Ending the $2 Surcharge for Bikes on BC Ferries

This is the story behind how I played a small part in helping to convince BC Ferries to end its practice of charging people an additional $2 for bringing a bike on board their vessels.

Mine was but one voice among many calling for BC Ferries to better accommodate bicycles, but I’m glad it helped move things in the right direction. There is still much work to be done, and groups like the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition and the BC Cycling Coalition are pushing hard for BC Ferries to better accommodate cyclists and bicycles. I would encourage people who, like me, want to support and encourage cycling, and want to see safe cycling infrastructure on BC Ferries, in and around terminals, and leading to terminals, to support and get involved with these advocacy groups.

Finally, while the $2 fee has been removed, the issue of proper infrastructure and safety issues surrounding bicycle storage on vessels remain. 

Here I share the original description from 2017 that walks through my initial approach to addressing the issue; I have made a few edits for clarity but all the information in the essay was current in 2017 to the best of my knowledge. I include notes at the end about additional steps that were used to help secure this outcome.

 

My goal in sharing details about the approach I took is to help inspire others in their efforts to improve public policy and infrastructure, or generally to help make our communities greener, healthier, safer, and happier places. For me, the biggest takeaways from this effort were to do the research, to be patient yet persistent, and to get creative.

The Story

My partner and I went car free this year [2017], and have been relying on bicycles as our primary means of transportation. I regularly use the Bentwood Bay/Mill Bay ferry and try to visit the Gulf Islands at least twice a year. While using BC Ferries to travel about, I was surprised to learn that I was being charged an additional $2 fee to bring my bike on the ferry.

 

On the Mill Bay ferry route I thought it was odd that I would be charged an additional $2 to take my bike on the ferry, given that absolutely no facilities for my bike were available. I would simply lean my bike up against the bulwarks or a bollard. I was even more surprised when my partner and I took our bikes to Galiano for a camping trip, and after paying the $2 fee, were instructed to stow our bikes behind a capstan and in front of firefighting equipment.

Puzzled and more than a little bit concerned, I looked into the matter and sent an inquiry to the BC Ferries Customer Care department outlining my concerns and inquiring after the fee:

  • Fees were being collected with no apparent expenditure on infrastructure for bikes.

  • The fee was retrograde in that it discouraged desirable practices. As a society, we should be encouraging people to travel by low carbon and healthy forms of transportation.

  • Regardless of the fee, adequate infrastructure for bikes should be made available on all routes due to the possible safety risks associated with bikes piled up in front of life-saving and firefighting equipment.

I received a prompt reply from BC Ferries, and had a good number of my questions answered. In correspondence on June 13, 2017, I was told that “customers with bicycles and other recreational equipment such as kayaks and canoes are charged a small stowage fee of $2.00 because these items occupy deck space and can require extra attention from terminal and vessel staff.” I was further informed that bicycle racks are available on many BC Ferries vessels, and that as they replace older vessels, BC Ferries is “looking into the possibility of adding more bicycle racks and designated areas to our vehicle decks.” And finally I learnt that that holders of a BC Ferries Experience Card “transporting bicycles receive a $2.00 discount, which covers the cost of the bicycle.”


Now the BC Ferries Experience Card appears to be a nice gesture, but unfortunately it isn’t available for use on the Mill Bay/Brentwood Bay route. You can still avoid the fee (and receive a decent discount) if you purchase tickets in advance from a couple of local shops in Mill Bay and Brentwood Bay. This is convenient for people who regularly take this route, but inconvenient as tickets are purchased a considerable distance from the ferry terminals. But convenience isn’t the issue at stake here, the fact is that cyclists have to either pay a $2 fee or go out of their way to avoid doing so by either getting an Experience Card or buying tickets in advance. The fee seems to throw up roadblocks discouraging cycling just a little bit more than other means of transport. Furthermore, just because there are ways to avoid paying a fee, does not mean that the fee is justified.

When it comes to bikes taking up deck space and therefore warranting additional charges, the fact that my bike is typically wedged up against the bulwarks in a space that cannot be occupied by a vehicle, undermines BC Ferries’ reasoning. I’d say my bike takes up about as much space as a large stroller or maybe a foot passenger with two large suitcases. The day my bike takes up as much space as a kayak is the day I have very powerful legs indeed.

And what about folding bikes, you might ask? Surely if the reason that a fee is charged is because bikes take up space, a bike that folds down to the size of a suitcase – the kind a pedestrian might wheel onto the ferry free of charge – would not be charged the fee? 

