De Blasio’s Ignorance of NYC’s Bus Crisis Shines Through at His Umpteenth Ferry Announcement

The mayor doesn't seem to know or care how he can reverse the dramatic decline of NYC bus service.

Mayor de Blasio at yet another ferry press conference this morning. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor de Blasio at yet another ferry press conference this morning. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Ask Mayor de Blasio what he’s doing to address the city’s transportation challenges, and he’s likely to focus on one initiative in particular: the city-subsidized ferry service launched at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, which carried fewer than 10,000 trips per day in 2017.

The city’s bus system, meanwhile, carries about 2 million weekday trips but is hemorrhaging riders, and de Blasio has little to say about it.

Today de Blasio announced that he’s pouring more money into ferries, with another $300 million in capital spending on top of the $325 million his administration has already put into the system. The city also spends $30 million annually on ferry operations.

De Blasio’s press conference, at the just-opened Bay Ridge docks, was at least the eighth ferry-related public event he’s held since the beginning of 2017, compared to two such events for buses.

It’s not like the mayor has no control over bus service. As TransitCenter’s Tabitha Decker laid out in a recent Times opinion piece, it’s up to de Blasio to give buses priority at traffic lights, add more bus lanes, and keep cops from obstructing the bus lanes we already have.

Asked why the city has put hundreds of millions of dollars into the ferry system instead of bus service or Citi Bike, which get much more use, de Blasio said “each element of our mass transit planning has to be seen individually.” In contrast to buses and bike-share, de Blasio bizarrely claimed, ferry service “has tremendous long-term possibility.”

“Adding transportation options for millions of New Yorkers is a good thing,” the mayor said.

De Blasio is misinterpreting the numbers. If annual ferry trips are in the millions, that doesn’t translate to millions of New Yorkers. According to the city’s projection, by 2023 the ferry system will still have just 24,500 passengers per day, fewer than 14 individual MTA bus routes.

Many of those buses are in dire need of improvements that de Blasio could deliver, as TransitCenter noted on Twitter:

You could say there’s “tremendous long-term possibility” in speeding up bus service for hundreds of thousands of people, but the mayor of New York, where more people ride the bus than any other city in the nation, doesn’t see it that way. Maybe that’s because while ferries move fewer people than buses, unlike bus lanes, they don’t irritate motorists by claiming space from car traffic and parking.

It’s been 10 days since the MTA released its “bus action plan,” which has the potential to dramatically improve bus service citywide. For that to happen, de Blasio’s cooperation will be essential. Has the mayor given a moment’s thought to how he can prioritize buses on the streets?

“My broad understanding of the plan — I agree with it and we want to see more and better bus options,” he said.

Seemingly oblivious to the details of the action plan, which calls for applying measures citywide that have previously been rolled out one route at a time as part of the Select Bus Service program, de Blasio highlighted the city’s plan to add two SBS routes per year.

For the $600 million the city is spending on ferry capital needs, plus the $30 million annually in operations, the city could easily increase its expansion of bus lanes by a factor of five for a decade.

Asked whether the NYPD would effectively enforce bus lanes, de Blasio responded that “NYPD success rates at bus lane clearance is not one of the areas I’m an expert in” and declined to comment further.

From 2016 to 2017, citywide bus ridership dropped 6 percent — the highest year-over-year drop in 15 years — as bus speeds continued to fall. Millions of New Yorkers truly are affected by the abysmal state of bus service, but the mayor doesn’t seem to know or care how he can reverse this dramatic decline.

  • David Meyer
  • Done

    It’s rare for any city to have a mayor who winds up leaving the city worse off than when he came into office, but when it comes to transportation we’re watching it happen right before our eyes.

  • JarekFA

    He loves ferries because it doesn’t encroach on car drivers’ privileges. That’s it. They’re pretty. They look nice. But from a policy stand point they’re a fucking disaster.

    Using the L Train shutdown to pilot sustainable, green and more efficient means of transportation has significantly greater potential than the literally limited ferries which cannot scale up at efficient levels.

    WTF are the residents of Bushwick supposed to do. WTF are the residents of most of Williamsburg supposed to do when the L Train shuts down. Shlep to the water front for ferries that will eventually get them across to manhattan and then have to shlep further to your actual destination.

