Gondola is best transit option between downtown and Old Strathcona, advisory board says

An advisory board is setting its sights high when it comes to how to best transport residents across the city's iconic river valley.

'We should never be afraid to put all ideas on the table'

An illustration of a concept for a gondola system running through Edmonton. (Submitted by Amber Poliquin )

The Edmonton Transit System advisory board is setting its sights high when it comes to grappling with how to best transport residents across the city's iconic river valley.

In a report, the board suggests a gondola would be uniquely well-suited to connect commuters with downtown and Old Strathcona.

"We saw there was a very large challenge in getting people directly from Whyte Avenue to downtown and also linking both of those destinations to the river valley because of the geography," said board chair Sean Lee.

"That formed our interest in gondola."

The idea of an urban gondola was selected winner of the industry-sponsored Edmonton Project in March, but it's something the advisory board has been studying since 2016.

In late April the board endorsed the concept as a fast, reliable and cost-effective transportation option in a geographically-challenging space.

"Really, for this to work and make sense, you have to have a couple of very high demand locations that people want to get to and from all the time," Lee said.

"So that's why Whyte Avenue to downtown makes sense," he said. "It's on that commuter corridor and if you can link in the Rossdale area of the river valley at the same time, that's an even greater benefit." 

Coun. Tim Cartmell said he's keeping an open mind on the idea.

"I have read and reviewed the report on urban gondolas. I believe we should never be afraid to put all ideas on the table and consider all options to get the best possible solutions for our city," he said in a statement Friday.

The board considered three routes, but settled on one connecting downtown to Old Strathcona, with an interim station in the Rossdale community.

A rendering of the three-kilometre gondola line that would travel across the Saskatchewan River valley. (Google Earth/Submitted by Amber Poliquin)

The report outlined several benefits of an urban gondola, including:

  • Gondolas can accommodate between 4,000 and 6,000 passengers per hour in each direction, transporting the same number of people per hour as 2,000 cars or 100 buses.
  • Gondolas alleviate traffic congestion.
  • Gondolas transport people at roughly the same speed as a conventional bus when stops are factored in.
  • Gondolas are extremely reliable with a better safety rating compared to other modes of transit.
  • Gondolas are  one of the most environmentally friendly modes of transit using roughly 0.1 kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity per kilometre per passenger, and would have the smallest impact on the ecosystem of the river valley.
  • Gondolas offer minimal wait times for passengers and easy integration with existing transit. 
  • The prefabricated design means gondola construction is often completed in under 12 months.

On the other hand, the report pointed out, limitations with the technology include:

  • Passengers are limited in the number of places they can get on and off and the route.
  • Once built, the route is fixed and can't easily be changed.
  • Most gondola systems can only operate when wind speeds are less than 70-100 km/h.
  • Gondolas have lower maximum speeds compared to other modes of transportation.

While the report doesn't include a cost estimate for the project, it does say it would be a fraction of other transit solutions, like an LRT line.

But Cartmell acknowledges there are many other municipal projects that deserve priority funding.

"I have heard loud and clear that now is not the time to spend any public dollars on an urban gondola when we have a budgeting shortfall related to [Municipal Sustainability Initiative] funding and key priorities including Terwillegar Drive that are desperately needed," he said.

"If a solution could be generated to have private industry completely fund all construction and operating costs, I could possibly be supportive."

According to the board, other cities around the world have reported the costs of building a gondola system could be up to $25 million per kilometre, depending on the design.

The report will be discussed further at the urban planning committee meeting on Tuesday.

About the Author

Alicia Asquith


Alicia Asquith is an award winning journalist based in Edmonton. She is also the host and producer of the CBC Alberta television news on weekends. She's previously worked as a reporter and video journalist in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Venezuela.