Jan
31

‘I’m on a boat’: NYC’s love affair with ferries

By · Published in 2014

Don’t forget your flippy-floppies.

Since the end of the ferry-centric mayoral campaign, I’ve tried hard to avoid the issue of tax-payer supported boats. It hasn’t been easy. The NYC Economic Development Corporation released two different studies on ferry service and city subsidies, but I just couldn’t again tackle the issue. Now, though, it’s come back, and I’d like to revisit it.

The latest comes to us from Ydanis Rodriguez, the new chair of the City Council’s transportation committee. Rodriguez is, by most accounts, a great choice for the position. He understands the city’s bus and subway systems, isn’t focused on the primacy of the automobile and has embraced plans to drastically reduce, if not outright eliminate, pedestrian deaths. He has one Achilles’ heel: ferries.

In a wide-ranging interview with Politicker’s Ross Barkan and in a subsequent exchange on Twitter, Rodriguez’s desire to do something with ferries — even for neighborhoods where ferry service isn’t practical — came through. Politicker paraphrased: “Mr. Rodriguez further hopes to boost transportation options for his own Washington Heights and Inwood-based Manhattan district and in the outer boroughs, where options are often scarce. He’s already planning a push to bring ferry service to Upper Manhattan near Dyckman Street that would whisk Inwood residents downtown.”

Now, the biggest problem with Washington Heights is self-evident from, well, the neighborhood’s name. It’s in the heights! That’s not just the name of a Broadway show, folks; that’s an accurate geographic description of the neighborhood. It’s high up there; it’s not near the water. Even the marina at Dyckman St. is further away from the subway for nearly every single resident of the area, and the ferry service itself is impractical. Where does a boat from Dyckman St. go? To 39th St. and the West Side Highway? To the World Financial Center, itself a 13-stop express train ride from Dyckman Street? What’s next — a call for better ferry service for Ditmas Park?

Now, to be fair to Rodriguez, he later told me that he would more than willing to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. I urged him instead to take whatever city money he would want to use for this ferry service and invest it in the bus network or the subway. If he feels transit options from his district aren’t sufficient enough, money for increased service along the high-capacity transit routes that would be a far better use of the same taxpayer dollars. For buses, in particular, a $9 million investment — similar to the city’s contribution to the East River ferries — could go a very long way toward improving reliability and frequency of service.

But let’s indulge in a rough cost-benefit analysis. I’ve touched on this before in examining ferries vs. Citi Bikes, and I cast a similarly leery eye toward ferry subsidies in both August and October. The problem is that the best ferry routes — those areas with high demand, people willing to pay higher prices and easy waterfront access — are tapped out. As Jeff Zupan from the RPA said last year, “Ferry service is a niche, and as a niche there are places where it might work well but they’re few and far between. Most of them that have succeeded are in place.”

The city, through its EDC documents, says that it subsidizes ferries to the tune of over $2.25 a ride. This is far more than the city’s contributions to New York City Transit, and the ferry fares are still steeper. Meanwhile, the successful East River ferries carry a hair over 3000 passengers per weekday. The M15, a very successful Select Bus Servicer out, carries nearly 20 times as many riders. Two peak-hour A trains can carry more riders than the ferries do all day.

Outside of the ridership and economics, there are questions of resources as well. Should the City Council be devoting the same time to ferries as it does to, say, considering the proper way to roll out bus lanes? Should DOT or the MTA? Should NYCEDC? While New York is a city dependent upon and at the mercy of its waterways, most New Yorkers don’t live near the water and don’t work near the water. Furthermore, we have a vibrant subway system that provides a relatively high-speed, high-capacity route through disparate neighborhoods that needs more attention. Ferries ultimately are simply a distraction from real issues. Let’s leave them at that.



57 Responses to “‘I’m on a boat’: NYC’s love affair with ferries”

  1. JJJJ says:

    You know how even though EVERYONE rides the subway, it’s dirty, has delays, is expensive, and did I mention dirty? I mean, we all know the problems.

    How is it that the masses dont vote at the ballot box for better conditions? How is it that an issue that affects EVERYBODY isnt being rushed through the political hall?

    Its because those people who dont ride the subway, but instead ride their chauffeured black cars, are the ones that actually get to influence stuff. Theyre the ones that matter in politics. Its not about everyone. Its about the upper crust.

