Just about everyone at Simon Fraser University seems excited to talk about the transit gondola that is expected to run to their main Burnaby campus in about five years. For more than a decade, students, administration and members of the community have been advocating for a solution to the school’s transportation challenges. In September, the project finally received a green light from TransLink, the transit authority that serves Vancouver and surrounding communities.
Usually associated with ski hills and other outdoor tourist activities, a gondola lift may seem like a strange idea for a university, but SFU vice-president of external relations Joanne Curry points out that the school has a unique transit situation that requires an outside the box solution.
SFU’s main campus is perched on top of Burnaby Mountain at an elevation of approximately 370 metres. Only one road travels up the mountain, feeding into the university and its neighbouring UniverCity community, which contains student and regular housing. This leads to what Dr. Curry calls a “pinch point” at the nearest SkyTrain station where students can wait up to four buses or more just to be able to make it to class.
The mountain is also well-known for its unpredictable weather patterns, which combine with the steep grade to create dangerous winter conditions for buses and other drivers. “We’ve had situations where thousands of students on campus can’t get down or scarily will try to walk down in a snowstorm,” said Dr. Curry.
The gondola was conceived to move students more quickly, alleviate parking jams and encourage more sustainable forms of transportation. But there hasn’t always been so much excitement about the project and concerns have been raised around its expected $200-million-plus cost as well as route proposals. Nevertheless, the concept of urban gondolas has become a reality around the world in the last decade. There are now a number in South America and Europe, the most recent opening last summer in Toulouse, France. The Burnaby Mountain gondola will be the first used for urban transit in Canada when it is completed, with capacity for about 3,000 passengers per hour in each direction, compared to the current 1,000 passengers per hour on the bus.
A long road to approval
Getting the gondola to the approval stage has required cooperation across generations of students. Abhishek Parmar, this year’s Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) VP finance, said he was excited to pick up the baton from previous executive members. He sees the approval of the project as evidence of the power of persistence. “It got shot down over and over again, but people just didn’t want to let it go,” he said. “It really shows, if you keep trying, eventually, you’ll break through.”
There have also been consultations with both nearby community members and local First Nations for whom Burnaby Mountain holds great cultural significance. In 2020, three route options were proposed. TransLink ran impact studies considering issues of noise, privacy, visual presence and impact on the environment for each. All groups agreed that route 1, a straight line connecting to the nearest SkyTrain station, would have the least impact on existing properties and the natural landscape.
A ride will take about six minutes rather than the 15 to 45 minutes a bus might take. The cars would be flush with the ground, making them fully wheelchair accessible, and riders would be able to easily carry bikes, which will encourage sustainable travel throughout the commute. SFSS VP external Eshana Baran believes that alongside the environmental benefits, the gondola will encourage more visitors to SFU’s historically isolated Burnaby Mountain campus. That in turn will attract more students who might have found the transit conditions a challenge. “I know that people from across Canada will come just because of this gondola,” she said. “It puts SFU on the map.”
Though she will graduate before its completion, Ms. Baran sees her work amplifying the gondola project as part of a long, proud tradition of student advocacy that has made her time at SFU a little easier, and she’s happy to do the same for future students. “I may not benefit,” she said, “but it’s really cool to think that in the future, someone may have an easier time getting up the mountain.”