Home Public Transit Policy As fares arrive, ferry passengers do not

As fares arrive, ferry passengers do not

by Benjamin Kabak

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

When it comes to media coverage, timing is everything, and that old adage certainly held true for the launch of the East River Ferry service last month. When New York Waterway launched its service — free for the first two weeks — riders and the press came out in droves, but now that the subsidized service is losing passengers, its decline has escaped much notice. It shouldn’t though.

The first stories that came out of the media frenzy surrounding the launch were about as glowing as expected. Adriane Quinlan liveblogged a day on the free ferries, and she spoke with some folks who were just joyriding and others who claimed they would take it. The resulting article that appeared in the paper was just as glowing, and others had similarly praising coverage. (Village Voice, Brooklyn Eagle, WCBS)

The initial coverage had a common theme: The ferries aren’t like the subways. They meander in open-air spaces on the water. They don’t suffer from the crowds of the 4 train or the inconsistencies of the L train. It is a more civilized way to travel. That narrative, of course, misses the fact that nearly all of Manhattan and nearly all of Brooklyn is inaccesible from the waterfront without additional subway rides. Once the ferry started charging a $4 fare, I figured ridership would drop.

It did, and precipitously. After notching over 10,000 riders per weekday during the free period, the ferry service didn’t even generate that many passengers over the first three days of paid rides. The Brooklyn Paper tried to spin it as a success. “I would call this a roaring success,” Seth Pinsky from the city’s Economic Development Corporation said. With 2750 riders on a Tuesday — or approximately three mostly full subway trains worth of riders — the bar for success is a low one indeed.

Earlier this week, The Post ran a short piece on the declining ridership. They were the only major New York City newspaper to do so because it’s simply not a novelty anymore. Failing, subsidized ferry services are the norm in New York City. New York Water Taxi couldn’t support a profitable venture because commuters found the ferries slow, inconvenient and, during the winter months, cold. Even with $3 million per year in city subsidies, the ferry service won’t stay afloat if ridership continues to drop. If fewer than 3000 commuters will take the boats in late June, how many are going to ride in December with a wind whipping across the East River?

In theory, ferries are a great idea for New York City, but these East River routes, heavily trafficked by surface transit and subways, aren’t ideal. It is, as commuters have noted, a slow road that lags behind bikes and trains for travel time. It is also isn’t integrated into New York’s vast and complex transit network. A MetroCard swipe with a free transfer would be far more convenient than another fare that drops most riders off nowhere near a connecting subway.

Better options would ferry service would have focused on the true problem commutes. A ferry from the Rockaways to Lower Manhattan or Bay Ridge to Wall Street would have the potential to cut travel times for many commuters left stranded are the wrong ends of slow subway routes. For now, though, this yuppie-centric East River diversion will continue, with city subsidies, to represent the poor planning that goes into new interborough transit routing.

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John Tully July 8, 2011 - 3:35 am

left stranded are the wrong ends of slow subway routes.


Marc Shepherd July 8, 2011 - 8:59 am

I have to agree with you: East River ferries never made much sense to me, because the waterfront is too difficult to get to.

Bolwerk July 9, 2011 - 8:53 pm

It’s not like Hamburg, where there is actual streetlife along the riverfront. Maybe it should be or could be, but it’s not right now.

BoerumHillScott July 8, 2011 - 9:03 am

Every time a new apartment building goes up in Williamsburg, ferry supporters think it will enough to make East River ferries profitable, but I don’t see it ever happening.

Al D July 8, 2011 - 9:04 am

The problem with the L has more to do with it being over-capacity than it being inconsistent. Instead of wasting $ trying to make a go of the ferry, that money should instead be spent on improving the L. I realize that even minor improvements wlll cost many more millions of dollars, but at least that money will have been well spent because thedemand is already there. Once this slump ends, building will continue in Williamsburg, and now Bushwick, unabated. Expand the the L to 10 or 12 car train sets (along with platform improvements, etc. So what if the stations are notoptimally spaced for this. The front will be in 1 station and the back in another. And, extend the lay up tracks at 8 Ave out past 9th Ave. Whilst we’re at it, build access at 9th Ave and Ave A. Pie in the sky? I dunno. But that’s how the ferry could be called too?

