Four reasons I'm not convinced gondolas are what we need / by Tim Querengesser

 Photo: Alexander Baxevanis/Flickr

Photo: Alexander Baxevanis/Flickr

I'm torn by the gondola discussion. For once, the central wealth Edmonton has as a city, our river valley, is at the centre of a discussion about how to move people without cars. So, be still my heart. And yet the thinker in me can't get on board with a gondola. This has surprised a few people. They deserve an explanation.

Here are my four reasons for questioning if a gondola project is what we need right now.

1. What backbone will it supplement?
A gondola is supplemental transit infrastructure, not backbone infrastructure. In simpler terms, a gondola would be great for Edmonton – if said gondola could accentuate a robust central transit system. And that's the problem, folks. If we're talking about connecting downtown Edmonton with Whyte Avenue, as we should be (how is this something we're only tackling now?), what transit backbone is the gondola supplementing? Answer: A very weak one.

Also: Several urban gondolas exist and are successful. But one major thing a vast majority of those gondolas have that we don't is density along the line. Our river valley, thanks to a freeway we built within it that saw us bulldoze former residential neighbourhoods, is the antithesis of dense. That's a problem.

For me, a gondola in Edmonton brings to mind not images of the system in Bogota, Colombia, but instead the gondola in Spokane, Washington. Ridership? About 70,000 passengers per year (or roughly the number of people who commute into downtown Edmonton daily).

2. Gondolas have whimsy but other parts are flimsy 
Whimsy is my favourite argument for a gondola, and literally the one that sways me the most. A gondola is cool, it shows off our city, it makes us stand out. I agree. And yet.

We already have a whimsical public transit option that connects the north side of the core with Whyte Avenue: the High Level Bridge Streetcar. The fact this street car is: 1) eminently walkable (see a point on walkability below); 2) connected to the High Level Line's plans to re-imagine the corridor as a walkable urban paradise; 3) already exists; 4) is basically connected to already existing transit nodes; and 5) is therefore more likely to happen than a gondola, are the reasons I can't get behind a gondola. Want to connect downtown with Whyte Avenue? Create a reliable, ETS-run tram from bank to bank. Simple, cheap and effective. 

3. So let's talk walkability
For me, the main problem with a gondola is that it struggles on walkability. Walking to and from a gondola car or station isn't as walkable as, say, a low-floor LRT or a bikeshare or a car share or [insert basically any transit option here]. Further, a gondola creates another street, in the air, rather than one on the, well, street. All the pedway haters in Edmonton should really hate gondolas.

Further still, a gondola between Edmonton downtown and Whyte Avenue, if built, might convince some that we don't need to figure out ways to divert people from car dependency for over-used corridors like Whyte Avenue itself. Instead, they might argue, let's just build a gondola, so the drivers can keep their space. A gondola above Whyte Avenue is a very bad idea. They are not high capacity like LRT. They are not street-building infrastructure. Germany tried this idea, with the Wuppertal Suspension Railway. Today it's a head scratching anachronism rather than a key piece of transportation infrastructure. Never heard of Wuppertal? Exactly.

4. Gondolas are taking transit oxygen
If you agree with me that a gondola is supplemental, almost tourist-focused infrastructure rather than backbone type stuff, devoting resources to studying a system and debating it in public discourse potentially takes away resources, attention and understanding of basic things we still don't have. We don't have a bikeshare, a vastly more cost-effective way to open up our river valley as well as all sorts of other areas (124 Street, Ritchie Market, French Quarter, Chinatown, The Quarters, Little Italy, etcetera) to residents, newbie cyclists and tourists alike. We don't have a decent bus or LRT connection between our two downtown cores. We don't have successful transit-oriented development. We don't have a strong, world-leading strategy to curb sprawl and make sure transit exists in our now hyper-dense suburbs. And yet we're talking about gondolas.