Bus Rapid Transit, Not Ferry Subsidies, Would Help Struggling New Yorkers

Image: EDC [PDF]
Per rider, ferries need significantly higher subsidies than subways or local buses. Image: EDC [PDF]
In today’s State of the City address, Mayor de Blasio returned to his signature campaign issues of affordability and equity. Focusing mainly on housing, the mayor outlined a plan for growth centered around transit-accessible neighborhoods, and he recommitted to building several new Bus Rapid Transit routes.

But de Blasio missed the mark with his big new transit initiative — a subsidized ferry system. Dollar for dollar, ferries are just not an effective way to spend public money to improve transit options for low-income New Yorkers.

Mayor de Blasio announces a new citywide ferry system, and repeats his old BRT promises. Photo: Mayor's Office/YouTube
Photo: Mayor’s Office/YouTube

“If we are going to have affordable housing, how are we going to help people get around? What’s the role of transportation in making sure that people have access to opportunity and connecting to where the jobs are all over the five boroughs?” the mayor asked. “Well, we thought about that.”

De Blasio said rides on the new ferry system will cost no more than a MetroCard swipe when it launches in 2017. The system will receive $55 million from the city and serve neighborhoods including Astoria and the Rockaways in Queens, Red Hook in Brooklyn, and Soundview in the Bronx, according to DNAinfo.

“Ferries will be affordable to everyday New Yorkers, just like our subways and buses,” de Blasio said, adding that the ferries will help revitalize commercial corridors near their outer-borough landings.

This sounds great, until you look at how much ferries cost and how many people they would serve compared to better buses and trains.

Even with fares at $3.50 per ride, running ferries from Pier 11 to the Rockaways last year required a subsidy of nearly $30 per rider, according to the Economic Development Corporation. In part, that was because its limited schedule failed to attract much ridership. The more centrally-located East River Ferry has more ridership and a better schedule, but still had a slightly higher per-rider subsidy than bus service in 2013, on top of its $4 fare [PDF]. Dropping the fare to match the bus and subway would likely require additional subsidies.

Even the popular Staten Island Ferry, which is free and has frequent service, had a per-rider subsidy in 2011 more than three times higher than local MTA buses, and more than 10 times higher than the subway [PDF].

The role that ferries can play in the transportation system is limited by the accessibility of waterfront sites and the difficulty of connecting to other transit services. The East River Ferry maxed out at a daily average of 4,000 weekday riders and 6,000 weekend riders in 2013. 

There’s also a disconnect between most of the areas the ferries would serve and the transit needs of low-income neighborhoods. A better way to spend those subsidies to help struggling New Yorkers would be to bolster Bus Rapid Transit improvements across the boroughs.

De Blasio did mention Bus Rapid Transit in the speech, recommitting to his campaign promise to bring the city’s BRT network to a total of 20 routes by the end of his first term. The pace of expansion will have to speed up considerably to hit that target. So far, the administration has cut the ribbon on just one new Select Bus Service route, with a handful of additional routes in the planning stages.

A coalition of groups backing expanded BRT, including the Working Families Party, the Pratt Center for Community Development, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and Riders Alliance, issued statements thanking the mayor for commitment to BRT. City Council Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez also promised to hold a hearing on the future of BRT in New York and the mayor’s plans.

Other highlights from today’s speech:

  • Building upon goals set out in his housing plan, the mayor called for the construction of 160,000 market rate units and 80,000 affordable units by 2024, more than doubling the average annual rate of construction over the past 25 years.
  • The mayor is focused on rezoning industrial areas for residential use and identified neighborhoods for new development including the Harlem River waterfront and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, Flushing West and Long Island City in Queens, East Harlem in Manhattan, East New York in Brooklyn, and downtown Staten Island. “We’ll create more affordable housing by literally building up, adding density to appropriate parts of our city,” de Blasio said. “We are not embarking on a mission to build towering skyscrapers where they don’t belong. We have a duty to protect and preserve the character and culture of our neighborhoods.”
  • De Blasio singled out Sunnyside Yards, which he proposes decking over with 11,250 “long-term” affordable units, as a “game changer,” citing access to transportation as one of its key advantages. The project would require cooperation from Amtrak, which has expressed interest in developing above its rail facility. A spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo threw cold water on the mayor’s proposal. In October, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer said he is “opposed” to building over the yards, which he said would be “bad for the surrounding community.”
  • De Blasio did not mention parking reform as a way to both reduce the cost of new construction and achieve the city’s transportation goals.