Trying to do an end around the very agency charged with providing public transit with public transit options is simply foolhardy.

Marino July 8, 2011 - 9:27 am

Wonderful ideas, really!
I wish they did expand the L train to match capacity. I’m still dreaming of them building a parallel route underneath it to serve as an express type…..I’d rather see that than the 7 line extension to 34th street.

Bolwerk July 9, 2011 - 9:08 pm

It would almost make more sense to build a surface LRT from the Williamsburg Bridge to Lorimer to Myrtle, and abandon every L stop between Lorimer and Dekalb. The biggest waves of riders beyond Lorimer seem to alight at Dekalb or Myrtle (not sure about Broadway and Canarsie).

BoerumHillScott July 8, 2011 - 9:40 am

The amount of money that the city is spending on the ferry service would not cover a non-structural rehabilitation on one station.

There is no comparison between this service and any subway expansion in terms of expense.

Benjamin Kabak July 8, 2011 - 11:16 am

$9 million isn’t enough to cover any amount of station rehab, but as an operating subsidy, it’s enough over three years to keep numerous bus routes in service. Those routes would carry more passengers per year than the ferry does and could provide for better transit options.

BoerumHillScott July 8, 2011 - 12:08 pm

Good point.

I have mixed feelings on testing ferry service every few years.

I don’t think they will ever really take of, but the cost of the subsidy is very tiny in the overall scheme of NYC transit.

The safe choice would certainly be to spend the money on saving existing bus service, but I think there needs to be some money for experimenting with new types of transit solutions.

I would also like to see more pilot projects like this with new different types of bus routing for fixed periods of time.

Andrew July 8, 2011 - 8:05 pm

The subsidy is not tiny compared to the savings in many of last year’s bus cuts. That service should be restored any ferries are subsidized.

Matt July 8, 2011 - 12:07 pm

They did spend $200M to upgrade the L to CBTC; this is ideally supposed to increase capacity via shortened headways (among other things).

Unfortunately the MTA CC does a terrible job of commissioning new technology, so until they figure it out CBTC will have to stand for Catch Bus To Canarsie

Andrew July 8, 2011 - 8:11 pm

Actually, CBTC was installed on the L because the signals on the line needed to be replaced. Back in the 90’s, when this was all planned out, the Canarsie line was picked as as the pilot because it was a standalone line that wasn’t very busy, so if things didn’t work perfectly right away, the world wouldn’t come to an end. Then residential activity on the line skyrocketed, and it suddenly was very busy, and the system had more problems than anybody had anticipated.

If there are any capacity gains over the old signals, they will be modest. What’s running now is still less than what the old signals supported, both because some of the old signals are still in place and because unreliability of the CBTC equipment on the cars has kept car availability very low for years.

(And MTACC has nothing to do with CBTC contracts.)

Bolwerk July 9, 2011 - 9:02 pm

Har, building in NYC is never unabated. You didn’t think your $2000/month closet in Manhattan was because of extra supply, did you?

I should know for sure because it’s probably my main train, but my hunch is the L’s “capacity” problems have little to do with potential capacity. They’re often running 8TPH, which just ain’t much. They could be squeezing more in trains if they needed them, and they’re making sure the trains are crowded at night on purpose.

What really would be nice would be an express/service track between Lorimer and Myrtle – but that ain’t going to happen, and probably shouldn’t.

