Vancouver/Burnaby Gondola



What The Burnaby Mountain Gondola Teaches Us About Loss

The working theory amongst city builders whenever a group of NIMBYs (NOMBYs?) pipe up about any given development in an urban environment is that people simply don’t like change

That’s nonsense. People love change. 

If you get a sought-after job, a new girlfriend/boyfriend, a first car or win a million dollars your life is going to change dramaticallybut you’d be hard-pressed to find someone complaining about that. 

What people don’t like isn’t change it’s loss. While the concept of loss aversion, first developed by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, is typically applied to areas of economics, finance and marketing, I think it applies equally to issues of NIMBYism and urban development. 

The basic concept is this: People prefer avoiding losses than realizing equivalent gains.  It’s so evolutionarily embedded in human behavior that studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful in a person’s mind than gains. 

I was reminded of this situation when reading about local opposition to the Burnaby Mountain gondola a couple of weeks back. 

On behalf of 30 residents of the Forest Grove community (where the gondola would likely pass over), Glen Porter wrote into Burnaby Now and summarized the community’s opposition to the project. Try reading it through the frame of loss aversion:

“While the residents of Forest Grove feel privileged to live in close proximity to the streams, woods, flora and fauna in Forest Grove and the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area and we try to be good environmental stewards, we recognize that these areas are “the backyards” of all residents of Burnaby, not ours alone . . . we are protective of our own sense of peaceful enjoyment of our homes (and the privacy of our children who attend daycare and an elementary school under a proposed gondola route) but we are also protective of the many species of wildlife whose habitat, in Forest Grove and in the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area, would be disturbed by a constant stream of gondola cabins passing overhead.”

This is all about loss, nothing more. Almost all NIMBY arguments can be reframed that way . . .

Increased traffic to an area means loss of time and parking. A tall building overlooking a backyard means loss of privacy and sunlight. A building out of character with an existing neighbourhood means loss of character. 

It’s all about loss. And if there isn’t sufficient enough gain for the locals to realize, then all hell breaks loose. You want a perfect example of this — read up on the war that broke out between neighbours in the Cabbagetown area of Toronto over a daycare.

It was clear there that the daycare would (marginally) increase traffic and noise in the neighbourhood. People with kids and few daycare options loved it. Residents with no kids didn’t want to have to deal with less parking and less peace-and-quiet.

I have no idea if the Burnaby Mountain gondola will ever be realized or not. Forest Grove residents have next to nothing to gain from this project and a huge amount to lose. That’s a recipe for entrenched opposition.

System planners and designers would be wise to go back to the drawing board and see if they can find a way to redesign this system such that it minimizes the losses to residents while maximizing the gains.

If not, I can assure you, a protracted battle awaits.

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Congrats Zied Masmoudi! Winner of “I Like it on Top Contest” (SFU Burnaby Gondola)

A few weeks ago we learned about the I Like it On Top contest held by Simon Fraser University. Through submissions of their own work, students were invited to help raise awareness about the merits of the Burnaby Mountain Gondola. The contest ended on April 7th and last week Zied Masmoudi was declared the winner. Congrats!

He earned a well-deserved $2000 while 2nd and 3rd place prizes of $500 and $250 went to Kurtis Chow/Jeremy Mamisao and Markham Burnham respectively.

I gotta say that the submissions were all excellent. I can’t imagine how much time each and everyone of them must’ve spent making the videos! Combine that with the stress of exams and finals, and it becomes even more impressive.

While the contest is over now, if you want to learn more about the project and check out their amazing work, be sure to see the videos below. Once again, congrats to all the winners!


Winner: Zied Masmoudi

2nd Place: Kurtis Chow & Jeremy Mamisao

3rd Place: Mark Burnham

Honourable Mentions

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Help Support The SFU Burnaby Mountain Gondola

Regular readers of The Gondola Project are familiar with the difficulties the Burnaby Mountain gondola has experienced getting off the ground (pun intended).

The proposed system – which is to serve the student, faculty and resident population of Simon Fraser University (SFU) – while having significant merit, has hit a couple of roadblocks along the way. But that hasn’t prevented the Simon Fraser University Association from throwing their collective weight in favour of it.

The student association has launched a grassroots campaign called I Like It On Top (pun presumably intended) as a means to convince politicians, locals and stakeholders that the “Gondola (should be) a priority by raising the profile of current transit issues surrounding Burnaby Mountain.”

And just to prove how serious they are about this; the students’ association has even put up two grand of cold, hard cash money as bounty for the SFU students who generate the most creative techniques and strategies to make this thing happen.

