Burnaby (Vancouver)

University Soon to Hang on a Rope?

The diesel buses serving Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Burnaby, Canada, are overloaded, inefficient and environmentally unfriendly. Two feasibility studies conducted over the past ten years recommended replacing the bus connection between the SkyTrain station and the campus atop Burnaby Mountain with a cable car.

With 20,000 students, lecturers and staff members coming and going during the day, and another 5,000 residents of the UniverCity, the Burnaby Mountain Campus east of Vancouver is a much frequented part of the city of Burnaby. As its name gives away, the campus is located on a hill while the city, and its local transport network (including also the SkyTrain), is in a valley. To get to the university and the residential area, one has to take a bus. More than 25,000 bus rides are dispatched every day.

Many passengers have to wait for as many as four packed buses to pass by before they can board. . A bus ride that would normally take 15 minutes therefore usually takes over half an hour. Moreover, the diesel buses have difficulties handling an almost 300-meter-long vertical climb along the way. It is estimated that, as a consequence, 1,700 tons of greenhouse gases are emitted per year. What’s more, winter snow storms interrupt the bus operation for ten days per year on average, disrupting classes, exams and research at SFU, as well as the UniverCity residents’ everyday life. These challenges will become even more serious in the next ten years as the number of students will grow to 30,000 and the number of residents to 10,000.

Both route options compared against each other. Photo: CH2M, 2017

Multiple studies

he first feasibility study from 2009 showed that – compared to the present diesel bus system – a cableway would improve travel times, service frequency and reliability, and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Based on these results, the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority (TransLink) evaluated the construction and operation of a potential cableway in 2011.

The preferred solution according to the study: a 2.7-kilometer-long triple-cable circulating cable car from the SkyTrain station to the SFU Town Square with a transit hub on Burnaby Mountain. The cost of the construction was estimated at 114 million US dollars, the annual operation cost at up to 3.5 million US dollars. According to the study, the advantages of the cableway would clearly prevail over the cost. However, due to the region’s financial difficulties, no further steps were taken regarding the cableway. In 2017, TransLink conducted another feasibility study to verify whether the results of the 2011 study were still valid or if it was necessary to look for an alternative. In their assessment, the engineering consultants from CH2M concluded that compelling reasons to replace the current diesel bus service with a cable car still existed. 

Positioning of both routes in the city. Photo: TransLink, 2017

Two cableway manufacturers were contacted with regard to technology and cost. In the wake of these developments, an alternative “trimmed” route was examined, too, which would circulate in one residential area. But this “trimmed” route would have been longer (3.4 km instead of 2.7 km of a straight route), slower (9 minutes instead of 6) and more expensive to build (up to 255 million instead of 197 million US dollars).
Even the operation would have been more expensive (5.3 million instead of 4.1 million US dollars). In this light, the direct route remained the preferred one. Whether and when the cableway is to be implemented is still unclear.