Last week, Bill de Blasio proposed a citywide ferry system in his otherwise perfectly boilerplate State of the City speech. Ferries, as Ben Kabak notes, are a tried and failed solution in New York, with a $30 per passenger subsidy on the ferry to the Rockaways, one of the neighborhoods mentioned in de Blasio’s speech. At the same time, some ferry routes do attract large numbers of passengers, including the Staten Island Ferry and SeaBus; in addition, MBTA Boat attracts fewer passengers than SeaBus, but achieves better cost recovery than the MBTA’s land transportation services. The purpose of this post is to explain which urban geographies could be well-served by ferries, and why New York could not.

Until the invention of the railroad, the fastest, cheapest, and most reliable form of transportation was the boat. Inland transportation of goods was by canal whenever possible. Overland transportation was so expensive that, as noted by Andrew Odlyzko, the cost of coal would double twelve miles away from the mine (see p. 14). As a result, cities were founded on shorelines and in river estuaries, and shrank if their rivers silted.

Railroads inverted this equation. Even in the 1830s, trains achieved higher speeds than ferries do today: the London and Birmingham averaged 31 km/h at opening, whereas SeaBus, which uses fast catamarans, averages at most 20 km/h. They could climb grades without resorting to locks and derailed much less often than boats sank; and, with the world still in the tail end of the Little Ice Age, the railroads did not freeze in winter. In this situation, a seaside location is no longer an advantage. At coastal locations, railroads have to cross more rivers, as did roads before; the current route of the Northeast Corridor in Connecticut was not the first but the third rail connection to be built between New York and Boston, after the Long Island Railroad (with ferry connections at both ends) and the inland Hartford and New Haven Railroad route.

The 19th century was a period of fast population growth in the industrialized world, especially the US, and fast urbanization. The industrial cities were then sited based on the optimal locations of a railroad network and not that of a shipping network. Birmingham and Manchester were already the largest cities in the UK outside of London, but the first railroad was, not coincidentally, built precisely to give Manchester port access without relying on the Manchester Ship Canal. In the US, we can see this in action, especially in New England: Boston has always been New England’s largest city, but many other early-settled cities – Salem, Newport, Plymouth, Provincetown, Portsmouth – declined, and now New England’s second cities include not just coastal New Haven and Providence but also inland Hartford, Worcester, and Nashua-Manchester.

In some areas of Long Island and New England, we can see towns with dual centers: an older coastal center, and a newer inland center, near the train station or a highway interchange. As Long Island had extensive suburban growth in the postwar era, the inland centers there are usually the larger ones, whereas in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the coastal centers are usually larger.

Boston’s ferries serve these coastal centers. The Greenbush Line is locally infamous for its low ridership, about 3,000 per weekday in each direction. And yet, the ferries serving Hingham are fairly well-patronized: about 3,500 weekday passengers in both directions. (Both figures are from the 2014 Blue Book.) Now, the trains still carry nearly twice as many passengers as the ferries, but, relatively speaking, the ferries are doing quite well, since that part of the South Shore was settled before the railroad came, so the ferry serves passengers better than the trains do.

The other issue is which mode of transportation offers the most direct route. On the South Shore, the ferries go in a straighter line than the trains, which have to detour to remain on land. The Staten Island Ferry goes in a straight line, whereas roads and trains take big detours, especially for passengers leaving from St. George and not from near the bridges to Brooklyn and New Jersey. SeaBus, likewise, takes a direct route.

The significant fact for the Staten Island Ferry and SeaBus is that there economic centers of Staten Island and North Vancouver are right next to the ferry docks, coming from the fact that those areas were settled as suburban regions connected to the center by ferry. Because constructing a road or rail link across the New York Harbor or Burrard Inlet is difficult, those ferries were never replaced by fixed links; this is in contrast with Jersey City, which was also connected to New York by multiple ferry lines, but had enough demand a hundred years ago to fill the Hudson Tubes and later the Holland Tunnel with commuters.

None of these histories and geographies applies to the routes proposed by de Blasio and other ferry supporters. A Rockaway ferry has to detour around all of Brooklyn to reach Manhattan. The various waterfront ferries between Manhattan and Queens don’t really serve neighborhood centers, which are located around subway stations. Subway stations, like railroads, dislike coastal locations, not because of construction difficulties but because half their walk sheds would be underwater. Even Red Hook, which is cut off from the rest of the city by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and has no subway service, is not centered around the waterfront: the projects are several blocks inland, and Ikea Dock is facing the wrong way, south instead of west.

