Home Public Transit Policy A Ferry good idea for New York City travel

A Ferry good idea for New York City travel

by Benjamin Kabak

A New York Water Taxi en route to Battery Park. (Photo via flickr user Tomas Fano)

For a city whose central business area is an island, New York City is surprisingly cut off from its waterways. With a road network ringing the island, numerous bridges and tunnels connecting Manhattan to the outside world and an extensive subway system that makes interborough travel an afterthought, the city can feel like just another landlocked metropolitan urban area.

Last week, though, I challenged that paradigm en route to a Yankee game. After more than two and a half decades of taking the 4, the D or the B (and once the C) to Yankee Stadium, my sister and I headed down to Pier 11 on Wednesday night, and at 5:30, we boarded the game-day special water taxi. The boat leaves 90 minutes before game time and drops its 150 passengers off on the far side of the new Metro-North stop at 153rd St. From there, it is about a ten-minute walk through a parking lot, over a train station and past the old stadium to the new ballpark.

As a means of travel to the stadium, the water taxi is more gimmick than practical mode of transit. Our door-to-door trip from Wall St. took over an hour while the 4 train takes approximately 35 minutes to make the same trip and leaves you closer to the stadium than the boat does. Yet, as we traveled, I marveled at the route. We motored past parts of the city most New Yorkers never see from the water, and my sister and discussed just how far some of those East Side dwellers are from the nearest subway stop. With a ferry stop only at 34th St. along the East Side, those who live far east either walk, take the bus or drive.

But what of the waterways? Ferry service in New York is never taken seriously, but a Times article published yesterday suggests that may change. Currently, approximately 100,000 people per day take ferries in New York, and according to Ariel Kaminer, most of those who aren’t taking the Staten Island ferry travel between New Jersey and Lower Manhattan. Some use the Ikea shuttle, and the once-a-day shuttle to and from the Rockaways has its followers.

Kaminer reports though that the city is looking to expand its use of the water ways. She writes:

Three public entities have been considering it from different angles. The Economic Development Corporation is soon to release its “Comprehensive Citywide Ferry Study.” The Department of City Planning is interested in how ferries could revitalize the waterfront. And the Office of Emergency Management is looking around for mass-evacuation plans. (In a crisis, you wouldn’t want to be left hailing a taxicab.) Put all that together, and there’s a chance that a decade from now, ferries could be mentioned along with buses and subways as main-course options on New Yorkers’ transportation menu…

Ferries are a growth opportunity. To add new routes, you don’t need to dig a tunnel or lay a track. You don’t need to reroute traffic, build bridges or add lanes. And in many parts of New York, unlike almost every other city, you wouldn’t need to build big parking lots where riders could leave their cars. What cars?

What you need is a viable pier and a boat. You need a convenient way to get from water’s edge to people’s ultimate destinations. And you need someone to be in charge of it all…

It’s hard to imagine ferry service expanding very far unless it becomes a public initiative, an integrated system with coordinated schedules and MetroCard access. But who would lead such an initiative? The Metropolitan Transportation Authority? The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey? The Department of Transportation? No one seems to know.

Whatever value these public agencies ultimately assign to reducing car traffic, easing interborough transit, supporting waterfront development or other such civic goals, New Yorkers have a personal reason to care. Ferries are fun. They tend to cost a few dollars more than other forms of mass transit, but you can think of the difference as an inexpensive form of mental health care.

In a sense, Kaminer treats ferries like a gimmick. They’re fun, she says, because to landlocked New Yorkers, they are. But ferries could do a lot for the city’s transit pathways as long as planners recognize something about ferries: They aren’t very fast, and they should be used to connect areas of the city that aren’t near or accessible to other transit options.

Because New York City opted to ring its waterfronts with roads, the bulk of development has occurred near the middle of the island. While people do live along the waterfront, far more people work, live and play in the center of the island, and for millions, ferries are inconvenient, impractical and slow. But if the city can figure out a way to run cost-neutral or even profitable ferry service from areas that don’t enjoy easy access to subways or regular bus routes, the only thing in the way, as Kaminer notes, would be a lack of a pier.

For most, ferries won’t become a way of travel. We live far from the shorelines and work far from the shorelines. Plus, as my meandering trip up the East River last week demonstrated, ferry travel can take twice as long as a subway covering the same ground can. Yet, it makes sense to invest in the waterways. If even enough people for a few boat rides a day find the taxis cheaper and more convenient than their current commutes, the ferries will have paid off.

