As anyone who’s kept up with my site over the years knows, I’m not a particularly big fan of the recent push to expand the city’s ferry network. If handled properly and if geography and economic forces dictate accordingly, boats can be a complementary part of a comprehensive transit network, but the recent attention — from Washington Heights to Soundview to Bay Ridge to the Rockaways — on expanding the network seems to treat ferries as a comprehensive solution to some of the travel woes affecting the city’s more isolated areas. As a history of failed ferry companies and eliminated routes tell show us, ferries are not the panacea they are promised to be.
The latest round of ferry fetishization comes to us from the Economic Development Corporation. The city agency recently unveiled plans for an extensive ferry network, and at the time, the mayor said, apparently with a straight face, that he expects the new ferry routes to help alleviate subway congestion problems. That’s almost as crazy as the idea that pedestrian plazas should be ripped up because of a handful of aggressive costumed characters and desnudas asking for tips, but I digress.
Now that the ferry service is inching closer to reality, the details are becoming clearer, and the planning seems to be as flawed as I feared it would be. Last week, Brooklyn’s Community Board 6 heard a presentation on the Red Hook plan, and what they heard does not inspire much confidence in the potential popularity of the ferry network. Two reports focused on different, but equally as problematic, aspects of the new service.
The first concerns fare payment and comes courtesy of DNA Info:
The planned Citywide Ferry System will begin service in the spring of 2017 with three routes — South Brooklyn, Astoria and Rockaway — but its $2.75 ticket will not integrate with the MTA’s MetroCard fare system or allow free transfers to subways and buses, city officials said at a community meeting Thursday night.
Without a free transfer, most riders who do not work within walking distance of their docks would effectively see their transportation costs double. But the higher cost would still be in the range of the fare for an express bus, said Lydia Downing, the city Economic Development Corporation’s vice president and deputy director for government and community relations.
“I think it’s a dealbreaker if you can’t get it integrated with the MetroCard,” Bahij Chancey, an architect and Cobble Hill resident, told the EDC at the meeting. Commuters won’t bother with the additional ticket and the extra fare, and the city will find there isn’t enough rider revenue to sustain the operation, he said.
EDC officials claimed that the fare payment system could be integrated with the MTA’s once the agency phases out the MetroCard, but that’s not likely to happen before the initial three-year ferry pilot term expires. For now, the ferries will create a two-fare system, and that’s not a plus in my book. We’ll revisit that in a few paragraphs.
The other problem concerns terminal location. The Brooklyn Paper summarizes:
The city should jetty-son its plan to open a new commuter ferry stop on the southern edge of Red Hook and drop anchor in Atlantic Basin instead, say locals. Officials intend to send ferries to either the privately-owned Van Brunt Street pier or the city-owned parkland Valentino Pier when the city expands its ferry services in 2017. But those sites are out of walking distance for many Red Hookers, not close enough to transit, and lack parking, critics said.
“The two locations you have picked — unless they can take their car, fold it up, and put it in their briefcase — there is no parking,” said Jerry Armer, who is a member of Community Board 6, which encompasses Red Hook. Instead, locals are floating their own plan to open the dock in Atlantic Basin, in the corner closest to Conover Street, which they said has a giant parking lot and is closer to more Hook homes.
The idea of creating a ferry terminal that requires a car to be accessible to the neighborhood it’s supposed to serve is completely anathema to ferries as a solution to the transit problem; the two-fare system simply exacerbates and underscores this flaw.
Red Hook, in particular, is a prime spot for ferry service. It’s surrounded by water, isolated from the subway system, and contains a high amount of lower- and middle-income housing. It’s an area may regard as a transit desert, and yet, the ferries don’t help those citizens who can’t reach transit. By locating terminals too far from the public housing complexes — which aren’t near the water in the first place — and instituting a two-fare system, the ferries are essentially unreachable and unaffordable for those most in need of better access. If ferries can’t work for Red Hook, what chances do the rest of the proposed system have?
Ultimately, these flawed plans leave me with the same question I’ve had from the start: If the city is willing to subsidize expensive ferry service so that the fare for a boat ride is $2.75 but won’t ensure a transfer to a bus or subway, would New Yorkers be better off if the EDC simply invested the money in a better bus network for Red Hook or even a light rail system on a dedicated set of tracks running from Borough Hall to Red Hook to Smith/9th Sts.? If the Red Hook ferry — particularly low-hanging fruit — is being set up to fail, it’s hard to think otherwise.