As long time readers of mine know, I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to ferries. After all, we built a bunch of bridges and a subway system between the boroughs of New York City in part because the ferry system just couldn’t cut it as far as mass transit went. Ferries are, by their nature, a niche mode of travel offering low capacity and high operating costs, and in a city of millions, most of whom are landlocked miles away from the nearest ferry dock, a ferry shouldn’t be a political priority for public investment.
Yet, on Thursday, for what was at least the eighth time since the beginning of 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio was behind a lectern hosting a press conference about ferries. This time, he was in Bay Ridge to announce that, due to ridership projections that exceeded expectations, the city would be investing an additional $300 million in ferries over the next few years for bigger boats, better docks and a new maintenance facility. Total capital expenditures are now in the realm of around $500 million, and the city continues to expect to maintain a $6.60 per ride subsidy for all ferry riders.
On the one hand, this news about ferries could be interpreted as a positive development. The ferries are popular! People who ride them — whoever they are — love them! What could be better than a nice day on the water in New York harbor?
But let’s temper our enthusiasm a bit. The popularity is a function of expectations. Here’s a glimpse at the numbers, per the city’s press release. The New York City Economic Development Corporation, the agency in charge of the NYC Ferry system, hasn’t released ridership data publicly so we’ll just have to take the city’s word for it:
NYC Ferry launched on May 1, 2017. Original projections predicted 4.6 million riders once all six routes are operational and fully rolled-out. However, NYC Ferry carried 3.7 million passengers in its first year, with only four routes operating—and only two of them running for the entire 12 months. Updated projections based on the first year of service now show that demand could reach as high as 9 million riders per year by 2023.
As a comparison, Citi Bike carries the same ridership as the ferry system over the span of around four or 4.5 months depending on the time of year, and a random bus line with 4.6 million riders annually is good for around the 38th or 39th busiest in the city. Bill de Blasio has held no press conferences on the B9 lately and notably isn’t investing an additional $300 million in buses even if the opportunity is right there for him.
And even with this new investment, the 350-passenger ferries are still expected to operate only every 25-35 minutes. As the mayor said, “On a really crazy beautiful day in the summer when it seems like everyone in the city wants to go to the beach at the exact same time, there’s still going to be lines but we are going to be serving a lot more people and we’re going to be getting them where they want to go faster.” This seems problematic to say the least for something de Blasio has trumpeted as recently as this week as “the key to a future of New Yorkers being able to get around more easily.” More on this shortly.
Lately, as ferry fatigue has set in, de Blasio has faced some skeptical questions from the city press corps as the transcript from Thursday’s event shows. When asked about the lack of subsidy for Citi Bike, a significantly more popular mode of transit, de Blasio showed his hand and lack of holistic thinking on transportation. “I would argue that each element of our mass transit planning has to be seen individually,” he said. “I felt very strongly that the Citi Bike model could work without subsidy and I’m supposed to be the steward of the tax payer’s money. And if it could keep achieving its goals without it, of course that was the optimum reality and I still believe that.”
Toward the end of this question, de Blasio rambled his way to an interesting observation about the ferry system. “Private sector was out there for quite a while with ferries,” he said, “and some impact was seen. But nowhere near the potential, and we knew there had to be a public investment to actually achieve what was possible in one of the greatest coastal cities in the world.”
And here is where I want to pick up the thread. The mayor is correct that the ferry system worked good enough but has been far more popular with public investment, but that’s because we the taxpayers of New York city are subsidizing each and every ferry ride to the tune of around $6.60 per ride. We’re not subsidizing buses or subways to this degree, and Citi Bike pays for its space on the street.
Perhaps this is a good use of public money, but I’m skeptical. I’m not opposed to the idea of a ferry system that serves New York’s waterfront, but let’s take a deep dive into the people who may be taking the ferry. We don’t know for sure who these folks are because, again, NYCEDC hasn’t released a lick of ridership data. But I pulled some census data last week, and if you look at all of the census tracts that have a least one address within 0.5 miles of a ferry terminal in Queens and Brooklyn, median household income is around $18,000 more than city average, and if you exclude Astoria, the only dock truly amidst low-income housing, that median bumps even more.
Already, then, this generous subsidy is going toward wealthier-than-average New Yorkers, and since the ferries operate on a separate fare system, my quasi-educated guess is that ferry ridership skews even wealthier than census tract medians. After all, those riders who need to transfer to a bus or subway after their ferry rides would have to pay a second fare, and lower income workers are less likely to be able to do so. So as buses struggle and the mayor resists the Fair Fares initiative, does it make sense to subsidize rich New Yorkers who live in waterfront condos and work close to Pier 11 near Wall Street? This is a conversation we should be having about ferries but have not, as the mayor likes to pat himself on the back over boats without understanding how transit planning should be seen in totality rather than individually.
Ultimately, we may decide that having a robust ferry network is a net positive. Maybe we should subsidize these 9 million rides per year. Maybe we should do so while also investing similarly in buses and subways. After all, transit planning should be holistic. But for now, we should be aware that we are subsidizing a niche, low capacity transit mode with a ridership that skews rich. That is not a particularly good use of taxpayer money. Someone should tell the self-proclaimed steward.