    Re-designing 14th street physically so that it’s inhospitable to single occupancy vehicles and hospitable to moving a lot of people via bus, bike and ebike would’ve been the magic bullet. Piloting programs that allow people to store securely cargo ebikes on the street (expanding sidewalks and installing “sheds” in place of car parking in Bushwick for example) along with corresponding regulations to permit greater cargo ebike parking in Manhattan would serve as a potential model in a long term transformation away from the single occupancy vehicle which is absolutely choking this city to death. Ferries are simply not viable as a mass transit solution except for very limited situations. We need to get people to voluntarily give up their cars and this was the opportunity.

    Instead this guy and his stupid fucking ferries. This shit is 100% a result of the lack of socioeconomic diversity in his public policy formulation. case study after case study will be written on this debacle. What a fucking progressive phony. Just seething. If only he’d expand citibike by 10 blocks south then I could citibike home whenever the trains were acting up. That’d be 100x better for me than these incredibly expensive ferries. I mean, is he fucking stupid? Like seriously. Is he just dumb. Like does he not comprehend the numbers and return of investment. ESA probably makes more sense on a $/rider basis. He won’t fund fair fares but he goes whole hog on Doctors living in Williamsburg commuting to the hospital.

    “Adding transportation options for millions of New Yorkers is a good thing,” the mayor said.

    I mean really, is he just stupid? Is he some robot that just reads off the prompter? Like — I’m just astounded. The public policy process is completely broken. I hope he goes down from one of these scandals and fast. Between this bullshit and the placard abuse, he absolutely deserves to go.

  • Larry Littlefield

    No developer of “luxury housing” is putting access to a bus route in their brochure. No one with access to a bus route is making campaign contributions.

  • Joe R.

    The answer is really simple. Ferries are the preferred mode of the rich who can afford to live along the waterfront. DeBlasio disguises himself as a progressive but he’s firmly in the pockets of the 1%. So was Bloomberg, although he was able to get some positive policy initiatives through simply because he was rich enough not to owe anyone favors.

    So basically the working class is having their scarce tax dollars siphoned off to provide transportation for the 1%. I have no objection to ferries, but let them be privately owned and run. I liken subsidizing ferries to subsidizing limo service.

    The fact ferries don’t take up street space or parking spots may have something to do with it also.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Fine, but then the city is going deeper into hock while facing constraints elsewhere in the best case scenario fiscal environment.

    In other words, Mr. Mayor, because the needs of the political/union class comes first, and you can’t count the executive/financial class to spin off this much money indefinitely, the serfs can’t afford it.

  • Of course de Blasio should be doing all of the things you mentioned with respect to buses and street redesign. But from that it does not follow that he should not be promoting ferries.

    We could have all of the sane policies that you outline, and at the same time an increase in ferry service. Ferries cost money to operate, but they work very well. And it is much easier to expand ferry service
    — even to double or triple it — than it is to expand bus or subway service.

    People who ride ferries tend to enjoy them and to speak about them with high praise,. There is clearly an audience for much more of this.

    Furthermore, we should remember that Manhattan is extremely narrow. This means that everybody who works in Manhattan is walking distance from one shore or the other. So the potential ridership for ferries is a lot more than just the rich people who live on the waterfront in Queens and Brooklyn.

  • Vooch

    $300 million would build 600 miles of PBLs

    That would support about 2 million weekday trips.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/be1a825ea4a7f7055cf4df9dc3535d8fb000bfef3eef0a490a79181d4b9ed47b.jpg

  • Vooch

    Jarek

    love this rant – it’s coherant yet passionate. It’s really good.

    could you – you tube it in some way ? like voice over some video of street scenes and BdB ?

    if you simply used this rant as a script and voice over’d videos and stills it would be powerful

  • Olivera

    Thanks!

  • Nawc77

    Follow the money. Someone is getting rich on this and I bet they are connected to City Hall somehow.

  • JarekFA

    They put NYC Water Taxi out of business. http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20170113/TRANSPORTATION/170119929/mayor-bill-de-blasios-decision-sank-nyc-commuter-ferry-operators-new-york-water-taxi-which-sold-to-new-york-cruise-lines

    They charged market rates whereas Hornblower, which had never run ferry services before, got a huge subsidy. How did Hornblower win the contract? NYC Water Taxi was solid. Many years of experience running ferry services.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Here is the big picture. Resources are going to be increasingly scarce as a result of decades of future selling by Generation Greed.

