Home View from Underground Bill de Blasio is talking about boats again, for some reason

Bill de Blasio is talking about boats again, for some reason

by Benjamin Kabak

The city is investing more in ferries over the next few years. Is this a good use of public funds? (Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

As long time readers of mine know, I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to ferries. After all, we built a bunch of bridges and a subway system between the boroughs of New York City in part because the ferry system just couldn’t cut it as far as mass transit went. Ferries are, by their nature, a niche mode of travel offering low capacity and high operating costs, and in a city of millions, most of whom are landlocked miles away from the nearest ferry dock, a ferry shouldn’t be a political priority for public investment.

Yet, on Thursday, for what was at least the eighth time since the beginning of 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio was behind a lectern hosting a press conference about ferries. This time, he was in Bay Ridge to announce that, due to ridership projections that exceeded expectations, the city would be investing an additional $300 million in ferries over the next few years for bigger boats, better docks and a new maintenance facility. Total capital expenditures are now in the realm of around $500 million, and the city continues to expect to maintain a $6.60 per ride subsidy for all ferry riders.

On the one hand, this news about ferries could be interpreted as a positive development. The ferries are popular! People who ride them — whoever they are — love them! What could be better than a nice day on the water in New York harbor?

But let’s temper our enthusiasm a bit. The popularity is a function of expectations. Here’s a glimpse at the numbers, per the city’s press release. The New York City Economic Development Corporation, the agency in charge of the NYC Ferry system, hasn’t released ridership data publicly so we’ll just have to take the city’s word for it:

NYC Ferry launched on May 1, 2017. Original projections predicted 4.6 million riders once all six routes are operational and fully rolled-out. However, NYC Ferry carried 3.7 million passengers in its first year, with only four routes operating—and only two of them running for the entire 12 months. Updated projections based on the first year of service now show that demand could reach as high as 9 million riders per year by 2023.

As a comparison, Citi Bike carries the same ridership as the ferry system over the span of around four or 4.5 months depending on the time of year, and a random bus line with 4.6 million riders annually is good for around the 38th or 39th busiest in the city. Bill de Blasio has held no press conferences on the B9 lately and notably isn’t investing an additional $300 million in buses even if the opportunity is right there for him.

And even with this new investment, the 350-passenger ferries are still expected to operate only every 25-35 minutes. As the mayor said, “On a really crazy beautiful day in the summer when it seems like everyone in the city wants to go to the beach at the exact same time, there’s still going to be lines but we are going to be serving a lot more people and we’re going to be getting them where they want to go faster.” This seems problematic to say the least for something de Blasio has trumpeted as recently as this week as “the key to a future of New Yorkers being able to get around more easily.” More on this shortly.

Lately, as ferry fatigue has set in, de Blasio has faced some skeptical questions from the city press corps as the transcript from Thursday’s event shows. When asked about the lack of subsidy for Citi Bike, a significantly more popular mode of transit, de Blasio showed his hand and lack of holistic thinking on transportation. “I would argue that each element of our mass transit planning has to be seen individually,” he said. “I felt very strongly that the Citi Bike model could work without subsidy and I’m supposed to be the steward of the tax payer’s money. And if it could keep achieving its goals without it, of course that was the optimum reality and I still believe that.”

Toward the end of this question, de Blasio rambled his way to an interesting observation about the ferry system. “Private sector was out there for quite a while with ferries,” he said, “and some impact was seen. But nowhere near the potential, and we knew there had to be a public investment to actually achieve what was possible in one of the greatest coastal cities in the world.”

And here is where I want to pick up the thread. The mayor is correct that the ferry system worked good enough but has been far more popular with public investment, but that’s because we the taxpayers of New York city are subsidizing each and every ferry ride to the tune of around $6.60 per ride. We’re not subsidizing buses or subways to this degree, and Citi Bike pays for its space on the street.

