This article was originally published by Mobility Lab.
OPTIONS OPPORTUNITYNew York’s new ferry system seeks to open connections among waterfront neighborhoods underserved by current options, in a move to put water-based transportation in the same category as buses.
New York City is developing a new transportation network under the radar, and one that few might associate with New York transit: ferries.
Speaking at this year’s TransportationCamp DC, James Wong, the New York City Economic Development Corporation director of ferries, explained how the proposed ferry expansion is – as described in his session’s title – “New York’s biggest transit expansion you never heard of.” With much of the country’s focus on rail and roads, less controversial projects that could make a big difference for certain communities that can often be overlooked in transit planning.
In past years, NYCEDC has explored different approaches to “activate” the city’s formerly underutilized waterfronts, and concluded that ferries are a mode with potential to provide transportation options to residents that don’t have many. For a fraction of the cost of major infrastructure projects like bridges and tunnels, as well as relatively easy activation – placing a barge along the riverfront – Wong and the EDC see ferries as a vital supplement to the city’s transit system to fill in missed connections among waterfront communities.
The Citywide Ferry project – which NYCEDC plans and manages in coordination with the mayor’s office – began in 2010 with the pilot East River Ferry project, connecting Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. The service surpassed its three-year ridership goal in just 14 months, prompting its extension through 2019 and studies into the potential for and benefits of other ferry routes. As a result, the EDC has embarked on a rapidly evolving project to expand New York City’s river-ferry services. While this plan is less than a year old, Wong’s team aims to launch routes to Rockaway, South Brooklyn and Astoria by 2017, then the Bronx and Lower East Side in 2018. In total, six new routes with 20 stops will, together with the existing NYCDOT-run Staten Island Ferry, serve all five boroughs.
While ferries are historically expensive to operate per passenger, the Citywide ferries’ location along the East River will serve more passengers than older routes, meaning it should require fewer subsidies per passenger than older routes. The $55 million project is comparatively cheap for a brand new transit system, and NYCEDC’s focus on neighborhoods with limited transportation options has garnered support among some local politicians and advocacy groups. This support has created flexibility that few transportation projects enjoy, helping the EDC adapt its plan as it develops, and therefore launch it with an ambitious timeline of 18 months.
Wong avoids comparing the Citywide Ferry Service to the Staten Island Ferry, emphasizing that “the only similarity between the two is that they’re on boats.” The programs operate on a different scale, with the Staten Island Ferry carrying thousands of passengers each trip between Manhattan and Staten Island, and the Citywide service only up to 150 people per ferry. Citywide will function more as a unified transportation system while the Staten Island Ferry aims to provide a more direct connection to Manhattan than driving. This is why, while the Staten Island Ferry is free for customers, the Citywide Ferry Service charges a fare pegged to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s subway rate, currently $2.75. Making the fare the same as MTA across the board helps communicate to riders that the Citywide ferries are a legitimate, affordable transportation option that could easily be used coordination with other public modes.
Notably, the focus for the project is not specifically pitched to alleviate current traffic and pollution problems. Instead, Wong argues that Citywide Ferry Service will connect “stranded” waterfront communities that do not have access to the rest of New York’s transit infrastructure. According to him, these are typically lower-income neighborhoods that would now have an accessible, affordable option to participate in the rest of the city. Once the ferries launch, they would create connections that do not currently exist among some riverside communities, opening potential for development and giving residents greater access to the rest of New York City.
As Wong puts it, “equity is built into the project.”
In the spirit of TransportationCamp, Wong and his team are working toward improving transportation options where people need it, offering more connections to the rest of the city. New Yorkers may currently take the East River Ferry, and the rest of the project, now under environmental review, should be in the water by 2018.
This post is based on a session from TransportationCamp DC 2016.
Photos: The East River Ferry pilot project (Several Seconds, Flickr, Creative Commons).