Home Public Transit Policy A lukewarm reception for East River ferry service

A lukewarm reception for East River ferry service

by Benjamin Kabak

The Long Island City ferry stop awaits some passengers. (Photo by East River Ferry on flickr)

Pardon me if I don’t immediately jump for joy over the city’s announcement that regular, year-long East River ferry service is set to debut on June 13. We’ve been down this road too many times before to think that this time will be any different from the last. We know what happens when the city starts subsidizing gimmicky transit options in the hopes of “revitalizing” the waterfront or encouraging creative travel. It hasn’t worked then, and for the same reasons, it’s going to face an uphill battle now.

Before I delve into my pessimism, the details: The idea of an East River ferry service has been percolating since last summer, and while the price will be higher than initial proposed, the details remain the same. The ferries will run a seven-stop route on a regular schedule with pick-ups and drop-offs in Midtown, Long Island City, Greenpoint, north and south Williamsburg, Dumbo and Wall Street. Boats will run every 20 minutes during peak hours and every 30 minutes off-peak. On the weekends, the route will include a stop at Governor’s Island and operate every 35 minutes from April to October and once an hour during the winter.

For Midtown-bound passengers, a free bus will provide access into the heart of Manhattan. Check out the map right here. If all goes well, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said, the route will expand to include the Bronx, Roosevelt Island and perhaps the Hudson River side of Manhattan as well.

City officials are excited about the new transportation offering. “It will spur economic development on both sides of the river with literally thousands of residents within walking distance of the neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan being able to reap the benefits of this new service,” Seth Pinsky, president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation said.

The city, meanwhile, is banking a good amount of money on this project. Fares will be kept relatively low as one ride will cost $4, an unlimited day’s worth of travel $12 and a monthly pass $140 as the city is subsidizing the ferries. New York will pour $9 million into the service over the next three years and has already committed $10 million in upgrades for piers in Queens and Brooklyn. (For a closer look at the newly renovated piers, check out coverage from The L Magazine.)

So what then are the problems? Besides the fact that I’m skeptical of the city’s investment — $19 million could have saved a good number of bus routes — the plan seems to be overly enthusiastic and divorced from reality. We don’t need better service for people close to the waterfront, and this seems to be yet another example of misplaced transportation priorities. Let’s run ’em down.

Regularity and Popularity of Service. Through a combination of design and planning, New York’s waterfronts aren’t very populous. Long the purview of industry, only in recent years have waterfront developments sprung up on the east side of the East River, and those developments have catered to distinctly upper class residents. Condos in Dumbo and Williamsburg do not come cheap, and these areas are relatively transit-accessible already. I question if we truly need ferry service that runs more frequently than some bus routes servicing some relatively lower-density, transit-rich neighborhoods.

All in all, Greenpointers who work in Midtown stand to benefit the most simply because it right now takes a while for them to get there. A direct ferry service would be a big boon for that neighborhood, but the other stops in Queens and Brooklyn likely do not need three ferries an hour for 14 hours a day.

Waterfront Access. Again, it’s worth reflecting on the city’s waterfront access. It isn’t great right now, and not that many people live close to the edge of the water. If my choice is between a 10-minute walk to the F in Dumbo or a 10-minute walk to a Ferry that still has to make five more stops before landing at 34th St. and the East River, it’s not a tough decision for any commuter in a hurry. The free bus on the Manhattan side is a welcome perk, but it creates a two-seat ride through some heavily congested areas of the city.

Targeted Underserved Areas. If the city has only a limited amount of money to invest on transit right now, it should spend it with an eye toward the underserved. Here, only Greenpoint kinda, sorta fits the bill as Long Island City, Williamsburg and Dumbo enjoy subway coverage. The money would be better spent improving transit for those who live far away from the city’s central business district or on improving access to non-Manhattan job hubs in the other boroughs.

Acknowledging King MetroCard. When it comes to travel in New York City, the MetroCard is king, and the sooner the city realizes that fact, the better. With the ferry service’s fare structure, riders will have to pay a $4 one-way fare (or a bulk ride option) to take the boat. If they have to go to or from the ferry stops, they’ll have to pay another fare for the connecting subway or bus. The city should figure out a way to provide free transfers between the ferry and MTA-operated transit routes, but stubbornness and territorialism rule the day when it comes to inter-agency cooperation.

Ultimately, East River ferry service isn’t doomed to fail. It is, after all, one of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s transportation goals, but it seems to be a misguided one at a time when we desperately need true leadership on real issues surrounding mass transit in New York City.

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Chris G June 2, 2011 - 6:53 am

Until the fare is covered by a metro card (or its replacement and the system is tied into MTA, you will always have low/garbage ridership.

People do not want to pay for yet another system separately.

Andrew June 2, 2011 - 10:21 pm

Then the city’s subsidy would need to be even higher to offset the reduced fare revenue.

Melissa June 2, 2011 - 7:45 am

I agree about the metro card, but the 7 has been so unpleasant lately and it’s hard to get to Brooklyn from Queens anyway. So I’m admittedly kind of excited for this.