Perhaps this is a good use of public money, but I’m skeptical. I’m not opposed to the idea of a ferry system that serves New York’s waterfront, but let’s take a deep dive into the people who may be taking the ferry. We don’t know for sure who these folks are because, again, NYCEDC hasn’t released a lick of ridership data. But I pulled some census data last week, and if you look at all of the census tracts that have a least one address within 0.5 miles of a ferry terminal in Queens and Brooklyn, median household income is around $18,000 more than city average, and if you exclude Astoria, the only dock truly amidst low-income housing, that median bumps even more.

Already, then, this generous subsidy is going toward wealthier-than-average New Yorkers, and since the ferries operate on a separate fare system, my quasi-educated guess is that ferry ridership skews even wealthier than census tract medians. After all, those riders who need to transfer to a bus or subway after their ferry rides would have to pay a second fare, and lower income workers are less likely to be able to do so. So as buses struggle and the mayor resists the Fair Fares initiative, does it make sense to subsidize rich New Yorkers who live in waterfront condos and work close to Pier 11 near Wall Street? This is a conversation we should be having about ferries but have not, as the mayor likes to pat himself on the back over boats without understanding how transit planning should be seen in totality rather than individually.

Ultimately, we may decide that having a robust ferry network is a net positive. Maybe we should subsidize these 9 million rides per year. Maybe we should do so while also investing similarly in buses and subways. After all, transit planning should be holistic. But for now, we should be aware that we are subsidizing a niche, low capacity transit mode with a ridership that skews rich. That is not a particularly good use of taxpayer money. Someone should tell the self-proclaimed steward.

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JJJ May 7, 2018 - 12:30 am

If NYC Ferry offered free connections to NYC Ferry buses, would it be a better system?

For comparison, this is what the free bus system looks like for the NJ ferries.


I also wonder if De Blasio would be more eager to support bus lanes and such if they were being used for HIS Ferry Bus system, rather than helping Cuomos buses.

Off topic, but related to redundant buses. Last year, when PATH closed on weekends during the summer because fuck riders, they operated an independent system of buses that you could only board with a bus ticket. This year, when PATH is closing on weekends throughout summer again (because fuck riders), theyve entered into an agreement with MTA where riders exiting PATH will get a 2-trip metrocard valid only for 24 hours.

Avi May 7, 2018 - 9:35 am

BdB doesn’t support bus lanes, because they infringe on space for drivers and “real” New Yorkers drive cars in his eyes. The minute ferries mean taking away space from drivers BdB will suddenly decide ferries aren’t a good use of city resources.

J Adlai May 7, 2018 - 10:49 pm

Interestingly, PATH shuttle bus service is something that Ben wrote about previously here.

I’m not sure that shutting down service to make improvements during the weekends is a middle finger to the riders, but I don’t have the full picture of PATH operations. How would you approach the need to perform this work?

Bolwerk May 8, 2018 - 11:00 am

It’s fair that not all service can be provided at all times, though big advance warning should be expected, but he’s right that it’s daft if you can’t use your normal fare media.

Larry Greenfield May 7, 2018 - 8:46 am

I agree with the analysis but suggest changing “riders” to “rides.” After all, riders are individuals whereas rides are trips; trips (ridership) is the measure being used to compare the impact of the various modes of transit.

BrooklynBus May 7, 2018 - 9:05 am

Ben, I am with you on this one. While I do believe ferries have a place in NYC, I am uncertain as to what extent. The question really is why do the ferries need such a heavy subsidy? Is it because the boats are underutilized or would they need just as great a subsidy if there were more riders? If it is the former, then free buses or free transfers need to be considered.

Between 2003 and 2006, $6 million was spent on a comprehensive southern Brooklyn Transportation study that considered, subways, buses, ferries, freight, and bikes. The MTA said it refused to even consider any subway extensions until the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access were fully completed. I recommended at least 20 bus route changes, all of which were removed from the final report at the MTA’s insistence, although our presentation received a standing ovation by those in attendance and a private compliment from the MTA representative who left soon thereafter. The study was conducted by NYMTC who had to listen to the MTA because they were partially in charge of NYMTC’s funding. The MTA publicly stated, ” We do our own planning and no one tells us how to plan.” So no bus and subway recommendations were included. The freight recommendations were clearer signs for truck routes. The study also recommended for bike lanes and an overpass at Kings Plaza that was never funded.

