The Current

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's ... a gondola? This could be Edmonton's newest transit solution

Could urban gondolas be a wave of the future as public transit? After an Edmonton couple proposed the idea, the case for elevated sky cars could be a solution for many other cities.
An illustration of a concept for a gondola system running through Edmonton. (Submitted by Amber Poliquin )

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It's certainly not a middle of the road idea: a subway in the sky to transport busy city dwellers of Edmonton across the Saskatchewan River Valley.

The pitch for a gondola, an elevated cable car, was the big winner in a recent competition that asked Edmontonians to come up with a vision for a new urban city landmark. 

This vision, created by Amber and Gary Poliquin, isn't just for sightseeing — it's also for commuting, using a mode of transportation successfully adopted by other cities around the world like Mexico City and La Paz, Bolivia.

It takes an average of 20 minutes during rush hour to travel from downtown Edmonton to Whyte Ave., from the north to the south of the river, says Amber Poliquin.

"A gondola could complete that trip in under 10 minutes and that would be a great fit for adding into our transit system here," she tells The Current's guest host Laura Lynch

A rendering of the 3km gondola line that would travel across the Saskatchewan River valley. (Google Earth/Submitted by Amber Poliquin)

During rush hour, Poliquin says, at least 136,000 cars a day cross the bridge. She argues that with such a wide river valley (about 3 km),  a gondola line would complement the other forms of city transit that already exist, like buses, the LRT and bike lanes.

Edmonton plans to build light rapid transit lines across the entire city but the project will likely take years, if not decades to build.

Peak benefits

Poliquin admits she's never been on an urban gondola ride before, but is convinced by her research that it makes economic sense for Edmonton.

"From construction through operation it will save us money," she says.

"There's less infrastructure, it's the cheapest form of transportation in terms of mass transit to operate, and also it releases the least amount of CO2."

London's gondola lift cable cars cross the River Thames, allowing visitors to take in the views of Olympic Park, the Canary Wharf financial center and the Thames Barrier. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

Skeptics may think of a gondola as something designed for ski hills, but Poliquin argues its capacity to move 10,000 passengers an hour makes it an asset.

"It's quiet. It's fast. It's efficient. It's fun. It's hard to argue that it wouldn't be a good fit," she says.

As an urban planner who advocates for the creation of cable transit systems, Steven Dale agrees a gondola line could complement transit systems in cities like Edmonton.

"You've got a wide river valley and the gondolas are uniquely capable of dealing with topographical challenges that other transit technologies aren't," he explains.

"You also have Canadian winters and, of course, a cable car essentially has been designed for harsh winter Alpine climates, so the two do make logical sense in a place like Edmonton."

Dale also points out that gondola services often have waiting times of a minute or less between vehicles.

"Most public transit planners will tell you that one of the single biggest issues to getting people out of their cars and into public transit is wait times. Waiting 10 minutes for a bus or 10 minutes for a light rail vehicle, especially in a Canadian winter, is not pleasant and it's not something people tend to want to do," he says.

Urban planner Steven Dale, who runs The Gondola Project, says people associate gondolas with Alpine hills and don't think of it as a mode of transportation for urban areas. (Pixabay)

So why the hesitation to implement gondolas?

Dale says while gondolas are common sights in ski resorts, they're a rare sight elsewhere. Planners, policymakers and politicians are waiting to see what it might look like in other cities before going ahead with it in their own.

"We jokingly call it 'the no city wants to be first problem.' No city wants to be first. Every city wants to be second. They want someone else to take the risk," he says.

'Cars don't shop'

While gondolas are useful in many cities who have already taken the plunge to rely on them as transportation, Cherise Burda, executive director of the City Building Institute at Ryerson University has some reservations about being so high up in the sky.

She suggests a gondola line may not be the best choice "to help animate" a downtown main street since it travels above ground level.

"Rather than just moving people through a street in a neighborhood like a thoroughfare, we want to make sure that the type of transit is actually connecting the neighborhood," she says.

The New York Roosevelt Island Tram has operated since 1976. The city is looking into implementing a gondola over the East River river connecting Manhattan to Williamsburg. (Beth J. Harpaz/Associated Press)

Gondolas could be useful as public transit, Burda says, but what's most important is to focus on what the goals are for the city and the network.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Alison Masemann and Jason Vermes.