    You can spend years bitching about deplorable condition A, and it will never be fixed, but if one day Mr Elite strolls by, sees “slightly bad condition B” and calls up the Mayor who he has a speed dial….that problem will be fixed by the evening news.

    Sometimes it makes sense to spend money on transit for the people who have better access to the political elite because it gets them into the transit game.

    Mr Waterfront may never ride the subway, but he will ride the ferry, because its 75 degree, gorgeous, comfortable, and even romantic.

    That means when he reads about Cuomo stealing transit money, for example, hes more likely to give a shit, since it impacts his comfort commute. And when he gives a shit, stuff gets done.

    See also: The Google bus protests in SF. If the elite have a private transit system, they will never give half a shit about MUNI. That hurts everyone who needs the system because nothing will get done unless the elite want it to get done. Who cares if the J breaks down twice a day, every day, when youre on your Google express? Ban the private buses, and suddenly the J breaking down is the end of a political career.

    • Tower18 says:

      Leaving aside the rest of your comment, you’ve missed the point of the Google Bus protests. It has nothing to do with MUNI, as the Google employees would never take MUNI to work, because MUNI doesn’t (and won’t) go outside San Francisco. Plenty of people that work at Google live in San Francisco and hate MUNI while using it outside work hours, just like everyone else. But they cannot take MUNI to work even if there were no private buses, so it’s a moot point.

      If there were no buses, it’s possible they just wouldn’t live in San Francisco at all (which does actually seem to be the goal of at least some of the protesters), but many still would, and would just drive their cars instead. MUNI is not an option.

    • AG says:

      you seriously don’t think ppl on the transportation committee of the city council ever rode subways before?

      • Ralfff says:

        JJJ can speak for himself but there’s definitely an outer-borough dynamic of finally buying a car and never using public transit again if one can avoid it; often as a stepping-stone to the suburbs. Just because they used to ride transit doesn’t mean they do now.

        • AG says:

          what you say is correct… but i’m talking about ppl on the City Council who are on that committee. yeah ppl buy cars and move to the suburbs… they can’t be on the city council anymore… and yeah most of those former subway riders (those who never ran for office) are the same ppl who vote for candidates on a state level that starve the transit system of dollars. It’s not the ppl in the “black cars” who are to blame… it’s former city residents who vote for them.

    • Spendmor Wastemor says:

      ” The Google bus protests in SF. If the elite have a private transit system, they will never give half a shit about MUNI.”

      “If Google’s employees are productive enough that the company can pay out of pocket to replace private car traffic and hep clear congestion, they have improved conditions for Muni users”

      FTFY

    • pete says:

      If you allow a Google bus, America will turn into a 3rd world country. See this ad for a taste http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UcWsTwvtyOI

  2. Anon256 says:

    I think a ferry service making a few stops on the Upper East Side and then dropping passengers at Roosevelt Island F station (which is right by the water) could be viable. Development near the water on the UES is pretty dense, and residents currently face quite a long walk to the overcrowded 6 train.

    Agree that Citibike expansion is a better use of city money though.

    • Jeff360 says:

      Citibike is waste of resource that is not making money for the city.

    • Alon Levy says:

      But the neighborhood is separated from the water by the FDR.

      • Anon256 says:

        Surely this is less of an obstacle than the long walk to Lexington? It’s not like the need to pass under a freeway stops people from riding ferries at Circular Quay (or for that matter Wall St), and the footbridges to cross over the freeway when it’s at grade would be far shorter than what Star Ferry passengers deal with at Central, or even the bridge SeaBus passengers cross over the CPR/WCE yard at Waterfront. Also the FDR is decked over from 82nd to 89th.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Well, on maps, Waterfront looks like a single dot. In practice there’s a bridge to cross over the railyard, but it’s within the fare-paid area and gets treated as a single station.

          I’m not sure why, but passengers seem to treat long transfers as more acceptable if they are nominally the same station. Transferring from the 7 to other lines at Times Square can be difficult and people get lost, but it’s still the same station. Times Square-Port Authority is treated as two connected stations, and 63rd-59th is treated as two stations with an out-of-system transfer. Chatelet-Les Halles is a longer transfer between the RER and the Metro than Times Square-Port Authority and seem to be busier, but I don’t know how many people actually use it versus other options; it’s crowded, but the trains feeding the transfer are also very crowded.

          • Anon256 says:

            But we were comparing to the need to cross the FDR via bridges or underpasses at the “home” end of a trip at hypothetical UES ferry docks. I believe you that people are willing to walk longer for in-system transfers than out-of-system/unofficial transfers, but surely they’re willing to walk further at the “home” end of a trip than for either.

