I Told You: Swan Boats Are The Answer!

TTC Chair Adam Giambrone, reported to be off at his cottage, may be getting too much fresh air for his own good.  The National Post reports that our fearless leader has asked newly-minted Chief General Manager Gary Webster to investigate setting up commuter ferries to downtown from Etobicoke and Scarborough.

In a related story Mayor Miller is less than ecstatic.  Maybe the air is different where he is today.

The idea is to run fast ferries from two locations — Bluffers Park in Scarborough and Humber Bay Park in Etobicoke — to downtown.  I am not going to waste time on a clever jokes about this idea, much as the idea of putting swan figureheads on the new craft and getting one of them named after me has its merits.

Here are the reasons this is a cockeyed scheme:

  • This is a commuter service requiring a parking lot at both terminals.  Aside from my feelings about park-and-ride services which have been discussed elsewhere, this would require lots of all-day parking in locations where we want to encourage pedestrians to congregate on sand and grass, not asphalt.
  • Bluffers Park is at the bottom of the Scarborough Bluffs at the end of a long road which may not be negotiable in winter.  This would definitely be a terminal only accessible by auto.  Unlike Humber Bay Park at Lake Shore West, Bluffers Park is nowhere near Kingston Road.
  • I believe that the beaches at both locations are shallow.  Unless we plan to build new quays out into the lake, the ferries won’t just pull up to the shore as they do at the foot of Bay Street.
  • Someone travelling to downtown must (a) get to the ferry terminal, (b) wait for the scheduled departure, (c) travel to the downtown terminal, (d) walk over to Queen’s Quay Station, (e) wait for the 509/510 service to appear, (f) ride one stop to Union and then (g) get to their office.  Commuter ferries make sense where there is a comparatively large body of water to cross, and if the time saved by the ferry trip is substantial compared to other routes.
  • The length of time for these trips will easily exceed the time that even a lumbering CLRV would take to get from Park Lawn and Lake Shore to downtown.  To the east, we won’t provide a direct service from Brimley and Kingston Road to downtown on the TTC, but there is a GO station nearby.  If the TTC really wants to provide an express service, all they need to do is run an express bus.
  • The service would not be able to operate frequently, and GO transit will almost certainly have better headways.
  • This would be a completely new mode for today’s TTC.  Experience from over 50 years ago of running the Island Ferries does not translate to this type of commuter ferry operation.

The TTC has two Environmental Assessments in progress, one for Kingston Road and one for Waterfront West, addressing travel from exactly the same locations as the proposed ferries.  Maybe we should have towed the Trillium up from Queen’s Quay to Dundas Square last week instead of the Bombardier mockup!  A network of canals in place of Transit City would make Toronto a tourist paradise.

Part of me really wants to see a marine division in the TTC if only to see how badly they would screw it up.  Common sense, however, has a shorter answer: 

The Transit Commission, when formally asked to approve a study of this plan next week, should tell Adam Giambrone to figure out how to run his streetcar network before he branches out to ferries.

If you want to get people from the lakeshore to downtown, run better service on the system you’ve got.

For more information about potential marine services:

Swans on the Don

More Swans on the Don

In another thread, Dennis Rankin wrote:

Hi Sarah and Steve:-

If today’s CFMX Radio news report was real and not part of my awaking dreams, then I will suspect a high level of collusion between you two and Adam Giambrone if any of those proposed Scarborough and/or Etobicoke to the Downtown Ferry Terminal high speed ferries have swan figure heads.

Could the first one launched be christianed ‘Hans C. Andersson’? Which of the two of you will be appointed Admiral? Will the Trillium be retrofitted with ultra high pressure boilers and after burners? Possibilities worth pondering? Maybe not!

[Note:  Sarah and I were co-authors of Swans on the Don.]

33 thoughts on “I Told You: Swan Boats Are The Answer!

  1. Isn’t it just another example of New York Envy?? New York has ferries to Staten Island, why shouldn’t Toronto?

    If they couldn’t make the Rochester ferry work (not once, not twice….)?!?!

    Swans would again do the trick, but how would they operate in the winter? Swan-skates?

