The New Ferry Fleet Will Be Delightful, and Is Also a Huge Mistake

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So nice! Bad idea. Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

I love the New York waterfront, I love a boat ride, and I especially love riding on the East River ferry. The scenery, the breeze, the (quite clean, nowadays) seawater scent: It’s just a great way to move around the city. I use the one that runs from East 35th Street regularly, for weekend trips to Brooklyn or downtown, especially in the summer. So please believe me when I tell you, with regrets, that the big expansion of ferry funding that the de Blasio administration announced Thursday is a terrible idea.

The mayor’s plan is to double the contribution from the city, making its stake a bit more than $600 million spread over five years. A small fleet of vessels is on order, and others will be leased. The system now carries 4.6 million people a year, with a projection that it’ll soon reach 9 million annually. It’s popular! And indeed that sounds like a lot of people — until you learn that the subway system carries 5.6 million per weekday, and the bus system another 2.4 million. In other words, one day of subway-and-bus service nearly equals a year of projected ferry service. Two years, at the current level of ferry use. More people use Citibike. More people ride a single bus line, the M14. Or here’s another way of thinking about it: That single boat, with 149 passengers, leaving every half hour or so? It has the capacity of one subway car.

Admittedly, there is not just one ferry: There will be 22 boats altogether. Several have larger capacities, some up to 500 people, which — all right, sure — is two-and-a-half train cars. They will run every 20 minutes or so, a fraction of the number of times the trains do. Still a drop in the bucket. You’re adding one train’s worth of people to the entire transit system every half hour.

Imagine if the MTA spent that much to add a single-car train to each of its 27 lines, and shuttled it back and forth a couple of dozen times a day in between the dozens of other trains, in order to transport an extra 149 people each time. Would you call that a huge boon to the mass-transit system? You would not. You would call it a sad joke. But because it’s above ground, out on the water, full of people in sunglasses with cameras, it’s a civic treasure.

But (I hear you saying) why are you against adding boats to the system? Maybe it won’t take all that much load off the trains, but what’s the harm? Well, yes, having several ways of getting around is, in theory, a good idea: Redundancy is valuable when one portion of the system fails. It is also true that boats, in the abstract, are cheaper to buy and maintain than trains. But that alternative does not come without a cost. The ferry you take from 34th Street to Wall Street will cost you $2.75 out of pocket, same as a single-ride MetroCard. But it actually takes a very large city subsidy, twice as much as your equivalent subway ride would, to keep that boat running. The ferry is boosted by $6.60 per rider, whereas the train fare is matched by $3.31. Some water commuters have been subsidized by much more, notably the clownishly uneconomical Rockaway ferry, for which the city was kicking in $20 per ride before it shut down. It has since returned, at a somewhat saner level of subsidy.

All water-crossers commuted this way, 140 years ago. The harbor was thick with little boats scurrying between the riverbanks. After the Brooklyn Bridge and its neighbors went over the rivers, and the tunnels went under, the ferry business nearly evaporated. Why? Because it was slow and inefficient. Everyone learned immediately that tunnels and bridges move people far, far more expeditiously, en masse. The lone major exception is the Staten Island Ferry, and it’s an entirely different enterprise, running a fleet of eight far larger ships, some of which carry 6,000 passengers at once. If we tried that on the East River, this would be a different conversation.

I suspect that the half-true romanticization of the city’s waterborne industrial past — I’ll cite here the Mast Brothers’ sweet, dopey chocolate-carrying sloop — blinds people to the fact that many of the old ways died out for good reason, despite their charm. I like typewriters myself, a whole lot, but I also know that producing pages on them 30 years ago made my back and shoulders ache, and reworking a manuscript was a huge deadening job. Some of those things can be revived at smaller scale, allowing us to experience their charms and pleasures without directly punitive results to others: There is a wonderful sensory upside to an heirloom tomato or a small-batch bourbon, for example. The difference is that eating or drinking it does not directly stop anyone else from getting less interesting produce or whisky, except in an indirect economic-disparity sense.

Whereas when you funnel all that money over to ferryboats, what you are directly not doing is fixing subway stations, replacing train cars, building dedicated transit lanes above ground. (For comparison: The MTA spends about $15 billion a year on operating expenses, which includes the suburban services like Metro-North and the LIRR, and the current capital plan is for $33 billion over four years. This $600 million is equivalent to 3 percent of the 2018 capital budget, and it is not going to serve anything like 3 percent of the relevant population.) A new subway car now costs about $2 million, give or take. That $600 million would get you 300 of them. And in fact, we are still running and maintaining more than 200 “Brightliner” cars, also known as the R32, the ones with corrugated metal sides on the A, C, J, and Z lines. They were built in 1964 and 1965. They are the oldest subway trains in regular use anywhere on earth. And guess what: They break down a lot. Is the very real possibility of 2,000 people sitting under Eighth Avenue for an hour when a train stalls worth the option of my nice little cruise at dusk? I wish it were, but it is not.

Really, though, if we’re able to assemble $600 million for transit upgrades, the thing to spend it on is probably the least glamorous way of getting around, and that is the bus system. It gives considerably less sensory pleasure to ride on a jolting, traffic-bound bus as it galumphs along at six miles per hour. That bus is also, if managed correctly (especially if it has its own dedicated lane, which minimizes the aforementioned galumphing), a hundred times more versatile and useful than the ferry. And indeed that figure is barely an exaggeration: You could run several dozen buses across the river in the time it takes one similar-capacity ferryboat to make its five- or six-stop trip. It would probably pollute less, too, at least per capita: The newer city buses run on cleaner power than marine diesel. Mind you, the bus experience is no fun. Nobody on it gets any sun or salt spray. But they do get to work, possibly even on time.

But, as I say, I do love a ferry ride. So do quite a few Wall Street commuters. So do you, if you’ve tried it. And here’s a question: If this is is a boutique service, beloved of upscale commuters, not especially efficient but far nicer than the alternative, why should it cost the same as the rest of the transit system? (De Blasio has pledged to keep it that way.) If people really prefer it, and the thing has a long waiting line on nice days, it seems logical to make riders pay something like it costs, which is still less than they’d spend for a car-share ride. Don’t make it siphon cash out of the bus system; have it compete with Uber and Lyft. Call it Eau-ber. I’d download that app in a second.

The New Ferries Will Be Delightful, and Also a Huge Mistake