Burnaby Mountain Gondola’s accessibility sparks heated debate

Burnaby Mountain Gondola’s accessibility sparked a lengthy discussion among staff, councillors, and resident representatives on the city’s Access Advisory Committee on Jan. 31. The gondola, which is still in its very early stages, will connect the Production Way-University SkyTrain station with SFU on Burnaby Mountain and will have the capacity to transport 3,000 people per hour. It can also serve as a viable evacuation route in the event of an explosion or fire at the Trans Mountain Tank Farm on Burnaby Mountain. Currently, there is only one road off the mountain in the event of a disaster.

Representatives from TransLink presented the current design concept and TransLink’s plans for accessibility. They requested constructive feedback from committee members to improve design and accessibility for people with visible or invisible disabilities.

According to Saki Aono, senior manager at TransLink, engagement is ongoing with the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil Waututh, and Kwikwetlem nations, and TransLink is analyzing the results of a public engagement event that took place last November.

In her presentation, TransLink planner Holly Foxcroft said accessibility is vital to the gondola design, emphasizing universal design, wayfinding, and signage, using pictographs, English signs, and tactile signage. Foxcroft added there will be audio and visual cues for people with vision impairments. People using assistive devices will have a priority boarding lane and can ask attendants to slow the gondola down if necessary. Attendants will be present at all boarding and alighting areas. Most people will board the gondola cabins while they move slowly through the terminal.

“You mentioned it’s going at 20 centimetres per second, but you have to consider that that motion is lateral to your direction of motion. It’s not straight ahead, the forward motion that would be on an escalator or the motorized walkways at the airports,” said resident representative Karim Damani, “that can throw off a person’s balance, even at 20 centimetres per second. Especially for people using assistive devices like a wheelchair, that lateral motion will cause a jolt to their device. Also, people with balance issues trying to walk, they’re going to be walking forward, but the cabin is moving laterally, and that can cause a loss of balance.”

Priority boarding and other issues during peak hours sparked discussion among committee members, as well as issues such as difficulties recruiting enough attendants for the job and language barriers.

“Do you foresee any issues with a wheelchair going in first and then a barrage of a bicycle and a scooter coming in next? And then, as Karim had mentioned, exiting as well?” resident representative Rod Bitz said. “Everyone’s in a hurry. I’ve used the SkyTrain at peak times, and it can be a hassle as a wheelchair user getting off the SkyTrain at seven in the morning or after a football game.”

Foxcroft replied that she had received similar feedback regarding boarding and accessibility and would continue to collect information to make informed decisions to support universal accessibility. She added that these questions were all new and that TransLink is attempting to solve them with the community. The ultimate goal is to move 4,000 passengers per hour in either direction while accommodating the needs of all passengers and transit users, and there will be new procedures and training for staff.

The city’s accessibility plan is now moving past the public engagement phase as planners analyze the information collected during several public engagement events held in January 2024.

Senior city planner Margaret Manifold provided a verbal update to the committee. Manifold told the committee that the public engagement events, originally scheduled to take place in December, were postponed to January to allow participants to register.

Manifold added that the city held one online session in mid-January and two in-person focus groups on Jan. 25 at McGill and Tommy Douglas libraries. Twenty-five participants attended the sessions, with eight in the online group, seven at McGill, and 10 at Tommy Douglas. Of the participants, 14 were service providers, and 11 were people with vision, hearing, physical, neurodiverse disabilities, and mobility device users.

During the engagement events, participants highlighted positive aspects of Burnaby, including a strong sense of community, access to transit, nature, and amenities.

The barriers participants frequently encounter include attitudinal barriers, lack of disability awareness and education in the community, and difficulty transitioning people from child to adult services. They also raised concerns about the built environment, such as dangerous crosswalks and intersections, difficulty accessing transit, lack of tactile options, and online wayfinding for building interiors.

Some ideas for actions included providing accessibility services for newcomers, not considering accessibility as just a checklist, but considering it for all projects beforehand. Participants also highlighted the need for more access awareness campaigns and celebratory events and the integration of people with disabilities in programming instead of providing segregated services.

Participants also mentioned the need for better access to the natural features of Burnaby as well as one place that lists all resources and new consultation for all new construction projects, such as the gondola project.

Lubna El Elaimy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Burnaby Beacon