Nestled between the scenic Olympic Mountains and Seattle’s iconic skyline, Washington State Ferries criss-cross the Puget Sound at a leisurely pace as if their sole purpose was to provide a dramatic backdrop for travel photos.
But the stately green-and-white ships are far more than a prop for shutter-happy tourists.
The fleet of 22 vessels carried more than 24.5 million riders in 2017 over 10 routes, making it the largest ferry system in the U.S. More than 75,000 Puget Sound residents commute via ferry to work or school each weekday, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which operates the ferry system.
Ever wondered what it's really like to trade a crowded highway for open water?
We did too. So we hopped on a ferry to ask.
“Honestly, it’s the easiest commute I’ve ever had,” said Shelton Schneider, a facility painter for the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field, who commutes daily via ferry from Southworth to West Seattle. “There’s no traffic on that side, and very little traffic on the Seattle side, at least at my time of day.”
Schneider lives in Olalla, a small rural community about eight miles south of the Southward ferry stop on the Kitsap Peninsula. Although many commuters get dropped off at the ferry stop, use mass transit or take advantage of park-and-ride lots, Schneider has a car on each side of the ferry ride.
He has lived throughout the Puget Sound and experienced a wide range of commuting options. For two years, Schneider commuted to Seattle from Tenino, about 15 miles south of Olympia.
“I commuted to Seattle every day, which was 75 miles one way,” Schneider said. “Get up at 3 o’clock in the morning, out the door at 3:30 and up here by 5:30 or 6. … Now, my commute’s 20 minutes on each side and 20 on the boat.”
The ferries feature a galley, which offers a variety of food and beverages, including beer and wine. Many passengers pass the time working, reading, or sleeping, while some use it as an opportunity for exercise.
Nancy and Ruthie, who each have retired to Port Orchard after careers with the Department of Defense, take the ferry to Seattle about once a week. They are among several passengers who walk the passenger deck during the crossing.
“We know that 10 laps is a mile,” said Nancy. “On a good day, you can obviously get in a few miles.”
Nancy doesn't spend all her time on the boat in motion, however. Sometimes it's the best place to find a moment of relaxation.
Although the system includes routes to the San Juan Islands and Sidney, B.C. – each sailing from Anacortes, about 80 miles north of Seattle – commuter routes to and from downtown or closer to the metro area have the highest ridership.
The 35-minute Seattle-Bainbridge Island route had 6.5 million riders and 1.9 million vehicles carried in 2017 and the one-hour Seattle-Bremerton route had 2.8 million riders. The Mukilteo-Clinton route, with the Mukilteo terminal only about 3 miles from the Boeing aircraft factory and its more than 30,000 employees, had 4.1 million riders and almost 2.3 million vehicles. The Edmonds-Kingston route, about 18 miles north of downtown Seattle, had 4.1 million riders and 2.1 million vehicles.
South of downtown, the Fauntleroy-Vashon Island-Southworth route carried 3.1 million riders and 1.8 million vehicles.
Those millions of riders get to experience a form of transportation that's about as far from the stressful gridlock of the highway as you can get. “The nice thing about a ferry," says Nancy, "is we’ve been on it a beautiful sunset evening. You have a beer, enjoy the ride and watch the world go by.”