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J B June 7, 2010 - 1:12 am

Would there actually be demand for ferries in areas not too accessible to transit? I would guess that such areas are not very dense, generally distant from rail connections (with the obvious exception of south ferry), and are mostly populated by people who use cars, typically don’t need to leave their area, or wouldn’t be able to afford to take ferries, which are expensive even when subsidized. Buses might still be a more practical solution for such areas, even if they’re less sexy.

Aaron June 7, 2010 - 3:16 am

I won’t alleged familiarity with every area of the outer boroughs but, as you said, many of the areas of Manhattan are surrounded by the FDR and the West Side Highway. Ferry service in Boston works because the Aquarium stop on the Blue line and North Station on the Green/Orange lines aren’t that far from the wharves, but as you said, I’m not aware of too many places in New York where that’s the case, other than the already-busy SI Ferry terminal. On top of that, Brooklyn has so many subway tunnels (and bridges) between Lower Manhattan that I’m not really sure that a Brooklyn-Manhattan ferry is a viable commuting tool. Are there places where this mode is underutilized?

rhywun June 7, 2010 - 4:12 am

Unlike many other cities, ferries never make a “sexy” comeback in NYC because for whatever reasons, it took forever for people to exploit our long abandoned waterfronts. Only in recent years, decades after all the industry went away, are we now seeing huge growth in waterfront neighborhoods like LIC and Greenpoint. There’s little or no decent transit near any NYC waterfront, so these developments are mostly centered around car travel, making any kind of ferry “comeback” even less likely.

Benjamin Kabak June 7, 2010 - 8:21 am

Just because the developments are centered around car travel currently doesn’t mean ferries can’t overtake cars. The whole point of adding ferries to these areas you mention would be to wean people off cars. With the right push, the right price and the right service, you could convince those to switch from cars to ferries, I believe, for at least some of their travel.

oscar June 7, 2010 - 3:56 pm

yeah but where would the ferry drop you off in Manhattan that’s reasonably close to a subway (other than south ferry area)?…so if you live in one of the few waterfront neighborhoods outside of Manhattan, and only need to go to downtown or walking distance from a ferry stop, its just isn’t that appealing.

Scott E June 7, 2010 - 8:54 am

I know many people who choose to take ferries to Manhattan from New Jersey, particularly the Highlands (south of Staten Island) area, where the rail alternate requires veering far west to come back east along the NJ coastline. Glen Cove, on the north shore of Long Island, had a groundbreaking for a new ferry terminal just last week, which would provide an alternate to the inconvenient LIRR Oyster Bay branch.

Ferries, I believe, are a reasonable alternate for commuter transit where the jagged geography doesn’t well serve other options, but perhaps not for rapid transit. I think more ferry service from Staten Island and LIRR’s north shore would be helpful. Other than a cross-Hudson ferry between Rockland and Westchester (linking with rail), I don’t see much of a benefit replacing or supplementing other modes north of the city. Ferry usage can’t grow too fast, though, or the waterways would become as congested as the roads and rails.

The problem right now is that ferries (except for the Staten Island ferry) are too expensive for the average commuter.

Of course, they shut down in certain conditions: notably when the waterways freeze, but they are also extrenmely beneficial at other times — think the regionwide blackout in 2003.

Spencer K June 7, 2010 - 9:20 am

I tend to agree with Scott here, speaking from experience of family members.

Also, Ben, the trip up the East River might be a bad example due to the speed restrictions on that route. A better example would probably be Breezy Point to Wall Street. The A takes well over an hour to get between the two points, where the ferry takes an hour.

Benjamin Kabak June 7, 2010 - 9:23 am

As far as I know, the speed restrictions go into effect after Roosevelt Island, right? The trip from Wall St. to 34th St. wasn’t faster than the subway either. I’d posit that the Breezy Point trip is faster because the A is a meandering route with many local stops in the Rockaways. Generally, ferry routes that mirror subway lines probably won’t be faster.

AK June 7, 2010 - 10:07 am

MTA could invest in “bullet” ferries, like those that shuttle people to Nantucket/Martha’s Vineyard/Nova Scotia. However, those routes are MUCH longer (hence making speed all the more important) and in order to be even cash-flow neutral, the fares AND ridership would have to be quite high…though I do think that faster ferries could generate revenue on the Staten Island/Lower Manhattan route, especially if the “bullet” ferry left from a location other than St. George.

