Getting to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal from downtown Vancouver is a relatively simple matter. Getting there in time to board the ferry is a completely different story however. Take the Canada Line from Downtown Vancouver to Bridgeport Station in Richmond. Transfer to the #620 Tsawwassen Ferry via Ladner Exchange bus which leaves hourly on the hour from Bay 3 every day of the week starting at 6 AM and continuing until 10 PM. There are a few additional runs thrown in on weekends. Visit TransLink for precise scheduling. The whole trip takes approximately an hour and 20 minutes.
Swartz Bay [Victoria] Bound
Expect to either scramble or wait again at Tsawwassen before boarding a ferry bound for Swartz Bay near Victoria. These ferries always leave on the hour, hourly in the summer and less frequently through much of the winter. Check the BC Ferries website for the most up-to-date schedules. Be on your toes, in the winter, just missing the ferry, can mean an additional two-hour wait at the ferry terminal.
Islands in the Stream
The majority of recreational ferry users are more likely to be bound for the Gulf Islands instead of Swartz Bay near Victoria or Duke Point near Nanaimo. The section, Getting to the Gulf Islands, provides desination-specific details on reaching the poorly-serviced archipeligo. More often than not those planning a recreational trip to the Gulf Islands will want to bring along bicycles. What may have previously sounded like a logistical nightmare is about to turn into a living horror show.
There are three ways to reach Tsawwassen by bicycle and by bicycle isn’t really one of them. The George Massey Tunnel is a formidable barrier that cannot be overcome by bicycle alone. A shuttle service has been set up by the Ministry of Transport [604-660-8300] to move bicycles through the tunnel but it is more of a public relations patch implemented to cover up the incompetent engineering that went into the tunnel than a reliable alternative. Some TransLink buses are equipped with bike racks but demand for this fine service far outpaces supply. Translink has a pretty exhaustive outline of options for cyclists that is worth exploring depending on your start point. The only other option is to catch an expensive lift to the ferry on The BC Ferries Connector. Properly bagged bikes are allowed for a fee and subject to limited availability.
The reason getting to and from Tsawwassen with a bike is so difficult is poor planning associated with Highway 99 south and especially the ill-thought out design of George Massey Tunnel which slides under the south fork of the Fraser River. Not only is it illegal, it is also extremely dangerous to attempt to pedal through the tunnel. For this reason, the BC Ministry of Transport operates a bicycle shuttle in both directions through the tunnel at the times listed here. The highway leading up to the tunnel is fast, busy and perilous, especially when crossing exit and entrance ramps.
To avoid cycling along the highway as much as possible follow these instructions. From downtown Vancouver take either Granville or Cambie Streets south across False Creek. Take a left from the former or a right from the latter on to 10th Avenue to reach the bike-friendly Heather Street corridor and continue puffing and huffing up and over the hump, crossing the Oak Street Bridge upon reaching the Fraser River. Take the first exit off the Oak Street Bridge in Richmond and follow Sea Island Way to Garden City Road. Take a left here and continue south past Cambie Road. then Alderbridge Way, finally following Westminster Highway to the left. Sprint down to No. 5 Road. where a right turn will be required to continue southwards. Stay with No. 5 Road past Steveston Highway to Rice Mill Road. Take a left here and one further left on to an access road to the freeway where you will meet up with the shuttle which will take you under the George Massey Tunnel. On the opposite side access Highway 17 and follow it south to its end at the ferry terminal. Northbound cyclists will find the shuttle operating from the Town and Country Inn on the corner of Highway 17 and Highway 99.
The George Massey Tunnel Bike Shuttle operates according to this infrequent schedule. Plan to arrive early as missing the shuttle could result in a wait of up to two hours. The bike shuttle is operated by Mainroad Contracting Ltd. 604-581-3710.
