Western Canadian cities see gondolas as part of transit and tourism plans

Jeffrey Hansen-Carlson, president of Prairie Sky Gondola, is pictured at the site of an urban gondola project in Edmonton on April 29.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Residents and visitors could one day use cable cars to cross rivers in two central Alberta towns.

A 350-meter urban cable car, also known as the gondola, has been proposed to connect Red Deer’s business district to the Bower Ponds recreation area.

“In Red Deer, it’s very simple. There are two stations. It crosses the Red Deer River,” said Jeffrey Hansen-Carlson, president of Prairie Sky Gondolas, who announced he would invest $25 million in the project.

Prairie Sky also wants to install cable cars over the North Saskatchewan River between downtown Edmonton and Whyte Avenue, a popular street with bars, restaurants and shops. Geotechnical and environmental assessments are underway and public comments are being collected through meetings with Aboriginal communities and other people interested in the project.

The projects are two of many proposed across North America as a way to move people on waterways or get tourists up mountainsides.

Steven Dale is an urban planner who created The Gondola Project website and has consulted on many proposals. He said interest in urban cable cars continues to grow.

“Five years ago, the vast majority of my business was outside of North America,” Dale said. “Today it’s probably 85 to 90 percent in North America.

“Beyond the systems you’ve heard of, many other cities are considering this and discussing it very seriously.”

Dale said cities have started to realize that gondolas can be cheaper than other public transport, can be built in less time, and can be used to quickly move people from place to place.

“Nobody likes to take a ride, so the shorter and more predictable the better.”

Toulouse, Grenoble and Paris in France are fully integrating gondolas into their public transport networks, Dale said.

A similar idea is being considered in Burnaby, British Columbia, where city council in January approved a gondola to connect SkyTrain rapid transit lines to Simon Fraser University.

“The gondola project will create a safe and reliable public transportation option for Burnaby residents traveling to and from Burnaby Mountain,” Mayor Mike Hurley said in a news release at the time.

The project is part of the council’s 10-year vision which guides public transit priorities and investments.

Dale said gondolas in Latin America “spread like wildfire” once the first integrated ones were built.

“Right now North America is starting to take notice and it’s starting to spread here”

SJC Alliance, the company where Dale works, is involved in a gondola project in Los Angeles and a study for another in Tampa Bay, Florida.

“Think about the absurdity of it all. We’re talking about using a ski lift as public transportation in Florida,” he said. “It’s totally ridiculous, but it’s actually a good thing, because ridicule gets people’s attention.”

Ironically, says Dale, only Canadians say, “We have snow. We have ice cream. We have wind. We have winter. How does it work in winter?

“It’s a ski lift. How do you think it works in the winter? You take it out of the mountains and put it in a city and people’s minds go crazy.

There are already gondolas in Western Canada for tourists and skiers, but more are being considered in Alberta’s mountain towns of Banff and Canmore. Developers want to build cable cars that would transport people to mountain tops from townsites.

In Canmore, a gondola proposal at Silvertip Resort is before the public until mid-June to set the terms for an environmental review. The project would connect the station to the summit of Mount Lady MacDonald.

A gondola to take skiers and hikers from the Banff townsite to the top of Mount Norquay Ski Resort was rejected in 2019 by Parks Canada. Resort owners, however, told Banff City Council last August that they still hoped to build a smaller version of the town at the base of the mountain.

Back in Edmonton, Hansen-Carlson said an urban gondola can be a tourist attraction, but it can also be a transportation solution.

“As a piece of infrastructure, just moving people, its day has come,” he said. “Today, around the world, around 200 city cable cars are operating successfully.

“So we’re not a pioneer globally, but we’re definitely in the North American context.”

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