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Using the River for Transportation

» Can ferries play a useful role in the broader public transportation system?

Most major cities are situated along some body of water — usually a river or two, often a lake or the ocean. There’s a good reason for this: waterways played an important role historically as transportation links for people and freight. They also allowed connections across barriers insurmountable by ground-based transportation; in the early 1900s, for example, ferries were the only mode of transport between Manhattan and Northern New Jersey. But new technologies allowing the construction of underwater road and rail tunnels and the general improvement of ground-based transportation systems have reduced the importance of boats for the average commuter in the urban environment.

In some cities, of course, the ferry never died out as a transportation mode — Venice’s Vaporetto water bus continues to be the primary mode of transit in that pedestrian city; in North America, both Seattle and Vancouver have extensive operations because of their water-bound geography. But for the most part, cities that grew up around their respective rivers have come to ignore them as potential corridors for transit service, citing the slow speed of water-bound travel and the difficulty of getting from the waterfront to business or residential districts.

Yet the transformation of many inner-city waterfronts from industrial zones to parks surrounded by walkable dense neighborhoods has reawakened an interest in using boats for transportation operations. With water views and fresh air, water taxis could be an appealing alternative to more mainstream forms of transit. The news this week that a company called American River Taxi plans to begin transit operations later this year between several of Washington, D.C.’s major waterfront zones is only the latest example of such an initiative.

The Potomac Riverboat Company currently operates a route between Alexandria and National Harbor.

Boats provide a unique opportunity to improve urban transportation because their use requires very little construction spending: unlike trains or buses, they can take advantage of a natural resource to move about, rather than having to rely on a built rail or road route. The only capital expenses required are in the erection of ferry terminals and the purchase of the boats themselves. Replacing some ferry routes with bridges or tunnels for ground-based transportation would cost billions of dollars.

From this perspective, the investment in new boat routes between Georgetown, the Southwest Waterfront, the Navy Yard, Alexandria, and National Harbor could provide significant new connections to areas of the Washington region that don’t have direct transit links today. Each of these neighborhoods has seen significant redevelopment over the past decade, already features a ferry dock, and may be able to attract enough traffic for the service provider to stay afloat.

On the other hand, urban water taxi operations typically have higher operations costs than equivalent trains or buses because they carry a relatively small number of people per vehicle and they consume large amounts of diesel fuel per mile. The ferry between New York’s Rockaway Peninsula and Lower Manhattan costs a total of $26 to operate per passenger trip, of which passengers are charged $6 — all for a trip that takes longer than an equivalent subway ride. In terms of ecological consequences, the high energy consumption levels of boats don’t make them particularly environmentally friendly, either.

These efficiencies improve significantly when passenger demand is higher and the size of boats increase. New York’s free Staten Island Ferry carries about 60,000 passengers a day on a 5-mile route and has operating costs per passenger trip of about six dollars. The city’s subway system, on the other hand, costs about $2 per passenger trip to operate, mostly covered by fares.

Thus even busy ferries suffer from relatively high operations costs. But these expenses are easier to bear than would be the construction of new routes for ground-based transportation, frequently extraordinarily costly. If capital and operations costs were put into the same pot, ferries would come out looking more economical than buses or trains.

Nonetheless, water taxis face a fundamental challenge resulting from the fact that most people aren’t interested in traveling from one waterfront to another, which is really all that a boat can do. Indeed, ferries work best in cities like Hong Kong where the city’s core is directly adjacent to the water. Companies like New York Waterway operate connecting bus shuttles between ferry docks and surrounding neighborhoods to make up for the problem, but this required connection increases overall travel time and reduces the appeal of the ferry, no matter how nice the ride across the river may be.

In most American cities, where business centers are separated from the water (often by large highways), it is unclear whether water taxis will ever produce significant ridership. Serving similar routes between Manhattan and New Jersey, New York Waterway carries about 30,000 daily passengers, compared to 250,000 on the PATH railway. Of course, part of the difference is that while PATH is subsidized, the Waterway is not and therefore charges much higher fares necessary to make up operations costs. Should the government agree to subsidize operations costs for ferries, just as they do for trains and buses? Is there a good reason why ferries are not incorporated into the broader public transportation systems of most cities?

