Vancouver/Burnaby Gondola: The Opposing View

Post by Steven Dale

(Voluntary Disclosure: Last week I was retained by Translink – at their behest – to meet with stakeholders in Vancouver associated with the Burnaby Mountain Gondola proposal; tour the proposed route of the gondola; and give a presentation to select staff of Translink and CH2M Hill on best practices in Cable Propelled Transit systems. The opinions expressed below are my own professional opinion and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Translink nor any of their staff.)

A rather innocuous comment about chalk in Saturday’s Weekly Roundup solicited the ire of a couple of Forest Grove residents who posted a litany of comments against the proposed Vancouver/Burnaby Mountain Gondola project. For those unfamiliar, Forest Grove is the small community at the base of Burnaby Mountain that is opposed to the proposed gondola.

An eyesore? Image by flickr user Ian Mansfield.

Let’s break down the arguments they presented – and discuss how valid and/or invalid those arguments are:


ONE – “This gondola is damaging by potentially sucking resources away from far more worthwhile transportation projects in the Metro Vancouver region.”

Notice the sly wording used here. The commenter claims the gondola is damaging by “potentially” diverting resources from other transit projects. But that damage is only potential. If it diverts resources then, yes, it could be considered damaging whereas if it doesn’t divert resources, there is nil damage.

Furthermore, the gondola is not yet funded and – if approved – is unlikely to begin construction for at least a couple of years. The funds required would come from the typical soup of funding sources including (potentially) government innovation funds – which would be unavailable to any other type of transit.

There is simply no evidence whatsoever that this project would divert funds from other projects.

TWO – “This proposed gondola, by replacing a bus route, will simply shift riders from one form of transit to another.”

This argument ignores the significant increase in the level of service (LOS) the gondola would provide. As ridership of any form is at least partly due to a line’s LOS, one can make the not unreasonable assumption that ridership on the gondola is likely to increase beyond that of the current bus route.

The existing case history demonstrates that a well-implemented Cable Propelled Transit line can cause significant increases in ridership beyond that of the current transit infrastructure it replaces.

Granted, there is no guarantee of increased ridership, but there is little evidence of how (or why) ridership would decrease. Opponents haven’t provided a compelling case for why this would logically occur.

THREE – The gondola will be an “eye sore (no matter how amazing the views from all those gondolas around the world, the infrastructures themselves are never pretty).”

This actually is a brilliant argument against the gondola because it is irrefutable. Not because it’s true, mind you, but because it is an argument based purely on subjective, aesthetic taste.

No matter how well-designed or beautiful the towers end up being, residents will always be able to claim they are an “eye sore,” as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The towers could be designed by Rodin and it wouldn’t matter.

At the same time, Translink hasn’t given residents a reason to believe otherwise.

The “towers are ugly” argument relies on the false assumption that, intrinsic to the technology, all gondola towers are ugly. As “ugliness” is not intrinsic to the technology, one can simply invalidate this argument by providing attractive towers.

As we’ve seen with the towers of the Portland Aerial Tram and the proposed towers for the London Thames Cable Car (above), the towers need not be visually unappealing. But without reassurances to the contrary, residents are justified in their concerns here.

The onus is therefore on Translink to demonstrate how they would design their towers to not be ugly. Otherwise, the residents concern here stands valid.

FOUR – The gondola will damage property values.

Let’s remember, firstly, this is Vancouver. Vancouver. You could put a four lane highway through a home’s living room in Vancouver and the house would still increase in value and ignite a bidding war between 18 different families.

Secondly, any homes that turn out to be subject to government buy-out are only going to increase in value. Why? Because a government buy-out is a guaranteed sale. If, to make this project happen, government is forced to purchase a handful of homes, government will pay top dollar because a) they can afford it; b) they want to expedite the process as quickly as possible and; c) ensure the project actually goes forward.

For those not subject to government buy-out, the concern is somewhat valid. Any such concerns, however, are likely to be all but eliminated by virtue of Vancouver’s red-hot real estate market and that city’s constant year-over-year price increases.

FIVE – The gondola will be an environmental disturbance.

From the potential need for a tree-cut to the potential disturbance to wildlife all the way to the towers’ footprints on the ground, opponents of the gondola are quick to play the environmental card. And why wouldn’t they, after all? Again, this is Vancouver, a place with rock solid support for any and all environmental issues.

Opponents use Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak as an example of the environmental havoc that the gondola will cause. Like many gondolas, the Peak 2 Peak required a significant tree-cut along the route in order for the gondola to be constructed. The trouble with this argument is two-fold: Firstly, the trees along a tree-cut are typically replanted and regrown; a tree-cut is rarely a permanent feature of a gondola line. Secondly, there are many examples of gondolas that don’t require a tree-cut whatsoever.

Look, for example, at the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway in Cairns, Australia. This system did not require a tree-cut, has won numerous green awards and accreditations and is an example of a system that works in harmony with the environment. This despite having several towers and stations scattered throughout a rainforest.

Finally, opponents conveniently ignore the net reduction in carbon emissions that will result from the gondola. This is a clean technology and this specific alignment’s inclined arrangement and bi-directional traffic flows all but ensure that – at some points during the day – energy consumption will drop to zero.

Will some trees have to be removed to build this system? Probably. But the environmental “math” used by opponents here is misleading and invalid. In this situation, opponents are choosing to tally only the environmental negatives while opting to disregard entirely the positives. That’s bad math that doesn’t live up to scrutiny.

But as with the “towers are ugly” argument, Translink has failed to provide this side of the story. Without knowing potential tower locations and installations method, residents are completely justified in their concern – bad math notwithstanding.

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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. There's always pro and contra. There will always be a contra side, even if everything is really pro - "because it will be new", "there will be a change" and so on. I think a city/town needs to be found, that really wants an urban gondola. And 5 years later that town needs to be asked, whether they like it or not, asked about the costs and then there will be good ground for argueing - real pro and contra - not about un-laid eyesore-eggs and numbers.
  2. Matt the Engineer
    Re 1: Even if such a project did take money from other projects, that doesn't win the argument. You then need to look at the dollar efficiency of each project - I would think you could get quite a bit of transit value per dollar for a well designed gondolla system.
  3. Steven, Congratulations! I can only see TL requesting you to come here as a positive. Maybe you will be able to convince some of the Forest Grove people that this will make life better for them even though they won't benefit directly, there will be less pollution, noise and traffic to contend with.

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