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How Greenline created BC’s best model for predicting who will ride a passenger-only ferry

If Greenline’s ferries entered service tomorrow, who would be jumping aboard to try it out? The vessels are both technologically robust and good for the environment, but let’s face it – not everyone is motivated simply by the opportunity to experience cutting-edge marine technology that enables a journey with zero emissions. Rather, the people most likely to ride a Greenline ferry are those who get a tangible benefit – namely, a quicker or more convenient way to get to their destination.


To create a ferry service that’s commercially viable, Greenline needed a way to predict how many people are going to ride the ferry, and at what times, compared with how many people would likely continue to use the existing car ferry service. To make this prediction, our team could have turned to anecdotes from friends and family. Gary, for example, who frequently takes his two kids and all of their hockey equipment to the Fraser Valley for tournaments, is best served by a car ferry. But Jenny, whose main mode of transportation is her electric bike, says she’d take full advantage of a ferry service that allowed her to visit the Sunshine Coast without the inconvenience (and sometimes danger) of travelling all the way to the Horseshoe Bay terminal. We heard many stories like these from our travel survey in the early phases of Greenline planning in 2023. But anecdotes weren’t enough because we were looking for a quantitative estimate of ridership.


Another way we could have approached the ridership question is to look at how many walk-on passengers currently travel on existing car ferry routes. However, each walk-on passenger has a unique situation so we’d have no way of knowing how many of them would be better served by Greenline. Perhaps Jack lives within walking distance of the Horseshoe Bay terminal and can easily hop on the ferry as a passenger, while Basma lives in Port Coquitlam and has to take an hours-long transit ride out to the same terminal.


The crucial information we needed to know to predict whether someone would take a Greenline ferry is where they actually started their journey and where they ended it. That way, we’d know if Greenline gives them an overall advantage in time or convenience.


Over the past few months, Greenline has invested significant time, money, and expertise getting the data we need to predict our ridership. We ended up creating the province’s most accurate model to date of how many individuals are likely to ride a passenger-only ferry.


Using GPS-enabled devices to understand travellers’ origins and destinations

Many ferry operators limit themselves by only looking at data on how many travellers go between one ferry terminal and another, without knowing where people started or ended their trips. Greenline looked to obtain data that would capture the bigger picture of travel between our coastal communities of interest to figure out how many people’s overall journey would be faster or more convenient on a Greenline ferry. A core feature of Greenline planning is the terminal locations in close proximity to Skytrain lines, express bus routes, car share, bike share, and ride hail. Anyone travelling by ferry whose final destination is easily reachable by one of these modes of transportation has a possible convenience advantage, because they can bypass the far-flung terminal designed to accommodate cars.


Through an agreement with Streetlight Data, Greenline acquired (de-identified) geographical tracking data for every inch of BC’s south coast, collected through cell phones and other GPS-enabled devices. This information gave us a highly detailed picture of the current travel patterns across coastal BC – not just between two ferry terminals, but for people’s entire journey from origin to destination. The coast is broken up into “dissemination areas”, small geographic areas that GPS enabled devices are located within at a given time, which show the volume of traffic in each area. We obtained data on thousands of dissemination areas across the Sunshine Coast and Metro Vancouver, and modelled how it changes over time: for different months, for each day of the week, for different times of day, and for each direction of flow.


We were particularly interested in tracking the traffic that flowed through existing ferry terminals. Before the ferry journey, where did travellers come from? And after the ferry journey, where did they end up? Our team developed a model that showed the origins and destinations of ferry travellers and how they changed dynamically at different times of day or different days of the week.

 

Figure 1  Traffic Volumes from Horseshoe Bay for a typical weekday in April, showing how many people travel from Horseshoe Bay to different areas across Metro Vancouver. The colors on the map show how many people travel to each area - the darker the color, the more people travel there.

 

Assessing how a new terminal location would affect travel times

After we modelled the door-to-door journeys of people who travel by ferry, we then aimed to find out how the duration of those journeys would be affected by a new terminal location.


Through a license agreement with Google Maps, we calculated the duration of individuals’ trips – both from the existing car ferry terminal, and from a new proposed terminal – using four different modes of travel: driving, transit, biking, and walking.  In total, we calculated the travel times for over twenty thousand trips between origins and destinations, comparing different modes of travel.


A snapshot of that data is presented in the graphic below. The chart on the left shows the distance covered over time, creating a scatterplot of the various dissemination areas that can be reached within 60 minutes of leaving the car ferry terminal at Horseshoe Bay. Four different modes of transportation are calculated, each represented in a different colour. This chart shows that for this terminal location, while many dissemination areas can be reached within 60 minutes of travel, most require travel by car. Fewer areas can be reached by transit within this time frame, and only a handful can be reached by biking or walking. 


The chart on the right, however, shows the difference with Greenline’s proposed terminal location in downtown Vancouver. Like the plot on the left, there are many dissemination areas that can be reached within 60 minutes by driving, but there are a great deal more that can be reached by transit, by bus, or by walking.


This showed us that the terminal location is key for reducing travel times to many destinations and for giving coastal travellers different options for their mode of transportation. It also allowed us to pinpoint which dissemination areas are better reached using a passenger ferry connection.


Figure 2 Travel times from ferry terminals, existing & proposed, showing the improved travel times for many destinations based on a new terminal location. The proposed location also enables greater choice in mode of transportation.


Predicting who would benefit from Greenline’s passenger-only ferry service

The final step of our ridership analysis was quantifying how many travellers would benefit from Greenline’s service because it would make their complete journey faster or more convenient overall.


Already knowing the origins and destinations of current real-world travellers, we compared how long it would take them to complete their trips using the existing car ferry service versus Greenline’s proposed service. The chart below shows a result of that analysis. The green zones are those reachable by transit from a downtown ferry terminal in a faster time than driving from a suburban terminal. So individuals who live in BC coastal areas and are travelling to any of the green areas would be better served by a Greenline ferry than a car ferry. These areas cover a large swath of downtown, and stretch out in various axes representing Vancouver’s various rapid transit lines.


As an example, if a person is travelling from their home on the Gibson’s waterfront to Vancouver General Hospital on a Monday morning at rush hour, we could predict that they’d be better off taking Greenline’s 70-minute journey followed by a 10-minute Canada Line trip, compared with waiting 30 minutes in a car ferry lineup, taking the 40-minute ferry journey, then crawling through 40 minutes of bridge and downtown traffic to reach the hospital area. (For this analysis we focused on time alone, not cost – which could be 2-3 times as much for a car ferry journey than a passenger-only journey.)

 

 


Figure 3 - Destinations better served by passenger ferry (green) than existing ferry service (yellow). Colour intensity represents the volume of traffic.


Moving ahead with our data-driven approach

Greenline’s robust ridership analysis allowed us to calculate how many people would save time by skipping the suburban ferry terminal and arriving at a terminal with closer or more convenient access to their destination. It proved that – far from being an idealistic venture – passenger-only ferry service offers tangible benefits to a significant number of British Columbians. This analysis is an important part of demonstrating to investors that our proposed service is strong and sustainable – and importantly, that it meets the needs of the coastal communities in our vibrant, changing province.

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