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.