The first of a planned fleet of 20 new NYC ferries makes its maiden voyage in New York Harbor. Mike Segar/Reuters

As traffic on land stalls, the sea beckons.

In May, New York City made a splash when city officials launched the first new public inter-borough ferry service since the Fulton Ferry between Brooklyn and Manhattan docked for the last time in 1924. By 2018, 20 newly built passenger- and bicycle-only vessels will operate among all the boroughs via 22 landings along 6 routes—except Staten Island, which is already linked by ferry to Manhattan. It’s part of a $325 million effort to refloat a waterborne mass transit system that harkens back to the 19th century, when New York ferries carried more than 50 million passengers annually.

Waterways like rivers, lakes, and canals were the original interstates; most of the world’s greatest cities were harbor towns that were able to capitalize on their access to shipping. Well into the early 20th century, from the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes to the Hanseatic cities of Northern Europe and along the Mediterranean basin, urbanites got around on water. And cities like Amsterdam and Venice never gave up their water links. Nor could they: On the car-free islands of the Venetian lagoon, for example, the city’s network of water taxis and vaporetti, or water buses, comprise the entire mass transit system.

In most cities, however, the rise of trains and cars, the development of more extensive bridge networks, and the general emphasis on terrestrial mass transit caused a steep decline in ferry ridership. Many intra-urban passenger ferry networks were out of business by the mid-20th century. But, faced with traffic congestion and a declining enthusiasm for urban highway construction, some of those cities are now rediscovering the ancient virtues of sea power.

In addition to New York City’s big ferry push, several cities are now reinvesting in water transit infrastructure: They’re expanding or considering growth for existing services, or adding new ones. The San Francisco Bay Ferries’ ridership has increased 74 percent over the last five years, to more than 2.7 million passengers annually, out of seven terminals servicing five routes. Plans now call for adding six new vessels, five more routes, and another nine terminals. Up the West Coast, Washington State, already the largest ferry operator in North America, is updating its fleet, putting its newest ferry into service this summer on its Seattle/Bremerton line. The $123 million vessel has the capacity to carry 144 cars and 1,500 passengers. Construction will also begin on a replacement multimodal Colman Dock, Seattle’s central terminal. More than nine million total riders pass through there annually, with an additional 600,000 riders traveling via the passenger-only King County Water Taxi.

Overseas, about 10 million people already take the Thames River “Clipper” ferries each year, but the Port of London Authority’s 2016 “Thames Vision” plan calls for doubling river passenger traffic as part of an ambitious comprehensive program for the 95 miles of tidal waterway. And ferry fever isn’t just on the rise in Western cities: Fast-growing urban areas like Dubai and Bangkok and congested, car-dependent mega-cities like Mumbai and Cairo are also turning to their waterways for relief from vehicular traffic congestion.

Peter Hammond directs PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Mass Transport industry team for the ANZSEA region in Sydney, Australia, where he has consulted on ferry expansion projects. “Our firm's experience in Australia and globally indicates there is growing investment for ferry services,” he writes via email. “This includes investing in improvements to existing services (i.e. service levels, fleet replacement, wharf upgrades, etc.) and introduction of new ferry routes.”

Maritime cities like Hong Kong, Copenhagen, and Singapore have proven that ferries can indeed reduce street traffic while connecting waterfront zones and islands lacking mass transit access. “In waterbound cities they make a lot of sense,” says Norman Garrick, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Connecticut whose research focuses on sustainable transportation. “They take pressure off other forms of transit, serve transit ‘deserts’ like older waterfront industrial zones, and complement on-land transit systems.”

There are other, less tangible benefits too. “It’s a sexy trip,” Garrick says. “It’s slower. There’s a romance to it that people like, and the commute by boat can be a winding-down time.”

A Batobus plies the Seine in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. Though the service is mostly a tourist amenity, it does help keep street congestion under control. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

Even tourist-focused services can help local residents and workaday commuters. The twenty-year-old Paris Batobus, with its eight stops along the Seine River and all-day-pass ticketing, primarily serves tourists, but getting nearly 1 million riders on the river and off the streets each year helps alleviate crowds. This summer, Paris expects to test out a fleet of what may prove to be a more practical water vehicle for local residents—the Sea Bubble water taxi, a driverless, battery-powered hydrofoil. If the Paris Sea Bubble prospers, the entrepreneurs behind the futuristic robo-boat hope to add services in London, San Francisco, Dubai, Singapore, and Bangkok.

