Thursday 27 March 2014

Swan River Bicycle Ferry

Could the bicycle-ferry be a solution to Perth's traffic congestion?

I have an idea. A ferry from Point Walter jetty in Bicton to the Nedlands jetty. There is nothing new with that, people have been asking for more ferries on the Swan River for a long time. When trains are cancelled, or when road congestion gets particularly bad, the idea sometimes gets some airing in the media. What has been missing in the previous discussions has been bicycles.

My proposal is for the ferries to be specifically designed to carry bicycles in addition to people. This would be at all times of the day, unlike Perth's trains that have to exclude bicycles during peak times. They would have easy roll-on, roll-off access and good bicycle racks on board. This will allow the rider to do all the handling of the bicycle and ensure a fast service.

Swan River showing Point Walter to Nedlands route

By designing the service for people riding bicycles, the catchment area for potential passengers is greatly extended compared to walking and will help overcome the problem of lack of urban density at each of the ferry terminals.

This rough map of the Point Walter area shows the distances for ten minutes walking compared with ten minutes riding a bicycle.

Point Walter and surrounding district

Up to now, Perth's low urban density and car-based “park and ride” thinking has prevented ferries being established as viable transport links. The residents of the expensive riverside neighbourhoods would not be in favour of large car parks radiating from their local jetty in the way that currently happens at Perth’s train stations. With a bicycle-based plan, no additional car parking is required.

The Nedlands jetty is an easy one kilometre ride to the University of Western Australia. The huge QEII Medical Centre is only three kilometres using the existing separated shared paths, or 2.5 kilometres if you are happy to use the road. Subiaco is five kilometres away and you can get to the Perth CBD from the Nedlands jetty using a fully separated shared path beside the river.

QEII Medical Centre employs many. This is just the car park.

Once the service is established, the ferry service could be extended to link through to the Perth CBD at Barrack Street but adding this extra leg to the journey would probably double the number of vessels required to maintain the same frequency. 

Shared path from Nedlands to Perth CBD

The combination of ferry and bicycle could result in journey times that are similar to car travel at peak times. For example, a person living in Bicton who works at QEII Medical Centre in Nedlands could get to work using the following methods:
  1. A 20 km bicycle ride around the river using the shared paths. 60+ minutes.
  2. Two buses, plus walking. 50 to 70 minutes.
  3. Car via Stirling Highway. 30 to 40 minutes depending on traffic and time of day.
  4. Bicycle ride for 2 km on suburban streets, the bicycle-ferry 4 km, bicycle ride for 3 km on the separated paths next to the river and Kings Park.  45 minutes.

Transperth, the Western Australian State Government transport authority would be the logical service providers. The ticketing could be done using the excellent Smartrider automated ticket system and the Transperth journey planner could be expanded to include travel times for bicycles. Transperth would also have the ability to adjust their buses to connect with the ferries for those disadvantaged souls who don't own a bicycle.

In fact, the existing Transperth ferries would need very little adjustment to make them suitable. Transperth currently has two ferries which provide a shuttle service between South Perth and the Perth central business district. These ferries already have a section allocated to carry bicycles, but only four per trip.

Current bicycle rack

To provide a viable Point Walter to Nedlands bicycle-ferry service, Transperth could continue with the same type of vessel and simply adjust the interior seating arrangement. The current configuration has seating for 122 people, some clear areas for prams and wheelchairs, plus a rack to suit four bikes. A new configuration could provide capacity for 30 bicycles and still have room for about 70 people. A good capacity is essential for the ferry to function as a reliable service for people riding bicycles. The current South Perth to Perth CBD service will not accept bicycles on-board once the four places are filled. This might be OK for a ferry that takes tourists to the zoo but not for a commuter orientated Point Walter to Nedlands route.

Bicycle storage area in foreground

Apart from the South Perth to Perth CBD ferry, there are no regular ferries operating on the Swan River. This will seem surprising to anyone not living in Western Australia. Having a city of 1.8 million  people surrounding such an impressive body of water you would expect us to have several transport connections using ferries but it has not happened.

The population of Perth’s metropolitan area has expanded along the rail and road corridors. The urban density near the river is generally low, apart from the CBDs of Perth and Fremantle. This lack of density is one of the main reasons conventional ferries routes have not been expanded on the Swan River. 

Perth city from South Perth

There was an attempt at a passenger ferry between Fremantle and Perth about ten years ago. It was a commercial non-government operation and failed because not enough people used the service. Although it would have been a pleasant way to travel, the journey time by train is 27 minutes compared to around 50 minutes by ferry. There are some speed restrictions on the river that prevent the ferries travelling fast, particularly near the Fremantle end. At any of the ferry-stops between these two relatively dense urban areas there would have been very few passengers. I think the frequency of the ferries was also low because the operators only had one or two vessels making the complete journey. It would have been a long wait between trips and passengers would have needed to plan their journey carefully.