If the routes proposed for Washington turn out to be a financial bust, should the city step in to ensure that the people using the boats continue to receive services at a reasonable fare?

The answer largely depends on whether the city wants to use transportation as a tool to develop land near the waterfront, since the ferries are probably not going to play a significant role as transit. Water taxi service could help Washington encourage new construction along its rivers; a high operations subsidy may be the price to pay to attract private investors onto once inhospitable sites.

Image above: New York Water Taxi, from Flickr user WEST-ULTRA (cc)

36 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Ferries will always be disadvantaged by the radius of demand around stops, as discussed here:

    http://www.humantransit.org/2009/12/on-subways-to-the-sea.html

    At a typical ferry stop, half the radius of demand is in the water, so the other half has to be especially strong. That’s why ferries only work where you have very high density right against the water and ideally a shortage of competing bridges.

    Ferries have been a relative disappointment in the Bay Area mostly because apart from San Francisco, relatively little urban density is right adjacent to the bay.

    Ferries are a big success on the river in Brisbane, where they have stops right adjacent to the CBD and also the recreational/arts precinct of South Bank. The shortage of bridges is a big reason.

    Sydney ferries are fun for tourists and a few commuters but only a couple of lines (those not competing with bridges) are really all-day serious transit services.

    The other big challenge with ferries is the ratio of staff to passengers. Maritime labor laws seem to contain millions of arcane reasons why you need a certain number of employees on the boat, regardless of whether they’re doing anything. Brisbane, however, does have a one-employee, 50-passenger cross-river ferry, and something similar runs on Auckland harbour I believe.

  • Tom West

    Two cities I know with sucecssful water-based tranit are London and Bristol, both in the UK.
    Bristol lacks bridegs over its river for historical reasons (ships would come right up into the city, so bridges would have to be huge), and so there are plenty of shuttle boats operateing across the water. Typically they are one-man, on-demand, low-fare small boat operations, but they work and are unsubsidised as far as I know.
    Bristol and London both have boats which operate along the river, moving people from one part of the city’s core core to another. These tend to be scheduled, multi-crew, higher fare operations using larger boats. I don’t think they are subisidised, but they certainly carry plenty of passengers.

  • I proposed a water taxi system for Cincinnati that would offer a linear commuter route connecting the eastern and western suburbs with the central business district. This linear route would only be used during rush hour times and have a limited number of stops. The linear route could also be used for concerts and other special events at Cincinnati’s Coney Island and Riverbend concert venue.

    The part of the system that seemed most feasible right away was a center city loop that would connect Cincinnati’s downtown with those of Newport and Covington across the river in Northern Kentucky. There would be three stops, and the loop would connect people with the attractions in each of the respective downtowns that make up Cincinnati center city.

    See more here:
    http://www.urbancincy.com/2009/02/cincinnati-water-taxis.html

    • Ocean Railroader

      I think that city had teh Mamai and Erie Canal running though it at one time. It would be neat if they reopened a seciton of old canal bed by removing one of the all to common car filled streets and replaced it with one paved with water for boat traffic coming up from the river.

  • Potomac riverboat company operates between national harbor and Alexandria, as noted above. The company also connects Alexandria and Georgetown, as well as Alexandria and SW Washington DC (the Washington Nationals Baseball Stadium). The stadium route is the newest, but the others have been running successfully for years.

  • Matt

    Maybe there could be high speed ferries between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. Pfh, there’s only three locks to slow it down.

  • Ocean Railroader

    There is another type of boat transport that people are forgeting about the canal boat. Many old cities in the mid west and east coast had old canal systems which they could restore and open up again to packet boats and English narrow boats. England has a very large old canal system that tens of thousands of English canal boats use a day to move around the county. The US has a vast old canal system that they could reopen sections of for Narrow boats. The City of Richmond has a small canal tour ride that carried over 14000 passangers last year with growing ridership eatch year. But think of the type of transport offers that would be made possbile if you could ride your house boat from VA Beach all the way to the Covington VA if they reopened Richmond’s Canal System.