Have a good idea how to help them realize their goals? Submit your ideas by April 7th.

Wanna learn more about the SFU Burnaby Mountain Gondola? Download the full business case here.

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Could Vancouver’s Evergreen Line Help the Burnaby Mountain Gondola Get Built?

Nick Smith of Vancouver offers an interesting take on Vancouver’s planned Evergreen Skytrain Line and it’s impact on the shelved Burnaby Mountain Gondola plan.

His basic thesis is that the Evergreen Line will cause an increased need for the gondola and dramatically increase the benefit-cost-ratio of the system. As Nick says: “What this all amounts to is a higher Benefit Cost Ratio for the gondola project if the Evergreen Line is built. Which means that it actually makes more sense to build the Burnaby Mountain gondola upon completion of the Evergreen Line.”

As we pointed out earlier (here), the current Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) shows the gondola costing a scant $12m more than the business as usual situation. $12m in terms of long term public infrastructure building is basically within the margin of error and subject to so much subjectivity, it basically renders the point moot. But as the case for the gondola was so borderline negative, any positive impact on its BCR would tilt it into a recommendable project.

Most importantly, I think, is the fact that Nick’s discussion highlights how interwoven transit projects are. They don’t exist in isolation, and they should be analyzed as such. Too often people positioned the gondola as something that was sucking away funds from the Evergreen Line. That wasn’t the case, obviously, but it didn’t prevent people from believing so. (See the comments debate here for just such a situation.)

Now we have a not unreasonable argument that suggests the opposite.


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Burnaby Mountain Gondola Business Case: The 12 Million Dollar Problem

Last week Translink finally released the Business Case for the Burnaby Mountain Gondola Transit proposal. There were two main findings in the study:

Firstly, that the construction of the system would provide enormous benefits to transit riders, Translink and Simon Fraser University. After attaching a dollar figure to those benefits, the benefits could be valued at roughly half a billion dollars (all figures NPV 2011, CAD) over 25 years. (For a quick rundown of this aspect of the project, check out Stephen Rees blog post about it.)

Secondly, that to proceed with the construction of the Gondola would cost $12m more than the “Business As Usual” scenario of continuing to use diesel-fuelled buses well into the foreseeable future. Again, that $12m is over a 25 year period.

Which of these two findings do you think received the most press and attention?

The $12m, but of course. That number pretty much became the de facto argument against the project in most of the popular press the Business Case received (see The Atlantic Cities article titled Vancouver’s Gondola Dreams May Be Too Expensive To Come True for commentary typical of what’s out there).

In an economy like this, if you want to break the case for the gondola, all one really has to say is “it’s $12m more than what we’re doing now. Forget about it.”

There’s two problems with this argument, however:

Firstly, the $12m value is so relatively minuscule and so subject to error, it’s hard to take it seriously. This is a really important point but one that requires more time and space, so I’ll save it for another discussion next week.

Secondly – and notwithstanding the previous point – when viewed through a different lens, the $12m problem evaporates. In fact, when viewed through a different lens, the gondola doesn’t cost more than the “Business As Usual” scenario, it costs less.

Let me explain:

According to the Business Case, over a 25 year period, the gondola will cost $12m more than the BAU situation. But a sensitivity test conducted within the Business Case demonstrates “the project would break even relative to business as usual at year 28 (italics mine).” This makes logical sense as the longer the system is in operation, the less it costs over the amortization period of its useful life.

Continuing with that logic, one can reasonably assume that as of year 29 or 30 the system would likely cost less than the BAU scenario – presuming of course there are no major upgrades or replacements necessary – which the Business Case said would not be required. The Business Case explicitly states that “the expected life of the track ropes and the cabins is in the range of 20-40 years and 30 years has been assumed as the mid-point. All other components are assumed to require rehabilitation during the 25-year term of the Project.”

Which means the actual lifecycle of the system is closer to 30 years, rather than 25.

In other words, the conclusion about whether or not this system is deemed more or less expensive than the BAU scenario is highly dependant upon how one chooses to define the lifecycle of the system. No reason is given for why 25 years was chosen instead of 30 – or 28 for that matter.

Please understand that this isn’t me trying to manipulate numbers in such a way to demonstrate why this system should be built. I’m not calling shenanigans on anyone or suggesting any nefarious doings to bias the study against the gondola. Instead, I want to demonstrate how analyses such as these are far more subjective than we choose to recognize and decisions made about minor things like lifecycle costs can have dramatic impacts on the debates that surround infrastructure and policy decisions.