Early in the speech, de Blasio touted Vision Zero and a reduction in traffic fatalities among his first-year accomplishments but didn’t go into detail about how he will build on those gains.

“Coming off a year with record-low pedestrian fatalities, we’re pleased to hear Mayor de Blasio promise that there’s more to come on Vision Zero in 2015,” said Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White. “If we’re going to reach the goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2024, the city will need to go beyond 50 projects a year and transform all of the city’s dangerous arterial corridors… The mayor and the City Council must secure the funding necessary to begin work on a citywide arterial transformation plan no later than 2017.”

This post has been updated with additional information about subsidies for the East River Ferry.

  • BBnet3000

    The politicians love ferries because nobody parks or drives their cars on the water.

  • JerichoWhiskey

    Staten Island Ferry should probably be folded into the costs of riding SIR or the bus. The lack of a direct bridge or a subway tunnel connecting buses and SIR to lower Manhattan is probably the worst transit oversight of the five boroughs.

  • qrt145
  • Bolwerk

    If SI Ferry had a subsidy only 3x higher than a bus ride, it’s not doing so badly if buses are an acceptable loss. An average non-BRT bus ride is about 2.1 miles, and the SIF trip is about 5.2 miles (according to the wikipedos anyway; if that is true, it’s 2.48x the length an average bus trip, just for the ferry). An unlinked BRT* trip in NYC is actually shorter, about 1.8 miles, while a subway trip is 4.1 miles.

    I’d say ferries are okay if they can replicate that SIF’s per-rider cost performance. The thing is they probably can’t.

    * NTD is breaking out BRT from regular buses, as of this year, so I am too.

  • ahwr

    Rockaway ferry ridership varied heavily by month, it was as low as 400-500 per day in the first winter, over 1300 in August, 550+ in it’s second winter.


    Some sources said it cost 500k a month to subsidize the service.


    So in the summer it had a lower per rider mile subsidy than buses. The rockaways are just far away from Manhattan, there’s no way around that.

    Here’s ny waterway’s ntd profile. Not sure what to make of fare revenue = to operating expenses.


    Edit to add:

    When the MTA was making lots of service cuts a few years back they published some cost data to justify their choices, not sure how to find it on their live site though.


    So in ~2010 a trip on the QM16 cost $22.53. Not all that different from the subsidy the rockaway ferry needed.

  • Andrew

    Suggesting that neither ferries nor express buses should be the major focus.

  • ahwr

    Going by NYCT’s NTD profile, assuming commuter buses are express buses like the QM16, they are cheaper per passenger mile than local buses. Are there enough jobs closer to far out areas like the rockaways that focusing on short distance travel for them makes more sense? Or is it just wrong to devote more resources to those far out areas when there are cheaper to serve transportation needs elsewhere in the city? Are these funds strictly transportation dollars? Or are the rockaways getting a ferry at the expense of rehabbing an old park, or some other public expenditures.

  • Andrew

    Why the focus on passenger miles rather than on (linked or unlinked) trips? The point of a transportation system is to allow people to travel from origin to destination, not to allow them to rack up miles. One can argue whether long distances are a bug, but they’re certainly not a feature.

  • Moncada’s Codpiece

    This. You have to get to a ferry first for it to be useful and I would think there are only a couple of points within NYC where ferries would draw a high number of users. Expanding bus service would do much more for folks depending on mass transit.

  • Bolwerk

    High passenger turnover is what makes buses cost-effective under our fare model, but our fare model arbitrarily penalizes certain long trips but not others. A long transit bus trip doesn’t necessarily translate into fewer resources consumed than a long express bus trip. If anything, more resources are consumed!

    Ferries seem to be a similar story, at least if they attract okay ridership.

    (It would be interesting if NTD had SIF.)

  • ahwr

    We must also remember that transportation is central to the mission of providing affordable housing and services — connecting neighborhoods in the five boroughs to New York’s largest job centers.

    For years, the conventional wisdom has been that certain neighborhoods are doomed to isolation because of their geography.

    Today, if you live in one of those neighborhoods – the Rockaways or Red Hook or Soundview, among others — a job in Manhattan can easily mean an hour or more of commuting, even when the skyline is visible from your home. You can actually see opportunity, but practically speaking, it’s very far away.


