Ferries to Relieve Traffic Congestion?

Commentary, Transportation, Steve Lafleur

The new football stadium in the south end of Winnipeg has generated tremendous gridlock, requiring many fans to leave several hours early to arrive on time. Traffic in southern Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe is some of the worst in the world. In each case, ferries are being floated as a potential alternative to driving. It’s not clear how much they can practically do to relieve congestion, but it is certainly greater than zero. Given the cost of congestion mitigation, it may become economical in both instances.

Two riverboat operators have expressed interest in ferrying passengers to Investor’s Group Stadium on game days. One of the proposed routes would begin at Redwood Bridge, just north of Downtown Winnipeg, and would drop passengers a half a kilometer away from the stadium. The ferry ride would take two hours each way, plus a ten minute walk from dock to stadium. This might seem impractical, but travelling isn’t entirely about time in all cases. The novelty of taking a ferry can be an attraction in and of itself, and one can have dinner on the way in, and drinks on the way back. Think of it as a travelling restaurant. Providing the price point is right, it’s entirely possible that this will be a viable business model.

According to Ontario Environment Ministers Jim Bradley, every ten years or so someone proposes a fairy between Toronto and Niagara Falls. Previous studies have suggested the route would not have sufficient passengers to break even. However, this might change as gridlock in the region worsens. Given the lack of political will to undertake the only measures that would noticeably reduce (or at least prevent the inevitable increase in) traffic, namely variable tolling and congestion pricing, the math might change very quickly.

Unlike the proposed Winnipeg route, no private carrier appears to have expressed interest in running the Toronto-Niagara route. Support at the moment is coming from St.Catherines city council. The Niagara adjacent city’s mayor believes that the provincial government’s GO Transit should fund and operate the ferry. While it seems plausible that this route could become viable, involvement from GO would be a mistake. If the business case is sound, a private operator will emerge. If not, GO would simply be running another money losing venture. Given that novelty will have to be a part of attracting commuters to ferries, one would expect a private company that is good at marketing lifestyles (which ferry companies specialize in) would be better placed to attract customers than a transit agency that is only viable with subsidies and protection from competition.

On a cautionary note, the “free” Staten Island Ferry, operated by the New York City Department of Transportation, costs $4.86 per passenger for a 25 minutes ride. Given that the distance is drastically shorter than Toronto to Niagara and occurs between two points within the same hyper-dense metro area, we should infer that the cost of a Toronto-Niagara ferry would be much higher. Consequently, it would likely require large subsidies (hence, the suggestion it be run by GO), or they would need to market to clients who are willing to pay a premium for the experience. Supposing they sold breakfast on the way in, and dinner and drinks on the way out, some people might well pay for that service, rather than sitting in traffic. It’s best to leave that risk up to the market.

Both cases illustrate highlight the fact that waterways are potentially underused resources for moving people around congested urban cores. While it isn’t certain that either route will work out, it is an area worthy of exploration.