I am not an expert, but I know an important part of getting public transport to succeed is getting the trip frequency to a level where passengers do not have look at timetables.  A more frequent service could be achieved by not going all the way to Fremantle and avoiding the slow and narrow section of the river. The section of river between Point Walter and Nedlands is wide and therefore has very few speed restrictions. The distance between those two jetties, at approximately four kilometres, is relatively short which allows both a fast and frequent service to be provided with fewer vessels. It will be more efficient to just operate between these two points instead of trying to provide a Perth to Fremantle ferry.

A gut-feeling tells me a bicycle-ferry could make a very effective transport link for a relatively low infrastructure cost. There are existing jetties at both locations. Ideally the jetties would be upgraded with adjustable decks to allow entry at the same height, but a service could get started without doing that modification. The South Perth to Perth CBD ferry is operated but just one person, yet is able to provide a level entry for people in wheelchairs because the jetties have the ability for height adjustment. Wheeling a bicycle on board is no problem.

Jetty height matched to ferry

The Point Walter to Nedlands connection could be the first part of a bicycle-ferry network. The next stage could be a link from Point Walter to the Claremont jetty. The map below shows four private secondary schools and a university campus within two kilometres. There are thousands of students attending these schools. How many get driven by car from homes that are south of the river? School traffic creates a lot of congestion on Stirling Highway. This ferry link could help save the highway from the current plans to have it reamed wider to resemble a freeway.

Claremont Jetty linked to Point Walter 

Here is a list of the schools within bicycle riding or walking distance of Claremont Jetty:
  • Christ Church Grammar School - 550m
  • Methodist Ladies College - 1 km
  • University of Western Australia Claremont Campus - 1 km
  • Scotch College - 1.5km
  • Presbyterian Ladies College - 2.6 km
  • John XXII College - 3.4 km
  • St Hilda’s Anglican School for Girls - 3.6 km
  • Shenton College - 4 km (17 mins)
And some other places:
  • Bethesda Hospital - 400m
  • Claremont Quarter Shopping Centre - 850m
  • Claremont Showgrounds - 1.5 km
  • Swanbourne Beach - 3.4 km
All these destinations could be connected by bicycle to the suburbs of Bicton, Palmyra, East Fremantle and Attadale with the addition of a bicycle-ferry.

One final point: these new ferry services should not be half-done. They need to have a frequency and time span that will give reliability to commuters and make it easy for people to adjust to not using a car. I'm thinking: 6am to 9pm from Monday to Friday. Departing every 15 minutes during peak hours and every 30 minutes at other times. Weekends 8am to 7pm every 30 minutes.

Road congestion in Perth has increased in recent years and some of Perth's best bicycle infrastructure is beside the river. Our population is growing rapidly. Perhaps now in the right time to expand our transport network onto the river and combine it with the flexibility of the bicycle.

Do you think a bicycle-ferry between Bicton and Nedlands has a good chance of succeeding? Would you use it?  Am I dreaming?  Let me know your thoughts.

Swan River and Perth CBD


  1. It might just work. I don't know Perth very well but I suggest the ferry ride needs to be as short as possible and there needs to be safe street networks within each cycling catchment area.

    Two NL ferry links that you may have seen that might help with your idea:

  2. I agree with your point about safe street networks. The Point Walter and Nedlands jetties can already be reached by separated shared paths (bike/ped) beside the river but the streets nearby, which usually offer more direct routes, could do with some attention. Removing the five new roundabouts in Broadway, Nedlands would be first on my list. Thanks for the links. I think the barge style loading of the Dutch ferries would worry the OHS people at Transperth but it is great for moving people quickly.

  3. Not sure if it would get the volume, but these days, who knows? Definitely a cool idea. I'd say also servicing Applecross (Jeff Joseph Reserve) might be good. I used to ride Mt Pleasant to UWA, and it was just enough of a chore for it to be unattractive. With those two points, anything north of Leach Hwy would be a fairly attractive ride+ferry to the North. While the path is decent, I don't especially like the ride along the freeway (and it just feels so indirect). While I don't use it for commuting, "the punt" here in Melbourne is really neat ( - I can get to Scienceworks, Williamstown etc with my kid and not have to bother with the awful Footscray Rd route. It is very basic and has a friendly and slightly eccentric bloke who operates it. If Perth could find something as basic, it would be much cheaper than a standard ferry. Perhaps that is the way to pitch it? and google images search 'westgate punt' will give you some neat pics :-)

    Maybe it would end the north/south divide in Perth? :)