But the reason I am mentioning all this was because the recommendation toward ferries were that they could never sustain themselves without huge subsidies and we shouldn’t start new ferry lines. So we spend six million on a transportation study and the only recommendation taken is more bike lanes. De Blasio decides to spend $5 million to study a Utica Avenue Subway although the MTA won’t even consider it and start and expand a ferry system that the study opposed.

There seems to be enough money around when it cones to wasting it, but no funds for worthwhile projects like bus reroutings to better serve passengers. We will see what the MTA bus Plan will entail, but I am fearful it will be mostly service cuts with partial route and bus stop elimination in the name of better service and increased efficiency which will not help passengers.

JJJ May 7, 2018 - 10:14 am

“The question really is why do the ferries need such a heavy subsidy?”

Each ferry has like a staff of 8, with additional folks staffing the docks. Labor quantity is crazy, and probably unnecessary.

AGTMADCAT May 9, 2018 - 1:45 pm


Here in the SF bay even our big ferries only have a crew of about 3, sometimes 4 if the on-board bar/snack bar is operational. And there’s only two, maybe three people at each terminal. This is to serve 400-750 passenger vessels that are often full to bursting at peak hours, operating on 30 minute headways.

Roe U.R. Bote May 7, 2018 - 10:37 am

To be clear, the MTA has nothing to at all to do with de Blasio’s luxury liner ferries, and whatever Brooklyn transportation study you did 15 years ago had no bearing on these ferries either. Not everything is a giant conspiracy theory designed to undermine whatever you did as a mid-level planner in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This is just stupid policy by a bad mayor.

Tim May 8, 2018 - 9:03 am

I think his study has a direct relation. They were unprofitable and required massive subsidies 15 years ago, and that hasn’t changed today.

Suffice it to say, perhaps the actual cost-effective recommendations form that report might be worth pursuing. I use the bike lanes a LOT.

Ed May 9, 2018 - 3:10 pm

“Not everything is a giant conspiracy theory designed to undermine whatever you did as a mid-level planner in the late 1990s and early 2000s. ”

How do you know this?

BrooklynBus May 18, 2018 - 5:39 pm

The least you can do is to read what I wrote instead of drawing erroneous conclusions because you have some biases against me. I DIDNT SAY I DID THE STUDY. The study was performed by NYMTC.

And no one said the MTA had anything to do with deBlasio’s decision.

And no one ever hinted at any conspiracy.

What I said was there was a study that cost a lot of money that resulted in only three meaningful conclusions. Bike lanes good. Ferries bad and build an overpass that was never funded. All the useful recommendations were omitted from the final report and that was due to the MTA.

The major take away from what I wrote was that DeBlasio disregarded the study’s recommendation not to persue ferries. That doesn’t mean conspiracy. It just means that too much money is wasted on studies that no one listens to and the only reason they are done is to give the appearance that something productive is being accomplished. We could have spent that $6 million so that it mattered.

Alon Levy May 9, 2018 - 11:34 am

…what kind of bus changes were you thinking of?

Robert LaMarca May 7, 2018 - 11:16 am

In all seriousness, what about amphibious buses?


From the article, it is not yet perfect, but could improve with use and investment.

Imagine getting on a bus at a mile from the Redhook water front, driving to the water, down a ramp near the Ikea store, and later up a ramp near the Staten Island Ferry terminal downtown.

Or for that matter, taking the bus from Pelham to LGA, or from 1st ave and 33rd to LIC area.

JJJ May 7, 2018 - 12:33 pm

The Boston Duck Boat Tours?

Robert LaMarca May 7, 2018 - 2:22 pm

not quite i think.. . duck boats are still ww2 equipment and basically trucks…

These are actually modern Volvo buses modified to be ampihbious.

Right now it is a tourist niche market… but these could be put to much better use.

check out the pic.

Peter L May 8, 2018 - 6:06 pm

Did you read the WP article? 8 knots / 9.2 mph. I think we can safely assume that’s the best-case scenario and not in any kind of inclement weather or “choppy seas” or whatever. Before someone says “faster than an NYC bus!” remember that this is TOP speed, not average. I’m sure many a NYC bus gets up to 30 or maybe even 40-45 mph to maintain whatever horribly slow average they have. The waterbus can only do 9.2 mph … max.

