As the New York Conference on Water reinforced in their panel titled “Water as an Opportunity,” the New York waterfront is still alive with commerce, transportation, and increasingly recreation. Much of the panel focused on ferries — not surprising, given the fact that two of the panelists were Helena Durst, Vice President of the Durst Organization and President of New York Water Taxi; and Andrew Genn, Senior Vice President of Ports and Transportation at NYC EDC and co-author of the 2013 Citywide Ferry Study. According to Genn, the New York City waterfront is home to 30,000 jobs, particularly in the ferry, tugboat, and barge industries. “Our greatest asset,” Durst said, “is not only the waterfront but the entire maritime industry.”

In particular, ferries have a grand history in New York, going back to the Dutch; a later highlight in the 19th Century came in the form of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s first business, the Staten Island Ferry. Today, New York ferries have a high level of competition and variation of fares, from the free Staten Island ferry and the $4 East River Ferry for commuters to the $25 Water Taxi all-day pass and the luxury Seastreak lines. There is a high barrier to entry in the fragmentation of city and state agencies when it comes to opening a new line, getting licenses to use docks, etc. High operating costs are also a factor, particularly when it comes to diesel fuel and necessary upkeep of the equipment damaged over time by the brackish harbor water. Ferries cost far more per rider before subsidies compared to subways, though Genn noted that the East River Ferry is now at the subsidy level of the average city bus. Durst opined that “ferries are a good way, but subways are a better way” of moving people, based on cost and functionality, but they cannot be sustainable on their own.

Yet ferries present unique opportunities. They provide redundancy and supplement road- and rail-based forms of transportation. They can also be used in an emergency, and were utilized in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and in the rescue of all 155 passengers from the “Miracle on the Hudson,” on January 15, 2009, when USAir Flight 1549 lost power, forcing Captain Chesley Sullenberger to land in the Hudson River.

Most of all, ferries can spur economic development. For example, the East River Ferry has generated $500 million dollars in increased value of the land and businesses near the ferry landings and has been a jewel of the system, serving 1.5 million riders in the first three years of operation; the EDC was expecting one-third of that over the same time. Subsidies for the service have been extended through 2019, and its success has piqued the city’s interest in expanding the ferry system to the Rockaways and Sunset Park.

Yet ferries are by no means a transit panacea. “I have very little tolerance for the current love affair New York’s politicians have with ferries,” wrote transit policy expert Benjamin Kabak on his blog Second Avenue Sagas. “To me, it reeks of a fetish that helps these elected officials avoid tough financial decisions and combative NIMBYs without actually solving the region’s mobility problems. The current ferry routes” – in particular, the Staten Island and East River Ferries – “are the best ones available, and everything else suffers from low ridership, diminishing returns and either high fares or higher subsidies.”

Ferry service has been a boon in connecting local tourists to “destination parks,” such as Governors Island, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the parkland surrounding the Ikea and Fairway Market in Red Hook. Durst in particular noted that ferries have untapped revenue streams for combining commuter ferries and tourist lines such as Circle Line and Hornblower, which Water Taxi has attempted to do with their all-day pass. Between ferries and especially barges, waterway commerce and transportation provides an escape valve for congestion on roads and rails. For barges, the effect is most clearly seen in the trucks taken off the road; for ferries, it is the alleviation of congestion of certain subway lines. As the EDC study notes,

“The transit system in New York City is extensive, and often overcrowded. There are few gaps for ferries to close, so ferries are unlikely to create significant benefits by inducing transit trips. However, they are likely to create significant benefits by easing congestion at overcrowded subway stations. Because this is a benefit of ferry service that does not accrue to ferry users themselves it can be described as an external benefit. In a recent study of passenger ferries in the New York City region, it was found that reducing crowding on the Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH) service was the major external benefit attributable to cross-Hudson ferry services.”

In other words, the ferries must exist as what Durst called a “shadow” system for the subways and buses, taking the pressure and congestion off the systems and providing more space in the stations and cars.

Having taken rides on the Staten Island, East River, and Red Hook Ferries (along with a special ferry to the Brooklyn Army Terminal as part of Open House New York), I know that it is a pleasant way of travel, a way of adding more recreation to the events or activities I was invariably traveling to. Yet it can be costly and perhaps not all that effective. The ferry cannot replace the current subway and bus system and will always be relegated to a tertiary service largely connecting to the city’s further-flung recreational sites. When used well, however, ferries can be an integral part of waterway commerce and the urban landscape.

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