Monday, December 19, 2011

Big Blue Taxi

Vancouver SeaBus
With Vancouver being a port city one would naturally expect that one of the ways for people to get around is by water and, in that regard, the city doesn't disappoint. The transit service provides a SeaBus across Burrard Inlet, there are a couple of private ferry operators in and around False Creek, and water taxis ply other routes between Vancouver Harbour and nearby destinations that have limited or no land access.  All in all, traffic on the water would appear to be a bustling business with a variety of options to choose from.
False Creek ferry photo by Junie Quiroga

The reality unfortunately is something different.  For example the False Creek ferry service is only between a few select locations during the week and the minimum one-way ticket price is $3.25 for a 5-10 minute ride. Other destinations are $4.25 or $6.50 The Aquabus ferry has the same rates but offers a more comprehensive schedule, but the pricing is outrageous when compared to the $2.50 for a single zone TransLink fare.  In the summer, when the tourists have taken over the City, both operators do a roaring trade but come winter it's only the committed commuters who make use of the service.

And without tourists another private company, the English Bay Launch, which provided daily scheduled commuter service between both Coal Harbour and Granville Island to Bowen Island, had to shut down operations for the winter months, leaving its regular customers scrambling for alternate arrangements.  Seems as if the tourists know something the locals don't, namely that the quickest,scenic and most hassle free way of getting around is by water.  Why aren't the locals catching on themselves?

English Bay Launch
One reason may be that folks here just prefer to use their cars in spite of all the problems we have with traffic jams, another might be the scarce number of commuter routes and another might simply be one of scale.  When you look at an aerial view of the Vancouver area you can instantly see the various waterways surrounding the city that include Burrard Inlet in the north, various arms of the Fraser River to the south and English Bay to the west.  Why are there no high speed, purposely designed water craft travelling these waters?

Aerial view of Vancouver
Compare this to Syndey, Australia, where the city is also surrounded by waterways, and how this city takes advantage of its geography to offer an amazing ferry service to 14 million passengers annually. Starting from a centrally located downtown ferry terminal, the service branches out along routes to more than 38 stops within the Inner Harbour, Manly, the Eastern suburbs and the Paramatta River. Vancouver by contrast operates 3 public SeaBus ferries, that only go to one destination.

Aerial view of Sidney
The ferry service in Sydney operates a fleet of  28 vessels ranging in size and speed from the SuperCats carrying approximately 250 passengers at a speed of 22 knots to the 1,100 passenger Freshwater class ships travelling at 15 knots. In Vancouver we have 3 SeaBus vessels (though only 2 are ever in service at any given time) each with a 385 passenger capacity and a speed of 12 knots.

Central Quay in Sidney
Greater Sydney with a population of 4.6 million is exactly double that of Vancouver, with its greater area population of 2.3 million, but that's not enough to account for a more than 10 fold passenger carrying capacity. It owes more to the fact the people got accustomed to a ferry service rather than using the car.  Up until 1932, when the Sydney Harbour Bridge opened, the annual ferry traffic was 30 million passengers.  Vancouver, on the other hand, has always had an ambitious bridge construction policy across its various waterways, which it continues to upgrade and expand upon, and this of course has precluded anything more than a token effort towards the building of a passenger only ferry system.  What Vancouver (British Columbia) does have is the world's largest fleet of vehicle ferries.

Sydney Ferry photo by Junie Quiroga
Vehicle ferries however are a completely different animal and have nothing to do with getting water taxi service in and around the downtown and surrounding suburbs.  How different things might have turned out if there were passenger ferries running along the Fraser River from Pitt Meadows, Langley & Surrey to connecting Skytrain terminals in New Westminster or ferries running along Burrard Inlet from Port Moody, Coquitlam & Burnaby to downtown Vancouver?  Would the lower mainland be a little greener without all the freeways, bridges and traffic?  Would we have saved money in the long run?  Instead of catching a big yellow taxi we might have made a song about riding in a big blue floating taxi.
Newest SeaBus