People have always needed to get from point A to point B; in the future, this will be no different. Our particular future, however, has to confront issues that were too distant to notice or just overlooked by our predecessors; a future where petroleum will be substantially more expensive than it is now, and perhaps also a future where attitudes have shifted a bit away from private vehicular transit and more toward public transit. It's the sort of future that we need to be planning for now - because not only does the future have a tendency of sneaking up on you when you least expect it, it does take time to build things. While the Brothers Ford in Toronto are doing a great job at making sure that this planning for the future does not happen, over here in Metro Vancouver the people in charge are thankfully more willing to look over the next hill.
They'd better, because they have no choice. Metro Vancouver is going to be experiencing a hell of a lot of growth over the next few decades; current projections indicate that by 2040, Surrey will have more people than Vancouver, presaging a huge potential shift in the Lower Mainland's center of gravity. All those hundreds of thousands of people need to get around, right? It's too bad that in some respects, the current transit system in Metro Vancouver is better suited for 1991 than 2011.
Enter the Fraser RiverBus Society. I encountered a link to a story about them in the Vancouver Sun the other day - through their spokesman Jeff Malmgren, they're advocating a potential solution to Metro's future transit woes in the form of the RiverBus, a four-ship passenger ferry system that would ply the Fraser River between Maple Ridge and Richmond, with stops in Vancouver, Burnaby, New West, Coquitlam, and Langley along the way. The idea is primarily that of an "inter-suburban" line; rather than providing an alternate connection between Vancouver and the outlying cities, it's intended as more of a way to get from one outer city to the other without having to go through Vancouver.
I remember having an idea like this a little while ago, but in the context of relieving pressure on the Expo Line - it involved fast passenger ferries that would connect the Surrey waterfront, such as it is, with downtown Vancouver - but the distance involved made it seem a bit unlikely to me. By the same token, I'm not sure if the idea of a RiverBus is sound; it seems to me that it might be simpler, cheaper, and ultimately quicker to expand the infrastructure that already exists.
Let's take a look at the details. According to my calculations, using Port Haney Station in Maple Ridge and Bridgeport Station in Richmond as the eastern and western termini of RiverBus service, the resulting route is roughly 41.5 kilometers long; however, this would be increased somewhat by the suggested stops in the five cities along the route, and use of the North Arm around Lulu Island is mandated by the prospective stops in Burnaby and Vancouver. What would really make or break the service are the RiverBuses themselves.
Ships, as you may know, don't tend to move as fast as land vehicles. Among other things, they have a lot more mass to move. The SeaBuses, the current backbone of TransLink's fleet, have a top speed of 11.5 knots - 21.3 kilometers per hour for landlubbers. The fastest vessels currently in use by BC Ferries appear to be the Cowichan class ferries, which are capable of 22 knots or 41 kilometers per hour. The PacifiCat Fast Ferries made 37 knots or 68 kilometers per hour, but I don't think the people of British Columbia want to see them any time soon.
There's room for comparison in San Francisco, where there's a large market for ferry services across San Francisco Bay - linking SF to places like Sausalito and Tiburon, and the cities of the East Bay to each other. Some ferries, like MV Peralta pictured above, can make 26 knots or 48 kilometers per hour. MV Golden Gate, one of the newest additions to Golden Gate Ferries' fleet, can pull 38 knots or 70 kilometers per hour. Barring stops along the way, Golden Gate could manage the route in a little more than half an hour.
That doesn't tell the whole story, though - ships like Golden Gate are fast because they use waterjet propulsion; the Fast Ferries did so as well, and part of the problem was that flotsam on the water kept getting sucked into the intakes and damaging the engines. If you've ever spent any time on the riverfront, you know that the Fraser is no stranger to flotsam. What's more, at many points the North Arm of the Fraser is only a couple of hundred meters wide; not necessarily the best place to be going all ahead flank. High-speed ships are far more suited for the open water, where there's no pesky land to dodge around.
Instead, let's look at a vessel more like Peralta; twice as fast as the SeaBus, but not necessarily based on such a vulnerable propulsion system. At 26 knots, an east-to-west transit would take just under an hour, and the stops along the way would add to that as well. By contrast, the West Coast Express takes an hour and thirteen minutes to go from Waterfront Station to Mission City at the western terminus of the line; between Waterfront and Port Haney, it's only fifty-six minutes.
In the end, what do I think? It's a compelling idea that doesn't necessarily hold up for me upon closer examination of the proposal. Personally, I still think a cheaper and more effective solution to Metro's transit issues would be through an expansion of West Coast Express service; not only more frequent service on the existing line, but the extension of new lines as well. Granted, in the future this might be worth looking into; at present, though, would the number of people travelling between, say, New Westminster and Langley really justify a service like this?