            • Alon Levy says:

              Yes, that’s true. But then at the work end, they’d be facing a transfer to the Roosevelt Island F, no? Or is what you’re proposing a ferry connecting to Roosevelt Island jobs?

              • Anon256 says:

                Yeah, they’d transfer to the F at Roosevelt Island. The walk from the dock to the subway entrance would be quite short, the ride down the escalators somewhat longer, but on net no more inconvenient than e.g. South Ferry.

  3. Jonathan R says:

    Suggest studying feasibility of elevators and gondolas instead of ferries. As Ben suggests, the neighborhood is characterized by height differences, and we are already blessed by the MTA’s foresight in building elevators at the subway stations at 184/FWA, Margaret Corbin Cir, and 191 St & St Nick. Those make it super easy to get up the steep hills, especially in crummy weather when the sidewalks are covered in snow and ice but the tunnels are miraculously clear. Investigate more elevators where we already have stair-streets, like 155th & Edgecombe, or 181 & Pinehurst, or 187th & FWA, or from the Cloisters down to the Dyckman St IND station.

    And if we can have up-and-down unstaffed transport, why not side-to-side unstaffed transport, like a gondola? We could use one above Ft George Hill, between the IRT 191st and Dyckman stops, which is steep enough to discourage casual uphill traffic; or 215th St & Park Terrace East to the 215th St IRT stop; or even one from 181 and St Nick over the Washington Bridge, past University Avenue in the Bronx and above I-95 to the Jerome Avenue IRT.

  4. Michael K says:

    Several waterfront communities can greatly benefit from ferry service. I think the EDC study I focused on routes to newly developing communities on the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront.

    • I still can’t stress how few actual waterfront communities there are in New York City compared with, you know, the whole rest of the city. That’s the point that those arguing for ferries seem to miss. We’re spending time, resources and money on something that, by its nature, won’t make a lick of a difference for the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers. It’s not transformative, let alone all that helpful.

      • John Petro says:

        I think that EDC study was BS

      • Michael K says:

        Ben,

        Also consider that other than MTA Bus Co, ferries are the only transportation system under city control.

      • Michael says:

        I would humbly like to make an exception to your statement. The exception would be Staten Island, and a few New Jersey communities that benefit by ferry service.

        In the case of St. George on Staten Island, there is the connecting bus terminal (which handles about 2/3 of the local and limited buses on the island), and the SIR train terminal. As well as the counterpart terminal at Whitehall Street, with its transfers to connecting subways, local and limited, and the Manhattan SBS-15 bus. Of course, a discussion about the ferry schedule will take place another time.

        Please note that while express buses do exist on Staten Island, traveling non-stop through either New Jersey or Brooklyn for Manhattan destinations – such express buses generally only service the lower two-thirds of the island. The upper third of the island nearest Manhattan and Brooklyn, with the highest population on Staten Island, and where the majority of the minority population lives have access to only the S53, S93, and the SBS-79 to the outskirts of Brooklyn for a subway ride to Manhattan. Alternatives to the ferry are not plenty.

        Since a direct subway connection between Manhattan and Staten Island will not be built until well after Star Trek’s Federation has been established, and travel between the Earth and the Mars colonies takes minutes – ferry service might have to continue.

        I agree that there are very few other places with the connecting transit services that a ferry operation needs to make it viable. However spending money on the ferry operations where it DOES make sense, even if by definition it will not serve the majority of New Yorkers, can indeed help those riders and communities.

        You have no idea how often in transit-forum-land, how often there are folks who express the idea that if it not “rail transit” that such transit is not “important” or “worthy” of attention. Transportation is not just about “rail”, but about connecting folks to the places that they want to go.

        Mike

        • VLM says:

          Non sequitur. Who’s talking about the SI Ferries or the (very expensive) NJ ferries?

          • Michael says:

            I am responding to two sections of text, the quotes are below.

            Quoted Text From Article:

            “While New York is a city dependent upon and at the mercy of its waterways, most New Yorkers don’t live near the water and don’t work near the water. Furthermore, we have a vibrant subway system that provides a relatively high-speed, high-capacity route through disparate neighborhoods that needs more attention. Ferries ultimately are simply a distraction from real issues. Let’s leave them at that.”

