11
Jul

2019

What The Burnaby Mountain Gondola Teaches Us About Loss

Post by Steven Dale

The working theory amongst city builders whenever a group of NIMBYs (NOMBYs?) pipe up about any given development in an urban environment is that people simply don’t like change

That’s nonsense. People love change. 

If you get a sought-after job, a new girlfriend/boyfriend, a first car or win a million dollars your life is going to change dramaticallybut you’d be hard-pressed to find someone complaining about that. 

What people don’t like isn’t change it’s loss. While the concept of loss aversion, first developed by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, is typically applied to areas of economics, finance and marketing, I think it applies equally to issues of NIMBYism and urban development. 

The basic concept is this: People prefer avoiding losses than realizing equivalent gains.  It’s so evolutionarily embedded in human behavior that studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful in a person’s mind than gains. 

I was reminded of this situation when reading about local opposition to the Burnaby Mountain gondola a couple of weeks back. 

On behalf of 30 residents of the Forest Grove community (where the gondola would likely pass over), Glen Porter wrote into Burnaby Now and summarized the community’s opposition to the project. Try reading it through the frame of loss aversion:

“While the residents of Forest Grove feel privileged to live in close proximity to the streams, woods, flora and fauna in Forest Grove and the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area and we try to be good environmental stewards, we recognize that these areas are “the backyards” of all residents of Burnaby, not ours alone . . . we are protective of our own sense of peaceful enjoyment of our homes (and the privacy of our children who attend daycare and an elementary school under a proposed gondola route) but we are also protective of the many species of wildlife whose habitat, in Forest Grove and in the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area, would be disturbed by a constant stream of gondola cabins passing overhead.”

This is all about loss, nothing more. Almost all NIMBY arguments can be reframed that way . . .

Increased traffic to an area means loss of time and parking. A tall building overlooking a backyard means loss of privacy and sunlight. A building out of character with an existing neighbourhood means loss of character. 

It’s all about loss. And if there isn’t sufficient enough gain for the locals to realize, then all hell breaks loose. You want a perfect example of this — read up on the war that broke out between neighbours in the Cabbagetown area of Toronto over a daycare.

It was clear there that the daycare would (marginally) increase traffic and noise in the neighbourhood. People with kids and few daycare options loved it. Residents with no kids didn’t want to have to deal with less parking and less peace-and-quiet.

I have no idea if the Burnaby Mountain gondola will ever be realized or not. Forest Grove residents have next to nothing to gain from this project and a huge amount to lose. That’s a recipe for entrenched opposition.

System planners and designers would be wise to go back to the drawing board and see if they can find a way to redesign this system such that it minimizes the losses to residents while maximizing the gains.

If not, I can assure you, a protracted battle awaits.



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Vancouver/Burnaby Gondola
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