Six months into 2013 – what’s happening to ferry traffic?

This week, BC Ferries released details of passenger and vehicle traffic for June – and FAC Chair, John Hodgkins, takes a look at what’s changed in the first half of 2013, compared to the same period last year.

The ‘big picture’ from BC Ferries tells only part of the story.  Vehicle traffic in the first six months of 2013 is down by 0.6% compared to 2012; passenger numbers are almost unchanged from last year at just 0.1% down. The major routes, particularly Route 1 between Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay, are especially susceptible to downturns in leisure travel – yet the picture varies widely up and down the coast.

Here, we can compare performance on the Gabriola ferry route (Route 19) with the two major routes linking Nanaimo & Vancouver – and with a family of similar ‘lifeline’ ferry routes serving Salt Spring, Thetis & Penelakut, Bowen, Texada, Denman and Quadra Islands. For the purpose of this comparison, data for Routes 2 (Nanaimo to Horseshoe Bay) and 30 (Nanaimo to Tsawwassen) has been combined to correct the distortion caused by last Spring’s closure of Duke Point terminal.

Vehicle traffic

In the first six months of 2013, the number of vehicles carried to and from Gabriola increased by almost 1.3% – matching the two major routes between Nanaimo and Vancouver. With the exception of Texada, every other island route in our sample saw a reduction in traffic – and in the case of Thetis/Penelakut and Bowen Islands, that reduction was almost 4.5%.

2013 vehicles


BC Ferries’ passenger data includes vehicle drivers, car passengers and walk-on passengers.  In the first six months of 2013, passenger traffic across the sample of routes has been even more volatile, ranging from a 1.5% increase over 2012 on the major routes to Vancouver to reductions of more than 4% from Thetis/Penelakut and Quadra Islands.  By comparison, passenger traffic from Bowen, Gabriola and Denman Islands has remained close to 2012 levels.

2013 passengers

It’s clear that several routes are experiencing a reduction in vehicle use – though passenger traffic is remaining stable (or increasing), suggesting that high vehicle tariffs are encouraging more people to travel as walk-on passengers, using transit for onward connections (or, as some Gabriolans do, leaving their vehicles on Vancouver Island and using the ferry as walk-ons.)

The extent of this trend is obviously influenced by the availability of good transit connections – thus it’s most likely to be evident at Swartz Bay and Nanaimo. Yet the reverse seems to be true as far as Gabriola is concerned – vehicle traffic up, passenger traffic slightly down. Why should that be? Could it be that there’s more regular commuting with vehicles and less ‘optional’ travel for shopping and leisure?

2013 drivers

46% of all passengers using the Gabriola ferry are vehicle drivers – similar to Salt Spring and Quadra Islands, higher than Bowen and Thetis/Penelakut but significantly lower than Texada and Denman Islands. Evidence shows that the ratio of non-drivers to drivers is falling on Routes 6 (Salt Spring/Crofton), 18 (Texada), 19 (Gabriola), 20 (Thetis/Penelakut) and 23 (Quadra) while it is increasing on Routes 4 (Salt Spring/Swartz Bay) and 8 (Bowen), where transit connections are more viable.  Will the introduction of Gertie bus services on Gabriola reverse this downward trend? Time will tell.

Experience Card usage

Another indicator of the proportion of frequent travellers on each route is the percentage of tickets that are purchased at discount rates using an experience card.  As fares have increased, so has the number of experience cards in use.

2013 experience

Despite the significant number of non-paying passengers (students and seniors) on Gabriola, Route 19 has the highest proportion of passengers using Experience Cards for travel.  On Bowen, Gabriola and Denman Islands, more than 80% of car fares are purchased using Experience Cards, reinforcing the significance of these routes as commuter services.

What can we learn from this data?  There’s no doubt that high fares are still restricting optional travel, and that infrequent travellers – or those who cannot afford Experience Cards – are the most likely to reduce the number of journeys they make.  Despite this,  there’s evidence that traffic on the Gabriola route is recovering more strongly than on many other routes.  We must ensure this message is acknowledged by the Province and BC Ferries when service cuts return to the agenda.


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