The Sea Bus nearing Lonsdale Quay

At a recent meeting with Translink in North Vancouver I made the unpopular remark that the SeaBus was an essentially anti-nautical experience.  It almost seems like its designers, if designers they were, went out of their way to remove all semblance of seagoing joy from my daily commute on this utilitarian tub.  Apart from the bright and bouncy box truss that spans the rail yards, it is an engineering oriented series of non-events that leaves us feeling like so many cattle. Don’t get me wrong, I love the crossing to Lonsdale and back.  I’m probably the only commuter who takes pictures almost daily. But it could be so much better.

Not famous for holding back, I went on to say this the cattle-like transport was complete anathema to what I’d learned in my work in themed attraction design, where the ‘visitor experience’ was paramount.  On the contrary it seems like every conceivable means has been employed to make the SeaBus as deadly dull as possible.

My deep Wikipedia research states that the SeaBus has the best and most reliable track record of any commuter ferry in North America and Translink is justifiably proud of this.  But the infrastructure that supports the SeaBus, notwithstanding the grand neoclassical bus station, is abysmal.  Not old enough to be funky, this infrastructure, including ramps, walkways, escalators and waiting rooms is relentlessly dull and dehumanizing.  The pièce de résistance is landing at Lonsdale Quay and exiting into a dank, basement-like bunker linked to an equally dismal bus terminal.  If there was an engineering matrix for lost experiential opportunities then Wikipedia would rank the Seabus first in that category as well.

Let’s look for inspiration at another famous urban ferry experience from North America.  “If I had just ten more cents I’d take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry” sang blues man Fred Neil circa 1960.  Would you spend your last dime to ride the Seabus?

Staten Island Ferry with People on Deck

It is quintessentially Canadian to be so concerned with safety as to remove even a whiff of adventure from a sea-crossing.  Why else would they not allow so much as an open porthole on the SeaBus while endless scores of New Yorkers and tourists, crazy daredevils all, risk life and limb on the open decks of their ferry.

Now, to Translink’s credit, they are trying to improve the SeaBus interface with a new customer management wicket thingee.  But that is more about commerce than experience.  Until they address the immense lost experiential opportunities for both local and tourist ridership, the SeaBus is an all-too-aptly named non event.  Compare shopping at Granville Island and Costco and ask yourself which one most resembles the SeaBus experience.  Vancouver has now moved beyond 1970’s utilitarianism into World class experiential status.  The SeaBus is always on time but, ironically, seems to be running very late on this issue.  Once again, imaginative and  people-centred design is the key to solving this problem.  I think a SeaBus Experience Design Competition is well overdue and would be money well spent by Translink and cities on both sides of Burrard Inlet.

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