A man in a life vest aboard the NYC ferry coffee bar
Mary Altaffer/AP Photo

In some ways, the boats hint at transit’s service-oriented future.

Deck seats were open on the New York City ferry’s third ride from Rockaway to Wall Street Friday morning, but a few passengers chose to lay on the floor.

“We thought we’d get a nap in,” said Irina J., a 28-year-old student who had caught the sunrise at Rockaway Beach. She and her friend spread blankets and pillows in a pocket of starboard floor space. They started a trend: Opposite the captain’s booth, another couple lay down as the vessel chugged across the bay.

“You won’t see that on the A-train,” observed Jermaine Corey, a 26-year-old Rockaway native on his way to work in Manhattan. Before ferry service launched in May, Corey sat through delays and breakdowns on that subway line, and occasionally splurged to sit through surface traffic on the MTA’s $6.50 Midtown express bus.

But on this morning, he sat on a lifejacket box at the back of the boat, chatting with a friend. Other passengers leafed through novels, munched on bagels, and sipped iced coffee served on tap downstairs. The snack bar (where an attendant confirmed her job was ”chill”) sells tickets, too, which are also available via app and dockside kiosks. At $2.75, the heavily subsidized fare is equal to a subway ride.

Note the sunbathers at top right. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

Between the subway and the ferry, that’s where the comparisons end. It has been a nightmare year on the New York City subway. The rate of on-time arrivals has dropped below 70 percent for nearly every line. A dramatic derailment on A-train at the end of June underscored the system’s lack of political accountability. On Friday, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who controls the MTA (despite appearances otherwise), declared a “state of emergency” over the aging and neglected system in order to hustle up contract procurements. The same day, Cuomo kicked off the MTA Genius Transit Challenge, which will award $1 million grants to innovative ideas to help fix the system.

It doesn’t take start-up-style disruption to see what the subway is sorely missing: leaders who feel responsible for it, and a concrete funding plan. But while applicants seek inspiration, perhaps they ought look to the ferry, which has injected a startling degree of civility into the transportation landscape.

All things being equal, the ferry is naturally going to generate a more pleasant experience—it’s a boat ride with an amazing view. And a ride to work where passengers can comfortably tan may be gratuitous as a goalpost for other transit modes that don’t include an open-air deck. But the ferry’s other customer-oriented amenities—intuitive ticketing, un-harried attendants, first-and-last mile connections, and yes, refreshments—are not unrealistic ideas for other modes. Nor should they be waved off as superfluous. To the contrary, they may be key to transit’s future.

Lately, Jeff Tumlin, the director of strategy at the transportation consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard, has been repeating a grim warning to clients around the country: If they don’t radically reinvent themselves now, transit agencies could face literal bankruptcy. In order to compete with the coming proliferation of shared autonomous vehicles, agencies should be automating their own fleets, taking greater authority over street and curb access, and reimagining the role of transit workers if they’re no longer needed to drive.

“Why not serve coffee on the bus?” Tumlin told me in April. “Why not help passengers plan trips, or provide a security presence? Make public transit a higher quality, almost concierge-like experience—rather than a basic utility designed for those who have no other option.”

That’s in line with another philosophy many transit professionals insist is the future: “mobility as a service.” Instead of being captive to one mode, riders pick and pay for bike-share, bus rides, and Ubers as needed, ideally through a shared platform (Helsinki is pioneering this sort of system). Implicit in the “MAAS” vision is the notion that transit should be a product people want to use, as opposed to something they’re forced to rely on and readily discard once a car or ride is affordable.

Here’s how far from “customer-oriented” the MTA is presently: the system blames riders for its staggering decline in reliability. Imagine an airline pointing fingers at frequent flyers for its miserable on-time departures. It's illogical and oddly spiteful.

Perhaps the MTA can afford to treat riders this way, since it hasn’t historically struggled to attract passengers. But now there’s evidence that New Yorkers are beginning to abandon the subway in favor of services like Uber and Lyft—which preview the cheap, convenient, shared rides autonomous vehicles are likely to offer. A similar rider displacement is unfolding in San Francisco, according to Tumlin, and smaller, less transit-oriented cities are more vulnerable to the trend.

New York City’s $325 million plan to serve all five boroughs with ferries should not be mistaken as a blueprint for transit’s future. It’s arguably a pretty poor investment, in fact. The boats have so far surpassed ridership expectations: The two routes operating in May, serving Rockaway and the East River, drew 57,000 riders per week that month. But even with the since-opened South Brooklyn line, the Astoria connection coming in August, and two more routes on the way in 2018, the boats aren’t likely to transport more than a fraction of the 5.6 million riders who rely on the subway every week.

Long lines over the sweltering July 4th holiday weekend showed that not all ferry trips are as relaxing as Friday’s Rockaway ride. And the sorts of niceties that distinguish the boats most visibly from New York City trains are far less important to riders certain obvious basics. Coffee and wi-fi are fine, but what riders really want is frequent, fast, and easily accessible transit. New York, like so many other cities, has a long way to go to get there.  

But why not aim for humane on the way? Better yet, why not make humane part of the business model? On a day like Friday, the ferry opens space to envision what is possible—for riders as much as for operators.

“It’s so weird,” said Janna Sheng, a 26-year-old Rockaway commuter soaking up the sunlight on her way into work. “There’s no stress. There’s no frustration. It’s just pleasant. I didn’t realize how badly that was missing from my life.”

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