Please don’t mention this to BdB because, like President “Many People Don’t Know This, But …”, he seems to be out of touch with reality and will think this is a huge innovation.

Serious point: What is the per rider subsidy on the SI Ferry?

jack May 15, 2018 - 3:15 am

According to this Sept 2017 article: “The effective per-passenger subsidy the city pays on the Staten Island Ferry dropped to $5.16 from $5.87, according to the report. “

Robert May 20, 2018 - 1:14 pm

Yes, of course I read their top speed. Obviously this would not be service to the airport or to the Rockaways.

In the right places, however it could make a positive addition to the mix.

Right now, it takes the subways about 10 minutes to go across the Manhattan Bridge from Grand St to Atlantic Avenue. Similar times are for the JMZ trains over the Williamsburg.

At 6mph, 50% below the top speed, the bus would make the crossing in similar time and it would end up near the water front instead of far inland, thus serving new areas more efficiently.

Even from Red Hook to downtown would save time, since to get on a subway in Red Hook requires traveling a good distance inland. Vs a regular ferry, one would save some transfers on both sides and would likely use less fuel.

Yes bad weather would be an issue, but it is for other modes as well anyway.

Ed May 9, 2018 - 3:24 pm

Thanks. I was thinking, as a thought exercise, how to make ferries actually work as a viable transportation option for New York City and came up with something similar.

The issue with ferries is that you would think they would work in a city built on a bunch of islands but they don’t. And they don’t because people live and work away from the water and the historical bus and train infrastructure avoids the water.

Now I don’t think you particularly need ferries, since the bus and train routes were put into place, but stated this way the key to make ferries work would be to integrate them with the busses and trains.

This means not just a free transfer from the bus to the ferry, but to integrate the ferry and the bus schedules and do bus reroutings so that bus routes connect to ferry terminals, and the ferry schedule to match up with bus arrivals and departures. Ideally you get off the bus at a terminal, board the ferry with a free transfer, then board a bus at the other end. And this would actually help with running inter-borough bus routes.

A more ambitious idea is to put the “1” train on a ferry after it goes through the South Ferry station and take it to Staten Island, where the “1” will continue down the SIR line and vice versa. Now Staten Island gets subway service connected to the rest of the city.

To get even more ambitious, also put the “R” on a ferry after the Whitehall stop and run it to Bay Ridge. The “J” would cover the existing “R” route to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. But taking the “R”/ ferry combo would be a quicker way of getting between Manhattan and much of Bay Ridge.

I didn’t think of amphibious buses, but if you could set up so the transition between the buses, subways, and ferries is as seamless as possible, then the ferries have a role in connecting the system to under-severed areas.

Ed May 9, 2018 - 3:28 pm

To make the trains-on-ferry idea work you could probably purchase some rail barges, and I should have written “rail barge” instead of ferry in my comment.

Adirondacker12800 May 9, 2018 - 3:49 pm

It wouldn’t be faster. Loading the train onto the elevator thats get it up to the level of the ferry would take time. So would moving the train from the elevator onto the ferry. Passengers could be well across the harbor, by walking onto a ferry, by the time the train ferry left. If not already in Staten Island.

Michael May 7, 2018 - 12:25 pm

I personally love the New York City Ferry. As far as the bus go his pictures on Twitter of everybody including the police violating a bus lane and impacting service

Bryan May 7, 2018 - 5:23 pm

Regardless, the ferries are more of a tourist attraction to DeBlasio than a serious commuter transport option.

Tim May 8, 2018 - 9:04 am

SO stop subsidizing it, and make the tourists pay full freight.

Bolwerk May 8, 2018 - 10:38 am

Ferries are good transit in some places (Hamburg?), but New York doesn’t really have the right mix of people living and doing business along potential ferry routes. That pretty much means every theoretically useful ferry ride is probably a 3-seat ride.