    This is De Blasio’s attempt to provide Manhattan bound transit for a few waterfront neighborhoods. For trips to Manhattan, the distance travelled is comparable, whether by ferry or bus. Comparing the cost of the ferry to a different bus says that trip isn’t worth serving. I’m bringing up passenger miles to argue that serving this trip with a ferry is comparable in cost to serving it with a bus, separate from arguing about whether the trip itself is worth serving.

    Should a Rockaway->Manhattan trip be more important than one from Brownsville to Crown Heights? Every neighborhood has individual needs. Are the rockaways getting a disproportionate share of public dollars? If not, if a ferry is paid for out of what could be called their fair allocation, why is that a waste? Because a dollar for transportation goes further elsewhere? Don’t think of it as transportation dollars then, think of it as Rockaway dollars. Their pols and many locals have been going on about bringing the ferry back. Given the low ridership it’s questionable that it’s the most pressing need in the area. But ignoring petitioners because some central authority that doesn’t live in or work in the area thinks they know better doesn’t seem a great way to encourage democratic participation. Arguing that local input should be ignored until they ask for the right thing doesn’t feel right. So letting local electeds have some say on how to spend local dollars seems a good idea in general. If the residents of the rockaways would rather have more local buses they should make themselves heard. Maybe in a couple election cycles they’ll elect new leaders who will push for a reallocation of rockaway dollars to local buses serving different trips.

  • Andrew

    It does. http://www.ntdprogram.gov/ntdprogram/pubs/profiles/2013/agency_profiles/2082.pdf

    $6.60 per unlinked passenger trip, $1.27 per passenger mile

    (What buses does NYCDOT operate?)

  • Bolwerk

    Ah, thanks. That’s not bad at all. BRT in NYC is $1.26 per passenger-mile, but the average trip is 1/3 as far. I don’t see that performance being duplicated on any other ferry route though.

    Beats me. $0 capital funding – maybe some kind of chartered service? They might be paying the MTA to do something.

  • ahwr

    If you go back a few years


    It lists the agencies it contracted with. Atlantic express filed a separate report listing 24 buses.


    Same that NYCDOT was listed as purchasing from an unnamed provider 2007 through 2013. Fare revenues, passenger miles, unlinked trips, vehicle revenue hours are comparable in the last AE report in 2006, and the first time those numbers were listed in the NYCDOT report in 2007.


    Looks like they ran a couple express buses under contract to NYCEDC. I don’t see an NYCEDC NTD profile so I would assume they were reported through NYCDOT.

  • Andrew

    In almost all cases, those same trips can be made, at much lower cost, by a combination of local/limited/SBS bus and subway (and, in the unique case of Staten Island, ferry), even if it’s less convenient and in many cases more time-consuming.

    And local buses are more versatile. In addition to supporting commutes to Manhattan, they also support commutes to other parts of the city – directly to other points along the same bus route and indirectly via connections to the subway and to other bus lines.

    Bang-for-buck is much greater on local buses and the subway than on express buses and ferries. Our transportation funding is far more limited than it should be, and we should be using it where it can provide the greatest benefit.

    I completely understand the desire of a small minority of city residents to ride luxury services like express buses and (non-Staten Island) ferries. That doesn’t mean that they should be subsidized, per trip, any more than the basic local bus and subway systems. If Rockaway elected officials wish to subsidize ferry or express bus service for their constituents, I have no objection, but there’s no justification to spread those subsidies citywide.

  • Joe R.

    I agree with you on express buses but I should point out that the riders do in fact pay a higher fare. It may or may not cover the same proportion of costs as local bus fares but it’s worth mentioning this in the context you’re discussing. Perhaps keep express buses but if need by raise the fare so the subsidies per passenger mile match those for subway or local buses.

    That said, it probably makes more sense to see what can be done to speed up A train service to the Rockaways than to offer express buses or ferries. The track is already there. The MTA would actually save money by speeding up service in that fewer trains/crews would be needed for the same headways. From where I stand, a lot of the alignment to the Rockaways looks amenable to much higher speeds, particularly the 3.5 mile run along the causeway.

  • Bolwerk

    Hmmm, another thing is ferries probably mean 3-seat rides for most CBD-bound people. Getting to the ferry is some sort of trip and then getting to the CBD from the ferry is a trip.

    Say what you will about express buses, at least they’re direct.

