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How We Talk About Ferries: beyond 'Marine Highways'

There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned road trip: windows down, wind in your hair, the expanse of the open highway—and the promise of endless adventure—ahead. The open road offers freedom and independence, control of your own destiny, and a straight-line path to the place where you want to be, travelling at your own pace. Isn’t that a feeling we’d like to carry with us in all realms of life?

Now contrast that with the realities of daily commuting: gridlock back-ups, record-high prices at the gas pump, ongoing highway construction delays and fender-benders, road rage and empty high-occupancy vehicle lanes alongside an idling stream of single-driver vehicles. These inconveniences are just as much a part of highway travel as road trip freedom.

In recent years, news media and vested stakeholders have increasingly referred to British Columbia’s coastal ferry system as our “marine highway.” But when it comes to ferry travel in BC, that automobile-centric thinking is locking out next iteration, limiting positive quality-of-life innovation and relegating creative solutions to the slow lane.

Though an inevitable constant of life, change is hard. And daunting. “Behavior change is complicated and complex because it requires a person to disrupt a current habit while simultaneously fostering a new, possibly unfamiliar set of actions. This process takes time—usually longer than we prefer,” according to a University of Utah case study.

Behavioral change can and should play an important role in modernizing our coastal ferry system. Alongside decarbonizing the car ferry fleet, we also need to look towards enhancing the car ferry service with additional routes and new service offerings for those who are ready to go another way.

“Marine highway” might sound catchy as a soundbite, but our ferry routes are not highways on the sea. And that’s a huge advantage. They offer many more possibilities than the terrestrial asphalt counterparts. Ferries traverse waterways without traffic impediments (for the most part) or accidents or road work. True, when ferries carry cars, they need to connect with a highway on either side of the waterway. But when they don’t carry cars, the possibilities for terminal locations expand significantly. Small, fast, agile passenger-only ferries operate with reduced cost structure, fewer crew and less energy demand. These vessels are ideally placed to excel where car ferries don’t, and make new connections direct to the places people want to go.

While BC’s current waterway system is based on car ferries, many people don’t take a car on the ferry (or don’t need to, even if they currently do) and would benefit from expanded options. With direct, high-speed routes to key destinations and reliable, all-electric, zero-emission vessels, passenger-only ferries are not only an attractive option, but a superior one for the environment.

Many forward-thinking marine jurisdictions already realize that marine routes can help people think outside the highway box and reduce reliance on cars. Take for example, in the U.S., the Washington State car ferry’s decreasing commuter ridership. Monthly numbers peaked at around 650,000 in 1999-2000, and since then, car ferry ridership has steadily declined to its cur-rent volume of less than 100,000 (see Figure 1). Meanwhile, foot passenger ferry commuting has steadily increased with the addition of passenger-only service options (see Figure 2).

Figure 1 – Declining commuter ridership on Washington State Ferries

Figure 2 – Increasing ridership on Seattle’s passenger-only ferry services

Land highways are only getting slower—consider that the average American spent nearly 11 hours behind the wheel each week in from October 2018 to March 2019, up 12 percent from the previous year, according to a Ketchum PRNewswire report. And car ferry terminals act as unavoidable bottlenecks. I recently corresponded with one Bowen Island resident, who explained the details. Currently, to get from Bowen Island to Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver, for instance, a driver has to line up with a car at least 30 minutes before sailing time to avoid regular overloads, with no reservations possible. On days when the ferry is 45 minutes late or more, the one-way trip (a 20-minute crossing) can take an hour and a half in total. At peak summer time when overloads are the norm, the one-way trip often takes two hours. For a car and driver, the round-trip cost is about $30 with a discount card. Then the driver likely has to pay for downtown parking, say $20.

Compare that to a fast Greenline ferry of the future, based on a successful Norwegian model, which zips 150 passengers and 20 bikes from Bowen to downtown Vancouver in 40 minutes for under $20. No overloads, no line-ups, no stress about where to park upon arrival. Kind of feels like that empty-highway bliss, doesn’t it?

It’s time to expand our mindset and break out of the limiting “marine highway” metaphor. Without question, we need a safe, reliable and affordable car ferry system, and there are some very important initiatives underway to modernize that service. But a one-size-fits-all solution is rarely the best one. So while car ferries will always be needed, we need to explore additional options that don’t centre around cars and don’t necessarily run from the end of one land high-way to the start of another one. We need multiple modes of travel through coastal waters for different purposes, to serve different riders. Passenger-only ferry routes are fundamentally different from highways—let’s use that to our advantage and foster a new sense of freedom with our coastal waterways.


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