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Ferry New York Washington DC

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)