A lack of affordable, convenient, frequent and reliable options for travel between many Vancouver Island and Sunshine Coast communities was the top obstacle identified in a recent regional transportation survey.
Over the summer, the B.C. government funded extensive community consultations to study passenger transportation gaps faced by Indigenous, small, rural and remote communities on Vancouver Island and parts of the coastal mainland, as well as B.C.’s north and its southern Interior.
Poor connections between coastal communities, like ferries linked to transit, insufficient public transportation options to airports or harbours, and a lack of safe, accessible or low-emission services were other roadblocks highlighted in the Island Coastal Inter-Community Transportation study.
The findings were based on consultations in most communities or regions on Vancouver Island, the Central and Sunshine coasts and surrounding small islands led by the Island Coastal Economic Trust (ICET) and the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance (VIEA).
Transportation in the Greater Victoria Area and existing public transit services in individual communities weren’t evaluated.
Various communities identified the ongoing loss of private inter-city coach services and the lack of a unified transportation corridor along the mainland coast or Vancouver Island, the survey noted.
One example is numerous communities on Vancouver Island north of Campbell River have never had inter-city transport or lost an affordable option when private coach company Wilson’s Group withdrew service in 2021 along smaller routes.
Rural towns of Gold River, Tahsis, and Zeballos don’t have any passenger transportation south to Campbell River – the North Island‘s economic and health service hub. Neither does the neighbouring Nuchatlaht Tribe, Mowachaht-Muchalaht, Ehattesaht, and Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tleset’h’ First Nation communities.
There is no public transit corridor on the North Island between Campbell River to Port Hardy or Port McNeill, hubs for nearly 60,000 residents, numerous small outlying communities and a dozen First Nations.
The only passenger service for the 2.5-hour trip between the key North Island cities is a shuttle bus run by a taxi company that costs $200 return.
Overall, residents participating in the regional survey said they primarily relied on transportation to other communities to shop, work, attend school, connect with family or friends and recreational activities.
Residents from smaller communities, business owners and First Nations surveyed said limited transportation options made it hard to find employees, work and drive economic development in their communities.
Participants emphasized transportation options needed to be convenient, frequent and reliable.
“While 1/8 respondents 3/8 acknowledged the argument frequently made that existing services have low ridership or are not being used, they also raised that these three foundational elements must be in place for ridership to increase,” the transportation report said.
The high cost of travelling between communities was also a barrier and a main “grievance” for many people, the survey found.
Residents in remote communities said the lack of grocery stores or the high cost of food means they have to travel to larger communities for shopping and supplies.
Passenger rail service was widely supported in the community engagement session as a more cost-effective, reliable, safe and environmentally friendly vision for the future, the report noted.
“With rail serving as a central spine running North-South on Vancouver Island, and East-West from Nanaimo to Port Alberni, participants suggested that buses and other transportation modes could run along the rail line to connect communities,” the report said.
“Rail would serve locals and tourists alike, helping to open up communities on the island to economic, employment and educational opportunities.”
The report concluded that a transformative change in travel between communities was needed.
Participants highlighted the need to collaborate between multiple layers of government, First Nations and the private and non-profit sectors.
A frequent proposal was to create an inter-regional transportation authority to tie various transportation modes, foster collaboration and fulfil an integrated vision for a provincial passenger network that relied less on personal vehicles.
Increased provincial funding to help meet transportation gaps the private sector cannot fill was another key finding.
“Government subsidies are needed to fill inter- and intra-community transportation gaps; the private market would have provided these services if they were financially feasible,” a Tofino resident told the survey.
Some other potential solutions suggested by residents included expanding the reach of ride-hail or car-share programs into smaller communities, although high startup and capital costs in contrast to changes due to seasonal demand were flagged as challenges.
People participating in all the engagement sessions endorsed improving active and alternative transportation corridors and transportation hubs at bus and ferry terminals, especially related to bicycles.
Frustrations with the province’s lack of focus or funding for transportation solutions that reduce society’s reliance on personal vehicles also surfaced, though electric vehicles would make positive reductions in emissions, the report said.
“We need a cultural shift away from our reliance on personal vehicles – providing viable transportation options is the first step to successfully shifting this mindset,” said a participant in the report.
Comment or answers to questions weren’t available from the Ministry of Transportation on Vancouver Island service gaps before Canada’s National Observer’s publishing deadline.
Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer