Home Public Transit Policy Great moments in ferry advocacy

Great moments in ferry advocacy

by Benjamin Kabak

As any regular SAS reader well knows by now, I have very little tolerance for the current love affair New York’s politicians have with ferries. To me, it reeks of a fetish that helps these elected officials avoid tough financial decisions and combative NIMBYs without actually solving the region’s mobility problems. The current ferry routes are the best ones available, and everything else suffers from low ridership, diminishing returns and either high fares or higher subsidies.

Yet, ferries continue to be the Next Big Thing, and on Wednesday, officials were so excited to call for more ferry service that they ran aground on one. Dana Rubinstein broke the story:

A Seastreak ferry ran aground in Jamaica Bay this afternoon, forcing the fire department to remove all 29 passengers, none of whom were injured, according to an FDNY spokesman and news reports. The ferry was not part of the regular Rockaways service, but was a private ride organized by a local ferry advocate to explore ways of expanding service, possibly to JFK Airport.

The ferry ride included, among others, representatives from the offices of Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder and Queens borough president Melinda Katz.”There was no big thump,” said Goldfeder, who wasn’t on the boat, but spoke to people who were. He said passengers didn’t even realize they were stuck until they tried moving. Goldfeder said the incident shouldn’t be used to paint ferry service as unreliable or prone to delays. “For every minor ferry incident, you can probably locate 50 subway delays,” Goldfeder said. “It’s just so inconsequential.”

The incident will not impact ferry service to the Rockaways, which carries about 400 people daily, according to Kate Blumm, a spokeswoman for the city’s Economic Development Corporation.

Now, there’s a lot going on here. First, Goldfeder’s right in one sense, but on the other hand, we’re talking about 400 people. For every one person who rides the ferry to and from the Rockaways, 15,000 ride the subway, and the cops don’t send out rescue squads every time a train is delayed due to a signal problem. We’ll come back to that 400 figure in a minute. In the meantime, don’t think too hard about how a ferry to JFK would work, where it would dock that would be at all convenient to suitcase-laden passengers, or why we need boats to the airport in the first place. You’ll only give yourself a headache.

In response to Wednesday’s incident, Queens’ politicians quickly tried to protect their ferry advocacy. “Today’s incident does not take away from the fact that is imperative that ferry service between Manhattan and Rockaways be made permanent,” Borough President Melinda Katz said. “Permanent ferry service would do more to promote economic development in the Rockaways than just about anything else that has been proposed in recent history. It is essential that the Rockaway ferry be made into a permanent mode of transportation.”

The emphasis is mine, and I’d like you to mull on her statement for a bit. The Borough President of Queens believes that a ferry with 400 daily passengers is the biggest thing to hit Queens since sliced bread (or, perhaps, the 63rd Street Connector). As a point of comparison, on a typical weekday, an average of 400 passengers per hour use the BMT Brighton line station at 7th Ave. near Prospect Heights and Park Slope. It’s certainly not promoting economic development in the way Katz’s talks.

Meanwhile, there is something that reaches toward the Rockaways that could create more economic development not just for the Rockaways but for much of Queens, and that is of course the Rockaway Beach Branch, a dedicated rail right of way with a connection through Queens to the IND Queensboro line. That would be worthy of a concerted political effort. But here we are, trumpeting a ferry that carries 400 of the Rockaways 130,000 people as a success. How our standards have fallen.

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Stephen Smith May 29, 2014 - 12:54 am

Total weekday subway ridership in Rockaway was 8,155 in 2013 (down significantly from 2012, obviously), just for reference. That’s just entries (right?), not exits, so double it to get a number comparable with 400 people a day on the ferries (right?).

If you consider only the ferry’s catchment area, which is Beach 105 and Beach 116, it looks a lot better – they get 520 origins on an average weekday.

What all this tells me is that Rockaway probably needs more population if it wants better transit service of any kind. Just raise the apartment buildings off the ground, or at least make the bottom floors easily evacuatable and put the mechanicals on a higher level, and it should be fine. Genuinely affordable market-rate housing in New York City.

Larry Littlefield May 29, 2014 - 2:37 pm

I’d rather it go back to being a resort community. It wouldn’t be affordable if the flood insurance wasn’t subsidized, and we don’t know now long that will last.

Spendmor Wastemor May 29, 2014 - 5:58 pm

“I’d rather it go back to being a resort community. It wouldn’t be affordable if the flood insurance wasn’t subsidized, and we don’t know now long that will last.”

That makes an infinite amount of sense.
Thus, it will never happen.

Bolwerk May 29, 2014 - 9:49 pm

Well, if it’s any consolation, it does have a good chance of going back to being sea floor.

Nathanael May 30, 2014 - 12:56 am

You need those sandbars to prevent storms from smashing up the other side of Jamaica bay. If it really goes under deep, watch out Canarsie, watch out East New York, watch out Sheepshead Bay.

