Could cable cars really return?

Every now and again a group of people decide they can — with hard work, hard-won expertise and doggedness — improve a city all by themselves.

Those determined to bring cable cars back to Dunedin’s High St are one such group, and step by step have been proving their considerable value.

Their latest step, reported in last Tuesday’s Otago Daily Times, has been to apply for $100,000 in feasibility study funding. If successful, the study would show whether the group’s tentative $23 million budget is realistic.

High St’s cable car service ceased in the 1950s. Since then what had been an symbol of Dunedin life became a curiosity of the past, replaced by quicker, more convenient buses and cars.

Which is why the need for a feasibility study is so imperative. Very few Dunedin residents would dislike the idea of cable cars again running up the purpose-built High St. But few would be willing to see such a service funded significantly through their rates. For their return to be successful they would need largely to pay their own way. To do so, they would need to be providing a service not offered by buses and cars.

Their most obvious selling point is their heritage value, certain to be cherished by tourists and locals alike. But making heritage pay is a tricky business. Nostalgia alone ensures the upkeep and profitability of very few heritage attractions around the world. Where nostalgia is the main selling point, volunteer workers and public funding are often needed. While in Dunedin the volunteer labour may be readily available, the public funds are not. We are an indebted city with considerable future spending already allocated.

When heritage and nostalgia are coupled with an experience, such as a cable car ride, opportunities for cashflow improve. But what would really ensure the High St cable car’s survival would be its utility to the everyday needs of Dunedin people.

The demise of Dunedin’s cable cars occurred because people decided cars and buses were better. However, two major changes have come in the intervening decades. Firstly, tourism has emerged as a major Dunedin industry; and secondly, the call for reduction in fossil-fuel consumption has progressed from fringe conversation to government policy.

While re-establishing the cable cars seems certain to impress some tourists, the lack of a marketable destination at the top of the route may count against it. Will tourists simply be expected to pay up for the journey alone? While that may suffice for a cable car ride as iconic as San Francisco’s, it is arguable whether it would be attractive enough to sustain itself in Dunedin. Perhaps a new destination playground could be sited in Mornington for this purpose?

Can the reinstated cable cars service those wanting to travel from their hill-suburb homes to the city without burning fossil fuels? Can modern stock be added to the heritage cars, giving the route a chance to become a daily commuter option?

Would the Dunedin City Council be willing to look at increasing car parking in Mornington to enable a park and ride service? To do so may serve two purposes — relieve traffic and parking pressures in the city, while offering a daily stream of paying customers for the cable car.

Can bicycle-specific cable cars be built or bought, offering a service connecting cyclists from the hill suburbs with the central city’s new cycleways? Buses and cars are notoriously unsuited to transporting bicycles — is this something the cable cars can out-compete the status quo on?

There’s no doubt the potential exists for this endeavour to generate income, celebrate Dunedin, provide jobs, increase tourism and reduce traffic. But it all comes down to whether reinstated cable cars are feasible, without the need for significant ongoing public funding.  The anticipated feasibility study is the right step. Dunedin will be awaiting the outcome with interest.

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