Connecting Far-Flung Campuses to the City: A Gondola for SFU?
Back in the prehistoric days of my undergrad, I recall a particular Canadian Literature class when my professor got off on a tangent about the siting of universities in British Columbia. “What’s wrong with us?” he ranted. “Eastern Canadian universities are located in the heart of the city, close to civilization. We sequestered UBC at the end of a peninsula, SFU on top of a mountain, and UNBC in the forest out of town!”
Whatever the reason for our current predicament, the relative isolation of these universities has important transportation implications for students and everyone else who uses a campus. Current trends to develop market housing for non-students on university lands have been controversial, especially when nearby affordable housing for students is in short supply. On the bright side, though, these developments may indirectly benefit students in another way – by winning political support for high-quality transit service to far-flung campuses.
Simon Fraser University (SFU) is accessible from the nearest SkyTrain automated light rail station via a 5-kilometer, 14-minute bus ride up Burnaby Mountain through the forest. When severe winter snowstorms hit, as they regularly do on the mountaintop, buses quit running. A friend relayed the harrowing story of getting stuck on campus while attending an evening class, and choosing between spending the night in the lab or hiking down the mountain in a snowstorm. He chose the walk.
The SFU Community Trust recently announced their support for a gondola lift that would connect the SFU campus and the new UniverCity community to the Production Way SkyTrain station.
Their strategic approach was to quietly hire an engineer to do a feasibility study, then release all the juicy details to the newspapers:
- Travel time from the SkyTrain to SFU could be as short as 6 minutes!
- An electric gondola would mean big reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over diesel busses!
- Gondolas can operate in severe winter weather!
The media seems to love the idea, and many students do too. But how much political support is really behind the proposal? According to the Burnaby NewsLeader article, regional transportation authority TransLink “hasn’t even begun to look at the idea” yet.
And what of the region’s university on the tip of a peninsula, the University of British Columbia? Translink recently issued a Request for Proposals for a UBC Rapid Transit Line. Campus users and residents of the new University Town developments are all terribly curious whether they can look forward to rapid bus service, streetcars, surface light rail, or a SkyTrain line one day connecting the campus to Vancouver.
At least for UBC and SFU, the best transit technology for connecting campuses to the city will remain a hot topic for debate in all the student pubs.