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The ferry designs of the future are accessible

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

Grabbing a cup of coffee while on board a ferry can be quite challenging for someone with mobility issues. And that’s after the challenges of getting on board in the first place.

For example, Ellen Eaton, who has Multiple Sclerosis, makes frequent trips from Gibsons, located on the Sunshine Coast, to Vancouver. Each time, she has to ask a friend or family member to accompany her and help navigate the challenges. “I have to take my walker, and it's almost impossible to get there on my own as I would have to take either a taxi, or HandyDART to the ferry terminal, get off, and walk a long way to get on as a passenger,” she explains. “Then I have to find my way to sit. And I can't do that independently since it's just too far and too difficult to do it.” Even having someone take her by car doesn't solve the issue completely. “I usually sit in the car in the lower part of the ferry because it’s just too difficult to get around through the cars to the elevator and back.”

Eaton recalls trying to make the trip solo in previous years. She says, “When I was trying to do it on my own, I’d have to wait for a bus, and it didn't take me anyplace easily so I could continue with public transport.” Many who have mobility issues face similar obstacles but may need to travel for important reasons such as medical appointments. The good news is that with changes to ferry design and operation, ferry journeys can be made more accessible and enjoyable for those who face mobility or other challenges.

Ferries Designed for All Many ferries were built decades ago, making them out of step with the accommodations for accessibility we are accustomed to having on land. In the past, many ferries were designed to optimize the experience of travelling by car, making the experience less enjoyable for foot passengers, and even less for those who live with mobility challenges. Newer ferries are designed according to modern accessibility standards that help to clear some of the accessibility barriers, but those standards may not cover all aspects of the travel experience. The standards prescribe limits for the boarding ramp slopes, for example, but do not offer any guidance on minimizing the circuitous paths through the terminal.

Compared to car ferries, passenger-only ferries are especially well suited to meet the needs of all passengers – especially those with various disabilities. Passenger-only ferries are human-scaled: terminal distances are shorter, ramps are readily adjustable to meet changing tidal conditions, and there are fewer doors to navigate. Vessels fitted with a single deck avoid the use of elevators altogether, since they can pose an inconvenience when undergoing maintenance.

Furthermore, many other parts of the journey can be optimized for accessibility. From way-finding to safety briefings, from drop-off/ pick-up locations being very close to the ferry, to easy ticketing, perhaps, by phone, designing a service for those who live with mobility issues has more facets than people might think.

Greenline hopes to accommodate many of these features in its new ferry design, in keeping with its vision to make ferry travel reliable, affordable, and accessible for everyone. This will help bring ferry accessibility into the 21st century by not only building ships that address the needs of people with disabilities, but also by advocating for the infrastructure that supports end-to-end journeys for these individuals. In other words, Greenline will learn from individuals about their end-to-end journey – enabled by taxi, bus, HandyDART, ride hail, or other means – and carefully consider what is needed to travel from home to their destination and back. The Future of Passenger-Only Ferry Service

Greenline is proposing all-electric passenger ferries based on MS Medstraum, the world’s first zero-emission all-electric fast ferry, which has been operating successfully in Norway since late last summer. The vessel carries 150 passengers and 20 bikes and was designed by a European team with accessibility in mind. Medstraum offers designated areas to park wheelchairs, and the washrooms are fully accessible. The fact that the ride is smooth, with no vibration and no engine noise, may also offer a better experience for those who have sensory impairments or who are neurodivergent. With new accessibility features, passenger-only ferries can be as inclusive as possible: suited to those living with mobility challenges or other physical / sensory impairments, as well as those who have temporary mobility challenges due to injuries.

For Eaton, the proposed new Greenline ferry system can’t come soon enough. She says, “It’s really important that I’m able to be mobile on my own.”


Feel free to fill out our online survey and add your comments, or email us at if you would like to be on a list to take part in future consultations on Greenline’s ferry service accessibility.


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