Vancouver/Burnaby Gondola



Burnaby Mountain vs. No Gondola

(Voluntary Disclosure: This past summer 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, CH2M Hill nor either of their staffs.)

No Gondola actively opposes the Burnaby Mountain Gondola.

During a Weekly Roundup post last week we linked to the No Gondola site and stated that the site had “cherry-picked” certain stats from Translink’s Phase II Public Consultation Report regarding the Burnaby Mountain Gondola.

As No Gondola is fiercely against the Burnaby Mountain Gondola, the term “cherry-picking” was not well-received and resulted in one of the more ugly debates to appear on The Gondola Project. This wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar incident as something similar occurred during another Weekly Roundup from earlier in the summer.

So let’s avoid the term “cherry-picking” and highlight the selective reading of Translink’s report that No Gondola is engaging in:

No Gondola (as well as commenters on this site) have consistently stated that “75% strongly disagree with proposed gondola.”

Fine. But who are those 75%?

As Translink’s report states explicitly, those are 75% of the 561 “self-selected” individuals who participated in Translink’s public consultation process. The “self-selected” adjective is copiously absent from No Gondola’s commentary.

In other words, this sample is hardly representative of the population as a whole.

If you went into an Apple store and asked everyone in there if they liked PCs, I suspect you’d find around 75% of respondents would say PCs are garbage. Maybe more.

Bias and self-selection within any kind of study pretty much invalidates the results of said survey. We saw this previously in the Neumann & Bondada studies (here and here) where planners with no knowledge of Cable Propelled Transit solutions ranked them lower in efficacy than those planners with Cable Propelled Transit understanding.

Nevertheless, No Gondola has chosen to use this questionable statistic as evidence that “the citizens of B.C. do not support spending $120+ million on a gondola on Burnaby Mountain.”

Suddenly it’s not just Burnaby Mountain/Forest Grove residents that object to the project. It’s not even just the residents of Vancouver. It’s the entire population of British Columbia.

How can they make that statement? Easy: They can’t.

This kind of weak reasoning and purposeful manipulation of statistics is unconscionable and has no place in community advocacy. By engaging in these kinds of techniques and tactics, the No Gondola group have unequivocally stated their willingness to lie and manipulate facts to get people on their side.

As justification for their willful manipulation of facts, commenter Eric states that “Translink is far from a paragon of honesty and virtue when it comes to communication with the community.”

Whether accurate or not, I think it important to remember what our mothers always told us: Two wrongs don’t make a right. It may be a a cliché; it may be trite; and it may be naive – but it’s also a good rule to live by.

If you can’t get people on your side with the truth, then maybe (repeat: maybe) your side doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on to begin with.

If we (CUP Projects) engaged in that kind of commentary, we’d be out of business next week.

Honesty is important – especially when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of people. As we’ve stated on this site previously, we feel that public engagement is a commitment to compromise, not an act of war.

In the end, we’re no fans of the public consultation process Translink has engaged in with this project and question what we feel is an inflated cost for the system. Do these two things invalidate the gondola? Maybe. But that’s not for us to say.

We can comment from afar but that’s about as far as it goes.

On paper, the concept is sound and makes a lot of sense – and in the end, the route alignment proposed is the most logical of the options available. Unfortunately that route alignment is what makes this system so controversial.

We certainly sympathize with Forest Grove residents and even agree with many of their complaints (see our perspective on NOMBYism here) – but I object strongly with the means they’re using to get their way.

It’s manipulative and dishonest, and highly unlikely to win them the support they expect.

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Vancouver/Burnaby Gondola: The Opposing View

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

(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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Gondola Transit on Burnaby Mountain: Public Engagement and Flawed Analysis

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.

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Weekly Roundup

A few highlights from around the world of Urban Gondola Transit and Cable Propelled Transit:
  • Simon Fraser University’s The Peak is reporting that Burnaby city council gives the go-ahead to the Burnaby Mountain gondola transit system in suburban Vancouver. Advocates are quick to point out that this does not ensure the construction of the system – that will be based upon a new financial feasibility report due soon.

Lastly lastly, in other transportation-related news, if you live in Canada/US and can access Comedy Network, here is a hilarious parody by Stephen Colbert on the dilemmas of Unicycling in New York.

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.



Is Gondola Transit Crossing The Rubicon?

Right now, there are two groups looking at urban gondola transit solutions: Developing World cities and Developed World cities. Pretty broad classification, I know, but bear with me.

Curiously, in the Developed World the technology gets little attention from the public sector. Typically it’s the private sector that pushes these systems as little more than touristic attractions. Sure there are exceptions like the Burnaby Mountain proposal in Vancouver, but the proposed Hamburg and St. Louis gondolas are more typical examples.

And yet in the Developing World, governments are all over the technology. This is where the technology’s major growth is coming from. As we’ve said before, the growth in South America is awe-inspiring.

Then there are the hybrids; those systems like the London Cable Car (Gondola) that have been spearheaded by the government but will be paid for by the private sector (presumably).