    Would their terminus in the west end be near….wait for it….SWANsea?!

    I really hope Adam Giambrone was at most kidding, or at least quoted out of context. Sad to say that no matter what idea is floated, it would still be miles better than a Sheppard Subway line. I mean, who on earth would build a subway unde…d’OH!!!


  2. Ok, I think we all have been getting caught up with adding more service, rather than improving the service. I think if the TTC focused on improving the service and making all of thier routes reliable, it would create more ridership and more money. In the past few years I have heard so many plans for the future, while we still have poor service in some areas. The most complaints About the TTC is that they donn’t want to take a bus/streetcar with a overcrowded environmnent. I beleive if they just invested thier money on the service they had now, it would make people leave thier cars at home and create more money.

    You have to fixx the system first, because if you don’t fixx the system to 100% reliablity, then you will have a broken down system and by adding more service to a broken down system, the system will just get worse and worse.


  3. What a stupid idea. Wouldn’t a 15-20 headway on the GO Lakeshore line attract more passengers? If the GO was more frequent, then it would better serve everyone from Hamilton to Oshawa, not just the limited catchment areas of two ferry terminals on opposite sides of the city.


  4. Though I certainly agree that getting the present TTC services sorted out – and getting on with Transit City – should be THE top priority, I must say I think that running ferries along the Lakeshore from Scarborough to Etobicoke is not as crazy as you suggest. I agree that Bluffers Park is a very odd choice for a ‘port’ due to its isolation and that ghastly road but running regular frequent small boats along the Lakeshore calling at several points does have some attraction and if the stops were linked to land transit could be a very good way to provide more service. I would not expect any service to use ferries the size of those serving the Island but rather to use far smaller and faster ones like the “bus boats” used in Venice which can use small landing stages. Of course the boats would need to have Swan figure-heads!


  5. Sorry, but I cannot resist this.

    What we have here is an example of BRT – Boat Rapid Transit.

    Steve: I tell you — Canals on every main street. Who needs subways?


  6. Steve,

    Adam has perhaps been reading your website far too closely and too seriously. First, you advocate LRT over subway expansion, and then we get Transit City. Next you advocate Swan Boats, and we get this. What crazy schemes are you going to come up with next?

    Personally, I’d love an aerial gondola system for the Harbourfront/Portlands and then across Humber Bay with pylons in the lake. Barring that, I’m sure there’s room in this town for a Wuppertal-style system.

    As for ferries, maybe the Beach should get a stop. Passengers could then could choose between this service, the 143 bus and the 501 streetcar.


  7. I Have a question.. How close is this Transit City plan going to start?. I’m tired of hearing projects, but they are only slowed down with EA’s and even though now its faster to do Environmental assessments these days, I still don’t belive this Transit City thing, unitll the shovel is actually in the ground. I’m tired of Talking about it, Its about time they start doing it, and if there is not enough money to spend, then don’t talk about it, it is as easy as that.

    Steve: The TTC is working on preliminary analysis of each of the routes in anticipation of serious work starting in the fall on the EAs. They are waiting for Queen’s Park to approve the new, streamlined transit EA process which, at last report, was languishing in the Minister’s office. When he isn’t busy at photo ops, the Premier should light a fire under this approval.

    On the spending side, Queen’s Park has announced two-thirds funding, and we are waiting to hear if Ottawa will fund their third. If push really comes to shove, I think that Toronto would go it alone using their new taxing powers to fund the remaining third of the cost.


  8. Not that this is an endorsement for any such silliness, but the boat that ran between harbourfront and the distillery during Luminato was packed. There’s certainly room for some crafty private operator to run some sort of ferry on the weekends or something, in the summer at least.

    Steve: The most important points about this are that (a) the ferry had a ready-made market at the two sites and didn’t depend on people driving to it and parking, (b) it ran for a specific event that guaranteed demand and (c) the ride itself was marketed as part of the Luminato experience. Running a ferry service for day-to-day travellers who expect frequent, all-day, on-time, all-weather service is quite another matter.