New York’s commercial centers, likewise, are inland. Why would a Midtown office developer waste any time building a skyscraper on the East River when the easternmost subway stations in Midtown are at Lexington Avenue? Thus the high-rise towers that line First Avenue are more residential than commercial, making them poor candidates for ferry connections. Lower Manhattan is better-connected to the water, but it is served by a large number of subway lines in all directions, none of which is at capacity since Midtown is the bigger office cluster. It’s also far from the waterfront condo clusters de Blasio wants to serve with ferries.

Even service between Staten Island and Manhattan shouldn’t be a ferry. A rail tunnel would offer a large improvement in trip times: about 8 minutes or even less, compared with 25 by ferry, and one to two transfers less than today. The question is entirely whether the costs could be contained enough to be in line with a realistic demand projection. Of course this is best realized as part of a regionwide commuter rail modernization plan, but even without such a plan, a connection to the 1 train would substantially reduce Staten Island’s commute time, which, at least last decade, was the longest of all US counties.

And this is an origin-destination pair that, given current infrastructure, is actually well-served by ferry, unlike the routes that de Blasio proposed. Ben tried to propose a better way of running ferries in New York, but with no real anchors to connect to, Ben’s proposal is a polite way of what I would phrase as “just don’t.”

Unlike Cuomo, de Blasio is not inherently hostile to public transit. However, he does not particularly care about transit, either. In this view, what he says about ferries is of limited consequence; the amounts of money in question are trivial. He’s not like Bloomberg, who directed $2 billion of city money to the 7 extension ahead of more deserving subway investments. Perhaps it’s wiser to focus on his plan to deck over Sunnyside Yards, or, more specifically, his invocation of massive projects including Stuyvesant Town, Coop City, and Starrett City – precisely the models that a Sunnyside decking should avoid.

However, there’s a good reason to focus on this, unimportant as it is. Cuomo’s failings are characteristic of an autocrat who is hostile to transit. De Blasio’s are characteristic of an autocrat who is indifferent. Although there is a long-term transit plan in New York, centered around completing Second Avenue Subway, this is not what de Blasio talked about, at all. Instead, he went for projects that can be done during his first term: off-board fare collection on a few more bus routes (“Select Bus Service,” complete with the pretense that they are bus rapid transit), and ferries. He won’t just follow an agenda set by others a long time ago: he has to remind people he exists on this issue as on his signature issues, but, as he doesn’t actually care about it, he will propose distractions that would at best do little (Select Bus Service) and at worst would be complete wastes of money (the ferries).

In a democracy, good transit advocates can push themselves into key positions at the ministry of transport, or its equivalent, such as a parliamentary committee on transportation (including the Congressional one, even). The same is true for people who care about other aspects of government spending and policy: housing, health care, education, defense, social welfare, policing. In an autocracy, such as the strong mayor system, it boils down to asking the autocrat to care and to take the right position. But the autocrat is just one person, and cannot pay equal attention to everything. Hence, ferries and Select Bus Service, in lieu of real transit investment.


  1. threestationsquare

    How is NYWaterway able to get 30,000 daily riders despite high fares and many competing rail and road links that offer better service to Manhattan destinations?

    Also, I asked this in another thread, but do you have any idea why the railroads kept their Hudson River ferries from their Jersey City terminals running until the 1960s when PATH served them from 1909 and the Holland Tunnel opened in 1927?

    Nitpick: The Manchester Ship Canal was actually built long after the railroad, opening 1894. Before the railroad Manchester’s connection to the sea was the narrow Bridgewater Canal (opened 1776).

    • al

      It has to do with the more direct route, bus feeder system, and Hoboken NJT Terminal location. The ferries go directly across, where they connect with crosstown and uptown buses. The PATH Hoboken-33rd St goes through a series of slow curves and switches, running west then south then east then north. Holland and Lincoln tunnels are very congested, and thus give trains, ferries, and commuter buses an advantage.

    • Alon Levy

      It’s a big city? The Staten Island Ferry gets 65,000. In that context, 30,000 spread over 20-odd routes is really not a lot.