Living on the Rockaways permanently makes no sense. Barrier island, guys, it protects the people further in.

Bolwerk May 30, 2014 - 10:24 am

(Don’t tell the climate change deniers.)

Eric May 31, 2014 - 5:05 pm

It makes no less sense than does living in the Netherlands. There are extra costs, but they may be affordable.

Bolwerk June 1, 2014 - 1:06 pm

The geology/geography of barrier islands is probably rather different than NL.

Cowcrusher May 29, 2014 - 1:34 am

When you develop a barrier island which by design (for the lack of a better term) tend to “move”, you are literally heading for a storm. The Rockaways and its kin were pretty much undeveloped when the last batch of hurricanes came through the area almost 80 years ago. If that cycle is pretty regular then in another 80 years we will see it again and we simply don’t have the funds to handle another storm of the same magnitude if we continue to unwisely develop further. This ferry system is just a fad and we should be investing in previously developed corridors like the old Rockaway branch and help an under served section of a mass transit dependent metro region.

Mickey C May 29, 2014 - 7:07 am

Ben, your math is off a bit. Daily subway ridership on the subway is 5.6 million or so. On the Rockaway ferry it’s 400. That’s a ratio of “only” 14,000 to 1, not the 4 million to 1 you cited. It doesn’t undermine your point, but you should get it right.

Benjamin Kabak May 29, 2014 - 8:07 am

Thanks, Mickey. I did annual to daily by mistake. I’ll fix it.

SEAN May 29, 2014 - 9:53 am

That would be worthy of a concerted political effort. But here we are, trumpeting a ferry that carries 400 of the Rockaways 130,000 people as a success. How our standards have fallen.


I think this is a result of misplaced priorities both political & finantial. Verry few ever question the hundreds of billions being waisted overseas in corporately funded wars & yet where there is real need for meeningful transit expantion, we end up settleing for halfbaked transit projects that really aren’t transformitive in any meeningful way.

lawhawk May 29, 2014 - 9:24 am

This is what happens when NIMBY activists – a vocal minority – prevent any kind of rational decision when it comes to mass transit or restoring preexisting right of ways that would vastly expand mass transit to underserved portions of the borough.

Not only would the Rockaway beach line improve commutes for those at or near its terminus in the Rockaways, but it would enhance the commute for those within walking distance of the stations that would be built/restored along the line. It would have a capacity far in excess of the 400 ferry passengers and connect to the existing mass transit system in a far more effective and meaningful manner.

If the politicians were truly interested in economic development, they’d be demanding the restoration of subway lines, or promoting new lines in the outer boroughs.

But because ferry service is low-hanging fruit and there’s a romantic notion about how ferries operate, this is where the politicians focus.

Christopher Stephens May 29, 2014 - 10:32 am

Can I throw out the probably unpopular (and politically impossible, I know) suggestion that we shouldn’t be encouraging higher density use of the Rockaways? As noted above, these barrier islands will always be the target of storms, and they will always be far away from the city’s resources (jobs, schools, hospitals). I think there is a consensus that the denser housing that got built there was a callous act of dumping unwanted public housing projects in a place that was cheap, available, and far enough away that there weren’t many people to complain about it. It was bad planning from the start. Of course, since thousands of people live there now, we have to provide services for them, but adding ferry service is not going to solve their problems. The geography of the Rockaways will always make them better suited to being a less dense beach community. Think less like Coney Island and more like Fire Island.

Kai B May 29, 2014 - 8:37 pm

It’s not that we shouldn’t build there, we should just build smart, with strong materials and with proper heights to clear flooding. This article discusses the two worlds of Rockaways construction:

AlexB May 29, 2014 - 11:04 am

The fastest and easiest way to get to and from the Rockaways is neither the A train or a ferry; but rather a new bus from the Sheepshead Bay express stop on the B & Q running along Belt Parkway, Flatbush Ave/the Gil Hodges Bridge, and making local stops along Rockaway Beach Blvd. The city should be able to run this bus route at the same cost as the ferry subsidy, providing the fastest possible service to Brooklyn and Manhattan and serving a larger population than the A or ferry. It would also serve as a back door route to get from South Brooklyn to JFK.

Larry Littlefield May 29, 2014 - 2:42 pm

Hey Alex B I had this same idea, but running from Stillwell in Coney Island. As a way to get to Riis Park.

Either than or have the Q35 west to pick up those who don’t live off the IRT or B41 bus.

AlexB May 30, 2014 - 9:25 am

Yeah, maybe it stops at Nostrand, Sheepshead Bay and Stillwell?

It is a band-aid for the problem that’s better solved by reactivating the Rockaway Cutoff; but, it’s a band-aid we can have in a few months instead of a few years. Combining the ferry subsidy and streamlining the overlapping bus services on the Rockaways also means you could probably get it for the same price you’re paying now.