  • Mad Park

    Here in Seattle, where WA State Ferries once offered passenger only services to both Bremerton and Vashon across Puget Spund, the county government have taken over the Vashon service and are crewing their boat with 2 or 3 fewer crew than WA State Ferries used. Several private operators and at least one county are again investigating cross-sound passenger only services. We simply cannot continue to operate huge 125m 200 car auto ferries economically when they only run full for 3 or 4 crossings in their 19 hour service day.

  • Charanga

    In the San Francisco bay area I use water-based transit (ferry) because of the spectacular views it affords, and the wonderful marine air. In Vancouver, the small Aquabus is a complete delight.

    But what about climate change issues? I assume that like most mass transit vehicles, per passenger mile ferries and water taxies are more energy efficient and produce less greenhouse gases than single-person or -family vehicles. I hope for more though. What about electric water-based transit? For starters there’s London’s solar shuttle:

    http://www.solarshuttle.co.uk/solarshuttle.html

    • dejv

      What about electric water-based transit?

      I know about half-century old operations of battery-power boats on reservoir that used to provide drinking water (and continues to serve as back-up source). Propulsion of original boats was essentially taken from streetcar and connected to batteries.

  • Andrew

    Maybe ferries would work between Toronto and St. Catharines/Niagara Falls (Ontario, Canada). The route by road or rail goes around the lake via Hamilton and takes about 2 hours, whereas the route by ferry could take 1 hour or less.

  • Max Wyss

    Another successful commuter boat operation is (or at least used to be) in Boston. From my guesstimate, the Hingham operation must have had beyond 2000 passengers every day, for example.

    And definitely a success story is Zürich, where the lake boats have a non-neglectable share of passengers, mainly in the evening. Is there anything better to unwind than on a lake cruise? Well, it takes twice as long as the train, but so what… ok, the advantage in Zürich is that the lake boats are included in the Verkehrsverbund, which means that there is no extra fee to pay.

    • Max Wyss

      Oh, yeah, and not to forget the Grachten boats in Amsterdam, which I think have more than just touristy function.

  • Anon256

    It seems that ferries are often pushed as a nice-sounding idea (particularly from the political side of things) without regard to whether or how they might actually be of use to anybody. Here in Harlem, a ferry terminal was built at the west end of 125th St as part of a park project there, without regard for what company or sort of service might use it. Now, a couple years later, it sits unused, as the ferry companies know that they can’t compete with the nearby subway for in-Manhattan traffic, and that New Jersey-Harlem traffic is negligible. I guess the terminal might see some use if the proposed adjacent Metro North station ever opens, though even then it’s hard to imagine who would find it useful. Of course, this sort of issue can arise with other transit projects as well, but the need to plan end-to-end infrastructure for other modes seems to make it much less common.

  • Brian S

    Istanbul has the busiest and largest ferry system in the world (to the best of my knowledge). Due to the Bosporous and Sea of Marmara, there are many water accessways, but also very few bridges and tunnels (seas are very difficult to build across and the Bosporous is about as wide as the Hudson River, but only has 2 car bridges.

    The ferry system, which dwarfs Hong Kong, Seattle and New York, is successful due to the lack of rail crossings, and limited bus systems (the jitney system is the best they’ve got. However, when the new rail tunnel linking Europe and Asia, it will be interesting to see whether ferry ridership dips or not.

    Regarding the CBD, Istanbul’s main centers are located near the shore, and often have good rail or funicular connections to the CBD which can be as little as 1/2 a mile away.