Andrew June 8, 2010 - 7:23 am

That ferry is also subsidized by the city to the tune of nearly $20 per rider.

(If you want a speedy trip to Wall Street, why are you living in Breezy Point?)

Incidentally, the MTA Trip Planner pegs the trip from Breezy Point to Wall Street, during the morning rush, at just under an hour, courtesy of the Q35 bus and 2/5 train. The A takes about an hour from Rockaway Park; it’s the long Q22 bus ride that’s killer.

Eric F. June 7, 2010 - 10:10 am

The problem with ferries are that they leave you at the shore line. You still have to find a way to get the rest of the way into your office or wherever you are going. Aside from South Ferry, there generally aren’t subway stops at the waterfront. So, though ferries are a great way to approach Manhattan and operate on highly reliable schedules, as they don’t face traffic issues, they effectively require you to layer on a very slow bus ride onto a 12 minute ferry ride and you don’t make much headway. You’d have to get the buses leading from the ferries sped up to make the ferries more useful. I suppose NYC is working on that, but it’s a tough task. Take a bus from the 38th street terminal across 42nd street some time. It’s very slow going. Still, they do seem to work for a few thousand people each day.

SEAN June 7, 2010 - 10:27 am

There was a water taxi service from Yonkers to Wall street, but it shut down last year.

Unlike in northern & central New Jersey where most train stations have a nearby New York bus option, the MTA was able to block most other ferry or bus alternitives from competeing with the railroads.

It would be in the MTA’s best interest to provide ferry service as a complement to Metro-North & LIRR. Yonkers, Tarrytown, Ossining, Beacon, New Rochelle, Rye near Playland & communities along both sides of Long Island’s sound shore are natural spots for ferry lines. Heck even the south shore of the island could be a possibility.

If nessessary have the MTA do a joint venture with NY Waterway & the Port Authority to fund & opperate the service.

With the new farecard system being developed, you could extend it to fares on the ferrys. They do that in Seattle.

AlexB June 7, 2010 - 10:55 am

Most of the major commuting routes are already covered by express buses and/or trains which are almost always faster to downtown or midtown than a ferry, for all the reasons other comments have noted. However, it seems like there are many opportunities for ferries to connect neighborhoods where there is no direct route by train or bus. For example, Flushing-Yankee Stadium, Smith/9th-St George, and anything from New Jersey to Brooklyn or Staten Island could provide significant time savings for many people.

JPN June 7, 2010 - 11:37 am

I know you’re making a rhetorical example, but Smith/9th through the Gowanus Canal? No thanks. The same for a route through Newtown Creek that would serve western Queens and northern Brooklyn. Nice on paper, repulsive on the lungs.

AlexB June 7, 2010 - 1:09 pm

It’s not that rhetorical. If you are trying to get from Brooklyn to St George, this would save a lot of time compared to transferring from the R to a bus and then to a another bus. This would especially be true if you live near the F, G or A, none of which are a close walk to South Ferry. Smith-9th is one of the few stations that is right next to a body of water, so there could be many opportunities for ferry connections here. It could be a sort of ferry hub. The station is close to the mouth of the canal, so the unpleasantness would be minimal. I’ve been in a boat in the Gowanus and it’s actually quite pleasant, although it wasn’t after a recent rainfall.

SEAN June 7, 2010 - 4:32 pm

Between JFK & Far Rockaway, lies a 127 acre development called Arverne By the Sea. One of the selling points is the ferry to lower Manhattan, do to the fact the A train’s run time is nearly an hour despite it being an express.

I visited the project out of cureosity & got a tour of a home & an apartment. I would have to say it was a bit overrated. Perhaps once the promiced amenities like the transit plaza with an ajoining shopping center & YMCA open, things will improve.

But for this thred the focus should be on the ferry wich is a positive element that should be replicated where possible. The ferry runs to pier 11 near Wall Street. I wonder if it could run up to West 38th as well. This could bypass the need to sit on the over crowded A for over 70 minutes each way.

tacony palmyra June 7, 2010 - 11:12 am

Cost-neutral or profitable? Not even. If we can just run ferry service that has equal or lower subsidies per rider than the trains and buses, bravo. But I’ve never seen a convincing case for affordable ferry service without massive subsidies. The ferries from New Jersey that go unsubsidized take advantage of the fact that the limited Hudson River crossings are “full”– there is no room for expansion of NJ Transit bus service into Port Authority. The ferries basically market themselves as more “civilized” options for the most affluent riders who wouldn’t deign to be crammed into a packed bus or PATH train with the huddled masses. Do we want to create a more segregated commute mode split? Those ferries cost at least 2 to 3 times the price of the buses and PATH. And that’s for services that only run during standard commute hours. Most of the routes can’t even afford to run late nights and weekends. Not trying to sound like I’m “against” ferries, but I think their application in NYC is limited primarily due to cost.

