BC Ferries misses the boat…again!

British Columbia Ferry Services Inc. (a.k.a. BC Ferries) recently announced a $28 million dollar “upgrade” to four loading bays at Horseshoe Bay (near West Vancouver) and Departure Bay (near Nanaimo). This followed an announcement that they were having three new giant car- and truck-carrying ferries made in Germany (which will NOT create work for the very people that BC Ferries purports to serve). In total, this corporation plans to spend $200 million on ramps and bays and $2.5 billion on boats — bays and boats built for cars and trucks, no where near where the majority of people live or work.

Now on which planet do they operate again?

Washington State Ferries have been operating ferries out of downtown Seattle for decades. Their walk-on and bicycle passengers can work, school, play, or shop downtown knowing that they can get home without the hassle of a bus or the cost of a car. Conversely, since the majority of mainlanders live near downtown Seattle, they can – without a car or bus – get out of town by foot or bike. Nothing radical here, and it all works just fine.

Meanwhile, BC Ferries is still wholly owned by BC taxpayers but thanks to Gordon Campbell, it is no longer accountable to the people it is owned by and serves. I assume this is the excuse that this corporation would use to explain why there has been no public process regarding the huge hole that it is about to dig.

Now, I’m not saying let’s get rid of the car ferries. No, not yet. People have rightly said that they are a vital part of the highway system. People who drive depend on them. Fine. Let them keep using the recently overhauled ferries on the Horseshoe Bay/Departure Bay route. They’ll be fine for another decade or two, at least.

What I’m saying is wake up and smell the half-cafe, double decafe latte (with a spritz of lemon) and spend a fraction of this money on people, not cars and trucks. Harbourlynx, the fast ferry that carried foot passengers and bikes from downtown Vancouver to downtown Nanaimo proved again that there is a growing number of people that don’t drive but still want to get to Vancouver Island and beyond. Not to mention, live on Vancouver Island and get to the big smoke without using a car. In fact, every holiday weekend BC Ferries sees it for themselves, if they would only look. On a service that is painful at best, and most often horrendous for non-motorized passengers, it sells out the walk-on tickets for every sailing. It’s time for faster, smarter, passenger- and bike-only ferries to Nanaimo, Victoria, and the Gulf Islands.

Actually, Victoria already has a passenger-only service from a major west coast city: Seattle. But not from Vancouver. Europe, New York, Latin America, Asia, the list is too lengthy to even begin to list the number of passenger-only ferries that serve major cities in the world. What do we have in Vancouver? Seabus. That’s it (but I can hardly wait for Harbourlynx to start again in a couple of months!!).

Meanwhile, TransLink and BC Ferries have both shown no interest in making it easy for people who don’t drive to use this ferry. When I sent an email to BC Ferries about the fact that at most 4 bikes can get to their sailings, I didn’t even receive an acknowledgment that the email was received. I’m sending this one to the same public relations email address; we’ll see if a response is forthcoming this time.

TransLink, to their credit, has one employee who has a job description that provides some time to reply to bicycle-related emails. I was told that my email raised some valid points and that they would see what they could do. Six months later, no changes or additions have been made, even during the peak of the summer season. Yesterday, 4 packed Express buses took most of the people who walked off the 5pm sailing, but most of the bikes rode without the bus because TransLink’s schedule gave no indication of extra service and it was faster and more comfortable to ride for 90 minutes than wait and get crammed into their sardine can, a.k.a. bus.

Meanwhile, work on the new ramps and ferries has begun. At a cost over 100 times of what it would have cost to buy and double the capacity of the high-speed passenger service from downtown to downtown.

And just what are we going to do with giant car-carrying ferries when the oil runs out or just gets too expensive to use so frivolously? Maybe we’ll sell them back to the manufacturer again for less than the cost of the materials to make them, just like last time. That will ease our tax burden, won’t it?

Gordon Campbell and his Liberal Party, with 23% of the eligible vote in the last election, have gone on a spending spree that is making even Wacky Bennett turn green with jealousy in his grave. No public process has approved these ferries and ramps. No public process has approved the twinning of the Port Mann bridge and the rest of the multi-billion $ Gateway project. Lies were told (e.g., it’ll be a tunnel, not cut and cover) to get the $2+ billion RAV a.k.a. Canada Line barely approved. And more blatant lies were spoken (e.g., all cost overruns will be covered by the Provincial Government) to get a slim majority of referendum voters in Vancouver (but only 14% of eligible voters) to “approve” the Olympics, which are doubling in cost almost every year (and we still have 3+ years to go!).

So far, that’s about $10 billion for 4 rich boy toys that I won’t use. In stark contrast, the cost of surface light rail from downtown to the airport, the cost of passenger-only boats and ramps to Vancouver Island from downtown Vancouver, and the cost of doubling the capacity of the Port Mann with HOV lanes (i.e., no paving at all) is about 1/100 of what we are already on the line for (I’ve consciously omitted the 2010 corporate orgy). These are things that I and a growing number of us would and want to use. They could even pay their friends to build them.

Must be nice to be able to funnel so much of our money to their friends. Probably very close buddies with many of them, by now. I’m guessing they haven’t imagined a world where people, like me and you, simply stop paying for their fun and friendships. But I can. Can you?