  • AnoNYC

    I don’t live far from one of the proposed terminals (Soundview Avenue/Clason Point). This is going to draw a ton of people here due to the equivalent pricing if you can get to Midtown in less than 50 minutes. The vast majority of people in this neighborhood must either take the BX 5, BX 27, BX 39 to the subway. All are held up due to slow boarding, traffic lights, and congestion when traveling towards the El (6 train which is 3/4 a mile north of the Bruckner). The Lexington Ave line is loaded well before it enters Manhattan. The neighborhoods south of the Bruckner Expressway are dense and have poor access to rapid transportation. It’s equivalent to the Bronx Third Ave corridor.

    This area feels pretty neglected despite the numerous public housing projects, highrise rentals/coops and attached multi unit housing. Almost 60,000 within 2.1 sq miles (a large chunk of which being parks).

    I’m all for this because it will revolutionize my commute. Likely take some pressure off the 6 too and reduce some driving. A Queens connection would also draw many more neighborhoods like Parkchester, Hunts Point, Longwood, Morris Park and Bronx Park East at least.

    SBS is nice and I would love to see it implemented on a BX 5/6 combination and even the White Plains Road section of the BX 36/39 south of Parkchester but you’re just dumping people into already crowded trains in this case for example.

    Call me greedy, but I want both (ferries and SBS).

  • Andrew

    You’re right, I should have pointed out that the express bus fare is considerably higher than the regular transit fare (for local buses, SBS, and the subway), although still not high enough to bring the subsidy in line with the rest of the system.

    Signal engineers have to ensure that the signal system maintains NYCT’s safety standards for train separation at the maximum speed that a train could possibly reach. If you increase that top speed, they then have to rejigger the signals across the entire system to maintain the same safety standards at higher speeds. Without completely redesigning the entire signal system from scratch, the result would be a significant loss in capacity across the entire subway system.

    When CBTC comes along here (which I don’t think will be for quite a while – the signals on the Rockaway line are relatively young and it certainly has no pressing capacity need), trains will move faster.

    The express bus riders I know don’t ride the express bus because it saves time. They ride the express bus because it’s comfortable and because they don’t have to mix with the masses on the local bus or subway. Think of a first class airline ticket, except that the subsidies flow in the opposite direction.

  • Andrew

    At the home end of the trip, I think most ferry riders walk or drive.

    At the work end of the trip, most riders at the Midtown terminals have to transfer to buses, but at the Lower Manhattan terminals (WFC and Pier 11) they walk. (Or at least that’s my impression.)

    And plenty of people drive to express buses.

    Express buses serve residential parts of the city that are nowhere near water, unlike ferries, and they circulate through Midtown, unlike ferries. But for trips between residential areas near water and Lower Manhattan, ferries do sometimes make sense – unlike buses, ferries don’t get stuck in traffic on the LIE.

  • Andrew
  • Joe R.

    Well, CBTC installation should be fast-tracked for lots of reasons. For now though, if NYCTA were very strict about which trains run on which lines, it could tweak signal systems only on certain lines with the assurance that the faster trains wouldn’t run elsewhere on the system. Or it could adjust top speeds if they do. That’s actually fairly trivial on the AC motored equipment-you just cap the inverter frequency. Basically, it just involves reprogramming the inverter. The older equipment is less flexible-either turn field shunting on or off. You get about 42 to 45 mph with it off, something like 55 to 58 mph on.

    Yeah, that’s pretty much the impression I get of express bus riders as well. The express bus from here is usually no faster than the local bus/subway combo getting to midtown, but it’s a plush ride where you don’t mix with the masses. I supposed that’s worth a premium to some people.

  • Andrew

    CBTC installation is exceptionally disruptive to service, and in effect it blocks out all sorts of other work that also needs to get done. Like all signal projects, it is also exceptionally expensive, and the MTA’s current proposed capital plan is already half unfunded. It requires special equipment on the cars, which effectively requires the early retirement of all of the cars from the 1980’s. How do you justify replacing signals that are only 20-30 years old, on a segment of line that certainly doesn’t need a capacity boost?

    Are you suggesting that the Rockaway line have its own dedicated fleet of cars that never go elsewhere? Then Rockaway riders have to transfer at Rockaway Blvd. to continue into Brooklyn and Manhattan, and whatever time is saved by running a few mph faster is more than lost in the transfer. (But Lefferts riders would love it!) Or if the trains run through to 207th Street, you now have to mess with the signals on the entire A line, along with any other line the A might be rerouted to – 6th Avenue, Concourse, Queens Blvd., Rutgers, Culver (also necessary to get the cars to the overhaul shop at Coney Island) at a bare minimum. Aside from the massive expense in modifying all of the signals, the result would be reduced capacity on all of those lines.