  • Mason Hicks

    I took my first ride on the Paris Voguéo water route yesterday from Maisons-Alfort (on the Marne River) to Parc de Bercy, (after merging with the Seine). There were about five passengers (including myself), and a two-person crew. I’m always up for a boat ride, even though this portion of the Seine was not the most scenic. The diesel fumes rising up over the fantail were a constant reminder of the environmental question. I’ve often seen the “Batobus” water buses running over the winter with few if any passengers. Paris is undergoing a concerted effort to revitalize the quays and waterfronts, and transform what is now industrial no man’s land into well-planned mixed-use developments and park-land. If using this boat service is part of that effort, then I am all for it. But as a model for effective passenger transport, I am not buying it.
    One of the elements being proposed under French President, Sarkosy’s “Grand Paris” long range transport and urbanism plan for Paris focuses on the course of the Seine from Paris, thru Rouen, on to Le Havre, where the Seine meets the sea as a great street, with new TGV lines running along the edges of the corridor, as well as regional train service and Autoroute. But the study also focuses on using the Seine itself as a conduit for passenger travel as well. I do not see that beyond the freight barges that already operate on the waterways and sight-seeing cruises. Having passenger boat service that would be at all practical would have to involve operating speeds that would be disastrous for the river and the others who use it and enjoy it. I readily admit and apologize that I’m only commenting from the cliff notes, and I haven’t read the full text of the proposal. I’m afraid my French fluency isn’t yet good enough for that.

  • Ari

    The most useful ferries I’ve taken were in Boston and Vancouver.

    In Boston, until the CA/T was completed, traffic to the airport was beyond atrocious. The late ’90s were especially bad. Going in to the city, two lanes of traffic dumped off on to surface streets and right in to the Central Artery. Going to the airport, there were so many flights (especially with the Dot Com Boom but without very fast internet, there were multiple 757s flying to Silicon Valley every hour) that the airport would literally back up through the tunnel and in to the city at rush hour. Taking an hour to go three miles was not out of the question.

    The other options to the airport were the Blue Line or water taxis. The Blue Line was, of course, cheaper, but inconvenient (would it kill them to build a spur straight to the airport? They just spent $1b “modernizing” Logan, would $100m to provide actual subway service to the City, and no, the Silver Line does not count, make too much sense?). If you were willing to pay for a water taxi

    Back in about ’97, I went to help my dad tear down a training he’d run at an airport hotel. After I’d raided all the little jars of candy they had there (this was my compensation) we went to take the train home. It was about 4:45, and getting through the dreaded tunnel in a cab would have taken an hour. Getting from the Blue Line to South Station would have required two subway transfers or a mile-long walk. The water taxi took us straight from the airport to South Station, and we were on a train 15 or 20 minutes after we caught it. Very useful. Since the Ted Williams Tunnel opened, traffic is definitely less painful, and the water taxi’s traffic has probably fallen off somewhat.

    Also useful in Boston are the commuter ferries (mostly from the South Shore, although there is a rail line now) and the F4, which is convenient for people who have to get from Charlestown to the Financial District, and—a little secret—is basically a $1.70 sightseeing ride which runs around Downtown. On a nice spring day, it is gorgeous. And it’s free if you have a weekly or monthly pass.

    Then there’s Vancouver, where the Sea Bus is nothing short of amazing. Getting from Vancouver to North Vancouver is a fifteen minute drive without traffic. During rush hour, it’s a good deal longer, as the shorter road route across the Lion’s Gate Bridge is only three lanes, total, and jams up; the longer route across the inlet, 8 miles in 18 minutes, is part of the Trans-Canada highway and also has a lot of volume.

    At rush hour, the Sea Bus, which has 15 minute headways all day (except evenings and Sundays), makes the two mile crossing in twelve minutes. In Vancouver, it connects with the termini of both lines of the SkyTrain, and most bus routes, and in North Van it serves Lonsdale Quay, which has timed transfers to several bus routes, most of which run on 15 minute headways to match the Sea Bus. It’s convenient, comfortable (due to regulations, everyone gets a seat) and quick, and because it is very multi-modal, and Vancouver and North Van are pretty well focused on the waterfront, and the SkyTrain runs, at rush hour, at 2-4 minute headways, being wedded to the water doesn’t impose major time penalties.

    (Although I did wonder how it did during the Olympics since it has a very set capacity—there is no “crush load” and turnstiles lock up after 400 have passed through to the waiting area. And, for the Olympics, they added a new ferry to have 10 minute headways, but are back to 15 since they retired one of the old ones.)

