable car to take visitors to the tops of the nearby hills, Kahlenberg and Leopoldsberg. Unfortunately, May 1873 arrived and neither gondola nor carriage had left the station but, when the cable car eventually opened in July, it was a success.

Leopoldsberg (right) and Kahlenberg as seen from the Danube. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first Viennese cable car was 733m long. It took 5 minutes to climb 235m to the top of Leopoldsberg. For those of you counting, that’s a gradient of 34%. 300,000 people had travelled on it by the end of the first year. We’ll choose to overlook the fact that they had also given it the nickname ‘Zuckerbahn’ because of how alarmingly it shuddered when it stopped.

However popular it was at first, the cable car didn’t last long. When the railway opened, visitor numbers declined. 2 years after that, it was damaged by a landslide and was never put back into commission.

For more than a century, the hills were quiet. Then, in 2012, the first calls came to recreate the routes to the top of Kahlenberg. The rumour was that a cool 30 million euros would allow Vienna to construct a 6km gondola line from the sleepy district of Nussdorf at the foot of Kahlenberg to the hotel and university buildings at the top.

But the planners had forgotten something. Since the 1870s, the foothills of Kahlenberg, blanketed by vineyards and blessed with panoramic views over the city and the River Danube, had become one of Vienna’s most exclusive postcodes. Homeowners in possession of 10-foot-tall fences and CCTV were unenthusiastic about tourists being given a bird’s eye view of their gardens. Furthermore, the plan upset environmentalists. The woods around Vienna are known as the lungs of the city and are home to rare birds, deer and even wild boar. The suggestion of diggers and cranes in the national park was not well received.

The determined planners’ counterargument came in the form of an extended route for the cable car. Instead of stopping at the foot of the mountain, they said, it could continue to the Donauinsel (the massive island given over to recreation) and to the suburbs of Strebersdorf and Jedlesee on the other side of the river. The cable car could even join up with two of Vienna’s underground lines at Neue Donau and Heiligenstadt. It wouldn’t just be a tourist attraction, it would make the lives of the residents more convenient.

The answer was still no. Making the line longer didn’t help the wild boar, and no one could think of even a friend of a friend who had to commute along that route.

With the Kahlenberg project stalled, the disciples of the cable car looked to smaller projects in other corners of the city. A 2012 vision for the redevelopment of the Prater park insisted that it should include a chairlift. Not only could it take people around the theme park, they said, it could also be used to carry business people from Praterstern station to the conference facilities at the Messe.

The locals, ever logical, pointed out that that was one stop further on the underground and walkable in 8 minutes.

When Vienna completed its new main railway station in 2015, another cable car was briefly considered.

The site was already served by the underground, overground, trams and buses both local and regional. This idea was pie in the sky from the beginning.

Attention finally turned to another of the city’s hills, this time in the residential 16th district. One of Austria’s newer political parties ran on the promise of building a cable car from the Steinhof at the top of the hill to the overground railway stations at the bottom.

They didn’t win, and this idea has never been heard of again.

In spite of all the setbacks, however, the cable car dream was still simmering as recently as 2017.

Vienna’s first district is enclosed by a circular boulevard known as The Ring. If you travel The Ring, a distance of around 5km, you’ll see the university, parliament, city hall, museums, libraries, theatre, opera house, observatory, butterfly house and the cinema where they show The Third Man every day. Naturally, tourists love to do this, but some of them hate to walk.

Ignoring the fact that a bright yellow tram equipped with an audio guide already exists, planners suggested yet another gondola ride around the famous street.

If permission to build a cable car in the woods was hard to come by, we imagine it would be even harder to build something which obstructed Vienna’s historic skyline. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that this plan has been officially shelved.

Is aerial transport the future of Vienna’s public transport? It’s doubtful. The city’s underground is simply too good. We travel everywhere on the train and we take everything with us when we do. It’s not unusual to see someone sitting on the underground in a chair they’ve just picked up from a well-known Swedish furniture manufacturer. In December, the city issues official guidance on the maximum size of Christmas tree you can transport by train (and it’s surprisingly big). A cable car would never be practical enough for the Viennese to take it to heart. And it certainly wouldn’t make the city ‘more liveable’.

The great tragedy of this story is that the Viennese have had a taste of aerial transportation. For around 20 years, a chairlift transported guests around the meadows of the Donaupark. It was built as an attraction for the 1964 International Garden Show and remained there until the 80s. It’s well within the living memory of many of the city’s residents.

Perhaps if we still had this chair lift, this small taste of the high life, a cable car would not be the first solution shouted when any new opportunity to extend the public transport network arises. Alas, it seems we may be doomed to discuss it until one is finally built.

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