Whether we recognize it or not, New York City is facing something of a transportation crisis. The problem itself won’t come to a true head for a while, but outside of a few avenues, our current transit options are nearly maxed out. Our roads are continually congested, and without significant expansion, the subway system can’t withstand too many more trains — or passengers — per hour during peak times. Buses and a real bus rapid transit network could pick up some slack, but lately the focus has turned to the city’s myriad waterways.
For much of the 2013 mayoral campaign, we heard candidates from various parties talk endlessly about the opportunities for expanded ferry service. It sounds good, right? These are politicians actually promoting increased transit, and at a time when subway construction is exceedingly expensive and no one at the MTA is willing to try to rein in those costs, sticking some boats on the water seems downright economically responsible. It is but a political smoke screen as well, and I’ll get to that shortly.
Lately, the jockeying for ferries has come from the local level. Ydanis Rodriguez, the new chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, has been agitating for more ferry service for his constituents even though most of them live on a bluff high above the nearest coast. Now, Queens reps are calling for more ferry service too. The Queens Chronicle reports:
The words “commute” and “New York City” usually make one think of squeaky, dirty, crowded subway cars snaking through tunnels and along elevated rails. Or perhaps one conjures up thoughts of passengers packed into buses like sardines or jockeying for room under bus shelters. Some, especially out here in Queens, may think of a commute as idling on a packed highway in a car. One thing that most New Yorkers may not think of — unless maybe you’re from Staten Island — is boats…
The expansion of ferry service to the East River in 2011, connecting Wall Street and East 34th Street with Brooklyn and Long Island City, has also proved successful, as has a route to the Rockaways that was originally meant to be temporary. Now ferry advocates — and elected officials — are looking to expand service to other parts of Queens with waterfront connections.
…Already expansion beyond Long Island City and Rockaway may be imminent. According to one source, expansion of the East River ferry to Astoria is “more than likely,” and former Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. allocated money toward a feasibility study. Vallone’s successor, Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria), said bringing ferry service farther north to Astoria would be a boon for the Western Queens waterfront, especially if they add a stop on Roosevelt Island, where a tech school is slated to be located. “We can find the money for this worthwhile cause,” said Constantinides, a member of the Council’s Transportation Committee. He pointed to Hallets Cove as a location for a ferry, noting the amount of development taking place there and the need for more public transportation.
Throughout the article, Queens politicians and ferry advocates discuss the success of the Rockaway boats and potential landing spots in College Point, Willets Point, Fort Totten or downtown Flushing. One quote in particular sums up the thinking. “We’re on the right path with expanding bus rapid transit and bike lines and now with ferries,” Constantinides said. “We’re not building any more subways. Better utilizing the city’s waterways is the new frontier.”
I have such major issues with this defeatist attitude toward subway construction. We’re giving up because politicians aren’t strong enough to fight back against rampant cost issues or, in the case of Constantinides’ own district, intense NIMBY opposition to a plan that would have brought the subway to Laguardia Airport. We can’t throw in the towel on future subway construction and expect New York to be able to grow. Ferries won’t cut it.
Meanwhile, the comments and coverage concerning ferries fail to make note of the issues of scale. The Rockaway ferry may be a success, but that’s with ridership of 700 per day. One peak-hour subway carries at least twice, and sometimes three times, that amount from Queens or Brooklyn into Manhattan. Ferries can help out around the edges; they can’t affect transformative change or do much to alleviate the transit capacity problems plaguing New York.
The single biggest issue with any New York City ferry network concerns population patterns. New York of the 20th century built inland and, thanks to Robert Moses, rung its waterways with roads. Not too many people live near potential ferry terminals, and not too many work near them either. So a ferry network also involves getting people to and from the terminals, and with fares not unified, such a setup currently involves a steep added cost per day. Most New Yorkers would rather take a crowded train than add $3-$5 per day to their commuting costs.
Furthermore, nearly every place in New York City that is well suited for ferry service already has it. The East River ferries offer relatively quick commutes to areas where people work. Many of the folks who live in uber-expensive waterfront condos in DUMBO, Williamsburg and Long Island City work near Wall Street. Travel patterns shift as one moves further east in Brooklyn and Queens.
But there are political forces at work here that account for the popularity of the boat movement. First, there are no NIMBYs to battle. Some people may object to a nearby ferry terminal and the noise from the boats, but it doesn’t engender the same level of protest that a new subway line or removing a lane of automobile traffic for bus rapid transit would. Second, the costs of starting a ferry line are relatively low and turnaround time is short. Thus, a politician can propose a ferry route, secure funding and attend a ribbon-cutting in a single term while proclaiming to be pro transit. Never mind the fact that, at most, a wildly successful ferry with 4000 daily riders services half of one-tenth of a percent of all New Yorkers. It’s an easy political win.
So we’re stuck in a boat rut. It may make limited sense to examine some ferry routes, but the most they can do is shuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic that is the subway system. Without high-capacity expansion, trains will be more crowded than ever before, and New York City will face growth constraints. It would take real leadership to tackle this problem; the ferries are simply a smokescreen.