Gondola Transit on Burnaby Mountain: Public Engagement and Flawed Analysis

Post by Steven Dale

Image via Translink.

As most people know (or could easily assume), we’re pretty positive about the Burnaby Mountain Gondola proposal.

We aren’t, however, zealots.

We’re urbanists and planners first and foremost, gondola specialists second.

We won’t mindlessly support any gondola that happens to be plunked down in any city. It’s got to make sense and be rationally thought out and planned. If anyone has any doubt about that, check out our analysis of a proposed urban gondola system in Victoria, BC.

With that in mind, it’s important to understand that while we support the Burnaby Gondola project in principle, we have several concerns and caveats (for example, the impact the line may have on near nearby residents) about the process behind this project.

Those concerns were clarified earlier this week with Translink making available new information on the Burnaby Mountain Gondola project. You can access that information through the Translink website here.

The most important of the documents is the set of Information Boards that will be used in a series of public consultations and community meetings that are to begin this evening. As links like those tend, however, to suffer from linkrot, we’re also making the Information Boards available for download directly through The Gondola Project.

(Note: Give it a few seconds to load, especially if you have a slow internet connection.)

We also have a fairly active conversation about this proposal going on in The Gondola Project Forums (here) and we’d encourage both advocates and detractors of the proposal to use that resource to help foster dialogue, information and communication.

But back to those Information Boards and the concerns they exacerbate:

The price of the gondola has now ballooned from a reasonable $69 m CAD to $120 m CAD. For those counting, that’s a 74% price increase totaling $51 m CAD. At $44 m CAD per kilometer that would make the Burnaby Mountain gondola one of the most expensive cable transit systems ever built with little justification for the price increase.

For comparison purposes, Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak gondola (which the Burnaby proposal is supposed to have been inspired by) came in at a price of $57 m CAD, all in. The Peak 2 Peak has:

  • 4 towers
  • 2 stations
  • a capacity of roughly 2,500 pphpd
  • a length of 4.4 km – which translates into a per kilometer price of $13 m CAD.

The Burnaby Mountain Gondola, meanwhile, presumes to have:

  • 5 towers
  • 2 stations
  • a capacity of 3,000 pphpd (potentially expandable to 4,000 pphpd)
  • a length of 2.7 kilometers ($44 m CAD per km).

In other words, these systems are remarkably similar.

Yet no reasonable justification is given for why this system should cost almost 3.5 times as much (on a per km basis) as the system it was modeled after. Yes there are differences between building in a city and building in a ski resort, but numbers such as those should give one pause for concern.

Furthermore, amongst the technologies used for comparison, page 3 of the document states that funitel and BDG technologies were also considered. Yet no where in the analysis is funitel or BDG technology offered for comparison.

Worrisome is the technology comparative analysis offered by Translink as it demonstrates a lack of understanding about Cable Propelled Transit technology. Here’s the board in question:


Technology Comparison, Burnaby Mountain Gondola. Highlights in red are mine. Click on the image for the full-size image.

The rankings are highly subjective, unsupported by data and showing little in the way of logical reasoning.

All technologies are rated according to a series of “Accounts” on a scale of Worse to Better with the middle condition being “Business as usual.” Notice the following, in order from top to bottom (I’ve highlighted the issues in red):

TRANSPORTATION. What exactly is being rated here?

The “Transportation” rating makes no logical sense because no parameters are given for the ratings.

It can’t be capacity – for example – because if it were, then this is stating that a 3S gondola can carry more people than the Skytrain and a Monocable (MDG) system offers the same capacity as an LRT system – neither of which are true.

So again: What exactly is being compared and measured here?

ENVIRONMENT. Why does an MDG system rate so low in comparison to a 3S in the “Environment” account?

It’s completely illogical as a 3S system uses significantly more power than an MDG system. (Note: I made a mistake here. According to my records and sources an MDG system would use more energy than a 3S, but only on a per rider basis. Overall, a 3S will use more energy and if it isn’t offering a significant increase in capacity over an MDG, those energy savings disappear.

In order for real energy savings to be realized when moving from an MDG to a 3S system, the capacity offered by a 3S would have to therefore be greater than that offered by an MDG.

That could account for the difference in ratings, but as the capacity of the Burnaby Mountain Gondola is of a level that an MDG could offer, I’m not certain there would be any significant energy consumption savings on a per rider basis.)