    This could be confronted head on, with an attempt to allocate the losses, find a bottom, save what can be saved, and rebuild. But not by a group of empty suit careerists.

    So what you get is attempt to shift the blame to someone else, while playing the hero for handing out a few goodies to a few beneficiaries even as the overall governmental structure that millions of ordinary people depend on rots away.

    Think about how many people are nostalgic for the 1970s, because their little bubble was fine and all the crisis and suffering around them was “cool.” Why, if you were well off enough you could get cheap apartments, drive from one part of Manhattan to another, and get parking!

    The city is being run by those who didn’t use the subway back then. They were on express buses, and in their own (or city) motor vehicles.

  • Eli

    As someone admittedly new to NYC, I find it hard to not attribute high real estate prices primarily to the MTA. It just takes too long to get to Manhattan by subway, so everyone who can has to live within 5-7 miles.

    I once rode the ferry from Bay Ridge to downtown. It was a baffling experience. The ferry never went faster than 30 mph. It wasn’t any faster than the bafflingly slow subway train. I’m guessing the subsidies per rider were well into the hundreds of dollars for a duplicative service.

    Transit should make NYC faster to reach and more connected. The ferry feels destined to be keep places like Bay Ridge spatially disconnected, but more pleasant for richer people to access, at insane public expense.

  • Eli

    I’m curious how the next Mayor will handle this. Presumably in a recession, the insane ferry operating subsidy will be untenable.

    Will they just have to dispose of the $600 mil capitol investment and write it off? Or did they sign contracts designed to lock the city into a bad deal (like Chicago did with the $1.2 bil parking deal that now precludes building bike and bus lanes?)

  • Larry Littlefield

    Just wait until the city takes it over and the state legislature awards everybody unfunded 20/50 pensions. They’ll have to shut the bus system down to pay for it.

  • JarekFA

    The R Train gets you to FiDi more quickly than the Ferry does, even though, the FiDi Ferry port is one of the few Manhattan ones that are close to trains and large employment areas (34th st is useful IF you work at a hospital but you still have to take a bus to midtown or to go uptown or downtown [and for up/downtown, you’re still on the far east side).

    You can switch to the N at 59th street Sunset Park and that, fingers crossed, can get you to midtown pretty quickly. Remember, Bay Ridge is still a good 9 miles from FiDi and 13 miles from Midtown. It’s asking a lot to get there in 20-30 minutes unless. I live just north of Sunset Park and I can reliably bike to FiDi in exactly 30 mins.

  • Jared R

    Mayor AND Governor. We need to remember to blame both.

  • Scroller

    De Blasio’s opening line truly demonstrates his complete lack of understands of the transit needs of New Yorkers, let alone transit planning in general.

    “Each element of mass transit planning has to be seen individually”

    No. No. Just no. There’s a reason why they’re called transit systems or networks. You have to look at everything together. Looking at things individually leaves us with the barely functioning piecemeal fiefdom system we have today.

    How is this man such a dope?

  • Jeff

    >>>each element of our mass transit planning has to be seen individually.

    …really?

  • KeNYC2030
  • Maggie

    I’m too angry at too many points in this story from our so-called climate-focused mayor to call them all out yet, but:

    Is this link a reliable estimate for carbon emissions by transit mode? https://www.co2nnect.org/help_sheets/?op_id=602&opt_id=98

    If it’s accurate – and I’m no expert – the ferries which he’ll subsidize at around $6.60 a ride for the number of daily riders that use the subway every two minutes, generate 0.115 kg/km of CO2 per passenger, while buses would generate about 0.069 kg/km per passenger? From a climate standpoint, what is his end goal with airily ignoring buses at the expense of heavily subsidized ferries and ignoring the state of the SBS bus lanes?

    We haven’t had a climate catastrophe on his watch yet, like with Sandy in 2012, but if one comes, the judgments aren’t going to be kind. He has to do better and I really hope that starts with no more hypocritical lecturing, no more head-in-the-sand answers about HIS OWN CITY, and much more action backed up by data.

  • Maggie

    I sort of agree with you: if the mayor was hitting on all cylinders on so many transportation areas where he’s indifferent or delaying – then these ferries would be great. They could be priced more appropriately, but they do add redundancy to a transit system which is healthy, and they give New Yorkers a different way to see and appreciate parts of the city.