Ed June 2, 2011 - 8:07 am

I agree. I see why people keep falling for ferries, after all the city was built on a bunch of islands, why wouldn’t ferries work? However the islands were big enough to allow for development away from the water, and that is what happened. Except for Lower Manhattan, if you want to use the ferry, you still have to get from the middle of the islands where most of the residences and businesses are to the water, and vice versa.

That said, the “seasonal” service in the green dashes could actually be useful, since it connects one of the few business areas near the water (Lower Manhattan) with one of the few residential areas near the water (Brooklyn Heights), with Governor’s Island, a park that the city is trying hard to promote that has access problems. Even at that, it would have been better to have sunk the money into a pedestrian bridge between Brooklyn Heights and Governor’s Island. For the “normal” service, I don’t see it. The East 34th Street landing isn’t really in Midtown, its sort of just outside the lower southeast corner.

Peter June 2, 2011 - 8:10 am

If the City & State handnt truncated the rail line that ran from Sunnyside Yard directly to the waterfron, in order to build the very high rise buildings in the photo illustrating this story, LIRR passengers and others going to NE Midtown mightve used a ferry and decent Xtown buses as a practical alternative to the daily slog from Penn Station.

Bolwerk June 2, 2011 - 9:14 am

There is nothing inherently wrong with a good water ferry service. It just needs to be integrated, and ferries can be quite cheap and energy-efficient. That said, Pinsky is a God-awful clown who embodies the worst of New York City planning culture. I’d really love to know how many billions that clown has spent over the years on parking, malls, and other junk “investment.” Bet you we could have had a good portion of Phase II of the SAS from a sum like that.

Part of this culture is a religious belief that rail never works. Since they have this unshakeable faith in the failure of rail, and the necessity of artery-clogging traffic, they must inflict gimmicky ferries and uncomfortable buses on the masses. To any layperson it should be obvious: would you rather travel a little “inland” on good public transportation and catch the subway there,* or would you rather travel to the east of Manhattan and suffer 45 minutes of traffic to get to the part of midtown that might vaguely be near your destination or another subway leading to it? The subway will likely drop you off near where you work.

* The waterfront in LIC to Queensborough Plaza, for isntance.

pete June 2, 2011 - 5:34 pm

Nobody who has a choice will use a ferry. Staten Island ferry goes 12 mph, excluding boarding/unboarding time. Thats competitive with a bike, not any other form of wheeled transportation.

Andrew June 2, 2011 - 10:23 pm

I wouldn’t recommend using your wheeled transportation to get from St. George to Whitehall, at least not on the direct route.

John-2 June 2, 2011 - 9:55 am

The problem also is when it comes to ferries, people want to get from Point A to Point B in a one-stop arrangement. They don’t see it like the subway, that may make several stops in-between to get to your destination — it would be as if the Staten Island Ferry made stops at Bay Ridge, Governor’s Island and Red Hook on the trip between St. George and Whitehall.

ferryboi June 2, 2011 - 11:37 am

A good reason the Staten Island Ferry works well for commuters is there are over 20 bus routes and the SI Railway on the Staten Island end, and the 1, 4, 5 and R trains (as well as 3 bus lines) on the Manhattan end. All those stops on NY Waterway, in addition to disembarking at the butt end of E. 34th or Wall streets, doesn’t do commuters much good.

Bolwerk June 2, 2011 - 11:45 am

The SI ferry “works” because those people have no other choice. There is no SI subway, and SI buses to Manhattan blow even worse than the ferry. In the case of able-bodied LIC residents, a better choice would by default be a walk or even take a bus to a proper subway station and a train ride to the place you actually want to go. The only people who use the water taxi will be the few people who enjoy the ride, since it will only take them to places where they’ll have to make another long trip to get where they want to go.

ferryboi June 2, 2011 - 12:34 pm

“Those” people? Guess you’re not a resident of La Isle de Staten…

pete June 2, 2011 - 5:39 pm

SI Buses to Manhattan? They are awesome. 1 trip to midtown. Get on from the street in SI, get let off on 6th ave in Manhattan. Ferry is only for tourists and the poor.

Andrew June 2, 2011 - 10:29 pm

Awesome, but heavily subsidized. (Kind of like the new ferry!)

This isn’t the time to be subsidizing luxuries. We lost a whole bunch of basic transportation a year ago. If we’re going to subsidize something, shouldn’t we bring some of it back?

Ian June 2, 2011 - 10:45 am

Ferries will be a release valve for residents of LIC, Greenpoint and Williamsburg to get to and from lower and midtown Manhattan. Yet, Ben, as you point out there is no transferrability with a MetroCard, which means that for many, this will be an additional $4+ on top of fares paid for subway or bus service. That, plus the lower frequency of service and loading/unloading delays that are bound to occur with ferries will hamper this service’s potential.

Could this succeed? Of course. Though NYC may need to look to other interborough ferry options and find that the price may not be right to customers in light of the benefits. Otherwise, ferries will remain confined largely to weekends, when we’re much less judicious about getting to a certain destination by a certain time.