      • threestationsquare

        NYWaterway has $8+ fares, competition with PATH and XBL buses, and peak-only service on most routes. It seems pretty surprising that they can manage almost half the ridership of the SI Ferry, which has $0 fares, essentially no competition, 24 hour service, and almost the whole borough’s transit network set up to feed it.

        If the various proposed routes on the East River side could manage 30k total daily riders without subsidies the way NYWaterway can that would count as a huge success. There’s pretty clearly no hope of them doing so, but I don’t think the model described in your post predicts or explains this asymmetry.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Nine bucks off peak with EZPass to cross the Hudson. An incentive to park the car on the west side of the river. And parking is free.

    • David Alexander

      How is NYWaterway able to get 30,000 daily riders despite high fares and many competing rail and road links that offer better service to Manhattan destinations?

      Admittedly, how crowded are those boats? Given the choice between using PATH or using a less crowded ferry with cellphone service, some people can justify paying extra for the slightly more comfortable ride if they’re not prone to sea sickness…

  2. Adirondacker12800

    why New York could not.

    The Federal government forced New York and New Jersey to form the Port Authority because there was too much traffic in the harbor. And it was a cesspit.

    Inland transportation of goods was by canal whenever possible.

    Rivers. There weren’t a lot of canals until there were enough Englishmen to start running out of forest for fuel.

    shrank if their rivers silted.

    .. not their canals….

    Railroads inverted this equation.

    For high value time sensitive stuff. Otherwise the Port Authority, there’s that pesky Port Authority again, wouldn’t be spending a billion or so to raise the Bayonne Bridge. Shortest trip from Singapore to Chicago or Toronto is through the Suez Canal. Whether it’s Midwest grain products to Asia or manufactured goods to North America.


    the railroads did not freeze in winter.

    The ports they serve do. And their competitor in some cases.


    The industrial cities were then sited based on the optimal locations of a railroad network and not that of a shipping network.

    Industrial cities are sited where they can get water.
    Almost any major railroad nexus, in North America anyway, is there because that’s where the port is. We got together and made everything standard gauge in 1886 which helped.

    but also inland Hartford

    is at the fall line. The fall line is very very important in U.S. history.


    The canal and then the railroad go to where the mills are. Which are using waterpower well into the 19th Century. And then siting themselves near the water and the cheap hydroelectricity later on.


    blossomed when the canal arrived


    Is where they could power the mills with the falls. Since there are mills and people there, the railroad goes there. Anyway the easy grade is along the river. Where the other mill towns are.

    As Long Island had extensive suburban growth in the postwar era, the inland centers there are usually the larger ones, whereas in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the coastal centers are usually larger.

    Long Island as flat a pool table compared to lots of New England. Being flat it had nice straigth railroads. That were electrified over a century ago. As the suburban sprawl inches out so does the electrification.

    there economic centers of Staten Island and North Vancouver are right next to the ferry docks,

    I thought Midtown was the center of the universe. The Staten Island Ferry has had a train station at both ends since 1886.

    Jersey City, which was also connected to New York by multiple ferry lines, but had enough demand a hundred years ago to fill the Hudson Tubes and later the Holland Tunnel with commuters.

    Philadelphia, Buffalo and points beyond had demand. Every railroad not the New York Central liked to make milepost zero the ferry terminal in Manhattan.

    Subway stations, like railroads, dislike coastal locations

    Those silly silly railroads building terminals in Hudson County, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, right on the water so people could walk from the train to the ferry. Or the freight could get on the car float. And before the Hell Gate bridge the passenger trains could get on the car float.



    Red Hook…. the projects are several blocks inland,

    When they were planned the Brooklyn waterfront was too expensive. It was a thriving port. It still has some activity. Beleive everything on Wikipedia, they built the projects on the undeveloped land.

    Ikea Dock is facing the the ideal way to shuttle Manhattanites into the store. So they don’t have to schlep to Elizabeth or check to see if their passports are in order and shots up to date to go to Paramus.

