Let me ask some questions about the NYC ferry system. Your answers, I believe, will depend entirely on your experiences and your convictions: Is Bill de Blasio’s signature transportation initiative — the New York City Ferry system — a success? Should the city keep subsidizing fares to keep the cost of a ferry ride on par with a $2.75 MetroCard swipe?
Perhaps your answer depends on your commuting habits. If you’re a ferry ride who views them as more “civilized” than the subways or buses, as some riders told The Village Voice last year, you may feel the ferries are great. But if you learn the ferries began with a subsidy of $6.60 per rider that has since increased to nearly $10 per rider (and could reach $16-$24 per ride on future routes), you may feel the ferries are a giveaway, a success through legalized governmental bribery.
Much as I’ve made a career out of questioning the boats, for his part, the mayor has made a career out of defending them. He’s held, by most accounts, 10 press conferences about his ferry system, and each time ridership numbers are announced, he makes a scene about praising them as better than projected. In a way, that’s true; after all, the ferries saw 2.5 million riders over the summer and daily volumes have been a bit better than expected. But that’s because each rider is essentially being paid to take the boats. Sure, they’re not getting actual cash in hand, but they are getting generously subsidized.
Over the years, many transit advocates and supporters have criticized the boats. I’ve been particularly vocal on that front, penning a piece in May of 2018 questioning Bill de Blasio’s love of low-capacity transit, and following The Village Voice piece, I voiced more skepticism in a piece for Curbed New York. Underlying the criticism of the expensive subsidy has been a lack of transparency regarding the details of those who ride the ferries. Anecdotally, The Village Voice found a bunch of wealthier-than-average New Yorkers who would have taken the subway for the same price but enjoyed the boat rides, and when I looked at Census districts near ferry docks, I found that the median household income in Census districts one mile from the docks was around $20,000 higher city average. Thus the ferries also raise a question of policy and prioritization: Are these the transit riders and mode of travel we should be subsidizing so heavily?
Despite long-standing FOIL requests from both Aaron Gordon and The New York Post and a pledge of transparency, the NYC EDC had never publicly released demographics studies of ferry riders until last week. Now that we’ve finally received an official glimpse of the demographics of ferry riders, we can now say definitively New York City should stop spending hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money heavily subsidizing a luxury, niche, low-capacity transit option that largely attracts New Yorkers wealthier than city average and wealthier than those who rely on any other mode of transit.
The results of the survey as the EDC wants you to see them are available here as a PDF. It’s notable that the city released only a 13-page summary and not the raw data because it allows the EDC to set the tone. Even still, the numbers do not make a strong case for continued substantial investment in the ferry fare. As the EDC unavoidably must note, most riders “live near the water and in walking distance of a [ferry] landing.” In fact, nearly three quarters of all riders walk to the landings while the EDC notes that 6 percent bike and 11 percent take the subway or bus. The remaining 11 percent use a car, and the EDC notes that most of the drivers are heading the boat that serves the Rockaways.
There’s not much to learn from those figures, and I’ll return to them in a second. But this slide is the most damning:
As you can see from the EDC’s data, ferry riders have a median income between $75-$99,999, and while that’s a big income window, it’s already higher than the median income for the service area. While it’s not clear if this is individual income or household income, it’s far higher than median household income across the city or for users of other parts of the transit network. The median household income for NYC is around $63,000 per year while individual median income is around $38,000. The average median individual income for an employed subway rider is around $40,000 and for bus commuters is around $28,455 (per data published in 2017 by Scott Stringer). So no matter how you slice it, we’re spending over $9 per ride to subsidize a low-capacity transit service for New Yorkers who are, on average, on the high side of the income scale.
It’s long been assumed the ferries were a bad investment that do little to improve mobility for the New Yorkers who need it most, and now we have the numbers to back up that reality. While some, such as the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas, have argued that these taxpayers would exit New York or perhaps otherwise drive without this generous ferry subsidy, it’s hard to see how those arguments play out. The ferries are, after all, not even three years old yet, and New Yorkers have been flocking to the waterfront for the better part of two decades. Plus, most of the ferry riders who spoke with The Village Voice said they would shift to transit if faced with a choice, and many would stick with the boats even at a steeper fare. As the ferries themselves are net polluters, the environmental argument doesn’t hold up too well either.
Meanwhile, as new analysis from the Citizens Budget Commission points out, the NYC Ferry subsidy is the second highest in the nation, and every city other than New Orleans that offers ferry service does so at a higher price point. As the ferries are bleeding taxpayer dollars, the CBC calls for a “reconsideration of the operating strategy and pricing model.”
At this point, we can comfortably say Bill de Blasio is subsidizing a luxury travel option for relatively few people who tend to be wealthier. These aren’t the folks facing a mobility crisis whose buses are stuck in traffic or who can’t afford transit fares. These aren’t folks who have endless commuters from far-flung areas of the city, and it’s time to stop the giveaway. We make these types of policy decisions routinely, and it’s time to admit that a ferry fare subsidy was a bad idea. If the city wants to invest capital dollars into the ferry system and if the city can support a ferry system with a much smaller fare subsidy — say $2-$4 to align it with subways or the more popular express bus routes — so be it. But a handout to a private ferry operator so a few people pay the equivalent of a MetroCard swipe for a “civilized” commute isn’t one we should embrace. It’s time for this subsidy to end.