A highway built for 2…


Imagine a highway built for 2 cars…that’s right, a road where only 2 cars can reach the destination every 2 hours.

It certainly would solve traffic congestion and it would cost a lot less than the Gateway boondogle the provincial government is trying to shove down our throats.

Of course, no car owner would stand for it.

But this highway does exist for cyclists: TransLink and BC Ferries have created a system that allows only 2 cyclists to travel from Vancouver to Nanaimo (and vice versa) every 2 hours…except for holidays when nobody can use public transit for the first sailing of the day. That’s right, a public holiday and you can only drive or ride in the dark to catch the first ferry of the day (but then, who would be trying to get out of town for a holiday weekend!). And yes, I exaggerate: only 2 cyclists can connect with the first two sailings each non-holiday…the other 6 sailings each day can accommodate 4 cyclists!Typical Bike Parking on BC Ferries

Now we are talking about a giant boat here. Lots of room for bikes, thousands of ’em. And get this: BC Ferries makes money for providing nothing in terms of bike facilities each time a cyclist boards ($2.50 per bike for no racks, no dedicated space, no lockers, no change rooms, no showers, no rain shelter while waiting to load, nothing).

Most importantly, realize that the majority of the people in the Lower Mainland live in one of the world’s largest natural harbours: Vancouver! Why are we forced to travel to the megalopolises of Horseshoe Bay or Tsawwassen to get to Vancouver Island or the Gulf Islands? Why are islanders forced to arrive nowhere near their destination?

Forcing folks to travel hours just to get on a ferry is precisely why TransLink’s lack of bicycle facilities is not just important, it is critical. The alternative is to drive (duh) or ride for 2 hours (guess what most people choose). And forget about taking the direct route (i.e., the highway) to East Vancouver or Burnaby because North Vancouver doesn’t allow cyclists on their part of the Trans-Canada.

Harbourlynx Fast Ferry realized this gaping hole in our transportation system a few years back and were poised to make lots of money exploiting it. They provided a comfortable, fast, inner harbour to inner harbour connection between Nanaimo and Vancouver that provided free passage to all bicycles. Unfortunately, they weren’t prepared for an unforeseen engine failure which has since bankrupt them.

However, the silence of BC Ferries and our Provincial Government has been deafening since this transportation tragedy ended a way of life for hundreds of commuters. Not only would the cost of reinstating this service pale in comparison to any other transportation project planned or underway (we’re talking a million or two, instead of multi-billions), it would facilitate the inevitable transition from our dependence on oil. But there I go again, expecting the government to work for all people, when we all know it only works for rich people.

But let’s not let TransLink and BC Ferries off the hook so easily.

TransLink has had access to “improved” bike racks for a couple of years now, but to date has refused to upgrade any buses. Granted these new racks only hold one more bike, but that also means one less car.

TransLink also steadfastly refuses to allow bikes on board our buses. All buses with bike racks have spaces inside to accommodate wheelchairs. Most of the time these are used by able-bodied folk, but they could accommodate 2 bikes each. One memorable Easter Friday morning, I took a bus with 7 bikes on board: 2 on the front, 2 in each wheelchair spot and one (sans wheels) behind the last row of seats. The bus was packed with people and not one complained.

And then there is the service. Buses are consistently packed to the ferries but rarely are extra buses put into service. For Horseshoe Bay, the Express Bus (257) is often an articulated (extra long) bus; great for more foot passengers (and for saving TransLink the cost of a 2nd driver) but it still only takes 2 bikes. If TransLink ever got serious about fulfilling the mandate it claims for providing services to cyclists, the 257 would turn into at least 2 buses and the racks would be upgraded. 6 bikes doesn’t sound like much, but for the short term, it would allow cyclists the consistency and reliability that car drivers usually get without even asking.

And let’s not forget BC Ferries in this fiasco. Not only does this publicly- owned corporation blatantly gouge cyclists, they refuse to adapt or expand their services to meet the needs of a changing transportation public.

Beyond taking over Harbourlynx and eliminating the bicycle tariff on all routes, they could provide bus service with a bicycle trailer (a la Deas Island/Massey Tunnel) to meet and leave from every sailing. This would increase their revenue (every cyclist pays the passenger fare, and almost every sailing still has room for more walk-ons/cyclists) and decrease their huge expense of providing parking for cars waiting to get on the subsequent sailings.

It’s no surprise to most that our transportation systems are stuck in the sixties. The surprise to many it seems is that the sustainable solutions are not only quick and easy, they are cheap and would help eliminate the recurring problems for which there is no solution. Congestion can not be solved, it must be managed. Cycling, like congestion, needs infrastructure to grow. We can build a $1 billion highway on Vancouver Island (with billions more in the Lower Mainland on the way) but our bicycle highway to the ferry, which would cost thousands at most, is simply left off the transportation map.

Please take the time to phone or email TransLink (604-953-3040, custrel@translink@bc.ca, gvtaboard@translink.bc.ca), BC Ferries (250- 381-1401, barry.graham@bcferries.com), and the Provincial Government (604-660-2421 or 800-663-7867, premier@gov.bc.ca, minister.transportation@gov.bc.ca) to ensure our bicycle highway allows more than just a pair of early birds to catch the ferry of their choice. The sooner we build it, the sooner we get outta town…by bike!