Jack Knox: In search of ways to quell ferry freak-outs on holiday weekends

The traffic cops were set up outside the ferry terminal Friday afternoon, handing out lessons in patience one ticket at a time. The speeds some people hit on the approaches to Swartz Bay, particularly on a long weekend, would make a NASCAR driver lose his water.

Me, I have a better suggestion for how to arrive at the ticket booth: with chocolates.

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Really. After the abuse some ticket agents put up with last time, front-line staff deserve a little love.

Fortunately, the Victoria Day long weekend got off to a better start than Easter, when Good Friday turned into Black Friday, at least on the Tsawwassen side, where multi-sailing waits and long lines outside the terminal saw impatient drivers abandon their better selves. Some queue-jumped around and through the traffic jams. Some vented on the ticket agents, which is a crappy thing to do.

It’s not the agents’ fault, nor that of B.C. Ferries, when everyone wants to travel to (good idea) or from (why?) Vancouver Island at the same time. The corporation can add sailings — 66 additional ones between Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen from May 16-20 — but only has so many boats, so many berths and so much space in its terminal parking lots.

That’s a basic reality as the demands on the system rise with the population. B.C. Ferries carried the most vehicles in its history in fiscal 2018. It has seen a 14-per-cent increase in vehicle traffic and 12 per cent in the number of passengers in the past five years.

The busiest route of all is the Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen run, which operated at 87 per cent of its capacity last year. Overall, B.C. Ferries’ major routes ran at 74 per cent capacity. System-wide it was 65.

The corporation will attempt to entice travellers to its earliest and latest sailings with cheaper fares this summer.

Still, peak times are peak for a reason. On long weekends, savvy travellers make reservations well in advance — which means more competition for the spaces that remain, more people lining up for fewer spots. People get stressed.

“It’s very understandable,” ticket agent Karen Vantongeren said Friday. “Sometimes when you travel, you feel anxious.”

Almost all passengers are great, she said. Very occasionally, somebody yells, which doesn’t help anyone. “Never is there a case where that sort of behaviour speeds up the situation,” she said. The best thing you can do to hasten the process is to have your payment and reservation info ready when you roll up to the booth.

It’s hard to imagine anyone yelling at Vantongeren, who has a friendly manner and a lovely smile. Still, there’s no accounting for how some people act at, or on their way to, the terminal.

Frequent readers will know of my doe-eyed fondness for B.C. Ferries justice, in which the Voice of God booms out over the public address system whenever the eagle-eyed spotters in the tower catch cheaters trying to budge in line: “You in the black pickup in lane 28, go to the end of lane 45 and sin no more!” Then, to the cheers and jeers of the rest of the terminal traffic, the black pickup does the Drive of Shame to the back of the lot, where the offender is placed in stocks while his vehicle is set on fire (just kidding: it gets crushed at an auto wrecker’s).

This makes B.C. Ferries a beacon of light in a darkening world, providing the kind of swift, fair justice on which we rely. Civil society depends on you doing the right thing. Pay your taxes. Pick up after your dog. Don’t park in a handicapped spot. Don’t sell opioids, then launder the profits and drive up housing prices while flagrantly scofflawing around Vancouver in a luxury car that most of us couldn’t even afford to even dream of. Don’t butt in line at the ferry terminal. Whenever B.C. Ferries justice is meted out, it’s hard not to get a little misty.

But there’s an even better solution, which is, for those of us who get worked up about making the ferry, to behave better in the first place. Life is too short to lose it on a long weekend when we’re supposed to be having fun.

>> Current traffic conditions at B.C. Ferries terminals

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