If you thought this, you would sadly be wrong. I asked about folding bikes (of course). In correspondence on June 15, 2017, I was informed that BC Ferries charges their $2 bike fee for folding and ‘power assisted’ bicycles.

 

So it’s not really about taking up space. How about the extra work that bikes place on BC Ferries staff? BC Ferries staff work hard and I have a great deal of respect for what they do. If my bringing a bike on the ferry meant more work for them, a fee may make some sense. However, I think it is much more likely that a lack of well-marked bike infrastructure creates more work for BC Ferry staff. Without bike racks and good signage, staff must take extra time to direct confused cyclists about where to go. It takes even longer when you have to ask twice because you can’t believe the solution is to lean your bike against equipment and in areas that hardly seem safe or secure.

 

Directing traffic also seems to be part of staff’s normal duties, and so why should the cyclist bear an extra fee? The logic of cyclists “requiring extra staff time” treats cyclists as an inconvenience, which discourages cycling. And part of that inconvenience for both staff and cyclists comes from the design flaw of not having cycling infrastructure on the ships in the first place.

In further correspondence with BC Ferries Customer Care on June 15, 2017, when I pointed out that I had yet to encounter bike facilities on a BC Ferry, I was told that many routes do have bike racks which presumably require BC Ferries staff assistance to use, and that “the reason why the bicycle fare applies to all routes is because our staff keep an eye on all bicycles brought onboard whether or not there are bicycle racks on the particular vessel in operation.” The last part of this point caused me to raise an eyebrow. BC Ferries staff does ‘keep an eye’ on everything on deck. Their website states that “even though BC Ferries crew conduct regular patrols of the vehicle decks, all bicycles and personal gear should be secured.” So basically someone might walk past your bike, but won’t be paying close enough attention to know if someone else has messed with your stuff. Is this $2 worth of bike oversight? I don’t think this argument holds water.

Bike infrastructure, of varying qualities and quantities, does exist on ferry routes, most notably on one route according to correspondence with BC Ferries Customer Service on June 15, 2017. Of the six vessels that service the Tsawwassen-Swartz Bay route (at various times throughout the year):

  • Three have permanent bicycle racks on each end of the vessel,

  • One has customized portable bicycle racks on each end of the vessel,

  • One has a wall mounted bicycle rack on each end of the vessel,

  • One has portable bicycle racks on each end of the vessel and will also have a wall-mounted bicycle rack after its major life upgrade this coming winter.

While I have yet to take my bike on one of these routes, friends have sent me pictures of the ‘customized portable bicycle rack,’ and it is nothing more than a cheap PVC pipe rack aptly described by keen observers as a ‘wheel-bender’ or ‘derailleur-mangler.’

 

Further research on my part revealed images of some of the aforementioned bike rack systems on the Tsawwassen-Swartz Bay route. These appear to mostly be able to accommodate 4 bikes, so presumably with racks on each end of a ferry the vessel has accommodation for 8 bikes. Given that the Coastal Renaissance, for example, can accommodate 1,604 passengers and crew, this provision seems inadequate. Additional research found that the Island Sky, which covers the Earls Cove-Saltery Bay and Powell River-Comox routes, also has bike racks of indeterminate quality. A review on the West Coast Ferries Forum noted that the “bike rack plate doesn't fully contact the deck” on MV Island Sky, for example.


So basically, passengers are being charged a $2 fee for bringing their bikes on board vessels, when only a small number of these vessels actually have the facilities for these bikes. The fee is clearly not going towards installing bike infrastructure, or to covering the cost of the extra space taken up by bikes, or the extra inconvenience to staff. BC Ferries is treating bikes as an extra inconvenience and not just one of the many modes of transportation that people use in combination with their ferries, and in so doing, they are discouraging cycling.

I thought that maybe BC Ferries is saving up the revenues it makes from charging the bike fee to pay for future bike infrastructure? Customer Service informed me, in correspondence on June 19, 2017, that with the “new Salish Class vessels (Salish Eagle and Salish Raven - both beginning service on our Southern Gulf Islands routes this year), we are looking at installing permanent bicycle racks on each end of the vessels.” So this sounded promising, however they also informed me that they “do not have permanent bicycle racks on our vessels between Swartz Bay and the Southern Gulf Islands or Brentwood Bay and Mill Bay, nor do we currently have a schedule in place to install them. We are looking at different bicycle rack options, however many are not viable for use on ships, especially on older ships like ours, because of their shape, design, and size.”