            Quoted Text From The Comments:

            “I still can’t stress how few actual waterfront communities there are in New York City compared with, you know, the whole rest of the city. That’s the point that those arguing for ferries seem to miss. We’re spending time, resources and money on something that, by its nature, won’t make a lick of a difference for the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers. It’s not transformative, let alone all that helpful.”

            —————-

            Staten Island as the smallest borough by population in NYC (not land area, just by population, and hence political representation) – has often had its needs on a variety of issues questioned. Too often the areas with the least population are seen as welcome targets to be dumped upon by the larger city, but how dare those same small places ask for their fair share of resources, or for any help to deal with problems.

            There are clearly areas of NYC that are not well served by the subway system, and often less well served by the public bus system. By definition improving transit services in those areas will probably not be “transformative” of the city as a whole. By definition improving the transit services in those areas will not affect the majority of NYC residents. But so what! Is that a good reason to not try to improve transportation services of various kinds/methods/means?

            Much too often in “transit-forum-land” places without direct access to the subway system are treated as if the transit-related problems they have do not exist. Much too often in “transit-forum-land” places like Staten Island are treated as if they are not a part of New York City, as if it is some place “out there” that no one ever has to worry about. Look at the debates surrounding improved ferry service, improvements to ferry related terminals, and nearby subway stations, etc. There were plenty of folks arguing online – questioning why any money should be spent, and worse.

            Ever think about the places that are not well seen on the NYC Subway maps? Ever notice just what places in NYC that are rarely if ever shown? Ever think about what that means in response to transit related problems?

            Just what exactly is “wrong” with looking at difficult to reach areas of NYC, and to determine what works best for each given neighborhood or community. Why should any smart city resident just accept the idea that these places are unworthy of study? Or accept at face value the idea that “well, most folks in NYC use the subway” so tough noogies to any other problems!

            Mike

        • AG says:

          Not just Staten Island – but northern Queens and the East Bronx are in the exact same predicament you listed.

        • Ralfff says:

          X10, X14, X30. That’s off the top of my head, there are other north shore express buses. And more ferries will not help the most isolated parts of the north shore anyway. If you get to Richmond Terrace to reach such a ferry you have access to the S40/90 to the SI Ferry which are the fastest local/limited buses possibly in the whole city.

          • AG says:

            the express buses appear to be even more expensive to operate per passenger.

            • Ralfff says:

              That’s an interesting chart you pointed out but the only candidate SI route leaves from St. George anyway and operating costs are covered entirely by fares. I mean if people want a low-frequency ferry that only needs to have capital costs paid for and will otherwise sustain itself, I won’t object, but it bolsters my point that any ferries originating anywhere except St. George on Staten Island are a nonstarter owing to existing transit infrastructure and distance. I would oppose any ferries on SI that do require an operating subsidy (a longtime bugaboo of the fast-ferry obsessed Staten Island Advance). And since one has to get to St. George to get to said ferry I doubt it’s going to replace much express bus ridership where the great advantage is a one-seat ride.

          • Michael says:

            Quoted Text:

            Please note that while express buses do exist on Staten Island, traveling non-stop through either New Jersey or Brooklyn for Manhattan destinations – such express buses generally only service the lower two-thirds of the island.

            ————–
            Quoted Text:

            X10, X14, X30. That’s off the top of my head, there are other north shore express buses. And more ferries will not help the most isolated parts of the north shore anyway. If you get to Richmond Terrace to reach such a ferry you have access to the S40/90 to the SI Ferry which are the fastest local/limited buses possibly in the whole city.

            —————
            My Response:

            I never said that “zero” express buses service the northern section of the Staten Island. I simply stated that MOST do not. Most of the express buses service the lower two-thirds” of the island. Which can mean for certain sections a limited set of travel options.

            Please note that once the express buses enter the express-way for travel via Brooklyn or New Jersey as a conduit to Manhattan – they no longer make stops. The SI Express-way is the dividing line between the north-most, and middle sections of the island. It may appear on the bus map that an express bus is “travels through” a certain neighborhood, often the buses not do not actually stop there. A short list would include the X-1, X-2, X-3, X-4, X-5, X-6, X-7, X-8, X-9, X-15, X-17, X19, X-22, X-22A, and X31 routes. That works out to about 15 of the 20 express buses routes on Staten Island.

            Generally again, the express bus routes tend to service the more distant areas of Staten Island, and often that is a good idea. Again, as I noted before that there are large areas of Staten island that are not served by the express buses, for a direct one-seat ride to/from Staten Island and Manhattan.

