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NYC needs to create its own transit future—and ferries aren’t it

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The ferries are a pleasant way to travel for a select group of New Yorkers, and the rest of us are paying for it

Max Touhey

Don’t call it a comeback, but New York City is basking in a second golden age of boats. Or at least, that’s what Mayor Bill de Blasio would have New Yorkers believe.

On Wednesday, to much pomp and circumstance, De Blasio unveiled yet another NYC Ferry route, this one connecting the Lower East Side to Wall Street, Midtown and Long Island City. Amid a growing mobility crisis spreading its tentacles across the city, the mayor once again gathered the usual suspects for a riverside ribbon-cutting ceremony.

But for a city increasingly trapped by the politics of state control, a subway system sagging under the weight of a backlog of deferred maintenance, and roads choked by more and more cars, the mayor’s love of ferries and the steep taxpayer subsidy spent ensuring low fares for a select slice of New Yorkers is particularly ill-suited for the city’s pressing transportation needs. The city needs to reclaim its transit future, but ferries are a niche mode of low-capacity transportation and a distraction from far more pressing problems.

The mayor’s latest love affair with ferries may seem like an anomaly in a city whose history is dominated by the growth of the subway system and the scars of Robert Moses’s highways, but once up a time, before bridges and tunnels spanned the East River, New York’s waterways provided the only passage between the island of Manhattan and the island of Long. At its peak in the early 1900s, right before the subways opened and the city could spread outward and upward, nearly 150 boats provided ferry travel between the city’s disparate boroughs.

The ferries worked well when Manhattan and Brooklyn were separate cities with people living and working around the waterfront, but as the population surged and overcrowding in tenements became a public health crisis, the city had to build inward and upward. Elevated trains snaked through Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the Blizzard of 1888, when trains ground to a halt and boats became stuck in the snow, drove home the need for a subway. Ferries fell out of fashion as the subway—true rapid transit—became the way to get around. Ferries, after all, can’t connect Forest Hills to Fifth Avenue.

De Blasio’s push for an East River ferry system came about because he seemed to recognize that the city needed to chart its own transportation future. Despite a disinformation campaign by Governor Andrew Cuomo, the MTA is through and through a state agency, and the city has little control over the future of its own subways or buses. The mayor isn’t wrong to look for alternate transit options the city can build and control—but a heavily subsidized ferry network does not solve the city’s problems, and may exacerbate the economic strains stretching across New York’s neighborhoods.

To make the ferries more appealing, the mayor decided to keep the fare at $2.75, a symbolic gesture to tie it to the amount of a Metrocard swipe. To do that, the city is subsidizing ferries by approximately $6.60 per ride. The city has also spent approximately $500 million on ferry infrastructure, all without providing rigorous analyses of ridership demographics and origin-destination patterns. It’s not a coincidence that the city’s Economic Development Corporation rather than the Department of Transportation is in charge of ferries, or that the EDC has kept details about ferry ridership under wraps.

Mayor Bill de Blasio at the opening of NYC Ferry’s Soundview route earlier this month.
Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office

With a cost to NYC taxpayers of $6.60 per passenger, the ferries are on par with the subsidy for some of the MTA’s most expensive express buses, a luxury transit option that the MTA has tried to whittle down over the years.

The picture gets worse when ridership comes into focus: A Village Voice investigation found that ferry riders tend to be tourists or wealthier New Yorkers with good jobs who want to avoid the subway, and my own analysis of census data provides an additional glimpse at the economics of the ferry’s so-called catch basin. When I looked at census tracts that have at least one address with half a mile of the ferry terminals in Queens, Brooklyn and Soundview in the Bronx, I found a median household income around $18,000 higher than the city average, and removing Astoria, the only dock truly amidst low-income housing, that median climbs above $20,000 higher than average.

On top of that, the reach of the ferries is particularly narrow. The NYC Ferry’s own website proclaims that only around 500,000 people live near the ferries, and thus 94 percent of New York City residents do not have easy access to the boats. Meanwhile, the boats fit between 150-300 passengers and run, at best, two to three times per hour. The busiest routes provide travel for fewer passengers per hour than one half-empty Q train does at any time of the day.

And although ridership has outpaced projections, the total numbers are modest. The EDC claimed that nearly 3 million passengers rode the ferry in its first year, and the agency expects 9 million riders by 2023. For comparison, that 2017 figure is nearly equivalent to the annual ridership on the city’s 55th busiest bus route, or approximately two thirds of one days’ subway ridership—or around 3.5 months of Citi Bike, a transit system operating without any city subsidy.

The ferries are a pleasant way to travel for a select group of New Yorkers, and the rest of us are paying for it. Meanwhile the bus system, which at its peak served over 2 million riders per day, is largely ignored by the city. Advocates also had to twist the mayor’s arm to provide $200 million for subsidized MetroCards, but he is front and center for the press push to subsidize ferry rides. This is not sound transit planning, and it does not bridge the city’s equality or mobility gaps.

What can the city better spend with its $30–$40 million per year in fare subsidies or its $500 million in capital funding that went toward the ferry? If New York City wants to take over its transit future from the state, it needs to consider a holistic approach to high-capacity transit, and it must spend fare subsidy dollars more efficiently. A true network of surface transit akin to light rail networks could connect New Yorkers to growing job centers and bridge the transit desert gap far more effectively than a network of ferries can. The city, which controls its surface transit, could create a light rail network immediately; after all, Kansas City built a new light rail line in two years. Plus, construction and operation would be outside of the purview of the MTA so the city-state battle would fall by the wayside.

Ultimately, ferries are a part of a larger puzzle, but only a small one—and the mayor keeps treating them as though they are the centerpiece. He doesn’t seem to have a holistic vision for city control of transit or the dream of creating a true network of city-controlled transit that gets all New Yorkers—not just those near the waterfront—from where they live to where they work. Boats just aren’t the answer to turn this tale of two cities into one.

Benjamin Kabak is the founder and editor of Second Ave. Sagas, the long-running site chronicling news and views from the New York City subway.