    • Then there’s Vancouver, where the Sea Bus is nothing short of amazing

      Why hasn’t anybody considered a SkyTrain extension across the inlet to replace the ferry service?

      • John W

        While there have been loads of proposals for a road tunnel (here’s a good summary), I haven’t heard anything about a SkyTrain tunnel.

        Likely due to cost – what’s a 2-mile, deep-bore tunnel under the seabed go for these days? And it not really being necessary – the SeaBus normally has 15min headways (though they increased it to 10min during the Olympics), so it can carry 1600-2400 people per hour in each direction. Crossing time is 10-12min, so there’s not a huge time saving other than transferring. I think there’s probably a bit of pride involved too – independence from the big city and that frontier spirit etc. – and people simply liking it: you know you’ve left the office when you’re heading out on the open seas.

        It would certainly be well down on the list compared to other projects (SkyTrain towards UBC, Evergreen line, downtown streetcars, an LRT down Arbutus, commuter rail to Langley, and other wishlists).

        Putting a tunnel crossing near the First or Second Narrows doesn’t make much sense either, as the densest population on the North Shore is opposite Waterfront station, midway between the two bridge crossings. (From a quick calculation, only 12% of the Greater Vancouver pop lives on the North Shore). That said, it would make sense to extend the SkyTrain at least as far as the edge of Stanley Park to serve the West End and all the residential towers that are continuing to spring up on Coal Harbour (Recession? What recession?)

      • John W

        Ari – sorry for repeating much of what you said. Not very awake yet…

        David – The video report Ari linked to mentions that they’re holding off on a third ferry as capacity isn’t really pushed yet with the existing two, so that’d be another reason why we won’t see a SkyTrain across the water for a very long time.

  • francis

    In San Francisco ferries are also funded as part of the earthquake preparedness program. The redundancy also comes in handy during rail strikes.

    • GRL

      In the case of the Golden Gate Transit ferries, my understanding is that they were originally intended to be a stop-gap way of reducing Golden Gate Bridge traffic until BART reached Marin County.

  • Adirondacker12800

    in the early 1900s, for example, ferries were the only mode of transport between Manhattan and Northern New Jersey.

    And the harbor was so congested that they went and built tunnels and bridges that have much higher capacities. It’s the same reason San Francisco built it’s bridges, the ferries didn’t have enough capacity – it was sometimes faster to drive from San Francisco all the way around the bay than it was to wait your turn to get on the ferry.

  • Can ferries provide high passenger capacity? The ones used in New York can’t, because of high staff to passenger ratios, long turnaround times, and long trip times. Besides, there are only so many ferries you can run through a busy shipping channel. Is Istanbul having capacity issues with its ferries, or is it just building Marmaray for other advantages, such as speed and through-routing?

  • John W

    There’s a think-tank proposal to have the Thames as London’s newest tube line. There’s a summary article here, but the full report (PDF) by Policy Exchange shows how the new tube map would look with this new line (p8) and has maps comparing existing and proposed services on pp59-61.

    There are also good summaries of how other cities’ systems are integrated into their transport networks (Brisbane and Hamburg, pp31-35).

  • Chetan

    Some cities I know use ferries far too little. The city I live in, Seattle, is sandwiched between a bay and a lake, has three lakes within it’s city limits, as well as a canal and a river. I can think of at least 6 good ferry routes Seattle could have, but so far, the city only runs summer service on one.

  • David M

    Re: Vancouver SeaBus

    The SeaBus handles on a normal working day 15,000 passengers. During the Olympics, three ferries operated a 10 minute frequency and the ferries carried 45,000 people each day (3 times the normal load).

    SeaBus is integrated at both sides with public transit. At the northshore terminal, there is a bus terminal and buses are scheduled to meet the SeaBuses. At the downtown Vanocuver terminal, the SeaBus connects directly to one commuter train line and three SkyTrain lines. These connections are the secret to it’s success.