Why such a poorly-conceived work-around? The shuttle service was never actually intended to be used by cyclists. The ad hoc bandage was put in place to show the cycling constituency that they too have friends in high places. A real shuttle would be a co-ordinated effort between the Ministry of Transport, BC Ferries and TransLink to connect cyclists with ferries in both Horseshoe Bay and Tsawwaasen in a timely fashion. The two terminals, Lions Gate Bridge and the George Massey Tunnel were all built with automobiles soley in mind. The thorny issues of ferry and byway traffic will not be tackled by paving over Stanley Park or squandering billions on FastCat Ferries. Bigger, faster ferries, wider bridge lanes and better tunnels only conspire to encourage more auto traffic. 23,000 additional cars take to Lower Mainland streets each year. Encouraging alternatives that are palatable to mom, pop and the kids will reduce the number of cars burdening existing infrastructure.
Back on the Bus
As mentioned previously, all TransLink buses are equipped with bike racks to assist long distance commuters. There is no additional charge for your bike. Be forewarned that this excellent service is very limited. Only two bikes can be carried at a time and the competition can be fierce. Even if you arrive one hour in advance of the bus departure be prepared to be disappointed on popular routes such as this one.
Drivers will not help you put bikes on the rack as this is a self-service operation. Instructions are simple and obvious. You must however remove all equipment from the bike and drag it aboard the bus with you. If touring, that means juggling a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, a tent, a couple of panniers and a handle bar bag while dropping your Compass Card and trying to squeeze in amongst the morning commuters.
In a pinch it is possible to place a third bike between the two bikes already on the rack and bungee the whole bunch together but you will need the driver’s permission to do this. Usually drivers will disavow any responsibility in the event of an accident but let you do it.
If other cyclists are already in line for the #620 Tsawwassen Ferry bus at Bridgeport Station, take the #601 South Delta bus [Bay 7] to the corner of Route 17 and 56th Street [ask the driver] then pedal like mad along the causeway to the ferry terminal. Pedalling from Ladner Exchange is also possible and should take about 30 minutes by bike, compared to 15 minutes by bus.
One Final Alternative
An alternative to TransLink is to load your bike on a BC Ferries Connector bus at Vancouver's Pacific Central Station. In the summer high season buses leave every hour starting at 5:45 AM until 7:45 PM while in the low season they only operate every other hour. You must be at the bus station at least 30 minutes prior to departure and there is the possibility that your bike will be bumped if cargo loads are unusually heavy. One final drawback is that it is impossible to catch the bus back from Tsawwassen to Vancouver. This is clearly an inferior service that may do in a pinch but cannot be relied upon with any degree of certainty. The fare includes taxes as well as passenger fare for the ferry. Since the bus is going to Victoria, those hoping to connect with the direct ferry to the Gulf Islands have to disembark at Tsawwassen. While your ferry fare is included in the price of your bus ticket it may be necessary to pay an additional $5 for your bicycle once you board the ferry. Fortunately the staff are usually too busy loading cars to bother to collect it.
When BC Car-Free was written, there wasn't a SmartPhone in sight. There were a lot of dumb ones, mostly landlines [how quaint!] and the odd – very odd – handheld "mobile" that looked more like a refrigerator than a phone. Consequently, we included a great deal of information in the original print version that would be redundant, and soon dated, if we tried to repeat that in this redux. For more precise scheduling options any of the following will work.
Translink Website: In Vancouver, follow the link on PC or mobile to plot the best routing between your current location and your destination. Surprisingly, there isn't an app for that.
Next Bus: Also a service of Translink, Next Bus provides real-time info on that bus that was supposed to have arrived 10 minutes ago. Input the the bus route or bus stop number from the top of the bus marquee for more current schedule information.
Google Maps: Also provides routing and scheduling of transit options just about anywhere in the world on any platform. It works well in BC, less so in exotic overseas locales. Google Maps has the added benefit of allowing you to input start and end coordinates visually when the precise address is unknown.
Transit App: Available for Android or iOS, Transit also has a more or less global reach.
Transit DB: Another popular dedicated app that at present is only available for Android.