Revisiting a Burnaby Mountain Gondola

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Burnaby Mountain in Metro Vancouver seems like a textbook site to test cable-propelled transit in a major North American city.  Simon Fraser University, with 30,000 students and staff, occupies 200 acres on the western crest of the mountain.  A growing neighborhood called UniverCity occupies the eastern hilltop with 5,000 residents.  Both are surrounded by parks and conservation lands but are only 1.7 miles from a SkyTrain rail station.  The mountain is 985 feet tall and served by a fleet of 48 diesel buses providing more than four million annual transit trips with poor levels of service.  Snow cripples transit ten an average of days per year on a hill that 39,000 people will live on by 2030.

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Burnaby Mountain. Photo credit: Simon Fraser University

In 2010, TransLink commissioned one of the first comprehensive studies pitting ropeway technologies against the status quo and other alternatives in a North American context. One of the world’s largest engineering firms, CH2M Hill, led the team with financial analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers and technical consulting by Gmuender Engineering and the lift manufacturers.  Commercially sensitive sections of the report were never released to the public in order to safeguard a future competitive procurement process, but what was published is a fascinating read for anyone interested in transit or ropeways.

The SkyTrain Millenium Line, opened in 2002, passes 1.7 miles south of SFU at a station called Production Way-University in Burnaby.  Commuters wait an average of seven minutes for a bus here, which takes 13-16 minutes to go the less than four miles to SFU. Increased frequencies of already articulated buses would result in proportionally greater emissions, traffic impacts, staffing needs, required layover space and capital costs.

The study looked at a wide range of alternatives – from bus rapid transit (BRT) to light rail, funicular, subway, trolleybus, reversible aerial tramway, monocable gondola, 2S gondola, 3S gondola and funitel.  These were narrowed down to three major categories for further study – diesel bus, monocable/2S gondola and 3S gondola/funitel.  Other surface alternatives proved too expensive, had significant neighborhood impacts, or both.

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Comparison of three modes that made it to secondary study.  3S/funitel won on nearly every count except cost.

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