    SeaBus runs from around 5:30am to 1:30am. Daytime and peak service is two vessels providing 15 minute service. Evening (after 7:00pm) is every 30 minutes with one vessel. SeaBus service is extended later and more frequent during special events downtown. A night bus operates over the Lions Gate Bridge when SeaBus is not operating.

    The capacity of each SeaBus is 399 passengers. This limit is imposed by Transport Canada. Adding one more person would require the vessel to meet more stringent safety regulations (similar to large cruise ships).

    SeaBus runs like a Subway – with automatic doors unloading from one side of the vessel and loading from the other. The Bridge is in the centre above with a single operator on a swivel chair and from that position can operate in either direction. The SeaBus can turn around in 90 seconds. It is operated by a crew of four.

    SeaBus has also responded to numerous mayday calls from vessels and seaplanes in distress. On one occasion, the seabus diverted and deployed its life rafts with the assistance of passengers to rescue the passenger for a seaplane that crashed on take-off (engine failure).

  • Also note Fort Lauderdale’s Water Taxi, which is more a service for tourists than a transportation option for local residents.

    http://www.watertaxi.com/FLLMap.Asp.htm

  • J

    I just hate when a ferry service tries to brand itself as a water taxi.

    Taxi: Demand service. Call for a boat to take you to your destination.

    Ferry: Scheduled service.

    The new DC service is a ferry.

    Someone mentioned Boston which does have a large amount of ferries, although none of them are too popular. For some reason they all continue to exist.

    -Inner harbor ferry. $1.70, great tourist ride or trip to airport.
    -Outer harbor ferry. Similar to commuter rail in distance and cost
    -Water taxi. Demand service to/from 20 or so points, including airport. $10 per person.

    • I just hate when a ferry service tries to brand itself as a water taxi.

      When I used to visit Fort Lauderdale regularly (until 2005), it was in fact called the “Water Bus.” I don’t know why that name was dropped, except for its being operated by a company named Water Taxi, which I think previously operated an on-demand service.

  • Strange to say, there is a very successful ferry service for passengers between Seattle and Bainbridge Island, a half-hour trip. This service is provided by car ferries, very much like the Staten Island ferries but with cars on what we call the ‘car deck’. Above is a capacious deck that is crammed with commuters (we call them ‘walk-ons’) at peak periods.

    The key to the success of this service is that almost everyone walks to their jobs at the Seattle end, and there are in addition many willing to walk to a transit connection, which, unfortunately, is not provided at the ferry dock. The ferries, or, as we say, boats, are very efficient because they are large, do not attempt to exceed an economical speed, and are usually fully loaded. At the Bainbridge end you find buses waiting, dense housing, and people picking up pedestrian passengers.

    This, and the Staten Island boats, which you will note are also large and carry high volumes of traffic, I consider to be practical water transit.

    People who don’t know much about boats always like to imagine that some Popular Science invention is going to create a NEW boat that will be fast, cheap, and not require a large crew. Then they imagine that, because they would like to ride such a boat once, commuters would like to ride such a boat every day.

    There’s a lot that could go wrong in all that imagining.

  • FG

    Add Chicago to the list of cities with water taxi’s. Chicago’s water taxi is on the Chicago River which is used by commuters and tourists from Union Station to Michigan Avenue (right to the Wrigley Building), however it’s limited to the 9-10 months when the river isn’t at risk for freezing.

  • John W

    Montreal, too, has seasonal ferries but they aren’t heavily used. They run from late June to Labour day hourly – from the Old Port to both Parc Jean Drapeau (the island in the St Lawrence that was the site of Expo67) and to the South Shore.

    It’s not practical for commuting – the metro is faster and less than half the price – but with more waterfront development there may become more of a market. I’d thought it was mainly for tourists but, interestingly, the main marketing thrust now seems to be aimed at local cyclists (though there are bike path alternatives).

  • I remain a proponent of utilizing our waterways for transportation, though I think this idea will work better for shorter routes, or connecting two routes known for having heavy traffic and congestion. Alot of people are riding bikes to work in my area. Having a ferry made available to those with long commutes might be a savior.

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