I thought, “hey, this sounds like a design problem, nothing a little innovation and creativity can’t solve,” so I proposed that if BC Ferries needed bike rack solutions for its older vessels, that it could hold a design competition. Through further correspondence on June 21, 2017, I was told “That’s a good idea… we have not considered a design competition.”

 

Here is where the harried BC Ferries customer service representative may have dropped the ball a little, but I think the reader will forgive their misstep. BC Ferries did hold a successful bike rack design competition in 2004 to design racks “suitable for a large, Spirit-class vessel and/or a smaller, open deck, Bowen-class ferry.” BC Ferries received 20 entries into this competition, and announced winners in September 2004, in a press release that also boasted that in 2003 BC Ferries had transported approximately 80,000 bicycles. So BC Ferries can’t use the excuse that it doesn’t have adequate designs, and it could easily host additional contest to generate designed for other vessel types if necessary.

I wanted to know more about this seemingly arbitrary fee, so I inquired after its history. I was told in correspondence on June 15, 2017, that “the bicycle fare has existed on some routes since the 1960s.” The fee seems to have varied from route to route prior to 2010, when on April 1, a $2.00 flat rate bicycle fare was introduced across all South Coast routes. When I asked how much BC Ferries had earned by charging this fee, I was told that the information was unavailable.

The Research Deepens

My time with the helpful BC Ferries customer service representative came to an end, as I turned to a freedom of information (FOI) request to access this otherwise unavailable information.

 

The FOI revealed that since 2003, BC Ferries has made over $1.65 million from its bike fees, $1,655,600 to be precise. Broken down by years, this averages out to $110,373 per annum. The FOIPP numbers also included $34,724 raised in 2018 (fiscal year), but I have excluded these from calculations as this was only a small portion of the year and seemingly included presales (something I was unable to verify).

 

It is worth noting that these are only the numbers from 2003, and that BC Ferries has been collecting this fee on various routes since the 1960s. This information was not available through an FOI. It is also worth noting that numerous vessels have been planned and built since this time, apparently with no thought of facilities for bikes.

 

To be fair to BC Ferries, it raises on average $38,109 a year from bike fees on its Tsawwassen-Swartz Bay route, the route with minimal bike racks (a total of $571,640 from 2003 to 2017). But remember the Southern Gulf Islands route, the one where BC Ferries has no plans to install bike racks? This is consistently BC Ferries’ second most profitable route based on bike fees, and it is pulling in on average $16,645 a year (for a total of $249,678 from 2003 to 2017).

 

And so, while BC Ferries could make the tenuous case that fees go towards covering some of the costs of installing and maintaining infrastructure, there is none to be found on its second most popular route, and most of its other routes. With $110,000 dollars a year, BC Ferries has a decent pot of money with which to develop the bike infrastructure required to allow for the safe and secure storage of bikes on board its vessels.

How much has BC Ferries spent on the installation of bike infrastructure on its vessels? Unfortunately this question remains to be answered. I included this as part of my FOI request, specifically asking for the amount of funds spent on, and projected to be spent on, the provision of facilities for bikes on board BC Ferries. Unfortunately there was some difficulty in recovering these numbers, and I was told in an August 30, 2017 response letter that “these items are subsumed into larger cost centres, such as general expense for facilities.” Instead, I was given “fiscal year totals from our asset management database using keyword searches for ‘bike’ and ‘bicycles’ on two different fields.” These numbers vary wildly from just under $10 to just under $6000. Given the way in which the data was presented, and the errors inherent in using this incomplete data, it is difficult to calculate the total amount that BC Ferries spends on the provision of facilities for bikes in a given year. However, one does not necessarily require this amount to determine that BC Ferries is under-supplying bike facilities, one need only look at the results on the ground, namely the continued lack of bike infrastructure on many routes.

Something has to change. It is unfair and socially irresponsible for BC Ferries to charge this arbitrary fee to cyclists. And it seems to me that BC Ferries faces a couple of options:

  1. It could stop charging the fee on routes where no bike infrastructure exists.

  2. Abolish the fee entirely.

 

The first option recognizes that one should only pay a fee when it is associated with a service. If there are not facilities to accommodate cyclists, they are being treated like any other passenger, and as such, should not be charged an additional fee in the absence of bike infrastructure.