William M July 8, 2011 - 10:26 am

I think the distance is way too vast for a ferry service between the Rockaway area to Lower Manhattan. Ferries are slow, and many people wouldn’t use it unless if it is a high speed ferry service which I doubt the city would pay for. The idea of seeing a ferry service from South Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan isn’t a bad idea, but it still won’t see much passenger usage as many people can just hop on a subway train on the Fourth Avenue Line. I believe the best idea for ferry service would be to buy more ferry boats for the Staten Island Ferry and increase the amount of destinations. You can create routes to Bay Ridge, to Coney Island, to Hoboken Terminal, to the East 34th Street Ferry Terminal, and to the West Midtown Ferry Terminal while keeping ferry service to the South Ferry Terminal, and thus you can create a massive ferry network that would transport people to Staten Island, and if they have enough time transfer to ferries for other destinations. That idea would certainly be popular with New Yorkers.

pkyc0 July 8, 2011 - 12:03 pm

they should get rid of the bus service, that can’t be cheap, and focus on serving the health corridor, wall st and wfc. those are three areas that are pain in the butt to get to from brooklyn/queens stops.

the lic stop should be moved north to where people actually live or atleast get a shorter path throug the construction site.

also timing the ferries to connect with the LIRR trains would be nice. I can see lots of long islanders taking the ferry to wall st/wfc instead of the subway though the miserable penn station.

Matt July 8, 2011 - 12:09 pm

I didn’t know Wall St was difficult to get to, via any subway line

pkyc0 July 8, 2011 - 12:13 pm

wall st closer to the water front is a bit of a trek to the subway, not crazy though. but having to get off the 7 and L and switch to the 4/5 during rush hour is not much fun at all. it’s a route where the ferry can be faster and definitely more comfortable ==> more likely to have paying passengers

Al D July 8, 2011 - 3:22 pm

agreed. the 2 3 is somewhat inconvenient, but the rest of the lines, fuhgeddaboudit

Andrew July 8, 2011 - 8:14 pm

So don’t switch to the 4/5. Switch to the 2/3 or the A/C, which also go downtown.

Ferdinand Cesarano July 8, 2011 - 12:20 pm

While conceding the general points about the low ridership spelling a short life for this ferry service, I find it misleading to state that “nearly all of Manhattan…is inaccesible from the waterfront without additional subway rides”. A landing at 34th Street is not meant to serve all of Manhattan; it is meant to serve the Midtown core, where a huge concentration of people work. So, more pertinent would be the observation that anyone who works in midtown would be a short walk away from his or her office after landing at the waterfront.

Even if one stretches the “midtown core” concept to mean 14th St. to 59th St., the longest possible walk is still about 3 miles. From the Hudson River, it is only 2 miles along 34th St. across to the opposite shore; it is only about 2 1/2 miles to 59th St./5th Ave. or to 14th St./5th Ave.; and only about 3 miles to 59th St./1st Ave. or to 14th St./1st Ave. (Please note that those are the extremes, considered within an exaggerated radius. The typical walk, within a more traditional conception of “Midtown”, would be a small fraction of that.)

So, then, whatever it is that is keeping commuters from using the ferry to go to Midtown, it is certainly not the prospect of a 10-minute walk on a summer’s day.

Andrew July 8, 2011 - 8:16 pm

Nobody rides transit and walks 3 miles. That’s not a short walk.

Ferdinand Cesarano July 9, 2011 - 9:19 am

As I mentioned, that is the extreme — it would be 3 miles all the way to 1st Ave. and 59th St. or 14th St. It is true that few people who work in those locations would take a Hudson River ferry that lands at 34th St.

However, for someone who works near the Empire State Building, or near Rockefeller Plaza, or at 40th St./7th Ave. or at 23rd St./6th Ave., etc., etc., the walk from the ferry would indeed be a short one.

The point is that the 34th St. ferry landing is convenient for thousands upon thousands of people. For this group, there is some reason other than lack of conveninece (perhaps unawareness or inertia) that they are not using the service.

Benjamin Kabak July 9, 2011 - 11:07 am

It’s a 15-minute walk from the ferry terminal at 34th St. to the Empire State Building. That’s not a short walk by any New York City commuting standards, and that doesn’t take into account how much slower the ferry is or getting to the opposite landing. That ferry landing is convenient for those who work along the east part of the East Side. For anyone else, the subway is significantly closer.

