What Would It Take to Run a Successful East River Ferry Program?

The Rockaway ferry, shown here, wasn't able to survive even with city subsidy. Photo: New York Times.
The Rockaway ferry, shown here, wasn't able to survive even with city subsidy. Photo: ##http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/23/rockaway-ferry-to-sail-into-sunset/##New York Times##.

A few more details about the city’s new subsidized East River ferry service were revealed at a Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance panel yesterday afternoon, including the route’s stops and hours. Mostly, however, the panel offered advice on what it will take to make ferries successful and provided some valuable context for the public discussion about waterborne transit.

New York City Economic Development Corporation Vice President David Hopkins offered a little more information about the city’s upcoming East River ferry route. The route will be privately run but publicly subsidized; the city is currently in negotiations with operators. How much it will end up costing the city, and how much it will cost riders, wasn’t mentioned. According to a report in Crain’s Insider today, the city subsidy could approach $20 per passenger. (For comparison, in 2009 the total cost per passenger of weekday New York City Transit bus service was $2.73, with an average fare of $1.14 [PDF].)

The ferry will have “transit-like routing,” according to Hopkins, running both north- and southbound along a path from Hunters Point South in Long Island City, to India Street in Greenpoint, to North 6th Street and South 8th Street in Williamsburg, to Fulton Ferry, and then to Manhattan. With the current levels of waterfront development, he said, there isn’t yet the market for the point-to-point service that has proven successful from New Jersey to Manhattan.

Hopkins also said that the service would run at least every 20 minutes during peak hours, less frequently than City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden said that morning. The service would run seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Finally, Hopkins emphasized that this ferry program is meant to be a pilot. The city’s ongoing ferry study, which is measuring demand for a much larger set of routes, is still underway, and this two- to three-year program is intended to lay the groundwork for a potential expansion, allowing EDC to test demand, marketing strategies, ticketing systems, and their ability to connect ferries with other modes of transport.

The rest of the panel painted a picture of the market for ferry transit in New York, and its opportunities and challenges. Pierre Vilain, a vice-president at engineering firm HDR, contended that the ferry market is already very strong. Not only is the regional ferry system, including both private routes and the city-operated Staten Island Ferry, the largest in the country, but it’s also unusually profitable on the private side. “The system is unique when you compare it to passenger ferry services anywhere in the world, I believe,” said Vilain, “in that it’s primarily self-sustaining from the farebox.”

Though many ferry services have met with failure — most notably the recently shuttered city-subsidized service from the Rockaways — others have captured large shares of the market. The successful routes are mainly those that cross the Hudson. In New Jersey’s Hudson and Bergen Counties, said Vilain, around half of all Manhattan-bound commuters take the PATH, but another 30 percent take ferries.

One important factor in the success or failure of ferry service is the quality and price of the competition. “You cannot compete against subsidized mass transit when you’re not subsidized mass transit,” said Tom Fox, the founder of New York Water Taxi. His ferry route from Haverstraw to Yonkers failed despite subsidy because it simply couldn’t beat the Metro-North Railroad on north-south service.

Just as important is competition from the automobile. Hopkins suggested that in Seattle, where he’s from, the health of the ferry system is directly related to investment in roads and bridges. “The solution in Seattle was don’t build a bridge, and that’s how you ensured ferry traffic,” said Hopkins. The ferries “wilted away when we built our bridges and tunnels.”

Another key to success will be integration with existing transit. Vilain pointed out that nearly all current ferry commuters both live and work near the ferry terminals. In general, he said, “you’re not going to get a lot of market capture when you start moving away from the pier on either the origin or the destination side.” However, he noted that along certain NJ Transit lines that feed effectively into Hoboken, ferry ridership continues up the tracks.

Other panel members agreed. “The real key to all of this is integration with the MTA,” said Fox, describing the success of integrating London’s ferries with the Oyster Card payment system. Hopkins pointed to the need to work with the MTA at the 34th Street pier, “especially when they upgrade that line to BRT.”

Finally, there was strong interest in figuring out how to make the ferry system serve more than just commuters. Paula Berry, the harbor district director for NYC and Co., the city’s tourism arm, suggested that the ferries be used to link the city’s new waterfront parks and create a unified experience. An experiment she ran last summer found a market for recreational ferry riders during midday hours.

Similarly, former MWA program director Carter Craft said that the Rockaway ferry might have been able to succeed if it hadn’t had to run empty after dropping off morning commuters. He thought that school and camp groups could have taken the ferry back to the Rockaways for field trips, adding a new market.

  • Ian Turner

    Yet another reason why we should get out of the business of subsidizing transportation.

  • Boris

    Did the NYC “Economic Development” Corporation explain why it is better economically to subsidize ferries and parking lots instead of subways and buses? It’s especially galling since we are talking about comparable amounts of money going to much fewer (and richer) people than before.

  • LN

    Istanbul is very similar in layout to NYC, with people working on the other side of bodies of water from where they live. The ferries cost the same as most other modes of transport and are on one payment system and linked to each other (bus terminus is next to ferries etc) all subsidized by the govt. and full all the time. Check it out here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_transport_in_Istanbul

    Many people take 2-3 different modes of transport for 1-2 hours to and from work!