Scott E June 7, 2010 - 11:36 am

I agree that ferries tend to target the more affluent commuters (I hate to use the term “civilized”, even if that’s the unspoken description).

Given this target, it may be more appropriate to say that, under the current cost structure, the ferries target people who would otherwise DRIVE (and park!), not those who would otherwise take buses or trains.

zgori June 7, 2010 - 12:11 pm

Problems with the ferries (as currently configured) from the commuter’s perspective:

1. They cost substantially more than the train, particularly if you factor in a transfer, and seldom reduce door-to-door times.

2. They run infrequently, making it hard to be flexible.

3. The routes are not reliable long-term. You can’t invest in waterfront housing in, say, Williamsburg, LIC or Dumbo with the expectation that you will always be able to take the ferry to work because there has been a history of ferry companies abandoning routes or cutting service.

4. The densest of all the waterfront neighborhoods, the upper east side, has no convenient access from the water.

R2 June 7, 2010 - 12:33 pm

Ferries may be “cheap” on the capital side compared to other modes, but they are operationally expensive. Those private companies actually rely on massive subsidies and they STILL have trouble posting profits, much less breaking even.

For that (plus all the other reasons already mentioned) ferries will remain a “nice” alternative but will not be a significant mode.

zgori June 7, 2010 - 2:53 pm

Other modes of transportation that are operationally expensive, rely on massive subsidies and still have trouble breaking even: buses, subways, commuter rail, airlines and driving.

John June 7, 2010 - 5:43 pm

Not always. A lot of these lines started out being built by private companies, which made a profit. The subway was started by 2 separate companies (the BRT, later BMT, and IRT).
I didn’t realize that the airlines relied on subsidies.
The case could be made that buses and subways are generally profitable during rush hour. If the ferries took the more lucrative routes and ran them only during rush hours, they too could make a profit.
The advantage is that it requires minimal capital investment (building a pier and dock would suffice). However, if they only traveled at profitable times, that would reduce it to a rush hour only service, meaning that it wouldn’t do anything to spur development, as nobody would want to depend on a rush hour only line.

zgori June 9, 2010 - 10:32 am

I’m not completely up on my subway history, but I think the city granted those early companies exclusivity contracts which could be considered a kind of subsidy. Plus later they went bankrupt, though I suppose the city’s refusal to raise the fare may have had something to do with that. At any rate, I don’t think it’s fair to say a transportation mode is profitable “some of the time” and therefore its viable, but you acknowledge that.

As for airlines, their subsidies are in the form of once-a-decade or so bailouts and massive public investment in airports, traffic control and security.

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JPN June 7, 2010 - 1:36 pm

What are the mass-evacuation plans for evacuating Manhattan and the other New York islands if bridges and tunnels are unavailable? I am reminded of the 2005 War of the Worlds film starring Tom Cruise where people were evacuated on a ferry.

Eric June 7, 2010 - 6:55 pm

Decades ago people wanted to dam the Hudson and/or East Rivers to create more roads and land for Manhattan. With that in mind, let’s dig up Broadway and make it one long canal.

(There’s just no way to make ferry service convenient for much of NYC.)

Eric June 7, 2010 - 6:56 pm

Although I have always loved taking the various ferries the few times that they have been convenient.

Jonathan June 9, 2010 - 10:07 am

The problem I see with ferries is that the blocks around the ferry need to be even denser than corresponding blocks around a subway or bus terminal because about half the area that the radius of demand circumscribes is water, not buildable land.

Ferry service to Dyckman Street, for instance, has been thrown around as a possibility. However, the Hudson is 2100 feet from the A train at Broadway and the Harlem River is 2100 feet from the 1 train at Nagle St. Who wants to schlep that far? What I fear is that once the ferry is built, the operator will ask for a parking garage that will bring in more people from outside the area in cars, adding to congestion instead of reducing it.

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