Posts Tagged: Vancouver



What The Death of The Sydney Monorail Teaches Us About Techno-Zealotry

Dead Train Walking, The Sydney Monorail. CC image via Wikipedia.

On the recent news of the soon-in-the-offing death of the Sydney Monorail, Jarrett Walker at Human Transit had this to say:

Technophile commenters will doubtless chalk this up the Sydney decision as a defeat for monorails in general.  I disagree.  It’s a defeat for one-way loops, poor connectivity, and symbolic as opposed to actual mobility.  The monorail didn’t fail just because it was a monorail, but because it was a poorly designed line.

Couldn’t agree more. But I’d like to expand on those words:

Imagine, if you will, a 3.6 kilometre long light rail “loop” with 8 different stations and a flat fee to travel within it. Whether you travel one stop or all six it’s going to cost you roughly five bucks. The line doesn’t allow for integrated fare transfers between local subway or bus connections – not that you’d want to transfer to it as the line effectively takes riders from nowhere in particular to nowhere in specific.

Would you ride that system? Neither would I.

Of course I’m not talking about a fictional light rail system, I’m talking about the real Sydney monorail that was recently purchased by the New South Wales government and slated for demolition whenever “feasible.”

Some have come out showing this to be a definitive example of why monorail technology is somehow an inferior transit mode. A recent article at This Big City, is remarkably inane in its lack of analysis stating “the transit technology just hasn’t been a practical success. Today we have two case studies of cities where building infrastructure up doesn’t always mean moving people forward.” So not only are monorails not a practical success, but elevated transit in general is problematic.

Now I’m no fan of monorail technology as I’ve mentioned before. But my problem has little to do with the actual technology itself and more to do with maddening tourist-oriented installations (such as the Sydney monorail) that bear so little resemblance to actual public transit. Successful monorail systems such as the Wuppertal Schwebebahn, for example, I happen to be rather fond of.

But to return to my original question: Would any average commuter actually ride the above-described light rail line? Would they if it were a subway? A bus line? A gondola? Would they ride it no matter what the technology implemented was?

Of course not. No reasonable person would.

When we argue against a technology because of its inherent (dis)abilities, we have to make sure that our arguments are intrinsic rather than extrinsic to the technology in question. For example:

  • The fact that light rail vehicles must travel on a set of rails is intrinsic to the technology. Where those rails are located, whether in the sky, the ground or in a tunnel is extrinsic to light rail.
  • A monorail intrinsically runs either on top of a single concrete “rail” or is suspended from above by a single steel rail. Extrinsic to the technology is the fare charged for the line and the line configuration.
  • Intrinsic to gondola technology is the fact that intermediary/angle stations are currently required in order for cornering and turns to be realized. Beyond a minimum set of parameters; the size, design, shape and attendant functions of a gondola station are extrinsic to the technology.

See the difference?

Those items that are extrinsic to a technology are limited not by the technology, but by the choices made by the system designers and operators. Yes, extrinsic choices are sometimes limited by the intrinsic characteristics of a technology (for example, current gondola technology does not allow for more than about 8,000 pphpd), but those situations are more the exception than the rule. Where we get into trouble is when people argue against a technology intrinsically when the problems of the system are clearly extrinsic. (Note that I’ve made a very purposeful differentiation between “technology” and “system”.)

Consider perhaps the best example of this problem – Vancouver’s SkyTrain and Detroit’s Downtown People Mover. The two are polar opposites on the end of the success/failure spectrum yet both use the ICTS Mark II Advanced Rapid Transit technology. One system (guess which) is a perpetual money loser, suffers from terrible ridership, provides no free transfers from the existing public transit system, is a 4.7 km long loop through downtown and targets tourists rather than local commuters.

The other has been a roaring success, has witnessed massive expansion throughout the entire city, functions as mass public transit with free transfers between modes and targets local commuters rather than tourists.

Yet they both use the exact same technology. 

Unfortunately the extrinsic/intrinsic distinction is rarely made by techno-zealots and why celebrations about the death of the Sydney Monorail are disingenuous at best. At worst, techno-zealots use extrinsic arguments against other technologies as evidence of those opposing technologies’ failings. It doesn’t matter that it’s incorrect because that doesn’t change the fact that it happens – a lot. Sadly debate, argument and logical reasoning don’t tend to be a part of our high schools’ curricula so instead of reasoned commentary we get a kind of gangland, partisanship bluster that does nothing to advance conversation.

See! Monorails suck! They’re closing down the Sydney Monorail! Light Rail represent, yo!

