New York City is definitely a city which has depended on the waterfront for most of it’s life. In the early days, the water brought tradesmen and shippers, in the 1800s, ships filled with coal plied the waters, and in the 1900s barges with railroad cars turned the rivers and bays into a gigantic classification yard.
Through this, alongside the big liners and barges, were ferries.
Originally, Ferries were used to connect Manhattan to surrounding areas — Bridges were just a dream, then, and ships were the primary means of mass transportation. Even up until the early 20th century, Railroad lines and the elevated trains grew based on where the boats were. The big railroads bringing people from the hinterlands of New Jersey to NYC — Most famously, the New York Central — all built massive inter-modal terminals where one could jump off their commuter train and quickly grab a ship to take them across the water.
On the other side of Manhattan, the Long Island Railroad — first in Greenpoint, then in Long Island City — ran a similar operation — Steam locomotives taking people from as far out as Montauk to ferry terminals for a trip across the river. In Brooklyn, the terminus point for many BMT Elevated lines was the Brooklyn Ferry station, where one could get to the Lower East Side. Farther out — namely, in College Point, Queens, whole working-class communities sprung up around ferry slips.
Of course, this was to fall, soon. Vast bridge-building programs — under the purview of Robert Moses — quickly turned the ferries obsolete. Cars streamed out of tunnels into gigantic parking garages in Manhattan. One by one, ferries stopped running — eventually, only leaving the Staten Island Ferry and a few Hudson River ferries.
In 2017, a sleek, navy-and-white boat floated into a pier for the first time. Christened “Lunch Box”, It was the culmination of glowing results for a ferry service between the Rockaways and the City — replacing the Sandy-damaged IND Rockaway Line for a time. Extended multiple times, the Rockaway ferry ended 2 years after it started.
Several reasons — Primarily, the initial development of rapid transit to haul commuters into Lower Manhattan, abandonment of the LIRR Rockaway and Whitestone lines, and tearing down the El system in the 1950s without replacements — have lead to New York City steadily having larger amounts of people without heavier transport options. Left to pick up the slack have been dozens of Bus routes — many inheriting winding routes from streetcars before them.
Much of the commuter trips into the city — from Queens, South Brooklyn or the Bronx — resembles essentially getting onto a packed bus which dumps you onto a packed train. Although the MTA has begun capacity improvement programs for both sides of this — for example, installing Communications-Based Train Control on both the Flushing line and the Queens Boulevard line, and upgrading various bus routes to use articulated buses — It still hasn’t exactly fixed the capacity issues.
And so, when Mayor Bill Di Blasio announced that there would be ferry services coming, a major talking point was them connecting up “Transit deserts.” — areas without transit service. Such an exclamation point is placed on it that it’s practically underlined on the official NYC Ferry page.
Ferries seem like a definite answer to many of the above problems. Vast tracts of waterfront land in the City’s fringe remains either fallow or locked beneath endless parking lots. The 7 Train, already packed to capacity, could have it’s load doubtlessly lessened by a Northeast Queens ferry. The congestion on the Van Wyckeand LIE — considered legendary by some — could be much lightened as more and more people take the ferry.
Of course, that’s assuming the ferries go where they should and integrate with what they should.
And they don’t.
Only 2 of the current 20 Ferry stops as of 2020 are in areas more than .9 miles from a subway train. Although one can argue some of these areas are under-served, that fails to explain the fact that while those have both ferries AND subways, many of the coastal areas of the Outer Boroughs remain under-served.
In addition, many of the areas chosen for ferry stops are rapidly gentrifying — making it wonder just how much of a public service it’s serving as. Essentially, the current state of the ferries make them more of something to check off on the sales brochure of some scammy Gentrification Box rather than an actual Transit service.
But that’s not even the most damming part. While the ferries could be redeemable if they were connected to the wider transit system, it just isn’t so. NYC’s ferries do not accept Metrocards or any sort of transfer from transit — which builds in discouragement. Why get off at LIC and take a ferry when it’s an extra fare?
These may contribute to the fact that the Ferries are essentially entirely running on subsidy — making back only 24% of the total operating costs. Although I personally believe transit should be for the people before profit, one must wonder how much this has to do with the aforementioned lack of transfer and location in oversaturated areas.
Of course, the well is not poisoned itself. The waterfronts of the Bronx and Northern Queens — vacated by industries near the mid-century and left unused — could be revitalized and integrated within the community through ferry service. In addition, the traffic that clogs the expressways and the glut of passengers on the buses and trains could be thinned by a properly integrated ferry service.
In addition, many of the City’s most interesting public spaces are also the most inaccessible currently. The reclaimed lands of Fort Tilden, the abandoned tarmacs and vintage planes of Floyd Bennet Field, endless waterfront parks — all could be made easier and more convenient to reach with the addition of a properly-integrated ferry service.
But the Ferries don’t serve those.
The ferries are reportedly fast and well-liked by those who can use them — adding insult to the injury of them not serving the areas of the city most underserved by transit. Unifying the fares and fare system of both the NYC Ferry system and the NYC Subways and Buses could very well create an influx of riders — primarily the low-income ones from the transit deserts the Ferry should be serving.
Proper ferry expansion could lead to limitless possibilities. The LIRR’s Port Washington line could definitely have it’s load lightened by people attracted to cheap and convenient ferries. Both the city’s major airports are located on the water — LGA’s history began with flying boats, and it’s future could be cemented with sea-faring ones.
So much of the city’s history has to do with waterways. For many underserved areas, the future could, too — but only if it works that way.