SPUR Talk: A Very Ferry Future for the Bay Area?

Would it be better to run more ferries to areas without good transit options? Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Would it be better to run more ferries to areas without good transit options? Photo: Wikimedia Commons

They’re relatively slow and don’t carry nearly as many people as BART or the Bay Bridge, but during rush hour the Bay Area’s ferry services provide essential relief to a transportation system that’s bursting at the seams. “We carry about four percent of Trans-bay ridership in the peak hours,” said Kevin Connolly, manager of planning and development for the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), at a talk at SPUR about the role of ferries in Bay Area transportation. “That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s the equivalent of three BART trains or 48 buses in the peak hour.”

But even the ferries are becoming overcrowded during rush hour. Unlike with a BART train, safety and the laws of buoyancy prohibit squeezing more and more people on board. “We leave people behind every day because of a hard cap on our ridership; we have a desperate need to expand capacity,” said Connolly.

A graphical look at the different modes of Trans-bay service. Image: WETA
A graphical look at the different modes of Trans-bay service. Image: WETA

Compared to any other option for expanding transit capacity, it’s pennies on the dollar to add ferry services. That still can mean sizable investments for dredging, building new terminals and maintenance facilities, and buying more boats. But it is happening. “There will be five new boats on the water by 2020… And we have the expansion of the San Francisco ferry terminal itself, which will triple our capacity,” said Connolly.

During rush hour, the line for SF ferry services run well out of the terminal and down the Embarcadero. Photo: WETA
During rush hour, the line for SF ferry services runs well out of the terminal and down the Embarcadero. Photo: WETA

So how will the region pay for a huge expansion in ferry services? “A potential solution is Regional Measure 3 (RM3), a $4.5 billion measure that would massively enhance transit capacity on BART, bus, and the ferry system,” said Emily Loper, Policy Director at the Bay Area Council, who also spoke on the SPUR panel. “Most other transportation improvements involve big capital investment and twenty or thirty years to build. With just new operating funds, just $17 million, our ferry services can double their capacity.”

Loper explained that RM3, if the voters approve it, will provide $300 million in capital and up to $35 million in operating revenue for ferries. That will let ferries “rapidly expand service, not just with increases in frequency on existing routes, but also to expand to new locations.”

A look at where ferries go now. And where they will go in the future. Image: WETA
A look at where ferries go now. And where they will go in the future. Image: WETA

“Mission Bay is a new terminal that’s currently being designed, with a target date of opening by 2019 or 2020,” said Connolly. There are also new terminals being developed, sometimes in conjunction with new housing developments, at the Alameda Seaplane Lagoon Terminal, Redwood City, and elsewhere. “We have a 2024 target date for Treasure Island,” he said.

But not everyone on the panel agreed that constructing big terminals with long planning timelines and running large ferry boats is the way to go. “In 2014, we won a contract with the Port of San Francisco to provide water taxi services,” said Nathan Nayman, president of Tideline, which provides a water-taxi service using small boats that carry between 25 and 45 people. Currently, they operate three boats from Berkeley and Napa. “We carried 25,000 passengers from March through December of last year… and we don’t receive subsidies.”

The company’s smaller boats don’t need deep ports–and the dredging they often require. As a result, they can dock at existing launches and get services up and running without a big planning and construction process. They’re also looking at boats with “carbon hulls and battery technology” that will run on emissions-free propulsion.

He said the company is negotiating deals with Chariot and other ride-sharing services, so customers have a way to get from the shore to their jobs and homes. They’re trying to coordinate schedules with Amtrak and AC Transit.

The panelllll
Emily Loper, Nathan Nayman, Kevin Connolly, and Richard Barone. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

While that will no doubt make the boat service easier to use, it also highlights the obvious limitation of ferries. “The ferries work well if you can walk to the terminal, but if you have to transfer they are far less attractive,” said Richard Barone, Vice President for Transportation at New York’s Regional Plan Association (NY’s equivalent to SPUR).