    I think it’s just his appalling records on fair fares, bus lanes, implementing safe streets improvements before people die, ending the doom loop of falsified placards, falling bus ridership and worsening street congestion/air pollution that are the problems he should be showing leadership on. As a responsible mayor, you can’t just ignore all those things…. they matter enormously.

  • Yes, I understand that point. His priorities are out of whack; and he deserves to be hammerred on that.

  • Anon resident

    MTA closes down Harlem train station with a couple of day notice and at meeting there are NO Mayor’s office staff. MTA says oh we will have more m10 buses. Mayors office has nothing to say about this. Does BDB know where the m10 bus travels? How about he ride the m10 bus. Scary local Assembly Member Inez Dickens had no clue of what buses ran thru her district.

  • Joe R.

    The issue here isn’t whether ferries could in theory play a part in the transportation system. Of course they can. Rather, the problem is their cost per passenger. That relegates them to transportation only the well-to-do can afford to use on a daily basis. Sure, you can subsidize them, but the subsidies per rider end up being far greater than other modes. In a perfect world where we had unlimited money for transit that wouldn’t matter. In the real world transit dollars are constrained. We can expect little help from the federal or state governments. That means using whatever transportation dollars we have on modes which give the most bang for the buck. Cycling probably tops the list.

    If you can think of a type of ferry which can operate without subsidies and still offer affordable fares a lot of people will be all ears. Unfortunately, short of using rowboats with Charon collecting spare change, I can’t think of such a thing.

  • Forget about the ferry operating without subsidies; NYC Ferry is highly subsidised, and rightfully so. Yes, it costs much more per rider than the bus or subway. But we shouldn’t imagine that the money spent on the ferry could have been spent on the bus. NYC Ferry, not being part of the MTA, is unilaterally controlled by the City.

    Where the mayor has failed regarding buses has nothing to do with funding; it has to do with policy. Bus lanes should be much more prevalent (tell the Community Boards to go jump in a lake); and the police should be deployed to enact strict enforcement of the rules protecting bus lanes.

    (He avoids that last bit because he knows that ordering the police to do something that they will openly refuse to do would be yet another humiliation at the hands of a military junta that considers the civilian government to be irrelevant. Nevertheless, he has the authority on paper.)

  • GetOffMyBridge

    The Ferry is a stupid idea but that is no excuse to add another stupid idea and make more bus lanes. I do agree that we should look at a 14th bus only route while the L is down, although I don’t think it will help a great deal. For automobiles, 14th street is a dead end anyway because the FDR entrance has been closed there for a decade, and it is the widest width of Manhattan. How much demand is there to go on a bus from 10th Avenue to 1st Avenue? Not that much. So other that the crowd that says, I hate cars you you have to as well, this does little to help NYC. The problem is getting over the river from Canarsie to Williamsburg. The fact that these idiots ripped up the L train flyway from the L train to the J train (the original K like) doesn’t help at all. Buses are going to have to be part of this solution (not Ferries) but there is no easy solutions here and a lot of compomising is going to be needed until this is done.

  • Andrew

    Which Harlem train station was closed down with a couple of day notice? The closure dates, beginning in April, were announced in February: https://www.scribd.com/document/371936911/ESI-Package-3-020518-Draft-110-86-72

    Why does the mayor need to get involved with the M10 bus?

  • Andrew

    This is what we call a rant.

    With the L out of service in Manhattan, M14 ridership, already quite heavy, will jump from 30,000 to 84,000. There’s simply no way to accommodate the frequency of buses needed for that sort of ridership without robust priority bus treatment. And if some of those projected riders divert to FHV’s due to slow or unreliable service, the situation will simply spiral out of control.

    The track connection between the L and the J is still in place. It’s irrelevant to the topic at hand – the L will still be running between Canarsie and Bedford, and most riders from Canarsie already transfer.

  • BK Train Fan

    Further, we can run electric buses and buy green electricity to charge them, further reducing our CO2/passenger output. These ferries, even the newer ones, are not a green way of doing things.

  • StanChaz

    My my my, what a distorted view of the world you have, when you only see it from the vantage point of a bicycle!

  • Eli

    FWIW, I believe the London Underground trains average 20.5 mph factoring in stops. My specialty is more active transit (so I wouldn’t know most the considerations in why the R train is so insanely slow, even on straight tracks).

    So admittedly at least 30 minutes to FiDi seems pretty reasonable to me!

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