How the NYC Ferry could work

The New York City ferry.
The New York City ferry.
Torres/Mayoral Photography Office
The New York City ferry.

How the NYC Ferry could work

Experts weigh in on how to improve the city’s ferries without scrapping them.
October 3, 2019

The NYC Ferry is up and running, giving New Yorkers a fast option with a great view for interborough transit or a beach day at the Rockaways that doesn’t involve an overcrowded, steaming hot subway ride. But critics say it’s a waste of money and mostly benefits affluent, white residents of waterfront neighborhoods like the East Side of Manhattan and Williamsburg. That criticism ramped up this week, when the city released a ridership survey showing that the NYC Ferry serves a disproportionately affluent, white demographic. And finding a public subsidy of nearly $10 per ride, the new report hasn’t appeased critics including city lawmakers, transit advocates and City Comptroller Scott Stringer who question why the city has put $600 million into something used by a small number of people instead of subways or public buses. 

Launched by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2017, the NYC Ferry now consists of six routes plus the Governors Island Shuttle, and according to the new ridership survey from the New York City Economic Development Corporation – which manages the ferry – 74% of riders are commuters. Notably, the survey found that the median income of riders is between $75,000 and $99,999, and that only 36% of riders identified as non-white or multiracial. That compares to a citywide median income of roughly $57,000 and a citywide population that is roughly 57% non-white or multiracial.

Meanwhile, the city has numerous transit deserts in low and moderate income communities of color such as southeast Brooklyn neighborhoods like Canarsie and Flatlands.

The EDC has previously reported serving an average of 18,000 riders per weekday. Even though the average subsidy per trip has been declining – from $10.73 per trip in the 12 months prior to June of last year to $9.34 in the 12 months prior to this June – it’s still roughly nine times the subsidy of a trip on New York City Transit. The subway hosts roughly 5.4 million riders on an average weekday. “Since its launch in May 2017, NYC Ferry has served nearly 13 million riders and connected neighborhoods across the boroughs that have long endured unacceptable commutes to job centers,” EDC spokeswoman Danielle Schlanger wrote in an emailed statement. “Like any new transit system, NYC Ferry required an up-front investment to expand to underserved areas, and both the service and ridership continues to evolve.”

While the current level of subsidy may be unsustainable, transit experts don’t necessarily think that means that ferry service should be dropped. Experts say that ferries are a good idea in concept because they utilize the city’s waterways to shorten interborough commutes, and while there are still some unknowns about ridership, certain aspects of the NYC Ferry – including its per-trip subsidy – could be tweaked to improve service. “I think even though we still don't know enough, I don't think we should abandon the ferry,” said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “Overall, the city has had more ridership than it expected. And I think it does show there's a real pent-up demand for more forms of transportation. But are we taking advantage of that at the best price?”

Given that the ferries service waterfront areas and that development along the waterfront has largely been focused on luxury residential buildings in recent years, Gelinas said it’s not a surprise that most riders are higher-earners. But that doesn’t mean the service is not effective, she said. To determine effectiveness, the EDC could start by asking riders different survey questions. “There are questions that they could ask their riders that would be much more useful to try to make a positive story, like not just family income, but 'If you didn't have the ferry option, what would you do instead?’” Gelinas offered. “If 80% of people said, ‘Well, if we didn't have the ferry, we would take an Uber.’ Then the ferry is probably good in that it's getting people out of private cars. If they said, ‘We would take the subway,’ I think it's important to say, ‘Are they rush hour commuters, are they off-peak commuters?’” Getting commuters off the subway at rush-hour – whether they’re high earners or not – eases demands on the subway, she said.

“We knew we would not be competing with the subway and in no way did we think that we would be solving congestion on the subway,” Seth Myers, the EDC’s executive vice president and director of project implementation told City & State last month, adding that the goal is to get the subsidy down to between $7 and $8, comparable with that of the Long Island Rail Road or the Metro-North.

At $2.75, the cost of a ferry ride is the same as a subway, but ferry fares can’t be paid for with a MetroCard, meaning that if you have an unlimited MetroCard, it doesn’t apply to the ferry, which could discourage some potential riders, including low-income ones. If the goal is servicing lower-income commuters, the city could take other approaches, Gelinas added. “Why not give Fair Fare subway beneficiaries a free transfer to the ferry and see if people take them up on that offer,” she said, referring to the city-led program that offers half-price MetroCards to eligible New Yorkers. “And then once they get to where they are, maybe they could take the bus or the subway.”

Still, it’s not as if zero low-income commuters take the ferry. Eric Goldwyn, a research scholar at New York University’s Marron Institute, said that even the stop at the Rockaways isn’t just weekend beachgoers. “Just in my experiences, talking to people on that ferry, there are a lot of people who work in the construction trades down at the World Trade Center, who rely on that ferry and they're like, ‘This is so much better than driving, so much better than the unpredictable subway out here,’” Goldwyn said.

One thing the city could be doing better to increase overall ridership, Goldwyn said, is make ferry stops along the East River in Manhattan better integrated into surrounding neighborhoods. “If you look at some of the slips along the East River, they're completely uninviting, and separated by a highway. And that is a huge problem. You're never going to have high ridership in a situation like that,” he said. “There's a Lower East Side stop, and you literally have to go to the far east side of the city where there's actually not that much, you have to cross over the FDR Drive, which is not all that attractive, and then go to a dinky slip that is sort of isolated and dark, and doesn't inspire a lot of confidence or safety.” A design solution to issues like that is crucial, Goldwyn said.

But to ensure that it’s not just rich, waterfront communities benefiting from the ferry service, Goldwyn added that the city could improve access to multimodal transportation at ferry stops along the water. MTA Select Bus Service via 34th St., for example, goes to the ferry terminal at 34th St. “Having those multimodal connections is critical,” Goldwyn said. 

“We are open to and eager to hear feedback from residents, community stakeholders, and policy experts to make this critical service even more equitable and effective,” Schlanger said in the EDC’s statement. “Some of this feedback has already influenced the system; we are in close discussion with MTA to discuss the feasibility of fare acceptance by using the OMNY technology to administer NYC Ferry fares. And last year, based on feedback received, NYCEDC worked diligently with MTA to expand Bx27 bus service in front of the Soundview landing.”

As far as the high subsidies for ferry trips, both Goldwyn and Gelinas said that a nearly $10 subsidy doesn’t make sense. “The $10 subsidy is insane,” Goldwyn said. “I can't argue that it's a good subsidy.” While part of de Blasio’s pitch for the NYC Ferry was for the same fare as a subway or bus ride, Gelinas said higher fares are called for. “I think it would be a good idea to experiment with (charging) $4, $5. Do we lose a lot of our ridership if we're charging $5? Then that's a kind of a sign that maybe it's not sustainable in the long-term,” she said. “But if people do pay $5, because they're happy to be off the subway or off the streets, then that's good.” 

Changes like these may not mollify critics of the NYC Ferry. But with waterways at the city’s disposal, Goldwyn said, ferry service is in theory a good transit option and makes simple trips between boroughs like Manhattan and Brooklyn much quicker than they’d be on the subway. “Now that the waterfront is becoming residential, and moving away from its industrial recent past, those connections are shorter,” he said. The real challenge may be ensuring it’s not just well-off white commuters benefitting from that shorter commute – something all New Yorkers would cherish.

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
20191209