  9. I live in the Beaches, and I would totally take water taxis if we had them, and if they stopped close to my house, and if I were going somewhere near the waterfront (the Etobicoke IKEA maybe?). I don’t know about a scheduled service though, and definitely not from Bluffers Park.


  10. At best this scheme should run as a tourist service May to September, with a couple of stops along the lake front and islands – but even then the Lake is too frequently too rough for comfortable rides. The Island Ferry runs in the protected inner harbour, not the open lake.

    This whole idea is ridiculous. There are many features of Chicago’s waterfront we could/should emulate, but trying to run boat services (commuter or tourist) is not one of them.


  11. Why stop there? Why not have express ferries (sorry, I mean rafts) running down the Humber river as well? … with Gilligan on the paddles.

    Steve, let’s test the theory. Write some posts advocating (gasp) a subway under Queen, and let’s see if that shows up on the TTC’s agenda in a month.

    I’d rather have a subway than an SS Minnow traversing Lake Ontario.


  12. One more thing … with the way the TTC runs its service, how long do you think it will be before there’s a shipwreck? Then they’ll switch to commuter submarines.

    Steve: The more likely problem will be that if they have a fleet of four ferries, one of them will be permanently out of service, two will run together back and forth one minute apart, and one will be short-turned at the western gap.


  13. Well the only way I could see this being something for real would be to have the ferries not for cars but for transit buses. By-pass the congestion of the surface routes and go direct via the waterfront. When I was in BC I had to take the ferry to Vancouver, I was on a Bus.

    Make sure you get in line for the following:

    “The transit authority will likely have to hire an outside consultant at a cost of approximately $15,000 to complete the first phase of study, Mr. Giambrone said.”

    Steve: The bus-carrying ferries in BC cross the Georgia Strait to Vancouver Island and the only alternative way to make the journey is to fly. The proposed waterfront ferries are limited in frequency by the size of the fleet and the capacity of the parking lots, especially in Scarborough where the terminal is nowhere near transit routes.

    As for the consulting fee, I wonder how much they will spend on a uniform for the Lord High Admiral?


  14. Oh God.

    Once again, living in a real city with a real mayor with a real vision and competent councillors is asking far too much. (Though Miller denouncing it gives me some hope)

    This is the single most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I mean, the reasons posted by all more than adequately represent why, but seriously. Streetcars are full and inconsistent on Queen and King, and the best he can come up with is ferries!?

    I’d say only three and a half more years of this, but God knows we’ll be stupid enough to vote them BACK in, AGAIN.


  15. Steve, maybe they had a sneak preview of the following article>>>


    perhaps they seized on the part that says “the larger Humdinga illustrates the scale-ability of their technology. They promise any craft from Quadski to passenger bus size can be successful.”

    You see what you have started ;-)…your musings about swan boats have struck a chord for some…combined with this new technology…well, I think you may have created a monster here Steve…a large, white, serene monster…



  16. How do they know that a consultant will cost $15,000, eh? I don’t imagine they’ve tendered. Sounds what like some of us in the consulting biz call a wired contract — always build in cash for the cronies. Be that as it may, I don’t see why a properly run transit utility should need a consultant on this project. But then people often hire consultants when they don’t need to and fail to hire them when they need to.


  17. It’s weirdly off-message… I’d expect the TTC and its chair to have their hands full with Transit City and MoveOntario 2020.

    As you say, the route is indirect — if Union Station and Scarborough Town Centre were both right next to the lake it might be a different story. The Portlands don’t help either — without building a mini-Panama Canal, the route from the Bluffs to downtown is 2 km longer by water than by road.

    The reason a ferry would cut commute time is that it isn’t held up by traffic and doesn’t make any interim stops — really, it’s just an express service. I happen to like good express services and would like to see more, but most GTA trips that could benefit from express service aren’t right along the lake. Wouldn’t the time and effort be better spent figuring ways of speeding up service that could work anywhere in the region?

    Oh, and I was in Boston recently and noticed that the Public Garden’s famous swan boats had clear signs indicating “No Standing”. Surely you don’t expect the TTC to adopt vehicles where everyone gets a seat?


