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.