LolaTheBola May 30, 2014 - 12:54 am

But that’s just a bandaid on the problem. Eventually we’re going to have to accept the subway has to expand further out. Bloomberg pushed for this community, albeit for fucked up reasons, and becuz of the high density apartments and the growing fascination among the anti-Hampton Brooklyn assholes, it’s going to need viable transportation to the city. A bus just doesn’t cut it like an express train.

If we somehow are willing to allow the 2nd Ave subway to only serve the wealthy and the 7 extension to nowhere, yet ignore the Rockaways which actually has people, it show how bad our collective stupidity.

Phantom May 30, 2014 - 9:10 pm

A wee prediction

The Second Avenue Subway will have very many users, and they will come from all income levels.

Bet the house, car, flat screen TV and 401K on it.

Alex May 29, 2014 - 11:49 am

I mean, ferry service to JFK would be nice enough. You could put a dock in the Bergen Basin which would be a quick walk to the Lefferts Blvd AirTrain. I’m sure like, 100 people a day would use it and enjoy it very much. That’s worth spending millions of dollars, right? While we’re at it, build a Park and Ride dock on Staten Island for it. Man, the good ideas just keep comin’ with this.

Frank May 29, 2014 - 12:17 pm

Follow the money. How much do the ferry operators contribute to the politicians’ campaigns?

Brandon May 29, 2014 - 12:42 pm

Flatbush Ave SBS from the Rockaways to 125th St via 1st/2nd Aves? The only way this is going to be effective at all. Would be a decent feeder to the B and Q trains as well.

Epson45 May 29, 2014 - 9:20 pm

never gonna happen

John May 29, 2014 - 1:40 pm

Des anyone think ferries have a place in other areas than the Rockaways?

In addition to the massive development in Hunterspont, Queens already completed, the first of a planned 5000 apartments (many affordable) at Hunterspont South will be coming online by the end of the year. The entire population will be feeding one single subway stop…Vernon Jackson…the last stop on the 7 line before Grand Central. The East River Ferry terminal in Hunterspoint could take some of the burden off that lone subway station, if the the fare were subsidized to become more in line with a subway fare. I don’t see how the situation becomes manageable without the MTA spending a gazillion dollars on a new subway tunnel to supplement the Steinway Tube if other alternatives are not explored. The Hunterspoint ferry is a 5 minute ride to 34th Street.

Benjamin Kabak May 29, 2014 - 1:43 pm

The Hunterspoint ferry is a 5 minute ride to 34th Street.

Which is great if you work at or near 34th St. and the surrounding medical buildings and generally useless otherwise unless you’re willing to take a two-fare ferry+bus trip. The 34th St. busway would have been a positive development.

John-2 May 29, 2014 - 2:31 pm

Maybe when they finish Phase III of the SAS they can rebuild the 34th Street el between Second Avenue and the East River ferry slips.

Larry Littlefield May 29, 2014 - 2:43 pm

Well folks could use Citibike to get to and from the ferry terminals, but that is a whole nother issue.

Ralfff May 29, 2014 - 11:33 pm

Not to mention, what burden? The MTA gets to fill a relatively underused tunnel in terms of rush hour passengers with paying customers, and they live one stop away from Manhattan, all with no new investment. It sounds like a win-win.

BenW May 30, 2014 - 10:26 am

Relatively underused tunnel? Are we talking about the same 7 train?

lop May 30, 2014 - 12:11 pm

60th and 53rd each carry way more people under the river with fewer trains. 63rd carries almost as many people with more way fewer trains.

People are getting off the 7 before they go into Manhattan. So there’s room for people to hop on the 7 the last stop or two in Queens heading to the CBD.

Bolwerk May 30, 2014 - 2:17 pm

What lop said, but it depends on your metric: trains/hour or people/hour. I assume the tunnel sees a very high number of trains, but they run relatively empty in that segment.

In the evening rush hour, they probably fill up at Queensboro Plaza.

lop May 30, 2014 - 5:01 pm


fall business day 2012 8am-9am peak passengers, passengers per rail car, trains, railcars by tunnel

60th street tunnel
25695 passengers
121 passengers per railcar
23 trains
212 railcars

53rd street tunnel
27493 passengers
125 passengers per railcar
24 trains
220 railcars

63rd street tunnel
16264 passengers
108 passengers per railcar
15 trains
150 railcars

Steinway tunnel
19576 passengers
68 passengers per railcar
26 trains
286 railcars

7 train cars are smaller than NRQEMF cars but not by that much.