  18. @Steven (3) – 15-20min headway on GO would be excellent. Let us know when you’ve persuaded CN to give up the slots.

    Steve – I think the Toronto ferry idea is dumb as a bag of hammers – for the TTC anyway. If TTC did start operating ferries again then existing operators Parks & Rec or Toronto Port Authority (ha ha, that’ll happen) should do it on contract.

    But could ferries work as a St. Catharines-Toronto shuttle rather than extending GO as some have advocated? It would be a 50km open water crossing taking maybe 60-80 minutes as opposed to 110km by road or rail. By operating city centre to city centre rather than having suburban stops it could be a way of increasing the density of St. Catharines and promoting local transit. The ferries could operate to Niagara-on-the Lake with shuttle service to Niagara Falls on weekends.

    Steve: The basic point about ferries is that they probably won’t run very often and will be at least as bad as the peak-only GO services in terms of, literally, not missing the boat for your trip home for a cross-lake journey. Unless these are really big boats (giant swans?), their capacity will be considerably lower than one GO train. The bigger the boat, the higher the cost both for the ferries and for the terminal capacity.

    Maybe we could persuade a really successful entrepreneur like Porter Air to take on this challenge.


  19. Why are we wasting so much energy talking about fast boats and submarines when airships are where it’s at? Not limited to the lakefront, graceful and futuristic, commuters could float gently from Rexdale to Leaside to Malvern while being serenaded by a big band (evening attire would be de rigueur).

    On the one hand, we shouldn’t dump on Cllr. Giambrone’s idea before it has been studied — $15,000 isn’t a lot to spend on a preliminary preliminary study to see if the idea is worth exploring. On the other, he’s now leading the charge on a great plan to create a tranist city. He shouldn’t be confusing the chattering classes with other ideas at this point. Stay on message, Adam.


  20. From the CTV News Website :

    “Transportation Minister Donna Cansfield supports the proposal, calling Lake Ontario an underused “H2O highway” that could help ease the city’s growing gridlock problem.

    “I think they should explore all these possibilities,” she told the Star.

    Cansfield added GO Transit could also look at ferry service from Hamilton that could ship packages and residents to and from Toronto.”

    I don’t know about an H2O Highway, but I sure wonder what’s in the drinking water these people are ingesting.

    Watch this project sap all the money and interest from Transit City.

    Steve: The amount of enthusiasm for this crazy scheme tells me that someone, somewhere has some fast ferries that they want to sell.


  21. There is a difference in approach here from the previous chair that is worth noting. At least Giambrone said, ‘Let’s STUDY this,” unlike Moscoe who was absolutely certain about the need for a 24-hour subway on Yonge.

    I’m not willing to write off Giambrone for this, (and I don’t know him from Adam) he’s brought a lot of energy and sensibility to the chair’s position.

    Steve: I’m not writing off Adam Giambrone for this, but am trying to caution that this is an idea that didn’t deserve to be floated in the press and get the level of enthusiastic coverage it has received.


  22. Forget running a surface water service.


    The Subways of the sea.

    Who wouldn’t want to take a commuter sub from the Bluffs to Etobicoke?


  23. Steve: The amount of enthusiasm for this crazy scheme tells me that someone, somewhere has some fast ferries that they want to sell.

    Surely it’s a coincidence that Washington state bill S5862 requires that, “The department of transportation shall make available for sale the Washington state ferries Snohomish and Chinook at market value by June 1, 2007.”

    They’re passenger-only ferries, capacity 350, top speed 38 knots.


  24. I’m glad some folks still have outrage. Me, I’m a bit crisped after nearly five years of thinking about transit options to the $255,000,000+ Front St. Extension, and having gone to the TTC a few times to say, hey, there’s two potentially excellent transit routes that could use Front St. to expedite and improve transit service, and with NO reaction or interest from the TTC, as it’s Joe politricks, not transit service that’s the important thing, this all resonates very well as a proposal commensurate with the strong commitment to effective public transit at somewhat reasonable costs that we’ve seen courtesy of both conservatives and “progressives”. And it’s so helpful to know we have $15,000 for a ferry study, but somehow can’t contemplate any rigourous study of the transit options to the FSE, including GO, (and the WWLRT is based on the FSE being the FSE).