FINANCIAL. How can the Aerial Tram, MDG and 3S all have the same “Financial” rating?

An MDG system is generally 1/3 to 1/2 the cost of a comparable 3S system while operations and maintenance (O&M) costs are typically a factor based upon the capital cost of the system.

It’s impossible that each technology could have the same financial rating.

DELIVERABILITY. Why does the Funicular (the Hungerburgbahn is pictured) rate lower than the Aerial Tram, MDG and 3S gondola in terms of “Deliverability?”

All four technologies are produced by the same 2 companies. There is no difference in deliverability.

If they mean “speed of implementation” then maybe. But if so, then the one one technology that is more “deliverable” than the others is the MDG. That technology can be produced in less than a year due to it’s scale of production. And yet the MDG is rated the same as the Aerial Tram and 3S.

URBAN DEVELOPMENT. Are gondolas better at Transit Oriented Development than Light Rail?

By rating the three Aerial Rapid Transit technologies higher in potential for Urban Development, Translink is making an implicit statement that is rather contentious and somewhat hidden.

In essence, Translink is saying that aerial cable transit technologies are superior at spurring urban development more so than all other major transportation technologies. That’s a big claim unsubstantiated by any data.

Conceivably, they could be meaning that the gondola will help spur development at UniverCity, the small community at the top of Burnaby Mountain. Possible yes, but contentious when you consider the fact that plans for the UniverCity development this line will serve were finalized and put in motion long before the gondola was ever imagined.

SOCIAL & COMMUNITY. How were the “Social and Community” ratings arrived at? According to this document, the 3S would have a better impact on society and community than both an Aerial Tram and an MDG system.

Yet what is that based upon?

The best examples we know of where a gondola had a positive impact on a community are in Medellin and Caracas. Those systems were all MDG technologies, yet here the MDG is ranked lower than even an Aerial Tram, a technology synonymous with the discontent it caused in Portland.

It’s possible that all these issues have been addressed in the Planning Study which the Information Boards were based upon. However without actually having access to that study, it’s impossible to know.

Residents deserve to have that study released so they can form an informed opinion about this project. The information as currently released is simply insufficient and creates more concerns than it does answer questions.

Finally, there is a greater issue here about the system and that is the way in which potential routes were analyzed. But this has been a long post already, so I’ll save that issue for tomorrow.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.