AlexB July 8, 2011 - 12:30 pm

There are tons of bus routes that operate on similar schedules (20-30 minute frequencies), with similar ridership, serving similarly low density neighborhoods. I wouldn’t be surprised if those sorts of bus routes cost about $3 million a year (same a ferry) to keep running. Why do we think ferries should pay for themselves and attract high ridership, but buses don’t have to? I will continue to take the ferry every now and then.

Commuting by bike a few days a week from Astoria, I’m happy to pay the $5 for a nice ride over the river that let’s me out at the top of the protected 2nd Ave bike lane than have to deal with all the car traffic around the Queensboro. It also speeds my commute not having to bike through the heart of midtown. Unlike low ridership buses, the ferry can also draw tourists who are more likely to spend money near the ferry stops.

The bars of success are inherently different for ferries, buses, subways, light rail lines, etc. They each have different costs and capacities, and the standards of success are highly relative.

Henry Man July 8, 2011 - 2:11 pm

Perhaps the city should study other routes such as from East Bronx and North Queens to Manhattan. That’s just a suggestion. As said, the East River corridors are sufficiently covered – even if the L is at breaking capacity.

Ian July 8, 2011 - 2:25 pm

Having rode the East River Ferry during its trial period from Pier 11 to LIC, I will say that the service should help residents of Greenpoint and Willamsburg – relatively transit-isolated nabes located centrally along its route – with getting to either Midtown or Lower Manhattan, which can be a struggle when one has to rely solely on the L train plus connections. Still, the potential ridership from residents in these communities plus the premium charge and necessity to find transportation to/from the ferry site inhibits usage.

LIC, with its waterfront apartment towers, make sense as a stop along the ferry route, yet ERF stops at the tip of LIC (just south of the old Water Taxi Beach), resulting in a longer walk for many residents vis-a-vis the 7 at Vernon/Jackson. Factor in walking time to/from the ferry stops and the subway is faster, origin-to-destination from LIC and many points in Midtown or Lower Manhattan. (My trip, on a warm, sunny June evening, took 35 minutes from Pier 11 to the LIC ferry stop.)

A few more points about the East River Ferry – little signage or annoucements directing passengers to arriving boats. The day I rode, the 5:40 ferry failed to show, with no explanation as to the “delay” (some passengers were waiting in line for 40 minutes by the time 6 PM ferry arrived). Also, once on the boat, no annoucements about safety precautions or stops.

Also, to Ben’s suggestion about Rockaway-to-Manhattan ferry service, NYCEDC and NY Water Taxi floated this idea (pardon the pun) in 2008 and 2009, only to cancel it after about a year due to poor ridership (while charging $6/ride). More info in the NY Times article below:

Andrew July 8, 2011 - 8:18 pm

Subsidizing luxury alternatives never makes sense when other people have lost or seen major reductions in their basic local bus service.

Spendmore Wastemore July 8, 2011 - 2:34 pm

Give them credit for trying. Ferry service on some routes makes sense, and even if it serves .5% of the ridership the system is so desperately crowded that some ferry routes are worthwhile. In most cities the cost of a ferry is exorbitant, but with the costs of infrastructure here they look like pocket change.

Linkage: 175 Kent Almost Full; Jimmy McMillan on the Rental Reports - The Broker Buddy July 8, 2011 - 6:11 pm

[…] reports [Metropolis] · Inside Pierre Durand’s Fifth Avenue apartment [NYSD] · Why the East River ferry isn’t ideal for NYC [SAS] · Someone bought a $10.1 million co-op at (shhh!) River House [NYO] · 175 Kent […]

Christopher Stephens July 8, 2011 - 9:02 pm

The press about ridership declining once the ferry was no longer free struck me as fairly “dog bites man,” as if anyone doubted that paid ridership would be lower than when the service was free. What I have yet to see (did I miss it?) is any analysis of what the break-even numbers would be, either at the current level of subsidy or with no subsidy.

I’m also a little surprised at the lack of enthusiasm of some of the commenters for ferry service. Is it an ideal solution for the entire city? Of course not, but it may be a good solution for many riders, taking them out of an already overburdened subway system. Is it the best use of government subsidy? Maybe, maybe not. I think the best comparisons are with the express buses that take riders from SI or Bay Ridge to Manhattan, or even from the UES to Lower Manhattan. I would be curious to know how the per-ride subsidy compares with those services. Anyone have those stats?