    Why would a Midtown office developer waste any time building a skyscraper on the East River

    To be near the United Nations?

    a connection to the 1 train would substantially reduce Staten Island’s commute time,

    Connecting them to an express train would be even better. They already are getting on the 1 or R. 65th in Sunset Park so they can connect to the Triboro and the N, maybe one other stop in Brooklyn besides Atlantic/LIRR. Wall Street and Midtown where it becomes a Harlem Line train.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, a lot of US cities are on the fall line. And until well into the 19th century, they were not the largest in their respective regions. In 1830, Hartford had 7,000 people, to New Haven’s 10,000, Providence’s 17,000, and Salem’s 14,000. Marblehead (Marblehead!) had 5,000, and so did Plymouth. That was Hartford’s size class then. Worcester and Springfield were even smaller. Likewise, in the South, Richmond was one of the largest cities… but Charleston was bigger; see list here, as of 1860, i.e. when the South already had railroads, just not very good ones.

      Railroads were never cheaper than ocean shipping, sure, but they’re cheaper than inland canals. Not sure whether they’re cheaper than coastal shipping, but I’d venture a guess that the modal share of sea freight between (say) Florida and New York approaches zero, and things go by rail or by truck instead.

      Now, re the topic, rather than the historical background… yes, there are train-ferry connections, like the old ones in Jersey City. But Manhattan itself was not centered around its coast except insofar all of Lower Manhattan was right next to the water, and is not centered around its coasts today. The Lower Manhattan waterfront has Battery Park City, Battery Park, and the Seaport, all of which are nice, but none of which is as big a center as Wall Street, Fear Tower, or City Hall. Midtown… yes, there’s the UN, but again, by the standards of Times Square, the Grand Central walk shed, Bloomingdale’s, and all the stuff in the high 40s and low 50s, not a big deal.

      The Staten Island Ferry is not connected to Manhattan’s economic center, and that’s responsible for the long average commutes on the Island. It’s connected to Manhattan’s second center, though, and, just as importantly, its Staten Island end is Staten Island‘s economic center. In contrast, Long Island City’s center is somewhat inland, so a ferry there would be perfectly useless, especially considering that the 7 trains are under capacity when crossing the East River. Downtown Brooklyn is completely inland. Etc.

      • Adirondacker12800

        The Cortlandt Street ferry terminals are under Battery Park City. It’s landfill from the landfill they dug up to build the World Trade Center. The land the World Trade Center is on used to be marsh. Most of SoHo used to be marsh and the suburban commuters would take a ferry boat up to bucolic Greenwich Village. The crosstown buses were rationalized over the years but they used to go to the ferry terminals because that’s were the trolley cars went to. Some of them still do even though there hasn’t been a ferry in half a century or more. Some of the ferries used to go to Christopher Street because that was a short walk to the 9th Ave El. It’s also the reason the Christopher Street PATH station is where it is.

        The Coast Guard keeps the rivers open in the winter so petroleum can be shipped. The petroleum terminals are almost always next to a dock. It may not be containers filled with iThingies but it’s shipping. There was a drought in the Midwest, parts of the Mississippi became unnavigable, it was a world wide crisis. The grain couldn’t be shipped out. There are discussions between the mighty Saratoga and North Creek for access to the mighty Port of Albany so they can haul gravel to the barges that will haul it to wherever the barges are gonna haul it. I suspect Long Island, which is one great big pile of sand and gravel. Suburbanites get pissed off when the find out the gravel pit that has been there for decades is there, so Lawn Guylanders pay premium prices for gravel. Something just came through on the SNCRR, it’s either a snow train, which will get the snowmobilers pissed off or actual freight. Which will also get the snowmobilers pissed off. The damp cocktail napkin calculations are that the pile of waste rock sitting at the mine in Tahawus will take 15 to 20 years to haul away at 100 cars of gravel a week. The active mine in North Creek has a big pile too. And stuff they are mining that they want to ship out.

        …. was the final nail in the Erie Canal’s coffin. Though the Erie Canal actually carries freight now and then.

  3. lop

    Is there something wrong with the cost projections the city used? On its own an operating subsidy of $2.17-4.35 per trip doesn’t seem so outrageous when some of those trips are long expensive ones from Soundview or Rockaway. The real problem I see is all the attention the plan got when it will only serve 15-18k trips per day according to their projections.

  4. David Alexander

    In my drunker moments, I still wonder why our friends at TransLink haven’t floated the idea of a SkyTrain extension to North Vancouver to replace the ferries. The harbour isn’t that wide…

    • Rico

      Burrard inlet is too deep for a proper tunnel in the area of Waterfront station. To get reasonable grades a tunnel would have to make a large U from Waterfront station….so it would be very long (therefore expensive and not much of a time savings).