As I’ve argued before, the London Cable Car (Gondola) isn’t going to be a watershed moment for cable transit. But it may very well be the system that allows cable to cross from being seen in the eyes of western governments as nothing more than a Toy for Tourists and being viewed as fully-integrated parts of their local transit network.

This could very likely be the system that allows cable to cross the Rubicon into respectability and allow the industry to fully realize its first Medellin-esque “silver-bullet” system in the Developed World.

We’ll soon find out; the London Cable Car (Gondola) will be open in just over a year’s time.

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.



The Vancouver/Burnaby Gondola

Voluntary Disclaimer: While I have had conversations with individuals associated with the Vancouver/Burnaby Gondola, I have no stake within this project. Furthermore, while a report I wrote on the topic of cable was referenced in the original feasibility analysis associated with this project, I have not been consulted on this project whatsoever. The opinions expressed below are therefore my own.

Some background: Simon Fraser University‘s (SFU) largest campus is at the top of Burnaby Mountain, a low 370m hill in suburban Vancouver, British Colombia. The SFU Burnaby has a community of over 20,000 students with the attendant staff a university of that size commands.

Burnaby Mountain is also home to UniverCity, a small mixed-use community located adjacent to SFU. Established in 2001, UniverCity is a residential enclave of 3,000 that envisions up to 10,000 people living there in the coming decades. Despite it’s proximity to the university, UniverCity should not be confused with student housing. It is a stable community of families and young couples.

Suffice it to say, the traffic flows from the foot of Burnaby Mountain to SFU and back again are considerable. The Transport 2040 Document by Translink – the Vancouver public transit authority – showed that nearly half of the 50,000 daily trips to and from Burnaby Mountain are made by bus transit. During peak hours, that number is in excess of 53%.

This should make people’s ears perk up: Over 20,000 bus commuters per day up/down an suburban mountain in Vancouver. In Canada. Let’s just say snow, ice and rain are a serious concern.

While buses have a clear advantage over rail-based technologies when it comes to ascending mountains, they run into similar traction issues when confronted with snow and ice. Conversations I’ve had with stakeholders indicate this to be one of the primary motivators behind the project. Inclement weather shuts down bus service on Burnaby Mountain several times every winter. For obvious reasons, this would not occur with a gondola system.

Among the highlights of the existing studies are the following:

  1. Building the SFU gondola would result in a cost savings of over $170 million CAD over a 30 year lifespan.
  2. Bus services (and their attendant GHG emissions) to and from SFU would be significantly reduced.
  3. Travel times would be reduced dramatically. For example, the #145 bus that currently serves SFU provides a 14 minute trip (not including loading and unloading) assuming no delays. The trip via gondola would be no more than 5-6 minutes (not including loading and unloading).
  4. The system is estimated to cost – all in – $68.9 million CAD.
  5. System capacity is estimated to be between 2,000 and 4,000.
  6. Technology recommendation is the 3S.

The SFU gondola study will be interesting to follow for numerous reasons:

  1. This is a gondola, not an Aerial Tram. Individuals involved in this process and these studies understand the difference between the two – a very uncommon occurrence.
  2. Initial research suggests this will be a fully-integrated system. Both physical and fare integration with the Vancouver Skytrain are likely to be pursued. This would be a first in North America.
  3. Unlike the vast majority of Urban Gondolas proposed in North America, this is decidedly not a Toy for Tourists. While some degree of tourism is likely to be generated by this system, it is not the primary reason for its existence.

I’m incredibly positive on this proposal. It makes sense from every angle. The one concern I have is this: Money.

Like most every government in North America, British Columbia is broke. Finding $70 million dollars to build what could – on the surface – be seen as a frill expenditure could be difficult, politically.

British Colombia Premier Gordon Campbell’s Liberal Party is under intense scrutiny and pressure lately over their controversial move to harmonize the provincial sales tax. While readers outside of Canada probably won’t know what “harmonize the provincial sales tax” means, understand that it has been a very unpopular initiative. So much so, Mr. Campbell is now ranked as the least popular Premier in Canada, with his approval ratings in total free-fall.

Unlike most of the developed world, Canadian cities are subservient to the Province in which they reside. This means that any major capital initiatives are likely to be funded (at least in part) by the Province. Municipal transit project in Canada are rarely, if ever, funded by the federal government. Should Translink and SFU move forward with building the gondola link, they’re likely to require strong support from the deeply unpopular Gordon Campbell.

That these studies come part-way through a provincial election cycle is also of concern. The next BC election is scheduled for May 14th, 2013. Given the glacial pace of bureaucratic processes in Canada, approvals for the gondola are unlikely to occur before then. Even if Translink and SFU gather all the necessary political allies to realize this project, they could find themselves under an entirely new political regime in the next few years. Will that political regime be supportive or hostile towards the idea is anybody’s guess.

Given current studies, the Burnaby Gondola has significant merit. Politics are not, however, a meritocracy. Politics are a blood-sport. Unfortunately, our current transit planning method enables a system where transit projects are determined less by merit and more by the politics of the day.

Hopefully, the Burnaby Gondola can find friends and allies on all sides of the table, so that it doesn’t get lost in what seems like an inevitable political shuffle.

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