Gondola Transit on Burnaby Mountain: Production Way The Only Solution?

Post by Steven Dale

(Like yesterday’s post, this one is going to be a long one. My apologies to anyone whose not overly interested in Vancouver, Burnaby Mountain or its urban gondola transit system.)

Yesterday I discussed the issues I had with how Translink chose to communicate their decision-making process to the public as they prepared for a series of community meetings regarding the Burnaby Mountain Gondola plan.

Today I want to discuss a similar set of issues regarding the planners’ Route Evaluation methodology that led to the preferred selection of Route 2 – from the Production Way SkyTrain station to the Transit Hub at Burnaby Mountain. Below is the Information Board used at the public meetings detailing which routes were analyzed and which criteria were used in said analysis:

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

As with the technology ratings discussed yesterday, these ratings are highly subjective and unsupported by explanation and/or data. They almost appear to be adjusted such that Route 2 is guaranteed “victory.” Given the lack of logical analysis displayed, it’s hard to argue otherwise. Notice the following:


How can Route 2 (Production Way -> Transit Hub) and Route 3 (Production Way -> Tower Road) have such drastically different ratings? In the residential area in question (at the foot of Burnaby Mountain) the two routes ply nearly identical paths invading the privacy of what appears to be a similar number of homes.

Equally confusing is how Route 3 and Route 4 (Burquitlam) could have the same low rating when it’s quite clear that Burquitlam would affect a significantly greater number of homes than those on Route 3.


This one is puzzling for three major reasons:

Firstly, Routes 2 and 3 originate from the exact same place. Why then should Route 3 have a lower rating that Route 2

Secondly, Route 4 has absolutely no integration with the SkyTrain, whereas Route 1 has full integration with the SkyTrain. Why then should the two have equally low ratings?

And lastly – building off of the last point – Route 1 and Route 2 (not to mention Route 3) all have equal SkyTrain integration. Why then is Route 1 penalized so heavily?

The only potential reason for Route 1’s penalty is because Lake City SkyTrain station (Route 1 origin) does not intersect with any bus lines whereas Production Way SkyTrain station (Route 2 & 3 origin) intersects with two regular bus lines and one all-night bus line. Does that justify such a stiff penalty? Apparently, yes.

(Note: I didn’t include Route 145 to SFU in the last comment as that route would in effect be eliminated in exchange for the gondola.)


Like before, we have a situation where routes that have the exact same characteristic – as per the parameter given – are rated entirely differently.

Look at Routes 2 and 4. They terminate in the exact same location – right between Simon Fraser University and the UniverCity development – yet Route 4 is given an incredibly low rating for no apparent reason. That rating is equivalent to those ratings given to Routes 1 and 3, both of which are integrated with either SFU or UniverCity, but not both.

That last point is important because it speaks to another major issue with the analysis: Routes 1, 3 and 4 are complete straw men – they were never serious candidates to begin with.

Consider what Translink’s manager of infrastructure planning Jeff Busby said of the gondola route priorities here:

. . . we had three requirements for the route: We wanted to minimized impacts on residential neighbourhoods, we wanted to minimize impact to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area, and we wanted to maximize the integration with SkyTrain.

A fourth and implicit priority would be to maximize ridership. A line that services both Simon Fraser University and UniverCity would draw far more riders than routes that served only one or the other.

Keeping those things in mind, we can easily see the following:

  • Route 4 (Burquitlam) has no SkyTrain integration at all. It would also infringe upon the Conservation Area the most. This route’s a non-starter.
  • Route 3 (Production Way -> Tower Road) doesn’t service SFU as well as Route 2 as it would lay approximately 250 meters to the east in the centre of UniverCity. Doing so would be a costly endeavor as UniverCity would have to be compensated for the loss of developable land. No way this one has any chance.
  • Route 1 (Lake City) meanwhile curiously terminates deep within the SFU campus 500 meters away from Translinks’ existing bus loop. That bus loop wonderfully straddles the border between SFU and UniverCity serving a maximum number of residents and students. Were the gondola terminus to be located where Route 1 presupposes, UniverCity residents would be highly unlikely to use the service as it could mean a walk to the station of up to 1.5 kilometers. As UniverCity was the driving force behind this project, that would be a highly unpalatable option.

In other words: Of the four routes offered up for analysis, only one had any real chance of being selected – Route 2, Production Way to Transit Hub, the route eventually selected.

