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Thursday, 19 March 2015

Thoughts on expanded NYC ferry services

The history of ferries in New York City and Sydney have plenty in common.

Both cities relied heavily on ferries for urban transit in the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, before bridge building, metropolitan rail systems and private motor vehicles shrunk the market.

A double ended screw propelled ferry, the Wallaby, first operated in Sydney in 1879, designed by innovative colonial naval architect Norman Selfe. Double ended screw ferries started in New York nine years later with the launch of the Bergen in 1888 by the Hoboken Ferry Company. 

Both cities embraced this style of vessel because of their suitability for short haul transport. As double enders, they saved lost time on reversing manoeuvres and screw propulsion was more efficient than the traditional paddlewheel.

Sydney naval architect Walter Reeks, who perfected the double ended screw ferry in the Lady Class boats from 1891, commented on the "wonderful similarity" between the solutions independently developed by the New York and Sydney ferry operators.

Launch of Walter Reeks designed doubled ended screw ferry the Lady Mary at Lavender Bay in 1891. Source: Australian National Maritime Museum (William Hall photo collection)   
While New York's ferry operations declined more rapidly than Sydney's, a rejuvenation is happening in both cities in the twenty-first century.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in February an expansion of the NYC ferry network from 2017 to reach all five boroughs. This will complement the existing East River Ferry which started in 2011.      

Source: www.gothamist.com

It has to be said that ferry ridership around New York is not huge. The free Staten Island ferry carries 22 million passengers each year, but the NY Waterway ferry ridership was a more modest 8.5 million in 2014. That compares with 1.7 billion passenger journeys on the New York subway.

Where geography dictates that water transport offers a more convenient alternative to other modes, it sometimes surprises that ferry ridership is not higher. This can lead to some scepticism about service expansion, especially where taxpayer subsidies are involved.

Without pretending to be an expert on New York City transit, here are three suggestions (unsolicited) for making urban transit ferry expansion more successful:

  1. Think network and multiple destinations - don't focus on single origin-destination paths. Discussions about transit often assume that travel to work downtown is its only purpose. Wrong! Most journeys are for reasons other than work and most work destinations are not downtown. Think instead about how ferries integrate with the overall transit system, catering for the widest possible range of travel purposes and destinations.
  2. Make transfers easy. As a rule, passengers don't enjoy transfers, but if you work at making them as convenient as possible, they can multiply the number of possible origin-destination pair connections. Convenience includes timeliness of the connections (ferry to ferry and with other modes), no fare penalty for transfers and ease of movement between modes.  
  3. Legibility. If the ferry timetable is clockface, the connections always work, the span of service is sufficient and the ticketing is straightforward, you have the basics of a legible, easy to use service. But if passengers have to consult a timetable, check that the connection will work and pay separately for different parts of the trip, they will will probably drive their car instead.               


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