  1. I will be attending the open house that Translink is having today. I will try to address these issues. If there are any questions anyone would like to be posed, please let me know A.S.A.P.
  2. I have also updated the Archive with the information provided by Translink and the media: http://bit.ly/mNy40M I would like to encourage people to answer the poll on the Miss 604 blog (in the archive) as it is well respected and widely read. There is also a feedback form which would be helpful if people were to fill it out.
  3. Steven, The environmental rating on the MDG may be based on the number of towers.
  4. RE environment MDG vs 3S I can think of a couple of things: 1) 3S's require fewer towers and associated excavation sites so there's less impact there...also they can go right over the canopy with just a tiny bit of clearing required for the ropes during install (not an entire right of way) which can grow back quickly enough and depending on the tree and its location with respect to the towers might possibly fill in and grow back to full height. (I think Koblenz is like this http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/41/Buga_2011_Koblenz_-_Rheinseilbahn_07-2010.jpg and Whistler is sort of like this (there is some clearing below the line put I understand these areas have been replanted now regardless). Also, I understand evacuation technologies (multiple redundant systems) are such that you can remain in the cabins and rope evacs (passengers being lower to the ground) are not required with 3S's. With MDG's trees need to be cleared completely since the towers are shorter and more frequent. 2) Also I wonder about 3S's power requirements being so much bigger than MDG's since pound for pound if you're matching capacity up and down the hill you're pulling about the same amount of mass and arguably the friction in the rolling stock is similar too. However given the increased capacity allowances of 3S's then yes you are drawing more electricity to operate them.
  5. I don't think the entire right of way would need to be cleared even with an MDG system. Check out the skyrail rainforest cableway in Australia: https://www.gondolaproject.com/2010/08/07/the-skyrail-rainforest-cableway/ As for the fewer towers/excavation sites, that is certainly a possibility. A couple caveats though: 1) Because of the inclined configuration (instead of flat), the difference in the number of towers is likely to be negligible. 2) As the footprint of an MDG tower is so much less than the foot print of a 3S tower, it would be interesting to compare the total land required for each configuration. As for the energy consumption issue, I may have made a mistake there. I went through my records and it looks like a 3S will consume less energy than an MDG. I'll confirm tomorrow.
  6. Good you mention the route selection. Again we get a very un-informative "Better/Worse" matrix. Why is the Lake City option rated so poorly on transit integration? It goes right to a Skytrain station! Is Translink upset it might have to change the name of Production Way/SFU station?
  7. We'll get to that tomorrow.
  8. if Environment count is based on number of towers, i'm not sure why the others would be "business as usual" - including the LRT, skytrain, and rack rail (all WITH rails) and the diesel bus (which has neither towers nor rails) rails i would imagine would have a similar "footprint" weight to them as towers. at the same time station or maintenance facilities should probably also be considered since they too take up space.
  9. Again, the issue is how are they actually making these determinations? It would be good to know that.
  10. i will not hire you to do work for me. how can you compare an gondola in on a ski hill to a gondola in an urban environment. 1) property impact 2) consultation.. and i can think of number of other items that would increase costs. obviously just steering the pot to make your blog more interesting.
  11. Ummm . . . okay . . ? Obviously there are differences between an urban and ski resort environment. But I think if you look at the case history, you'll see that the price quoted here is well out of line with other urban gondola systems - even if you factor in the difference between building in the developed versus the developing world. The Koblenz 3S, for example, would be a key system to look at.
  12. Allan K (Vancouver)
    It would be interesting if TransLink laid out all the numbers for investigation for us to compare. For the environment: monocables may use less energy but TransLink felt that it'd require too many towers and therefore negatively impact the Conservation area, therefore the bad rating. This assumes that the 3S will be built without a tree cut and with their stated (in the open house presentation) 10 storey ground clearance. Deliverability: based possibly on construction time, how much work is needed, maybe even a touch of reliability? Funicular is out of the question as it requires either expensive tunneling or a long new right-of-way up the hill through the conservation zone. Monocable may also be hampered by the number of towers that would have to be installed in remote places within the conservation area itself. Additionally wind resistance (and therefore service) could be poor given the wild and wacky weather that Mother Nature often throws around at Vancouver during the peak commuting seasons. Urban Development: in this given case they must be thinking that, given the fact that SkyTrain and LRT must be tunneled, they won't have as big a visual impact or appeal towards those who they think could be coaxed out of their cars by seeing a tram just float above their heads while driving. It may sound ironic at first given the fact that TransLink also wants to minimize residents' visual impact, but the goal of any transit system, undoubtedly, would be to gain ridership to sustain the service. Sort of a fine balance that they're trying to walk here. Social and Community: This might be an apples to oranges comparison. Surely yes the Medellin and Caracas did well in such a scenario but we're dealing with different communities I think. In the former case it seems like we're dealing with people who are appreciative of any transit service coming to their poor neighbourhoods high up on the hills, but in Burnaby's case, the mood down on the proposed route is more of concern about property values, privacy, visual impacts, and the environment. A low hanging monocable with many towers would probably nearly completely fail all four factors while the 3S may hurt them less substantially.
  13. Douglas Jardine
    An interesting page. Thank you for the discussion. Those boards certainly are vague. Without stating the whole case, it would be useful if at least the principal reasons behind their ratings could be hinted at e.g. 'many towers', 'high energy cost at high capacity', &c., leaving the specifics for more detailed, PUBLIC documents. A small matter. Burnaby is adjacent to Vancouver, B.C., the principal city of the province which is on the mainland, not Victoria, the capital city, which is on Vancouver Island. Capacity is, I should think, a very strong consideration, because the system connects Simon Fraser University with the SkyTrain 'el'. The boards from Translink speak of running articulated buses once every 50" (so, 72 per hour) during peak periods. With most, if not all, of these being replaced by the cable route, it is easy to see a requirement for 4,000 pph. (One supposes that some buses continuing to be run would be those taking passengers farther, or in different directions, than the cable system.)
  14. HI Douglas, When we mention Victoria, it's in reference to another proposed gondola line (with link included). We do, however, sometimes refer to this as the Vancouver gondola proposal, simply because our readers are scattered pretty much around the globe and few - if any - of them are going to know where Burnaby is.

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