Looking closer, one realizes that Translink’s entire analysis rests upon comparing apples to oranges:

  • Route 1 – SkyTrain Station -> SFU
  • Route 2 – SkyTrain Station -> Transit Hub
  • Route 3 – SkyTrain Station – UniverCity
  • Route 4 – No SkyTrain Station -> Transit Hub

There’s no way to effectively compare these four lines as no pair of them both a) originate at a SkyTrain station and b) terminate at the Burnaby Mountain Transit Hub. The characteristics of the four lines selected bias the analysis in such a way that the selection of Route 2 is a fait accompli.

Given the four available choices, there’s no way you wouldn’t select Route 2.

All of this, however, is likely a moot point.

The only real alternative to Production Way is Lake City, a station which has generated interest and queries (myself included) because a gondola line originating there appears not to infringe upon the privacy of any residential homes.

That’s true, but it would also pass (unfortunately) over a federally-owned oil tank farm. My sources have told me that from a safety perspective, that’s a complete non-starter and that relocation of the tank farm would be complex, difficult and expensive. That’s a limiting factor that can’t be avoided. The obvious question that leaps to mind then is: So why bother analyzing it in the first place?

Furthermore, is it possible to maneuver around the tank farm? Possibly.

This is the analysis required. The straw men lines offered up for consideration only confuse the issue and deflect attention away from the analysis that people really needed to see: Is it possible to maneuver around the oil tank farms and still land at the Burnaby Mountain Transit Hub?

Who knows? I certainly don’t. But remember the following:

  • Such changes would obviously increase the cost of the system. The question, of course, is if those costs would be greater or less than the costs that will be incurred by flying over people’s private residential property. And remember: The costs of flying over people’s backyards don’t only include expropriation and air rights costs. Those costs include the legal fees, endless community meetings and additional studies that could result.
  • Maneuvering around the oil tank farm will add length to the system which means travel times will increase as well. Those increases would be very moderate (say an increase in 2.5 minutes, maximum) and would be offset by the fact that riders from downtown Vancouver would save time by not having to travel the additional 1.5 kilometers from Lake City to Production Way station.
  • Safety – maneuvering around the oil tank farm doesn’t guarantee an increase in safety. If an oil tank decides to explode (unlikely), I’m not sure how much safer a gondola would be 30 meters away from the explosion.

In all likelihood, the most logical and rational route is the one already selected. Unfortunately Translink didn’t present us with materials that demonstrated that logic and rationality and Lake City will continue to exist as a question mark until the studies are released demonstrating why it couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be done.

The onus lay not upon the residents and citizens to ask the right questions but instead lays upon the planner and policy-maker to explain their decision-making process in a clear and comprehensive way such that those questions need not be asked in the first place.

And if Lake City is a complete non-starter due to the oil tank farm, then fine, but tell people that from the very beginning. Don’t go through a charade analysis to demonstrate faux-comprehensiveness. You’re just wasting time, money and the goodwill of concerned citizens.

Reluctantly, I support the line configuration as recommended because it appears to be the only plausible configuration. That will be cold comfort to any of the residents who may be affected by the line, I know.

This system will inevitably lead to the ages-old debate between the benefit for the collective good versus the desire to maintain individual property rights. It’s an ugly debate and no matter the outcome, everyone walks out with a black eye.

How this whole thing turns out is anybody’s guess.