Monorails aren’t useless any more than Vancouver’s Skytrains aren’t. The difference is that Vancouver’s Skytrains are treated as public transit whereas the overwhelming majority of monorails have been treated as poorly-thoughout-out tourist traps. It would be like arguing with someone that a football is a terrible kind of ball based solely on the fact that the vast majority of footballs in the world were being used as baseballs.

Nevertheless, that’s where the monorail stands. You can’t turn back history. You can’t eliminate all the missteps along the way. You can’t erase that episode of The Simpsons. Nowadays the monorail is like a disgraced politician. It doesn’t matter if he was good at his job or got thrown under the bus by a scheming associate or whatever. In the court of public opinion, he’s a scoundrel and a deviant and neither has much of a shot in an election. (Though the scoundrels tend to fare better than the deviants in that regard.)

That’s the reason I flee from monorails. They’re a technology with too toxic a reputation and much too much baggage to overcome. That might change sometime in the future, but not in the near future. Right now, monorails are Robert Downey Jr. in 2001 with no guarantee of an Iron Man in the waiting.

Is that fair? No, not in the least. But life isn’t fair and neither is marketing. Anyone who told you otherwise, lied to you.

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.



Weekly Roundup: Vancouver’s Burnaby Mountain Gondola

After yesterday’s release of the Burnaby Mountain Gondola Business Case, there were so many articles and commentaries on the project around the internet, we thought it prudent to break from our typical structure and dedicate today’s Roundup exclusively to some of the more interesting reactions to that project:

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.



Weekly Roundup: The Park-2-Park Gondola in Vancouver?

The wittily named "Park-2-Park Gondola" is one of 100 entries into Vancouver's re:CONNECT competition.

A few highlights from around the world of Urban Gondolas, Gondola Transit, and Cable Propelled Transit:

  • An entry in Vancouver’s re:CONNECT competition proposes a “Park-2-Park” gondola connecting False Creek Flats and Stanley Park.
  • The New York Times Magazine profiles the Mashpi Rainforest Biodiversity Reserve. In the article makes passing mention of an under-construction “aerial tram from which four cable cars will glide like tropical ski gondolas through the tree canopy.” Does anyone know anything about this installation? The mention of four cable cars is particularly bizarre. Any information would be appreciated.

Which gives us a chance to show this picture again - which we love. Image via

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.



Vancouver / Burnaby Urban Gondola: A Sample Of Things To Come?

If the planners are to be believed, the new Vancouver / Burnaby Urban Gondola Transit system will cost $120 million CAD, instead of the $69 million CAD initially reported.

Consider how similar the Burnaby gondola is to – say – the Koblenz Rheinseilbahn or Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak and you realize that $120 million is a steep price to pay for a ski lift.

And as Danish scholar Bent Flyvbjerg has shown us, transit agencies are notoriously bad at under-forecasting capital costs. There’s a good chance this system could cost even more.

So is this a taste of things to come?

There’s no doubt that building for the public transit sector is a lot more costly than building for the private recreation market.

But should the difference be so excessive?

What true added value is a transit agency providing that justifies a price premium of 50, 100, or 150 percent greater than would would typically be paid?

One of the true advantages of cable transit technology over other technologies is that the capital cost of the system is incredibly competitive. But if to build a cable propelled transit system in western, developed nations requires massive scope creep and pork barrel politics, we may see all those cost advantages evaporate.

If this keeps up, urban gondolas may just wind up as expensive as everything else.


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.



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.

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.



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.

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.



Back To The Horse and Buggy

Via Translink's Buzzer blog.

Gondola Project reader Sean sent me a link to the above image. It dates from the 1950’s and comes from Vancouver’s regional transit authority, Translink, and was plucked from their archives.

Even 60 years ago transit authorities recognized the need for grade-separation and rights-of-way for transit: “freeing the limited street space for commercial vehicles and transit vehicles, we make it easier for people to get to and from our business districts.”

Most interesting is their claim that “actual tests in some of the very large cities on this continent show that the average speed at which traffic moves through congested areas is less that it was during the horse and buggy days.”

Now if that was true then (and that’s questionable, but let’s assume it’s more than just propaganda), how true would it be now?

And if we aren’t putting transit in fully-dedicated rights-of-way, then why are we spending the money on the latest-best-most-fastest transit modes around? Wouldn’t a horse and buggy do just as well?

Note: We’ve received some complaints about comments not working over the last couple of days. If any regular readers have experienced that, please know we’re sorry and we’re working on it. Please send us a message at gondola (at) creativeurbanprojects (dot) com to report any problems.

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.