  • JK

    The fundamental fact remains that New York State, New York City and the MTA face severe budget short-falls extending into the distant future because of rapidly growing Medicaid, debt and pension/retiree health costs. The MTA just cut large swaths of bus service. And, who is supposed to pay for this mythical ferry subsidy? Well, at least one thinks it will be the MTA. “’The real key to all of this is integration with the MTA,’ said Fox.” Translation: the MTA is supposed to pay for ferries. Well, they can’t. But, it’s a good bet that built into the next road pricing plan, whether it’s East River Bridge tolls or some form of congestion pricing, is going to be a provision that siphons off a subsidy for private ferry operators. You can be sure that between then them the ferry industry and the real estate developers can bribe enough of the legislature and City Council to make that happen.

  • I believe Cap’n Transit has pointed out on his blog several times and in several different contexts that mass transit is profitable when it is not competing with subsidized highways and bridges. The trans-Hudson ferries compete against the tolled GWB; the trans-East River ferries compete against the free Queensboro and Williamsburg Bridges.

    Whether EDC reads Cap’n Transit’s blog is an open question, however, it would be nice to hear their spokespeople directly address the cogent arguments that he makes as to why their service is doomed to lose money.

  • This is the second story in as many days but it still isn’t clear how this differs from what’s currently in place. WIll the ferry stop at more locations? Will it operate more frequently? Does it cost less? Or is it simply that the City is subsidizing a privately owned service that previously operated on its own?

  • Gary

    Tolling the East River crossings and dedicating the funds to transit would help solve a host of problems.

  • BicyclesOnly

    I’m shocked to hear that any ferry line in NYC had costs of $20 or more per passenger. Sounds like a boondoggle, or that it includes capital costs like dock construction.

    I’d like to know why a non-subsidized ferry service between E.90th St. and lower Manhattan can’t be profitably run. You’ve got the docks in place, high population density in Yorkville, a proven willingness to cab-pool downtown for ~$7 per passenger, limited competition from the SBS and no competition from the Lexington Ave subway.

    Is $7-$10/per passenger too little income to run a profitable ferry line between those two points?

  • Shemp

    34th Street bus-way will have great synergy with both E. River and Hudson ferries if it can be implemented vs. the nimbys.

  • Why there is no money for infrastructure:

    Intense! Video of Jeff Sachs on America’s Economic Crisis – Where Do We Go From Here? http://bit.ly/eEIBBB

  • LN: yes, and Istanbul is building Marmaray to offer a direct through-connection on rail between the European and Asian sides of the city.

  • tacony palmyra

    1. This could involve a $20 a rider subsidy… yet ferries in NYC are “self-sustaining from the farebox”? “You cannot compete against subsidized mass transit when you’re not subsidized mass transit” but even with the larger-than-Metro-North subsidy per rider the Haverstraw-Yonkers-NYC ferry couldn’t? These arguments don’t make sense.
    2. Half of Hudson and Bergen commuters take the PATH? I thought cross-Hudson bus riders outnumbered PATH riders.

    Maybe I’m biased because I don’t live or work particularly close to the water, but I’m extremely skeptical of throwing money at ferries. They only make sense when there are extreme water barriers to major employment centers, such as Staten Island-Lower Manhattan. Otherwise, we already have bridges and tunnels that transport us across the water better than ferries do (unless you happen to live AND work on the water, which few of us do). The Hudson River crossings are strained, but I don’t think the East River bridges and tunnels are by any means “full,” are they?

  • No money for transportation to transport people.

    Plenty of money for transportation to protect or increase property values. Clearly, this is the twilight zone.

  • SLeonard

    Here is the major problem… and its simple.

    Put ferries going straight across from major hub to major hub. Done.

    Rockaway? Rockaway Failed – are you kidding me? What did you expect?

    Williamsburg Wall Street and 34th st. put parking under the bridge in the wasted space and in the wasted waterfront NYDOT space.

    These idiots are running commissions when the answer is right across the hudson.

  • chris mcnally

    I would love a ferry from Wall St to the airports. please!

  • AlexB

    Ferries don’t work for a reason. They are expensive to operate, offer few to no connections to other transit (in new york), and are very slow. Throwing more money at these isn’t going to work. The pilot will operate and eventually be canceled and we will wonder why it failed. Perhaps it would be better to wait until the developments on the Williamsburg waterfront get back on track which might provide some of the necessary ridership. All in all, it’s hard to pick a ferry route that can’t be replicated on an express bus faster and cheaper.

    That’s not to say I think a ferry service like this is necessarily a bad idea. In NYC, it can shorten many trips that bridges and tunnels don’t reach. Offering a shuttle train service on the Lower Montauk Branch from Hunterspoint to Jamaica that is times with the ferry would be great. You’d be giving everyone that passes through Jamaica the option to get to East 34th St. in Manhattan where there is a decent concentration of jobs right near the ferry terminal, including hospitals that employ a lot of people. If the ferry continued to Williamsburg, you’d be giving people on the Williamsburg waterfront direct access to East 34th St AND all of Long Island. I’d also be interested in routes that connect areas which are particularly geographically separated. East Bronx to Staten Island or New Jersey to Brooklyn or West Bronx to Northeast Queens are good examples. Instead of a commuter service, it could be an important element in a regional transit system (as outlined by Ravitch when he proposed a regional bus network to be implemented with congestion pricing).

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