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  1. The Burquitlam site is the location of an Evergreen SkyTrain station. The gondola will not be built until after the Evergreen Line is in service. The same trains that service Production Way will also service Burquitlam Station (according to the project description of Evergreen). That explains why the Burquitlam option got the same rating as the Lake City Station option.
  2. Thanks for that, Mark! That clears things up in terms of that issue.
  3. Great post, I was also confused about the logic behind choosing option 2 Translinks ratings seem arbitrary and like you point out should have been explained. I support this gondola getting built; the benefit to the region far outweigh the irrational fears of privacy loss by a very small group of residence.
  4. Thanks for the kind words, Paul. The communication issue is key here. Translink needs to remember that for most people this whole idea is scary and the only way to combat that fear is through clear communication and explanation. The more things left unsaid, the worse that paranoia and fear will become. I don't entirely agree with you that these people's fears are "irrational." I think they're completely rational based upon what we know about humanity and how we stumble through this world. I don't think any of us would like to know this system would cross by over our backyards. That's why I think communication and openness are so essential. Maybe even more important is this idea: What if the gondola were beautiful to those on the ground? Something beautiful and lovely that they actually enjoyed seeing float overhead? Something that doesn't (potentially) depress property values, but improves them? That's something no one's talked about yet.
  5. Residences/rental accommodations in Whistler do not seem to have too much problem with gondolas going beside the properties.
  6. Remember, Burquitlam WILL eventually be a SkyTrain station on the Evergreen Line. That being said, Production Way will be on both the Evergreen and the M-Line... so will serve more people. I agree that Translink has weighted it proposals in favor of its desired route, though.
  7. Burquitlam may be less convenient to get to depending on the route configuration of the M-Line and Evergreen Line. For commuters from New Westminster, Burquitlam would require a transfer at Lougheed, while while Production Way may not (if trains continue to be through routed past Lougheed). The interesting thing is that Production Way is located in an industrial/commercial park, while Burquitlam is slated to be a transit-oriented development. Burquitlam has much greater potential to take advantage of providing services to students (restaurants & shops) than Production Way would do. I would have expected Coquitlam City to be jumping at the chance for a gondola station at Burquitlam..
  8. Really interesting points, Ron. Do you have any idea, then, why Translink would rate the Burquitlam route so low on their SkyTrain integration account?
  9. Allan K (Vancouver)
    I would believe that it'd come back to the issue of trying to coordinate the two projects at the same time, especially if funding issues arise that cause either of the two to be delayed more. TransLink has a real funding shortage and is handicapped in its ability to provide service due to the fact that some of the region's mayors believe that it should focus their priorities on their own cities. More like a bad case of "me me me" resulting in no one getting anything and more complaining. =S Route 2 is considered less intrusive because it apparently straddles a narrow sliver of forest between two apartment complexes. I think that their analysis must be based more on the disruption directly underneath compared to the disruption on the sides, and also on how the forest could be used to "hide" the gondola's presence. I'd agree though that some work could be done to explain what they were looking for. Also note that Route 1, in addition to crossing the potentially hazardous fuel farm (not that I'm concerned) also would have to quickly hop over a three-storey building called TASC 1 (and maybe also the ASB) at SFU were it to be built closer to the bus loop. That itself may pose issues with clearance and how it might affect building maintenance underneath. This is probably why they shifted it away from UniverCity. In addition I think the presenter mentioned something about a 10 story clearance above the ground and trees to minimize Conservation Area damage. I wonder if that has some affect on the cost.
  10. thanks Tim. Exactly my thought. Whistler is used to it. It will take people a bit of getting used to but it is certainly nothing that blinds or curtains can't fix. I don't want to diminish the fact that some of those residents will be put off by this from time to time but I very much doubt that property values will decline. Using the word "invasion" is somewhat pejorative. This is a true example of a major benefit for the many at the expense of occasional uneasiness for a few. In Europe they wouldn't even blink. It is a project that makes perfect sense. The optimal alignment IS from Production Way to the Transit Hub. What a fantastic showcase for the technology it promises to be.
  11. Hey Tim and Mr. Cuff, What a great analysis! Now when TransLink tells us that a gondola will be built right over your home (or your parent's home), with cars click-clacking overhead 21 x 7 (that's 19 cars passing overhead, one every 20 seconds) for 21 hours per day, seven days a week (just in case you missed that part the first time, THEN I'd like to hear you tell us all that you'll get used to it. But I'm really glad you've bought into the TransLink bs.
  12. A gondola system is virtually silent. In the case of Forest Grove, there should be a net reduction in noise pollution due to the number of buses this system would cause to be pulled off the roads.
  13. Here's a proposal. Since an objective analysis of noise level is fair and noise is measurable, it follows that the noise level should be measured. Translink should include sound measurement instrumentation which will check if and when noise reaches an unacceptable level. Noise mitigation/abatement procedures would be undertaken at that point including, but not limited to: pulse operation or decreased speeds during off-hours and immediate maintenance response to any unusual noises.
  14. Matt the Engineer
    Sounds fair to me. Especially the maintenance response (which I think will be all you really need). That's what they did with Seattle's light rail. Of course light rail, despite being very quiet for a rail system, is far, far louder than a gondola.

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