BenW May 30, 2014 - 5:33 pm

Interesting. Thanks for the stats—I genuinely had no idea it was that much of drop-off after Queens Plaza! I think passengers-per-train is probably the most interesting metric from a loading standpoint, since (thanks to 11-car trains) it partially evens out the B-division car-capacity advantage. And by that metric, each train that goes through the Steinway tubes is carrying between 3/5 and 3/4 as many passengers as the corresponding train through the 63rd or 53rd-street tunnels. So yeah, you’re entirely right, dump them all into Vernon-Jackson and call it a day. 🙂

Rob May 29, 2014 - 2:35 pm

Ben, if only our “leaders” had half the judgement and honesty that you do.

I must add that re ferry organized to explore ways of expanding service ran aground, reminds me of the recent expedition to antarctica to document ‘global warming’ that became stuck in ice and was stranded there for days until they could be rescued.

Spendmor Wastemor May 29, 2014 - 6:04 pm

“reminds me of the recent expedition to antarctica to document ‘global warming’ that became stuck in ice and was stranded there for days until they could be rescued.”

K, so what’s your point?

Antarctica is kinda famous for ice, so if you go looking for ice there you might find it.

sonicboy678 May 29, 2014 - 10:06 pm

From what I heard, ice formed around the watercraft used and trapped it.
If you ask me, it’s not quite related to the ferry that ran aground.

rob May 30, 2014 - 2:20 pm

Point is that both groups staged a stunt to bolster their POV, and both backfired, if you will.

Nathanael May 30, 2014 - 12:58 am

It was quite successful at documenting global warming. Yes, it’s happening. Of course Antarctica is still full of ice, it takes decades for it to all melt.

Eric May 31, 2014 - 5:14 pm

Not decades, more like millenia…

lop May 31, 2014 - 6:10 pm

Is Antarctica actually expected to be ice free year round, or even just for part of the year, thousands of years from now?

Abba May 30, 2014 - 12:58 am

I’ve been at 7th avenue.400 people per hour? That’s a lot, Are you sure?

Benjamin Kabak May 30, 2014 - 9:27 am

Feel free to consult the weekday ridership statistics yourself if you’re going to publicly question the data.

Derrick Chu May 31, 2014 - 5:07 am

I not sure why the author is so prejudiced against ferries. I live near Wall street and ferries are a convenient and expeditious means of getting to offices in Jersey City and the Brooklyn waterfront communities. I would pay a significant premium (e.g. $50 one-way) for traffic free JFK ferry service from Pier 11. In the absense of a direct airport train, as many global business cities have, ferries seem like an inexpensive and fiscally plausible alternative.

Bolwerk May 31, 2014 - 11:36 am

Ferries can work well when they work like or at least with transit. I don’t know if the “like” part really works in NYC.

johndmuller June 1, 2014 - 5:24 am

Ferries are kind of cool on a nice day when you don’t have any particular time pressures. It goes downhill from there til you get to ferries are better than nothing – as in if you live and/or work on an island and you don’t have a boat. If you actually have to use a ferry to get to work every day, it’s not so much fun (except on those nice days when you don’t have any particular time pressures).

A car, bus or train can give you a worse trip than a ferry and a lot of the time that may be true, but throw in some bad weather, and the ferry can become very, very uncomfortable and even dangerous or just not running. That stuff can happen with the other modes too, but not so much or to such extremes.

Of course, the ferry is slow, and while the other means can be slow, they can sometimes be fast too while the ferry is just slow.

As to politicians who recommend ferries as a serious solution for any significant number of people, at best they are representing ferry operators instead of us. Otherwise they must be dumb enough to think that we are dumb enough to buy this load of BS, or else they are just dumb period.

sonicboy678 June 1, 2014 - 12:38 pm

By these statements, I believe you missed the point. Ferries are costly to operate, yet have incredibly low capacity. As bad as that is, it’s even worse if it’s set up to serve a tiny part of the population for one thing. At the end of the day, costs will be high for transporting so few people. You could argue the same about service to the Rockaways in general, but then you would also be ignoring that although the stations generally have low ridership, they are affected by several factors. For one, riders along the Rockaway Park branch have few direct trains to/from Manhattan. These stations are not in very densely populated areas, either, so ridership is naturally going to remain on the low side. Many people are brought to Rockaway Park by bus because they’re too far away from a station. A fair number of people also use the Q35 to access Brooklyn, thereby further limiting the use of Rockaway Park. The Far Rockaway branch only fares slightly better. Service to the Rockaways had been impacted by Sandy, so ridership at those stations had also been negatively impacted in both 2012 and 2013. Still, there are more places to actually access these services.
Due to their severe limitations, ferries are by no means cure-all services. We have bus routes that easily see tens of thousands of people on an average weekday, plus many others that see at least a few hundred to a few thousand per day. The subway system sees at least hundreds of people per day in places you’d least expect it. They can easily transport passengers at more favorable cost:passenger ratios than ferries.


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