James UK / Flickr

As a complementary form of mass transit, they've actually got a lot to recommend them.

Sometimes it's necessary to start with the caveats, and making the case for ferries is one of those times.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a six-line, $55 million ferry plan for New York City, much of the criticism that followed seemed fair. Some pointed to the huge per-rider subsidies on the Staten Island ($5.95) and short-lived Rockaway ($21.22) ferries, especially versus those of the subway (56 cents) or city bus ($1.59). Others noted how these public costs were questionable given that ferries tend to serve a wealthier waterfront population. The most complete breakdown of ferry flaws, courtesy of Ben Kabak, noted poor connectivity and fare structure as detractions from the city's real transportation problems:

It sounds good — because who doesn’t like boats? — and gets people talking because it’s different. Despite de Blasio's claim, it won’t do one iota of good for subway service and doesn’t solve the intertwined issues of funding, congestion and reliability currently plaguing our aging transit network.

So let these points sink in for a moment, because they're all strong ones. While de Blasio has been progressive on street safety, and has made some recent progress on enhanced bus service, he's been almost invisible on the city's biggest mobility matters: subway funding, congestion pricing, even outer-borough transit. But with the weather (finally) turning, it's time to present an unexpectedly compelling case for ferries as a complementary form of public transportation in New York City. With an emphasis on complementary.

"Listen: This is no silver bullet," Roland Lewis, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, a local ferry advocate, tells CityLab. "As the mayor put it, it's adding to an already robust transit system, but an overtaxed transit system."

Lewis provided some support for his (admittedly biased) side that, when combined with other new data and some outside opinions, make a decent argument in favor of ferries. Again, these points come with the caution that a ferry plan shouldn't be a top policy priority for a city the size of New York. But let's look at the best reasons to get behind boats as a reasonable supplement to a wider transport network.

Proposed NYC Ferry Network

Ferry ridership is actually pretty impressive.

According to the latest APTA figures, the Staten Island Ferry carried nearly 22 million riders in 2014—just about 66,000 a day—with ridership moving in the right direction: up roughly 7 percent (in a year when bus ridership in New York declined 2 percent). Including the city's smaller ferries, which combined carried upwards of 10 million riders last year, New York serves some 32 million people on transit boats. Add to that the 4.6 million trips that service expansion hopes to attract, and the city's waterways can expect to host some 36.5 million travelers circa 2018.

For some points of comparison, that's double the ridership on Caltrain's commuter rail system in Northern California, well ahead of Miami's entire metro rail service, slightly more than the annual air travel figures through LaGuardia airport, and not far behind all of Portland light rail. It's nowhere near on par with the New York City subway or bus system, of course. But it's still a lot of waves.

There's a really low barrier to service entry (and exit).

The latest ferry plan expects service to begin in 2017. With a vital city subway line taking decades to materialize, and individual station costs ballooning into the billions of dollars, it's refreshing to see a reasonably priced transportation plan that's ready to get off the ground (so to speak) in just a couple years. Water transport reduces the potential for opposition from others who share the space (see: drivers versus bike lanes). And the infrastructure is mostly there—aside from the stations, all you need is a vehicle.

"A lot of people, they look at the cost—but in transit dollars, it's not even a rounding error," says Lewis. "There's no road to lay, no tracks to put down. The mode of transit for these boats is there already."

Ferry service also has a virtue in its flexibility. It's well-suited to pilot tests that can be extended if they succeed and ended if they fail. The East River Ferry service, for instance, initially launched as a pilot in 2011, quickly crushed its projected first-year ridership goal, and received a 5-year extension. The failed Rockaway pilot service of 2008, on the other hand, suffered from low frequency and high subsidy, and was cut off in 2010.

Areas around East River Ferry stops have seen enormous growth. (Dan Nguyen / Flickr)

Service redundancy means service options.

At times of emergency service interruptions on the larger New York City transit network—such as 9/11, or the 2003 blackout—ferries have played what the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) calls "an invaluable role" in picking up the slack. Ferries were one of the reasons New York's transit system fared so well following Superstorm Sandy. It reconnected residents in Staten Island, Red Hook, and the Rockaways in relatively short order, and served as an alternative route to the disrupted L train connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Even in non-emergency situations, the ferries play a supplemental role as a transit option. Riders on the L train frequently take the East River Ferry during unexpected service disruptions and when the G train was closed for long-term maintenance, some of its riders did the same. Such redundancy means less congestion on crowded streets and bridges, and more reliability for businesses and workers.

Ferries aren't just for rich people…

A common argument against ferries is that city taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill so that high-income waterfront residents have yet another lifestyle amenity. But the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance points out that plenty of working-class New Yorkers would benefit from the new ferry plan—residents of Soundview in the Bronx, of Astoria Houses in Queens, and of Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn, among them. And transit-starved Rockaway residents still pine for the ferry's return.

There's an equity case to be made for the Staten Island Ferry service, too, where ferry service provides a cost-effective (and sustainable) alternative to heavily tolled bridges. Sure, that service gets a fairly high per-rider subsidy, but such costs pale in comparison to what it would take to build a subway tunnel between Manhattan and the outer borough.

NYC EDC, 2011

… and besides, hipsters and yuppies need transit, too.

Population has exploded in many of the desirable areas adjacent to ferry service, from Williamsburg and Greenpoint and Dumbo in Brooklyn to Long Island City in Queens. Census tract growth from 2000 to 2010 is up 124 percent near the North 6th Street pier in North Williamsburg; 110 percent near Shaefer's Landing pier in South Williamsburg; and 218 percent near the Brooklyn Bridge pier in Dumbo, to name a few. And with the Domino development coming soon to the Brooklyn waterfront, such ferry-friendly growth will only continue.

Even if every new resident of these and other ferry areas is well-off (which just isn't the case), that doesn't make it a bad idea to give them transit alternatives—especially options that don't involve crippling bridge congestion or costly subway capacity expansions.

What it does mean is that the city should consider ways to capture some of the value from these areas and redirect it back into the transit system to help reduce public subsidies. The EDC points out that property values within an eighth of a mile of East River Ferry stops in Brooklyn and Queens jumped 8 percent over comparable sites in other areas. Developers who gain from that access should pay for it, perhaps via dock fees or station construction.

Ridership on the East River Ferry easily exceeded initial projections. (George Rex / Flickr)

The biggest knock is connectivity.

Even ferry advocates acknowledge that the biggest shortcoming to productive ferry service is connectivity to the wider transit network. Since a ferry can only take travelers from shore to shore, its mobility value is severely limited without immediate access to the subway system, or major bus routes, or at least a bike-share hub. "I think it's the key question," says Roland Lewis. "And it's not answered."

To that end, the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance has released a 15-point plan to improve connectivity between ferries and the rest of the transit system. Some of the most promising suggestions include:

  • Extending bus routes and bike lanes to ferry docks.
  • Synchronizing ferry schedules with buses.
  • Adding ferry stops to MTA transit maps.
  • Installing MetroCard machines at ferry landings.
  • Providing transfer-free service so that ferry riders don't have to pay a second fare to continue their trip once they get off the boat—an especially critical idea that should become more feasible as the MTA upgrades its fare system and more transit ticketing goes mobile.

So there's the case for ferries, should you choose to entertain it, caveats and all. The key thing to keep in mind is that nobody, not even the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, sees them as a singular solution to New York's transit woes. ("We're the primary ferry advocates, and we'd never say such a thing," says Lewis.) But as a fast-acting, redundancy-creating, relatively low-cost facet of a wider mobility network in a coastal city, they have a defensible position.

"We recognize we're value-added," says Lewis, "and we'd argue fervently for that."

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