New York City's ferry renaissance

New York Harbor is home to the county’s largest passenger ferry network, and it is expanding far more rapidly than either regional population or the rest of the transit system. Most of the growth has been due to the phenomenal expansion of the New York City Ferry Service, which has inaugurated several new routes within the last year, more than doubling its ridership. 

New York City Ferry is controlled by the City itself, and its bold move to reduce fares to equal the $2.75 subway or bus  fare has greatly expanded the role of passenger ferries in the harbor: While it still provides a reliable and enjoyable commuting option, it is also increasingly serving tourists and residents. As was evidenced this past summer, the ferries have been instrumental in greatly increasing visitation to waterfront destinations such as Rockaway Beach, Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governor’s Island.  

Anyone who has not visited New York Harbor since the 1990s would hardly recognize the harbor today, with a constant stream of vessels and passengers accessing the various leisure and cultural attractions now efficiently served by waterborne transportation.

Steer has been advising the City on its strategy for passenger ferries since 2013. We are currently part of a team that will work with New York City over the next five years to define a plan for further ferry expansion as well as manage the demands of its current routes. It is rare that a transit system more than doubles its patronage within two years, but that is effectively the current situation facing New York City with its ferry system.

The other component of the passenger network controlled by New York City is the Staten Island Ferry. The venerable service continues to be the primary transit option between Staten Island and Lower Manhattan, and New York City. Recently the City requested Steer to assess the potential ridership and economic benefits that would be expected if an additional service to Midtown Manhattan was also provided. Whether the Midtown service will be implemented is uncertain at this stage, but the initiative exemplifies how passenger ferries are seen as an answer to some of New York City’s pressing transit needs. 

The remaining components of the ferry system on the Harbor include the privately-run ferries linking New Jersey to Manhattan. This network was developed in the 1980s and 1990s, and is itself extremely successful, transporting over 30,000 daily riders without the benefit of any public operating subsidy.

In a time where the region’s transit system has experienced some notable challenges, the ferries have been an evident bright spot, certainly in terms of traveler perception and experience. The desire to expand waterborne transportation is certainly not restricted to New York City, however, and includes planning initiatives in Boston, Portland (Maine), Whatcom and Kitsap counties and Seattle (Washington) – all locations where Steer is currently playing important advisory roles for passenger ferry operators. 


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