Many current ferry and water taxi services function as a kind of luxury good, serving tourists or affluent communities. But marine transit may prove a practical and even necessary solution for fast-growth cities in the developing world, where mass transit infrastructure development has not kept pace with population growth and the rise of a new middle class and their cars. If you want to get from one end of Lagos, Nigeria, to the other, a trip by car might take an entire day on the city’s clogged streets. On the recently established Metroferry, it takes 30 minutes. Aimed primarily at affluent office workers, the system serves 18,000 passengers daily, and ridership is growing.

However, cities face challenges in reviving their waterborne transport options. First, there’s the hefty price tag—the public investment needed to launch and operate new ferry services can be enormous. “They are costly to establish and operate, including vessel and terminal costs, especially if they operate year-round on open waters, which requires high safety standards,” says Todd Litman, founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI), a Victoria, Canada, research organization focused on solutions to transit problems. The agency behind San Francisco’s growing ferry system is putting in $175 million to build out just seven new boats to expand its fleet to 16 vessels in all. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged $325 million toward that city’s new ferry services, but nobody expects the $2.75 toll for a ride on the ferry lines to cover the actual cost of operation for the vessels and terminals.

That’s not atypical. PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ Hammond says: “From our experience a lot of ferry services are unprofitable, and require government subsidy and/or additional services to increase viability.”

Taxpayers’ willingness to subsidize ferry services depends on the need for a mass transit water connection and the relative cost for providing the service, Littman explains. “Some ferry services, such as ferry services to islands, provide basic mobility and experience scale economies. Some services compete with congested bridges and so reduce congestion costs, or avoid the need to expand bridges.”

Cairo is looking to expand its ferry service in an effort to help control traffic. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

There are also generally a welter of maritime, environmental, and safety regulations that govern marine transport. Hamdi Barghout, a maritime transportation expert based in Egypt, told Middle East online news Al-Monitor that Nile River transportation projects presently require 18 separate permits from the nation’s ministries of health, archaeology, tourism, defense, interior, and environment. Even though Cairo is choking on traffic and desperately needs more mass transit alternatives, few private investors are willing to run such a bureaucratic gantlet to create a more practical ferry system.

Despite the costs and the regulatory hurdles, boats also have some key advantages. Unlike roadways and intra-urban rail, ferries generally require less infrastructure investment and maintenance to operate a multi-vessel network. The water road is, so to speak, there for the taking. Also, ferry lines can rapidly respond to changing usage patterns. As ridership rises, adding boats and crossings to the routes makes for near-infinite scalability. When weather conditions prevent safe sailing or demand falls off seasonally, ferries can cut costs by idling boats and trimming service.

Environmentally, expectations that increased ferry travel will have a green payoff may be overblown. Studies have found that ferries consume more fossil fuel on a per-passenger-mile basis than comparable mass transit travel by bus or rail, and their diesel engines are not exactly non-polluting. However, such assessments do not account for the time vehicles spend sitting idle in traffic jams or the environmental impact of road and railway construction.

Smart planners can look to Seattle’s experience when considering the advantages of ferry services. University of Connecticut transportation expert Garrick recalls that in the late 1950s the Washington State Department of Transportation moved to replace the city’s costly, slow-moving ferries with a network of automotive bridges over the Puget Sound. Public outcry scuttled those plans. “If they had built bridges and gotten rid of the ferries,” he says, “many more cars would now come into the city, and that would have made it a far less sustainable and attractive urban place.” Today, Washington State boasts that it operates the most extensive public water transit system in the country, with 22 vessels carrying 24.2 million passengers in 2016. And growing.

There’s a related environmental consideration that might prompt cities to rethink their waterways: In waterfront cities from Boston to Shanghai, roadways, rail lines, and other infrastructure are at a high risk of damage or destruction from rising seas. Travel over water may be a necessary alternative in the near future. (Take a look at a map of what Miami might look like in a few decades.) “Ferries are going to become more relevant in more places as sea levels rise,” Garrick says.

For centuries, island and lagoon cities have managed to thrive by using waterborne travel; it’s possible that more cities will soon need to learn their secrets.

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