Another year, another New York City politician jonesin’ for some panacea of citywide ferry service that won’t solve any problems. This time, the honors belong to our Mayor who, in his State of the City speech earlier this week, promised 13 bus rapid transit routes by the end of 2017 and six new ferry routes over the next few years. He later said on NY1, apparently without joking, that he feels the ferry service can alleviate subway crowds.
As far as ferries go, I’ve written about this topic more times than I care to revisit, but here we are. Politicians latch onto it because it’s easy. Adding ferry service doesn’t involve taking away an oh-so-precious lane of parking or — gasp! — driving and it doesn’t involve a multi-billion-dollar layout of cash that leads to disruptive and lengthy construction. It sounds good — because who doesn’t like boats? — and gets people talking because it’s different. Despite de Blasio’s claim, it won’t do one iota of good for subway service and doesn’t solve the intertwined issues of funding, congestion and reliability currently plaguing our aging transit network.
But let’s look at what de Blasio said. During his speech, he announced the idea: “Today, we announce that we’re launching a new citywide ferry service to be open for business in 2017. New ferry rides will be priced the same as a MetroCard fare, so ferries will be as affordable to everyday New Yorkers as our subways and buses. Residents of the Rockaways and Red Hook and Soundview will now be closer to the opportunities they need, and beyond connecting residents to jobs in Manhattan, our new citywide ferry system will spur the development of new commercial corridors throughout the outer boroughs.”
Later, his office released details on the funding plans. The map you can see above, and while the heavy lines demarcating preexisting service make the plan look more all-encompassing than it is, it’s stretching the boundaries of viable ferry service. de Blasio said the city will provide operating support, though the amount of subsidies aren’t yet clear, and will spend $55 million on capital commitments. The Coney Island-Stapleton-Wall St. route that will, on the leg between Brooklyn and Staten Island, attract approximately no riders wasn’t included in this cost projection.
As long-term readers know, I’m not a fan of this infatuation with ferries, and I’ll get into that in a minute. First, though, let’s stop to acknowledge that ferry service can be useful. It’s a complementary element of a robust transit network that can bridge awkward gaps. The service from Astoria Cove — a new development nearly a mile away from the subway — can bring residents who work at Manhattan’s East Side hospitals to their jobs. The service from Bay Ridge to Wall St. would be more useful with a stop at Industry City, but it too can solve a problem.
That said, no matter how many times politicians leap to embrace ferries, the same problems remain. It is, flat out, not a substitute for subway service and, because of the scale of ridership figures and planned routing, won’t help alleviate subway congestion. If it takes a few cars off the road, so much the better, but the mayor should be looking at high capacity solutions to the city’s mobility problems. Simply put, ferries aren’t the answer, and now, I’ll explain why.
A good transit network connects homes and offices. On a good night, I can leave work and be home in 30 minutes, and my ride is a zero- or one-transfer, one-fare journey. The utility of any transit network should be based on that concept, and the ferry system falls flat. It may be a nice way to travel, as many defenders have pointed out, but it doesn’t really connect people’s homes and jobs. At best, it serves those folks who live on the Brooklyn waterfront with their jobs at Wall St. which brings me to….
2. Poorly Placed Subsidies
It’s never cheap to operate a ferry network. In fact, the Rockaway ferry was running the city as much as $30 a passenger in subsidies. With the exception of the Soundview and Rockaway ferry proposals, the mayor’s routes by and large connect to areas of people who can afford waterfront housing and bring them to their high-paying jobs in Wall St. and Midtown. This reeks of a subsidy for people who don’t need subsidies. Is that how to solve concerns about middle class viability in New York City, as the mayor stressed, and mobility?
3. The Fare Structure
In effect, the fare issues are a subset of points 1 and 2. The mayor wants an affordable fare, which is a commendable goal, but he won’t be able to ensure one-fare rides or a transfer between ferries and subways and buses. The MTA hasn’t expressed any willingness to forego revenue for the sake of a city-run ferry network, and I don’t blame them. Thus, anyone trying to get from a ferry stop inland is looking at a two-fare ride, and few New Yorkers want to subject their wallets to a double dip like that.
4. The Rockaways, Again
A crazy part of this specific proposal is the Rockaway ferry route. For some reason, this has become a hot-button political issue in a neighborhood that de Blasio would love to see vote for him in 2017. Amusingly, though, the mayor canceled this very same Rockaway ferry route four months ago because it was too expensive and nobody rode it. What will change between now and 2017? Probably nothing except that the mayor will be up for reelection. Color me skeptical.
5. Ferries Aren’t A Solution
For $55 million in capital funds and, optimistically, $20-$30 million in annual operating costs, the city could do wonders for the bus network. Instead, de Blasio is spending his political capital on a system that likely won’t see daily ridership exceed that of 1 or 2 peak-hour subway trains. These routes — most of which don’t parallel subway lines and aren’t faster that the trains — won’t alleviate congestion as subway ridership continues to climb at steep rates. In fact, the ferry plans take away from a real debate on sustainable funding, political support for transit and high-capacity growth.
So there you have it: one thousand words on ferries at a time when literally no politician wants to tackle issues of cost control, congestion pricing or capital plans. That’s de Blasio’s New York for you.