SEAN May 8, 2018 - 2:46 pm

I think you are right Bolwerk, but let me put a thought on the table for you & others. Since the mayor wants some control of some kind of transit around the city, his best option are ferries since they are outside the scope of the MTA. Now if the city regained control of MTA services, then these ferries would become more useful.

JarekFA May 8, 2018 - 10:24 pm

His best bet is buses since he has a lot of control over the routing. To wit, he refuses to endorse a 24 hour busway for 14th street during the L Train Shutdown, over the objection of the MTA. He thinks the auto is freedom but he’s unable to google “tragedy of the commons” or “induced demand.” He could make NYC into a walk/bike/bus paradise but that would require removing precious and underpriced parking to which only a minority of households are able to benefit. Or leadership. This city of all cities should be the leader on walk/bus/bike given the density and subways. But instead, this coward is scared to do anything ever that infringes on car driver’s privileges.

SEAN May 9, 2018 - 9:31 am

Translation, he’s afraid of the blowback from the NYPD, residents of Riverdale & the UES among other wealthy neighborhoods.

johndmuller May 9, 2018 - 11:38 pm

He could also exert control over horse drawn carriages, but instead he has tried to ban them with a similar kind of determination that he seems to be applying to the ferry thing. Correlations with fund raising opportunities?

Maybe rail car manufacturers and subway tunnelers don’t know how easy it could be to get a rabid political supporter on their side.

Larry Littlefield May 10, 2018 - 9:23 am

They, the transit unions, and the construction unions have Cuomo on their side.

And they don’t even have to produce anything!

Bolwerk May 17, 2018 - 12:07 pm

He’s not entirely lacking control, as made clear by Bloomberg pushing the 7 extension through and the DOT’s control over bus service. Like Bloomberg, he just mostly doesn’t care about transit. Bloomberg cared a little more because some of his friends found transit helps their real estate brands.

Ferries only become useful if they’re moving large numbers of people between stops. It’s possible to push a TOD scheme making that doable, I guess. But then we’re talking about the dumb shit we’ve discussed in past threads about why it’s dumb to do most of your development in parts of the city that might be underwater in a century.*

* It’s not dumb for de Blasio’s and Bloomberg’s friends, but nobody else really gains

JimD May 10, 2018 - 12:26 pm

Just curious … if BDB has had eight press events to talk about ferries, does anyone know how many has he had to talk about improving bus service?

John-2 May 10, 2018 - 6:00 pm

The Staten Island Ferry survived because of the geography of New York City — it wasn’t (and still isn’t) economically feasible to build a subway or vehicular tunnel 5 1/2 miles from The Battery to St. George. The viability of the river crossings became less so the more rail and vehicular alternatives there were.

That hasn’t changed all that much. New York has done a lot over the past 40 years to reclaim the chimerical/industrial areas along the rivers for residential and retail use (as has New Jersey), so the ferries are a little more viable today than they were in the past, because you’re more likely to be able to get off and have your destination point nearby. But the city’s subway system was never built to accommodate boat-to-rail transfers other than at South Ferry. Hudson Yards is at least just an avenue away from the river, but other stops are nowhere near the shoreline.

On a nice spring or summer day, that’s not a problem – people can walk from the docks to the trains. But they’re not going to want to do it in bad weather, if using the subway and getting off a block or so from your business or office is possible. Any funds put towards increasing service without taking that into account is just throwing money away on a vanity project.

Quinn Hue May 12, 2018 - 7:25 pm

I looked up incorporating the ferry into my commute. To get to Grand Central from Western Queens, I’d cycle to the dock and hop on the ferry (so I don’t end up all sweaty climbing over the Queensboro Bridge). Usually I had shifts from 06:00-14:00 and from 14:00-22:00. Service starts at 06:30 and ends at 22:03, so if I bought a monthly pass, it’d be useless half the time. Their twitter once reported an outage to the Rockaways without any contingency plans or cross-honouring which is de rigueur among PATH, NJT and the MTA.

Guest May 14, 2018 - 8:29 pm

Just get an eBike.

MM May 15, 2018 - 3:14 pm

DeBlasio loves to spend YOUR money


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