            Whether or not additional ferry services and/or terminals should be created in other communities or neighborhoods, I think depends upon the local conditions and needs within those places. A tansit network that includes ferries as well as transfers to/from other public transit at both ends – I think would be the better approach. There is nothing “wrong”, I think about doing the planning studies for those neighborhoods that request such a review.

            Mike

      • AG says:

        Ben – I count you as a reasonable guy… but I fail to understand your seeming disdain for ferries. It’s not as if they are spending 1billion or even 1/2 a billion… This is a relatively paltry sum. Some of the neighborhoods in the EDC study have no real transit option… and the express buses can be relatively slow. Not to mention – unless the EDC is lying – the express buses cost more in subsidy than the proposed ferry routes. It’s not really meant to be transformative on a city-wide level… it’s only meant to target certain neighborhoods. The politician you listed obviously just wants to sound good… because there is no way Inwood and Washington Heights makes any sense… not just because of topography – but also because they are awash in subway and bus options.

  5. John-2 says:

    The Bowling Green-South Ferry walk seems to be the maximum distance people are willing the travel to get from a ferry to their trains when it comes to bad weather conditions. But that does mean a ferry terminal on the Hudson at 34th Street would make sense, once the 7 extension’s Hudson Yards stop opens (On the other side of the island, due to the curves of the shoreline a location that would make sense in the future would actually be 96th Street when the SAS opens, because at that spot the East River is almost touching First Avenue, so that walk to the new subway station would be far less than even just 10 blocks south.It might work as a transfer point for any boats coming in from the Bronx or the north shore of Queens.)

  6. R2 says:

    Exactly. The routes that already exist are much pretty it for the viable ones. You can change the equation by developing communities right at the ferry terminal.

    Money’s far better spent on expanding Citibike and bus service.

  7. Boris says:

    Ferries are simply the next logical step in the story of a political elite which is hell-bent on jobs for the few rather than services for the many. A ferry is like a bus ever lower capital costs and ever higher operating costs. The goal is to build as little as possible that is of lasting value while spending as much money as possible right now on things of minimal value. Basically, we are being sold a jobs program for the connected few, not a transit service.

    • Bolwerk says:

      That’s not entirely true. A full ferry moves shitloads of people and can have a pretty low operating cost per rider.

      The counterintuitive thing about buses is they’re cheaper when ridership is lower – to the point where it probably makes more sense to make many of these ferries express buses, which will still bleed money but less money. When ridership is higher, buses cost more because labor costs increase faster.

    • AG says:

      The EDC says express buses cost less to subsidize that the ferry routes they run (and propose). Subways are the best – but they can’t and won’t happen everywhere – so what do we do???

      • Bolwerk says:

        I don’t think express buses are even entirely inexcusable, just over-used.

        With subways/rail, we should do what we can. Rockaway, Triborough RX, and North Shore are low-hanging fruit.

        • AG says:

          “With subways/rail, we should do what we can. Rockaway, Triborough RX, and North Shore are low-hanging fruit.”

          No debate from me whatsoever on that…

          Though I also think swapping some express buses for ferries makes sense in some select areas.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Possibly, but where? A ferry serves a small population on both ends. Maybe without a transfer penalty, a two-seat ferry-bus or ferry-train ride is acceptable.

            More likely, a ferry requires a three-seat ride (to the ferry, on the ferry, and from the ferry). I think that’s where the problem lies. It’s not even acceptable as a leg in a trip to most people, like a last-mile bus trip might be.

            • AG says:

              well basically – where the EDC suggested in their study (Soundview in the Bronx – Northern Queens etc.) the routes that fail would get cancelled… It’s not huge money at all – and not much different than experimenting with bus routes

              • Bolwerk says:

                I think it’s a non-starter until MetroCards are honored, in any case. Of course, this point completely flies over their heads.

                Guess I don’t have a problem with trying it, but even with MetroCards I have serious doubts about the viability anywhere in the city. It’s not like ferries can feed the subway.

        • Michael K says:

          How can the North Shore be a good idea? Half of the catchment area is water!

  8. Bolwerk says:

    Ahem. Nobody wants to address the real problem of high cost construction. That’s why people reflexively resort to gimmicks like ferries, monorails, gondolas, and BRT – most of which are still expensive, and in the long run cost significantly more per rider than spending money upfront the first time.

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