      • Alan Robinson

        While a bored tunnel wouldn’t work, I’d think that a sunk tube tunnel would be possible. The Lonsdale end of a tunnel would be more difficult to construct (due to grades), than the downtown end.

  5. David Alexander

    precisely the models that a Sunnyside decking should avoid

    In terms of financing or in terms of urban planning?

    Hence, ferries and Select Bus Service, in lieu of real transit investment.

    In my drunker moments, I suspect that you won’t see much in the way of real transit investment because we’re stuck with high estimates and long lead times that end up scaring anybody that isn’t dirigiste about building real transit, and because everybody is scared of the few NIMBYs that will yell and pout (and vote). It’s not so much that you get people who are afraid of dealing with the construction, but I suspect there’s a pool of people who don’t want a subway lest it change the character of their neighbourhood*, raise property taxes, or raise rents and bring in gentrification. Plus, I suspect that at NYCTA, there’s a certain sense that they’ve captured much of the existing ridership already, so there’s no incentive to bring in new riders by shortening their commutes with an extension. Of course, when stations are priced at $1b a pop, a marginal three stop extension to shorten the commutes of some riders seems silly when they’re barely able to fund the existing capital plan for system component replacement.

    FWIW, in a city where the political buzzword du jour is “inequality”, building a new subway line just doesn’t sound sexy, especially when de Blasio can shore up his political support by pandering to his base by demanding more social welfare spending and taxation to pay for it.

  6. EngineerScotty

    Well, indifferent is better than hostile.

    But ferries only make sense when crossing a waterway, and there is no fixed crossing in the vicinity. Another important point to remember is that ferry service up or down a river, serving places on the same side, seldom makes sense, as land-based connections are almost faster.

    Here in Portland, we occasionally see proposals for ferry service running up and down the Willamette, from Oregon City in the south to North Portland, and sometimes continuing around Kelly Point into the Columbia to serve Vancouver–the stated theory being that “high speed ferries” can outperform the bus system. Such proposals seldom survive any scrutiny by sharp pencils; boats cannot operate on the much of the river at the necessary speeds; there’s few places where there is any urban fabric close to the water, and waterborne transit is dependent on water conditions–but the proposal keeps coming up again and again. One place where a ferry crossing might make since is between Lake Oswego and Milwaukie–it’s several miles in either direction to the nearest usable bridge–but the river here is narrower enough that a bridge wouldn’t be out-of-the-line expensive. Plus, there’s little demand for it; LO is a wealthy suburb with many residents who view the river as a moat, keeping the riffraff on the other side away.

    • threestationsquare

      London, Sydney, Hamburg, Istanbul, and Bangkok all have regular ferry services that run along, rather than across, rivers and similar bodies of water, stopping at multiple piers on the same side. I don’t have ridership numbers for these services but they appear to be reasonably well-established and used by commuters, though except in the Bangkok case they are fairly minor parts of the cities’ broader transport networks. Especially in the first three cases it’s surprising that they’re able to compete with land-based transit, and these services are definitely the exception rather than the rule globally, but they do exist.

      • Alex Block

        They exist, but capture a large tourist segment.

        I also think that the challenge isn’t in land-based options beating river ferries for trips, but the ferry does have the option to stop on both banks of the river. The London ferries do indeed serve the same side of the river, but not exclusively – all services provide some river-crossing service as well (see this image – the location of the station text indicates the side of the river for the pier): http://thamesclippers.s3.amazonaws.com/img/routes-large.png

  7. Nathanael

    In an autocracy, that’s what department heads are for.

    Did Bloomberg care about safe streets? Who knows, but he appointed Sadik-Kahn and let her get to it.

    De Blasio only has to care about transportation long enough to hire the right transportation commissioner; he can then let *her* make the speeches and announce the plans.

    Question why this isn’t happening. De Blasio has also not appointed an appropriate Commissioner of Police. (He needed someone who would arrest Patrick Lynch and bring him up on charges.)

  8. Antoine

    I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on whether the under-construction Seaplane Lagoon Ferry Terminal is a boondoggle. It’s being built in conjunction with a navy base redevelopment project in Alameda, CA.

    • Eric

      Boondoggle. Ferries have limited value, and there’s already a ferry terminal less than a mile away.

      • Antoine

        They are going to close the old terminal and the new one has better access for the rest of Alameda. Also, there is a lot of new residential development right around the new terminal. Still

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