    Red noses all around!

    Hey, just had an idea for a deputation, not that the TTC would heed, 7 of 9 Commissioners support Dumb Growth in the core of the City.


  25. It’s good to see that someone at the TTC-whether staff or commissioner-is doing some ‘blue sky’ thinking. However that’s where this proposal should end.

    Any further study should consist of some brief internal (TTC & other city departments) consultations to confirm what Steve posted here on July 4th.

    Steve: But you would deprive some starving consultant of $15K. How heartless can you be?


  26. I appreciate that link to Transit-Toronto. I’m expecting to hear from Donna Cansfield and plan to ask her about previous MTO studies on Lake Ontario ferries.


  27. Judy Jones said …

    “How about using the amphibian hippo boats!”

    I was thinking of something along those lines too…you have a bus and a boat in the same vehicle and docking facilities at Humber Bay and Scarborough Bluffs are not necessary.

    The bus/boat just drives out of the water and makes way for the nearest GO station or streetcar interchange =)

    Steve Munro said … “I’m not writing off Adam Giambrone for this, but am trying to caution that this is an idea that didn’t deserve to be floated in the press and get the level of enthusiastic coverage it has received.”

    You probably shouldn’t read Christopher Hume’s commentary in the Star.


    Steve: I still prefer to dig canals in the middle of all major streets. This will allow the ferries to come equally to all parts of the city. Where people today clamour for rapid transit on unused hydro corridors, they would demand that the ferries leap into any available stream or river as an express shortcut. The only problem is that the rivers, like the GO trains, all head south, and this would not solve the problem of commuting within the outer 416 and the 905. Dirigibles may be required.


  28. You know, this isn’t as farfetched as you make it out to be. It won’t work for many reasons, but it’s not necessarily a bad idea. The problem is that the west Lakefront already has very good transit service – GO – which is currently being expanded. The east lakefront doesn’t have the population density going to downtown that would support ferry service. Because ferry service is very expensive – Golden Gate Transit, which runs ferry service in the San Francisco Bay, has a ferry service cost per hour of something like US$800 per hour. This makes the York subway extension quite a bargain in comparison.

    Steve: Part of my reaction comes, I think, from the context of all of the really positive transit announcements and plans we have seen recently. The ferry proposal addresses a small market, has some significant technical challenges, and represents a whole new transit mode in a city that is struggling to make basic transit service work better.

    If we were a truly marine city with a lot of travel where going across the water would be a huge time saving, then ferries would be an obvious choice. The Sea Bus in Vancouver, for example, is a wonderful example. However, it serves a crossing that is entirely fed by pedestrian and transit at both ends and does not depend on people driving to the ferry dock. It’s an integral part of the transit system, not a premium fare service. Toronto has no equivalent geography to Vancouver or Halifax/Dartmouth both of which have been cited as examples.


  29. The following article appeared in the January 1st Globe & Mail:


    Do you believe in ferries?

    TTC chairman Adam Giambrone (Ward 18, Davenport) was almost universally praised as a wunderkind when he arrived on the city hall scene four years ago. The 30-year-old archeologist speaks fluent Arabic and jets off to Sudan for digs, previously served as president of the federal NDP, and is by all accounts a workaholic policy wonk.

    Then, just weeks before the city was plunged into a financial crisis that would see him threaten to shut down the Sheppard Subway, he dreamed up an idea for the cash-starved Toronto Transit Commission. Why not investigate, he asked, a ferry service between Scarborough, Etobicoke and downtown? Why not indeed, as the TTC cannot afford to keep up with ridership demands on its buses, subways and streetcars. It took mere moments for Mr. Giambrone’s fellow commissioners (and more diplomatically TTC staff) to give the heave-ho to his ferry scheme.

    Personally, I think Mr. Giambrone should be eligible for a 2007 Swan Boat Award for Transit Creativity. We must stimulate creativity even though it produces both fanciful ideas as well as the more pragmatic. Thus, in order to get the pragmatic we must graciously listen to the fanciful.


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