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NYC Ferry expansion prompts questions over who benefits most

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A new Village Voice analysis of ferry ridership is revealing

Max Touhey

It’s now been more than a year since the NYC Ferry system launched, and the city has loudly championed its successes since then: The system surpassed its initial ridership projections, with more than three million passengers in 2017, and it’s expected to service nine million riders by 2019.

But as the city prepares to give the system another infusion of cash—to the tune of $300 million over the next five years—questions about its practicality continue to dog it. And as Second Avenue Sagas’s Ben Kabak has noted, the NYCEDC, which leads the ferry expansion efforts (it’s operated by Hornblower), has yet to release ridership data for the ferry—so questions about who it’s actually for have also arisen as part of what Kabak calls “ferry fatigue”

Now, a massive new report in the Village Voice attempts to answer the latter question; reporters Aaron Gordan, Jake Offenhartz, and Emma Whitford (also a Curbed NY contributor) talked to 60 ferry riders who utilize four of its routes, and found the following:

Ferry riders are, by and large, higher-income New Yorkers taking advantage of subsidized ferry rides to avoid subways and buses — not because it’s a faster commute, but because of the ferry’s creature comforts such as elbow room, concessions, alcohol, WiFi, and the fresh sea air.

This isn’t exactly a surprise; the ferry services only a handful of neighborhoods, most of which have median incomes above that of the city as a whole, as the Voice notes. Many of its landings are in closest proximity to those neighborhoods’ luxury residential towers, and have become a selling point for those high-priced residences.

Meanwhile, the Voice notes, the ferry accommodated fewer riders in 2017 than the subway system does in a single day. Even Citi Bike—which is entirely privately funded—sees more riders than the ferry system does in one day.

“Any way one slices it, NYC Ferry is getting far more subsidies per rider than the city’s crucial transit systems,” the Voice writes.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has pitched ferry service as a crucial alternative to the crumbling subway system, and indeed, many of the people the Voice talked to cited the trains’ breakdowns as a big driver for their switch to the ferry. One, who commutes from Long Island City to Wall Street, told the Voice that “I kind of rave about it. The workers are really pleasant, the views — it’s like a vacation.”

Others, meanwhile, only served to emphasize the Voice’s point about the economic and demographic disparity between ferry riders and the subway commuters they’ve left behind. Take, for instance, a commuter from the Rockaways who told the Voice that she stopped taking the A train because it “wasn’t safe.” She continued, “The crowd isn’t good on it. It’d go through East New York. This is more comfortable, more relaxing. It’s a different type of clientele and people.” (Hmm.)

The whole thing is worth a read—check it out at the Voice here.