By Joe Danielewicz and Kaitlin Ugolik
The waterways around New York City used to be crowded with ferries. Fulton Street – both in Manhattan and in Brooklyn – was actually named for Robert Fulton, the man who made steam navigation practical. But everything changed when New Yorkers started tunneling under the rivers around Manhattan, according to Julie Golia of the Brooklyn Historical Society.
“When you have the rise of subways in the early twentieth century, that basically was the nail in the coffin of the ferry system in terms of efficiency for carrying people,” she said, sitting on a bench at the Fulton Ferry slip in Brooklyn Heights. “And you actually see in 1924 the end of Fulton Ferry leaving from where we’re sitting and going across the way.”
Now, ferry service is set to return to the East River. The city is subsidizing a three-year pilot program for a service along the East River, connecting Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. Recent service offerings on the river have not fared well, usually because of poor ridership. Reporter Joe Danielewicz and producer Kaitlin Ugolik explore the prospects of these new routes.
Victor Tello is doing what 60,000 people do every day – using the ferry to commute between Staten Island and Manhattan.
“I’m going home now, I do the reverse commute,” he said after disembarking. Tello says the price can’t be beat – the ride is free. And the service is convenient; boats leave about every 15 minutes during rush hour.
“The schedule is pretty regular. It runs late sometimes, but for the most part it’s a pretty efficient system,” he said, adding that the ride’s relaxing and pleasant too. “I do like sitting on the southern side of the ferry and getting the view of the Statue of Liberty.”
The city hopes that the same things that make the Staten Island Ferry attractive will draw riders to a new and improved ferry service on the East River. Of course, Staten Island commuters don’t have the option of taking the subway to Manhattan. But subway lines that serve communities along the East River are increasingly crowded.
Along the East River waterfront where the new ferry will run, developers built 2,200 new housing units in 2008 alone. By 2014 there will be a total of 8,300 new units, all within a third of a mile of the ferry stops.
All that growth has put a lot of strain on subway stops like the one on the L line at Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. Ridership has doubled at the station, from 3.3 million in 1999 to 6.7 million in 2009. And during rush hour, the trains are packed. Sara Trigg works from home and tries to avoid the rush if she has to travel.
“To get somewhere by 9:00 or 9:30, it’s usually two or three trains that have to pass before you can get on,” she said, while waiting on the platform.
The city thinks adding the East River ferry service will take some of the strain off the L train. Paul Goodman is CEO of Billy Bey Ferry Company. His company will operate the new East River boats on behalf of New York Waterway.
“I don’t think people will want to get back on the crowded L train once they’ve tried our service,” he said. He hopes to attract riders who want to avoid crowded subways and enjoy a commute above ground, and the people who live close to the waterfront. “We’re really relying on people who live within walking distance or biking distance.” That would include many of the new developments in Brooklyn and Queens.
Based on a feasibility study, the city hopes the ferry will serve nearly 1,300 riders daily. If that happens, it would be a major improvement over previous attempts at ferry services in the 1990s, which attracted 150 or fewer riders a day.
That old service had a stop at the East 34th Street dock, just below FDR Drive. Towards the end of that service’s run, on an April afternoon, only a few passengers were around the dock, including Janet Cocchiarella, who commuted about three days a week from Sunnyside Queens.
“I drive from my home to the parking lot, which takes about ten minutes and then it’s a bout a five minute commute. I work at the medical center at NYU,” which is just a couple of blocks away. Cocchiarella said she was surprised more people didn’t use the ferry to get around. “It’s not full in the mornings and it’s not full in the evenings. I just think if more people were aware of it, it would get better ridership.”
But it wasn’t just awareness that killed the old service: it only ran every 60 minutes, and only during the morning and afternoon rush hours. And it only stopped at four locations aside from the one at 34th Street. City officials thought the service could be improved.
The city solicited bids on a three-year city contract for the new line. New York Water Taxi, which ran the old service, lost out to New York Waterways. The new operator already runs several Hudson River routes that serve 30,000 riders daily. The new service will bring riders to two extra stops – one more in Williamsburg and another in Greenpoint – bringing the total to seven. And boats will run more frequently: every 20 or 30 minutes throughout the day.
But the chance to operate the boats wouldn’t have been enough to attract ferry operators. The city also offered a $9.3 million subsidy over three years. Paul Goodman of Billy Bey Ferry says the subsidy is essential to the service.
“The subsidy enables us to offer this. The service wouldn’t exist without the city’s subsidy,” he said. “The subsidy enables us to price it attractively, and make the service accessible to all.” But some transportation experts wonder whether being accessible will be enough to make the service successful.
Richard Barone is director for transportation programs for the Regional Plan Association, a transportation think tank for the tri-state area. He says the subsidy is a good way to help launch the service.
“It might make sense to give it a shot, see if it helps at all, provide a boost in development,” he said. “In the long run, it’s questionable whether services will survive.” But Barone says, in the long run, it’s a matter of numbers. “Unfortunately there’s a question of whether there’s enough people to justify the cost of the service. The fact that so many have failed in the recent past…will this one really be successful? I don’t know.”
There’s also the matter of the fares. It’ll cost $3 to $5 to ride the ferry each way.
At the Bedford Avenue platform, Sarah Trigg says even with the crowded train, she doesn’t think a ferry service would change her travel habits.
“Economics are a factor,” she said. “But also it would depend on…for me to walk to the river, if it’s a longer commute, is it really worth it?”
It’s a similar story for commuter Jessica Ray. She thinks it will be difficult to change people’s behavior.
“It’s kind of like the iPhone – are you going to leave AT&T? Well, probably not,” she said. “I have a routine and I’m going to stick with it.” Both Trigg and Ray say it’s possible that people living right on the waterfront might use the ferry because it will be closer.
New York Waterway launches its new service in early June. For the first two weeks, passengers can ride for free. Three years down the line, if enough are willing to pay, the city could expand the service further.