BrooklynBus July 8, 2011 - 9:05 pm

Between 2003 and 2006, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC) spent three years and over $6 million dollars in a joint study with NYCDOT and the MTA looking at long and short range solutions to New York’s transportation problems with the participation of the public.

Subway, light rail, buses, highway, ferries, freight, bicycles and pedestrians were studied. Dozens of bus route changes and subway extensions were examined but everything was rejected by the MTA out of hand without specific reasoning except for them saying there will never be any money for any subway extensions or light rail. Similarly DOT rejected proposals regarding freight such as truck routes need to be better marked, and roadway changes. So after three years, the NYMTC study came to three conclusions on solving our mass transit problems. 1) They proposed a few more bicycle lanes; 2) They proposed more pedestrian space; and 3) Ferries could not be economically sufficient and should not be operated.

So what happens, the City continues to unsuccessfully try new ferry routes, build more bike lanes and pedestrian plazas that slow down buses, while ignoring the obvious most cost efficient approach, spend more money on improving local bus routes. The study was a total waste of time and money and the obstinance of the MTA and DOT, prime reasons why our transportation problems are not solved.

Stinky Wizzerteets July 10, 2011 - 5:17 pm

Wasn’t the solution to make the ferry landing a destination itself?

Stick a beach and beer garden on either side. Weekends, residents and tourists go joyriding and to the bar. During the week, commuters use a ferry to get to work in the morning (don’t forget an included shuttle bus into midtown), and on the way home, there’s an after work bar right there. Throw a free beer in with the ferry ticket.

Don’t understand why water taxi beach was killed??? Seemed like a no brainer.

Ian July 11, 2011 - 9:35 am

The LIC Water Taxi Beach site had to be torn up to install storm water sewer pipes as part of the Hunter’s Point South development nearby.

Ron Aryel July 10, 2011 - 9:25 pm

Ben, in your blog you posted “After notching over 10,000 riders per weekday during the free period, the ferry service didn’t even generate that many passengers over the first three days of paid rides. The Brooklyn Paper tried to spin it as a success. “I would call this a roaring success,” Seth Pinsky from the city’s Economic Development Corporation said. With 2750 riders on a Tuesday — or approximately three mostly full subway trains worth of riders — the bar for success is a low one indeed.”

I want to point out that a full 10 car subway train with a standing load can carry 2,000 people. So one day’s worth of ferry rides is equivalent to a little more than one rush-hour subway train or perhaps two trains off-peak. It’s even more of a failure than you think it is.

Andrew July 10, 2011 - 11:01 pm

Full rush hour guideline load for a 10-car train is 1100 people on the IRT or 1450 people on the IND/BMT. While occasional isolated trains, following delays in service, may be substantially more crowded than that, no line anywhere in the city sees sustained loads as high as 2000 per train.

Two typically crowded rush hour trainloads is about right. Not “a little more than one rush-hour subway train or perhaps two trains off-peak.”

Radam July 11, 2011 - 7:02 am

Quick vote of SUPPORT FOR THE FERRY. For someone who’s lived at 36th/2nd Ave for two years now, and has always fantasized about being able to jump over the East River, this is basically a dream come true. Additionally, I’m so glad the trial-period is over (finally you can reliably get on!).

RLewis July 11, 2011 - 10:29 am

$4?!!! Who can’t figure out why this will fail????

B July 11, 2011 - 11:21 am

Quite the backlash. I have to firmly disagree. How is it even remotely surprising that ridership sharply declined once it wasn’t free anymore? The fact is, the ferry helps a fairly small subset of NYC commuters, BY DESIGN. People kvetching about it are likely those who have little use for it. The rest of us are actually finding it useful and a hell of an alternative. I’d love drastic subway improvements, but as noted above, they’d be a tad pricier than the ferry subsidy.


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