AlexB June 2, 2011 - 12:22 pm

I agree with all the point made here. Some ideas for neighborhoods that are near the water and have poor transit:
Astoria – near Broadway and Vernon (a lot of people live east of 21st st, a good hike from the N/Q)
Red Hook – near IKEA or Fairway (especially with the closure of the Smith-9th station and the unreliable bus service in this area)
Roosevelt Island – north end
Yorkville – near FDR & 90th (there’s already a pier in this area)

Other areas with good waterfront access and poor transit access but without a lot of potential commuters (my subjective opinion):
Randall’s Island
Greenpoint – on Newtown Creek side
Dyker Heights/Bensonhurst area
All parts of Staten Island away from St George
East and West ends of Coney Island
Marine Park and other Jamaica Bay neighborhoods far from transit
North Astoria
College Point
Hunters Point

All these areas could use express ferry service to midtown, depending on demand and how the speed compared with an express bus in rush hour traffic. Why the city explored express ferry service to the Rockaways when there were much more viable (and closer) areas never made sense to me.

The south Williamsburg stop is actually quite far from the JMZ at Marcy, so that stop makes more sense to me than the others.

There is something of an activity center at the DUMBO ferry stop that generates some tourist activity.

It seems like it would just make too much sense to treat these like express buses, with the corresponding metrocard.

The only way this would take off is if there is large tourist usage and many local residents start to purchase the monthly passes.

Ian June 3, 2011 - 12:21 pm

Check out Vision 2020 on the NYCEDC and Dept of City Planning sites when you have a few minutes. Many of the areas you list are part of a larger plan for ferry service, depending on the success of this pilot.

Scott E June 2, 2011 - 12:57 pm

I know someone in New Jersey who prefers to drive to Weehawken or Jersey City and take the NY Waterway ferry across to Manhattan because it’s more “civilized” than taking the train/PATH (more pleasant, perhaps, but I question the rationale).

Nonetheless, ferries make sense from points farther from Manhattan, particularly the north shore of Queens and Long Island. Places like Whitestone, Douglaston, Glen Cove, Oyster Bay. These areas are underserved by existing mass-transit, and have the demographics of people who may be willing to pay a premium for a more luxurious ride.

I am excited, though, about seeing an alternative to the MTA within the boroughs.

NYC WESTCHESTER RESOURCE » The East River Ferry Service Launches June 15 June 2, 2011 - 3:24 pm

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Jonathan R June 2, 2011 - 5:18 pm

I watched the NY1 segment on the ferry yesterday with Christine Quinn, who is a big supporter of ferries. I wonder if she will be as enthusiastic about the bike share program, which will cost users less than 10% than annual ferry tickets and cost the city nothing. In addition, the bike share program might actually help people get places they want to go, instead of to ferry docks in desolate areas.

Dan June 2, 2011 - 6:29 pm

Not part of Metrocard? Don’t care. Might use it once during the weekend for fun…

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Christopher Stephens June 2, 2011 - 6:59 pm

AlexB mentions Yorkville, where I have lived for 15 years. There used to be a service to Wall Street from the 90th Street pier, and there were plans for stops at 77th Street and, I think, 63rd. I went to far too many Community Board committee meetings, fighting off the NIMBYs who thought that a ferry dock would “destroy” Carl Schurz Park. In the end, the service wasn’t profitable, with infrequent service and uncompetitive fares. I still think that it could be a competitor for the express buses up and down the east side of Manhattan, if they can hit the right frequencies, the right price point and, as above, integration with the MetroCard system. Whether such service could compete for subsidies with other transit needs is a separate question.

pkyc0 June 2, 2011 - 11:10 pm

i think this east river service needs to make a stop at WFC, thats a major office location that is relatively difficult to get to.

herenthere June 3, 2011 - 12:07 am

Subsidized ferry service for the few and the rich? Clearly politically motivated.

Andrew June 3, 2011 - 7:14 am

Just like the express bus pete mentions above.

Eric June 3, 2011 - 12:39 pm

Greenpoint doesn’t need a ferry. Greenpoint needs more reliable G train service. When I was working in midtown I could go door-to-door in 35 minutes. That’s not terrible, but it could have been down to 25 or 30 minutes with more reliable G train service.

Plus, the ferry dock in Greenpoint is at least a 10 minute walk away from the most populous parts of Greenpoint, and it’s in a desolate area.

Carol Gardens June 17, 2011 - 6:18 pm

I took this today and traveled the entire route, plus the Friday Loop. It is so pokey that I highly doubt that many commuters will actually consider riding it on a regular basis, except for DUMBO folks who work around Wall Street or Hunters Point people who work at the United Nations. Otherwise, by the time you get down to the water and wait for the boat and then sit through multiple stops you will be pretty frustrated. And so far they can’t keep to the schedule. This is basically a huge subsidy for waterfront condo developers in Williamsburg and LIC. No surprise there with Bloomberg’s priorities. And I LIKE BOATS!!!

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