A quick Thought Experiment:

Imagine the study chose a lifespan of 29 or 30 years instead of 25. What happens then?

Well for starters The Atlantic Cities would be proclaiming that Vancouver’s Gondola Dreams May Save Taxpayers Millions. Suddenly the conclusion being bandied about by a dangerously non-inquisitive press is that the system will ultimately save taxpayers money, rather than cost them.

But that conclusion would be no more right or wrong than saying over 25 years the system will cost too much.

Or imagine that the study never once stated whether it would cost more or less and instead simply concluded that the system would break even with the BAU scenario at Year 28 of its lifespan. What does that do to the debate?

It changes things from a black-or-white, zero-sum game of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a more nuanced situation where decision-makers are forced to question if 28 years is an acceptable period of time for the system to pay for itself. That’s probably a better, more mature situation.

But that, of course, can be spun both by the press and the partisans such that it reflects whatever pre-conceived positions they already have.

Is 25 a better number than 28? One’s rounder than the other, but the other’s even instead of odd. Neither is objectively better or worse, but each have a dramatic and deeply subjective impact on our perceptions of a project.

And is 25 a better number than 30? For some people, maybe. For others, not so much. One can divide 30 evenly by the number 10; one cannot with 25. Such an argument in favour of 30 over 25 is meaningless, of course, but whatever argument one can muster in favour of 25 over 30 is equally as feckless.

Remember that when you hear things like Vancouver’s Gondola Dreams May Be Too Expensive To Come True.

Chances are, it’s a whole lot more complex – and deeply, deeply irrational – than that.

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Burnaby Mountain Gondola Project: Business Case Now Available

The long in-gestation Burnaby Mountain Gondola Project Business Case has been released by Translink as well as the Alternatives Analysis.

The two documents, combined, are roughly 110 pages and as it’s been available for less than 24 hours, we’ve yet to go through it all. As such, we’re going to save our comments for next week where we’ll dedicate at least a few days to further analysis.

Until then, enjoy:

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World Class Alpine Resorts Near City = Urban Gondolas?

Since the Gondola Project’s inception two years ago, reception (for the most part) has been overwhelmingly positive with interest in gondola transit rising dramatically. (Thanks again everyone! Keep the emails/comments coming!).

Peak 2 Peak - Whister. Image by Flickr User roaming-the-planet.

While there’s more work to be done, we’ve managed to successfully help bridge the knowledge gap between the institutions of city/transportation planning and urban gondolas.

If we just look within the Great White North alone, half of Canada’s largest metropolitan areas, are in or reported to be in the preliminary stages of planning a gondola system. That’s Vancouver (Burnaby), Calgary and Montreal (Laval).

Rendering of Laval CPT. Image via City of Laval.

In my opinion, this accomplishment is incredible. Two years ago, as compared to today, CPT was a fringe, misunderstood and relatively obscure technology in the North American transit world. Not so much anymore.

But this leads me to ask: What’s the biggest Canadian city that’s currently suffering from the worst congestion but yet to even remotely contemplate CPT?

You guessed it – Toronto.

While lampooning public transit in Hogtown is a favourite pastime amongst Torontonians, I do think they are doing great things in the city (i.e. Spadina Subway Extension, Eglinton Crosstown LRT etc.).

So instead of hating on the city that I love, I asked: Why is cable being implemented in other Canadian cities but not in Toronto?

As I’m currently preparing to go skiing in Whistler this week, I’ve had an epiphany. There’s a crucial factor existent in Vancouver (Burnaby), Calgary and Montreal (Laval) that’s missing in Toronto.

Can you guys think of it?

Can't wait to hit the slopes! Whistler, British Columbia. Image by Flickr User jsigharas.

World-class ski resorts!

Let’s see: Calgary has Lake Louise; Vancouver has Whistler and Montreal has Mont Tremblant.

And Toronto has Blue Moun… nevermind.

I’m sure there’s more to this revelation than alpine facilities, but it’s probably the most straightforward answer. In fact, this surprising fact may not be surprising at all.

Civil Engineers/part-time cable aficionados in the 1980’s, Bondada and Neumann, already found that planners more familiar with cable technology were more likely to rate it higher on a scale of 1 to 10. The question, then, is if mere familiarity with the technology in a ski resort setting is enough to cause planners to consider the technology more seriously. Bondada and Neumann, unfortunately, never addressed that question.

Anyways . . .  happy skiing everyone!

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