Learning to Get Around Brooklyn (Without Stopping in Manhattan)
By Emma Dewil
My first rude awakening as a temporary New Yorker came upon realizing the fastest route to work entailed taking the subway into Manhattan, only to catch a second train back into Brooklyn. The cultural and historical role of New York City’s public transportation system has always interested me from afar, but I found myself gaining a new perspective of it while living in Brooklyn this past summer during my internship with Measure of America. Knowing my 45-minute, 2-seat commute paled in comparison to what many residents do daily (and for far longer than one summer), I was suddenly more aware of how Manhattan-centric the existing network is.
I quickly learned I had an option for a more direct route to work; taking the relatively new NYC Ferry from South Williamsburg to DUMBO, exchanging two grimy, crowded subway rides for a shiny new boat (with WiFi and a snack bar!) and a little nausea. Though I stuck with my shorter (duration-wise, not distance wise) subway commute, the idea that I could pay $2.75 for such a seemingly luxurious commute seemed strange to me. Upon further research, I found that the $2.75 fare was being subsidized by over $10 per ride, making the Ferry the most heavily subsidized form of transportation after the Express Bus. The goal of this high subsidy was to keep the cost of a Ferry ride the same as a bus or subway fare to make it accessible to the majority of the population. Yet, NYC Ferry routes appear to reach little of that population in need of an affordable mode of transportation, instead stopping in areas already dense with transit.
Of course, my perception of the gaps in the City’s transit network is not necessarily the same as how the Economic Development Corporation views the situation. With this in mind, I attempted to evaluate the stated goals of NYC Ferry in order to understand the role it was intended to play. NYC Ferry was implemented to further three stated goals: to improve transit accessibility in communities with limited options, to increase the redundancy of NYC’s transit network, and to support growing neighborhoods.
The goal of reaching communities with few transit options seems to be somewhat the inverse of increasing redundancy. As I stated earlier, NYC Ferry lines mainly provide routes to already well-connected areas, with the exception of Soundview (the sole stop in the Bronx) and Rockaway. However, even Southeastern Brooklyn, reachable by water but ignored by many other forms of transit, is largely neglected by NYC Ferry. Residents of this region have some of the longest commute times in the city, along with those living in the outer areas of the Bronx and Queens. Many of these areas are not easily reached by water, begging the question, why address this issue with a Ferry system?
The value of increasing redundancy according to the city was to introduce a flexible form of transit for use in emergency scenarios, and to reduce the daily load on existing modes of transit. The majority of the NYC Ferry’s six current lines seem to echo existing subway lines, and docks at Wall Street and 42nd street are located near some of the busiest subway stations in the city. But the low ridership of the Ferry system relative to other forms of transportation makes it questionable whether it can reduce overcrowding in any significant way; the Ferry carries fewer passengers in a year than the Subway does in a day.
The final goal, to support growing communities, can be interpreted in multiple ways. I chose to understand it in terms of population growth. Out of the ten fastest-growing community districts since 2000, four are now home to a Ferry stop. This is absolutely in line with the goals of the city. However, another four are landlocked, making me wonder again whether a transit system limited to the water was the wisest choice.
My investigation of the NYC Ferry was born out of a feeling every New Yorker seems to face: frustration with public transportation. While NYC Ferry may have solved that issue for some New Yorkers, it seems to be targeted to a portion of the population that is not the most in need of efficient and affordable transit. Unfortunately, NYC Ferry was established through a public-private partnership, meaning little data is publicly available, making it difficult to evaluate whether the Ferry is a gimmick for tourists and summer weekends or a viable option for certain commuters. Either way, I have to admit that $2.75 is a great deal for such a nice boat ride.