    And, as we’ve both said, it wouldn’t even attract riders off of express buses!

  • Bolwerk

    Well, as a secondary CBD, Lower Manhattan seems to have a pretty high job density near the waterfront. Midtown doesn’t seem to have that.

  • Bolwerk

    I bet CBTC could be financed fairly easily if it actually meant OPTO. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

  • Charles

    Real estate developers love ferries because they are great for marketing new waterfront developments. It is a shame that the public is being asked once again to subsidize developers rather than provide better transit to those in need of it.

  • Joe R.

    I see what you mean. You have to change the signals all the way to 207th, and ensure that any trains which are modified for the new signals don’t go on other lines.

    I guess fast tracking CBTC is just something on my wish list, along with getting more subways out here (i.e. extend the #7, E, and F to city limits, have a spur along either Jewel Avenue or the LIE going at least to 164th, better yet all the way to Springfield Blvd). My guess is the MTA will probably make sure to keep enough lines with old signaling for as long as it takes to get the design life out of the 1980s rolling stock. And most likely those lines will be lines like the A which at present aren’t capacity constrained. The good news is the two lines I use-the #7 and Queens Blvd. line, are the next two slated to get CBTC. Besides the capacity boost, I’m hoping CBTC shaves at least few minutes off the schedule.

    Now if only they could speed up the buses I take to the subway. It’s no exaggeration to say frequently the bus ride to the subway (2.7 miles) takes longer than the subway ride into Manhattan (~7 miles and 18 minutes).

  • Andrew

    The 8th Avenue line, 6th Avenue line, Fulton Street line, and Crosstown line all still have their original 1930’s signal systems. The A covers two of those segments, and it includes the very much capacity-constrained Cranberry tube (Hoyt through Canal, really, where the A and C share trackage).

    That doesn’t mean that the entirety of the A will be converted to CBTC soon (QBL is establishing the precedent of installing CBTC on line segments), but all of the cars running on the A will need to be properly equipped.

    So I wouldn’t be surprised if the last hurrah for the R68’s is on the Broadway line, whose signals are still relatively young.

  • Bolwerk

    Can Broadway accommodate 75′ cars?

  • ohnonononono

    But once you get to the 34th Street ferry landing you’re all the way over on the river beyond 1st Ave. Most employment in Midtown is closer to the center of the island. It’s a long shlep back west to wherever you’re going, on the traffic-clogged, slow moving M34, or a brutal exhausting walk in this winter weather. The 6 takes you to Grand Central, the heart of Manhattan employment.

    (To be fair, the NYU Med Center and Bellevue are major employers right by the ferry. If you work there, this plan is great for you. Everyone else, not so much.)

  • Alex

    Ferries have failed to draw many users because they don’t connect people well to employment. Ferry ridership, even with an expanded system, is likely to top out in the tens of thousands at most. Meanwhile, millions use the subway and buses, so ferries are very unlikely to have any real impact on crowding. Same is true for driving. A driver isn’t likely to switch to a ferry if they still need to take a bus to a train after the ferry ride to get to work.

  • AnoNYC

    This would work great in collaboration with Vision42 and the 34th Street protected SBS proposals. Should have been part of the package.

    The missing but critical component.

    As for reducing driving from this area, all depends on travel time. Also, imagine if there where a stop in Queens instead of East Harlem. A lot of people would come to the ferry terminal from across the borough (Mostly the east half) rather than go through Manhattan. Others currently completing the trip by auto might switch.

  • AnoNYC

    Very true for most perhaps, but in my case it works. I have a Citi Bike membership and could buy a folder. I could also walk it to my destination from the river in the UES. I already typically walk a mile to the nearest rapid transit station, bus takes the exact same travel time. And I would have to bike down to the ferry near me anyway, a bit farther than the subway in the opposite direction so to save time.

    If only this included a light rail link along a closed to traffic 42nd and 34th Streets.

  • Andrew

    It accommodates them every day.


Toll reform creates a fairer transportation system. Ferry subsidies do not. Photo: Michael Appelton/Mayoral Photography Office

De Blasio Launches $325 Million Ferry Service While Poor New Yorkers Struggle to Afford MetroCards

Yesterday the mayor emphasized that the prices for single ferry rides and monthly passes are equivalent to those of single-ride and monthly MetroCards. But ferry riders hoping to connect to other points in the city will have to pay twice - for the boat ride, and again for the subway or bus. And most stops are in neighborhoods where the annual income is above the citywide average.