Ferry Service in New York City

New York Waterway

A ride on the New York Waterway ferry across the Hudson River.
(c) 2012 C. Walton.

Many places have ferries for tourists, ferries for commuters, ferries for sightseeing.  New York has no shortage of ferries, from the New York-New Jersey commuter ferries (New York Waterway, Seastreak, etc.) to the sightseeing ferries (Circle Line, Statue Cruises, etc.), to the Staten Island Ferry, which serves commuters from Staten to Manhattan as well as tourists who want a free view of the Statue of Liberty without all the tourists.

The question isn’t whether we need more ferries…well, actually, maybe we should talk about it.  My main question is, if we really do need more ferries, where exactly should they go?  How much will it cost and who will pay for it?  Is it really needed and can it be used for leisure as well as commuting?  That’s more like a multiple-part question, but the general question is: why more ferries for New York?

First, let’s talk about New York’s transportation infrastructure.  24 subway lines, almost 300 bus routes, at least a dozen or more bridge and tunnel crossings within the five boroughs, a handful of interstate highways and bypasses, and at least 17,000 miles of streets.

Let’s talk about transit infrastructure specifically.    24 subway lines that zig-zag across four of the five boroughs.  (Sorry, Richmond, but your hopes of the subway connecting to the Isle of Staten are pretty much in the water)  700+ track miles with nothing but trains that, though not perfect, run fairly frequently and keep New York moving, 24/7.  Buses in most parts of the city run all night and touch many if not all of the 200 neighborhoods in the city.  Is the bus system perfect?  Far from it, with outdated bus routes, a lack of offsite transit facilities, and a slow progression in terms of new buses (though that has changed over the last few years) and route planning (new bus routes like the B32 and all of these Select Bus Service initiatives).

So why ferries?

Part of the main reason is that the MTA cannot seem to get off their high chairs and really give the bus network a comprehensive second look as to how the system functions in order to really not have any reliance on ferries.  Select Bus Service solves part of the problem, but an overall look at how the system is laid out can yield results as to how things can change to serve the needs of riders instead of to ensure that an old streetcar or trolleybus line lives on for 10 more decades.

The other part of the main reason is that even though the subway is the fastest way to get around, in most cases, unless you were in Manhattan or in the outer borough neighborhoods close (time-wise) to Manhattan, it really isn’t.  Let’s say you were commuting to Manhattan.  Your commute from Harlem to Midtown can be 15 minutes; that same commute from Ridgewood could be 35 minutes and from Jamaica could be over an hour on even the fastest trains from Jamaica, the E and F express trains.  For those far out in the outer boroughs, if the subway to Manhattan takes more than an hour, you either a) go to another subway line or station closer to Manhattan probably by bus, b) take the express buses for a premium, or c) drive in and risk not finding parking or dealing with NYPD traffic cops.  For those who live more than a half hour by bus to the nearest subway station, the only viable alternative is the express bus.  However, for those who live far from subways and are near waterways, it’s the express bus or the drive to the nearest frequent-service subway line or all the way into Manhattan.

People make the case for ferries for four reasons:

  1. The issue of adequate reliable transportation in areas remote from the most densely populated neighborhoods in all 5 boroughs that so happen to be along waterways (The Rockaways during blizzards and after Hurricane Sandy comes to mind)
  2. The issue of travel times from the far reaches of New York despite numerous services available (hmm, Coney Island and areas just north?)
  3. Well, if it works in Williamsburg, it’s gonna work everywhere else.  Which kind of leads to…
  4. Well, there’s “many” other cities around the world that have ferries…and sidewalk cafes…and bike priority facilities…and sleek, shiny, magical buses…and art galleries, we need to “catch up with the rest of the world”

Honestly, if we really did need more ferries, I would probably follow the East River Ferry example as far as route planning and scheduling goes, much more so than the Brooklyn and Rockaway ferry experiments that the city executed several years back.  I question the merit of having a relatively long-distance ferry boat from the Rockaways to somewhere in the Financial District that only benefits the few hundred commuters that currently use the QM16 express bus, especially since sometimes even the slightest instance of inclement weather can outright cancel service.  Same goes for the Brooklyn Army Terminal service to Lower Manhattan.  Well, sorta.  My point is this:  why only operate peak-hour commuter ferry service for an extremely small margin of commuters into Manhattan?

I suppose a better idea for ferry service, if I were to really seriously look at ferries as an alternative to the subways that get delayed and express buses that have to sit in traffic just like everyone else, would be to expand on East River Ferry service or create a new branding.  Some ideas below:

  • East River Ferry:  Added stops on the Manhattan-side of the river, including the United Nations, Waterside Plaza, and Bridgemarket; added stops on the Queens Side, including Roosevelt Island, Astoria Park, and LaGuardia Airport
  • New service:  from East River Manhattan stops to new Bronx locations including Castle Hill, Fort Schuyler, Yankee Stadium/Bronx Terminal Market, Marble Hill, City Island, Hunts Point, and Clason’s Point
  • New service:  a Brooklyn-centered service from locations including current East River Ferry stops as well as IKEA Brooklyn, Brooklyn Army Terminal, Bay Ridge, and Coney Island west of Stillwell Avenue

A few notes about these ideas.  First, these boats would be catered to CBD (commercial business district) commuters as well as intra-borough commuters, subway riders and express bus riders, those who can’t ride the subway and those who refuse to ride the subway.  Second, the fares and scheduling, though relatively comparable to the subway or Select Bus Service, are contingent on city funding.  Third, these are just unsubstantiated guidelines for potential ferry service.  Fourth, part of the success of these lines would fall on advertising the line and providing shuttle service from major inland areas of the boroughs to the ferry stops, much like New York Waterway provides shuttles from W 38th Street to different venues further into Midtown.  What good is a expertly-placed ferry terminal if no one can easily get to it?  Finally, I decided to leave out semantics such as who would operate the services as I felt it wasn’t really important yet.  The idea here is to see how it can be feasible if it were really needed.

Ferries are nice for sightseeing and taking to the waters where there is, theoretically anyway, plenty of room to sail to the CBD and forget about riding in a hole in the ground subjected to delays.  That is, until the weather gets hairy.  Not to say that our subway system doesn’t get flooded or that buses don’t get stuck in the snow, but ferries may not be the best way to get around a inclement weather delay in the subway.  Let’s stick to what we know for now.  Subways, buses, bikes (and the lanes created by the Bloomberg administration), and maybe some ferries here and there.

What I say is, if you are going to advocate for more ferries in the city, take a hint at New York Waterway (and the fantastic job they have done operating the East River Ferry system), and maybe, just maybe, we can have a little boat that could.  Let’s think city-wide and not just Manhattan.  Short hops that would otherwise take up to a half hour by road or rail rather than long-hauls that may or may not even come close to breaking even.  Bay Ridge to Navy Yard or Brooklyn Bridge Park to Astoria Park, Clason’s Point to Bronx Terminal Market or Marble Hill to LaGuardia Airport via Yankee Stadium.  With a few shuttles in the remote spots, NYC Transit buses to handle the rest.  The point is, if you think ferries, think smart.  It’s the only way to really realize an alternate transit mode’s potential.  Subways and buses are old as grandma, but they aren’t necessarily all we have to offer.  Just do it right.  Or else, no one can take ferry advocates seriously.   Except maybe those who ride the Staten Island Ferry.

Besides, when are the transit fare hikes going to stop?

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