 

I prefer the second option, for a number of reasons. BC Ferries has been charging this fee to thousands of passengers every year for decades, and until very recently, has done nothing to provide any facilities or services in return. Abolishing the fee could serve as a form of compensation for years of excessive fees. Those interested in reading an example of such an approach to compensation being mandated by a court may wish read about the Heinz Ketchup under filling case from a couple of decades ago.

 

In the 2017 fiscal year BC Ferries made $859.3 million in revenue, and had a $133.1 million operating profit, and a total comprehensive income of $92 million. The $107,322 collected from bike fees that year amounted to less than 0.001% of the annual total comprehensive income, and an even smaller fraction of operating profits and revenue.

 

Another reason to adopt this approach is because we should make it as easy as possible to use forms of active transport like cycling. Rather than punishing cyclists with arbitrary fees and poor facilities, we should be encouraging people to drive less and cycle more. Public services such as BC Ferries can, and should, play a role in this.

 

Regardless of what BC Ferries decides to do with respect to the fee it is currently charging cyclists, one thing is for certain; additional investments must be made in supplying vessels with bike infrastructure. The lack of facilities for bikes is not only a disservice to passengers, but as previously noted, bikes leaning about the deck potentially blocking lifesaving and fighting equipment is also a safety risk.

 

BC Ferries urgently needs to re-evaluate the way it treats cyclists, starting with abolishing its arbitrary fees and providing much needed facilities for bikes on board all of its vessels.

Next Steps

As my appeals to BC Ferries had essentially been brushed off at this stage, I sought to increase attention to the issue and increase pressure on BC Ferries. I used the above narrative description and research to attract media attention for the issue, and the story was picked up by the Tyee on September 25, 2017. I also approached a number of cycling advocacy groups to put the issue on their radar, and include it in their conversations with BC Ferries on how to improve their services for cyclists.

 

The matter of charging cyclists an additional fee is only one issue among others, and cycling advocates have a host of concerns when it comes to BC Ferries and bicycles. These include such things as safe cycling routes to and from terminals, way finding around terminals and vessels, safe and secure bike parking onboard vessels, and a host of other issues. Simply put, there is much progress to be made.

 

Despite these initial efforts, the fee remained in place.

On a subsequent voyage, I was once again instructed to park my bike in such a way as to impede access to safety equipment, and I decided to escalate matters. Now I have some experience as a mariner, having received sailing training and having spent considerable time at sea on board primarily marine conservation vessels, and I know that it is improper and unsafe for something like a bicycle to be stored in such as way as to compromise access to fire fighting and life-saving equipment.

 

While BC Ferries did not need to share my opinions about encouraging cycling or fees for services and adequate cycling infrastructure, it was unacceptable that they did not take the concerns I raised regarding the safety implications of their current bike storage/parking policy seriously. In an emergency requiring access to a life ring or firefighting equipment, the delay caused by needing to move a locked bike out of the way could put lives at risk.

Simply put, if you can’t park a vehicle in front of a fire hydrant, you should not lock your bike to or in front of a fire hose on a vessel at sea. 

As such, I escalated the issue to Transport Canada, and conveyed my concerns regarding BC Ferries’ apparent safety violation to them.

 

I corresponded with Transport Canada at length and was informed through correspondence with a senior marine inspector on May 11, 2018, that “the issues highlighted by you have been taken up with the BC Ferries and it has been recognized that there is a requirement of improvement in the signage on the vessels, a signage that points stowage of the bicycles and other such items, away from the life saving, fire fighting and other critical appliances, ensuring ready accessibility of all such equipment in emergencies.” And furthermore that “BC Ferries have also acknowledged the need of a better infrastructure for the stowage of the bicycles and in this regard various designs are under consideration, a final outcome will depend upon the traffic and the trade requirements.” 

The issue remerged in 2019 when BC Ferries conducted public consultation concerning their services and infrastructure, and shared the results of this process. I also worked to ensure that the issue of excessive fees for bicycles remained in the public eye and gave a couple of additional interviews to the media, speaking to CBC and Radio Canada in 2019.  


I was very pleased to learn that in summer 2020 BC Ferries dropped its $2 fee for bicycles. There is still much work to be done – vessels still lack adequate bike parking facilities, the way finding and lane systems at terminals remains inadequate, and safe paths and protected lanes accessing terminals remain far and few between.

© 2020. Authorized by Teale Phelps Bondaroff, 778-678-8325