Updated: Apr 29
By summer 2023, BC is set to have a new passenger-only ferry service from downtown Vancouver to Nanaimo. This exciting news is welcome for the travelling public. But many who hear about a new ferry venture in British Columbia cannot help being skeptical. After all, haven’t there been numerous passenger-only ferry ventures in BC over the years that ended in failure?
True, there have been some high-profile failures of passenger-only ferry service. In recent memory, we’ve had Royal SeaLink Express (Victoria-Vancouver service, cancelled in 1993), HarbourLynx (Nanaimo-Vancouver service, cancelled in 2006), Coastal Link Ferries (Bowen Island-Vancouver service, cancelled in 2010), Pacific Ferries (Gibsons-Vancouver service, cancelled in 2017), V2V (Vancouver-Victoria service, cancelled in 2020). But these defunct services don’t tell the whole story about passenger ferries in the province.
Some of BC's less successful passenger-only ferry operations: Coastal Link Ferries (left), and V2V (right)
BC’s successful passenger-only ferries
What’s often overlooked is that BC currently does have a network of passenger-only ferries, so seamlessly integrated into our coastal networks that we take them for granted. Even aside from the many reliable water taxi operators that provide niche, on-demand services, there’s FRS Clipper (Victoria-Seattle), Q2Q (New Westminster), various unregulated routes such as Lady Rose (Port Alberni-Bamfield), Keats Island ferry, and Lasqueti Island ferry. Then of course there’s SeaBus, Vancouver’s iconic maritime people-mover.
FRS Clipper provides service between Victoria and Seattle (photo from Clipper website)
The story of SeaBus
The story of SeaBus reveals something important about the success of passenger-only ferries. SeaBus is the vessel that connects between Waterfront Station in downtown Vancouver and Lonsdale in North Vancouver. Every day, SeaBus carries between 12,000 and 16,000 people across Burrard inlet (whereas by comparison, the Lions Gate bridge carries about 60,000 – 70,000 vehicles per day). The route connects North Vancouver’s neighbourhood of greatest population density to the Vancouver business district of greatest job density, via a pleasant 12-minute ferry ride across the harbour. The vessel and terminal are integrated such that it can move 400 people from ship to shore in less than 90 seconds, and these people can directly connect to busses, Canada Line, Expo Line, etc.
Left: "Jobs per Hectare" (City of Vancouver), Right: Population Density (Census Mapper)
Today, SeaBus seems like a necessary and inevitable part of Vancouver’s transportation network. But before today’s successful service existed, the idea of connecting Vancouver and North Vancouver by ferry was met with skepticism and even hostility. When the idea for SeaBus was first advanced in the early 1970s as an option to address traffic congestion on the North Shore bridges, several prominent voices of the day weren’t buying it. The local MLA strongly objected to the proposed ferry option, calling it “a declaration of war on the North Shore”. “It will just make things worse,” he said. Another opposing MLA called it a “step back into the past” and that the idea was “discarded 30 years ago as unworkable”. “A band-aid on a broken leg” said the BCAA president of the day. “A losing proposition”, said the former proponent who had attempted the service only a few years earlier. The national harbor board spokesperson doubted that commuters would bother using it.
Clippings from the early 1970s on the merits of SeaBus
Despite these critics, the ferry system ultimately advanced on a prediction in the 70s that we recognize as accurate today:
The trend away from the automobile, as the major means of travelling to and from work, has not commenced but every indication is that it is about to commence. "The travelling public will become more and more frustrated at the problems of travelling at rush hour. In 20 years time it is anticipated that the gasoline-powered automobile will no longer be the major means of transportation to and from work. "The time is ripe for the re-introduction of the ferry service on a trial basis."
- North Vancouver City Engineer, 1974.
SeaBus succeeded when the time was right. The service was launched in 1977 and it’s been benefitting community members in both Vancouver and North Vancouver ever since—not to mention attracting tourists from far and wide. North Vancouver’s widely-praised Shipyard District is but the latest of the benefits this little boat has made possible.
Timing is everything
Ultimately we can identify many reasons for the failure of some of the passenger ferry services of the past: lack of service reliability, mismatched vessels for the waters of operation, high ticket prices, and poor community integration. But underlying all of these complex factors is the issue of timing—they were just not a match for the time and place they existed.
The success of a passenger ferry service depends on getting the timing right. This means judging how ready the communities, the ferry users, and others are to try a different way of moving around.
The right service launched at the right time is a game-changer, as shown by SeaBus and the other stellar passenger ferry services in operation today. When hearing of a new service, instead of asking “won’t this fail?”, we should be asking “what makes this service a good fit for the current time and place?”. It requires us to look not just at the service itself, but the constantly-changing world around it.
Is now the right time to introduce new passenger-only ferry service into BC? Check out the findings from Greenline's Ferry Service Survey. The results are posted here, and regardless, let's stay in touch. Subscribe to our mailing list to keep up to date.