New York has undergone a resurgence in ferry service over the past few years. It doesn’t carry huge numbers of people relative to the subway, buses, and commuter trains, but Barone explained it has been very useful for commuters traveling between Jersey City and Lower Manhattan–both have high concentrations of residences and jobs that are a short walk from the Hudson River. “Folks who use them really love them because the commute is really nice… a ferry is a paradise by comparison to riding the subway.”

He added that the ferries are helpful in emergencies. “Ferries are a great redundant system… on 9/11 they were critical and helped move a lot of people when the PATH Train subway was down.” Connolly agreed and said they run scenarios about how ferry boats can be used during disasters and major BART problems.

Still, Nayman said the key is to have a diverse and flexible system, with small, privately run boats complimenting the larger, government-subsidized ones. He cited plans to anchor future Treasure Island developments to a large ferry terminal as a misapplication of the big-ferry model. In his view, it makes more sense to shuttle people back and forth with smaller boats running frequently since the voyage only takes ten minutes. “Do we need a $50 million ferry terminal on Treasure Island and Mission Bay?”

A rendering of the planned Treasure Island ferry landing. But one panelist wondered--are large boats and a big facility the way to go for a ten-minute shuttle run to San Francisco? Image: WETA
A rendering of the planned Treasure Island ferry landing. But one panelist wondered–are large boats and a big facility necessary for a ten-minute shuttle run to San Francisco? Image: WETA

For more events like these, visit SPUR’s events page.

  • Ethan

    What’s the per passenger subsidy on existing and the coming soon ferry services? New York City’s Rockaway Ferry cost the city $30 for every passenger that rode it. The Bay Area insists on concentrating jobs in downtown SF and the South Bay resulting in adding extra costly subsidized transit. If the jobs were added in the North and East Bay, we wouldn’t need expensive new ways to get more people across the water.

  • baklazhan

    That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense… It’s the un-concentrated locations that need heavy subsidies for transit. You don’t need to look further than our own Oyster Point ferry service, which is supposed to take workers from the east bay to Oyster Point — but Oyster Point is a bunch of suburban-style office campuses, so it doesn’t work all that well with transit, and the ridership and subsidies reflect that.

  • As long as they can sell booze on board, I’m in!

  • Ethan

    No subsidy needed for underused locations that already have BART stations, or will have. The Richmond-Warm Springs BART line is underused northbound in the mornings. It has spare capacity for bringing commuters to Oakland and Richmond, if more jobs moved there. Richmond has room for them, and employers could run private shuttles, or pool together for an Emery-go-round bus service connected to the station. The Blue line is underused in the mornings out to Pleasanton. BART is likely going to be extended to LIvermore, where there’s lots of room for new jobs. BART has the capacity, it makes sense to use it.

  • xplosneer

    Except the use depends on the city design around those stations, and Dublin/Pleasanton/Livermore have been completely against adding true TOD. Just transit-adjacent, but mostly parking lots and wide roads with terrible bus, bike, and walking LOS.

  • Kieran

    This is a strange ironic twist because the Bay Area’s ferry service until the mid 20th century was actually very good with operators such as Northwestern Pacific and the Key System..It was mostly willfully shut down because of new highways being built and the boats were seen as obsolete due to cars being the perceived way for commuters to traverse the Bay Area..I also think that they should try using ferry boats that run off pure biofuel or even hemp seed oil say, within the next decade.

    I love the map displayed…I agree on both ends as well(which is mentioned in the article) that there needs to be both big ferry boats with a higher capacity than the boats used today, not to mention small water taxis to balance it out. That way both the water taxis and high capacity ferry boats can share space at terminals and both boats can have their schedules synchronized to connect with say, AC Transit buses, Sam Trans buses, Muni buses, etc

    The proposed Redwood City ferry terminal would definitely need a new Sam Trans line that would connect it to say, the Redwood City Caltrain station and downtown Redwood City, for example. Now if ferry service can be re-established between San Francisco/the East Bay and Petaluma, then I think that’d be a good thing….I read bout a year ago that Petaluma is trying to revive their waterfront, so why not also bring a ferry terminal back so it’d connect o the rest of the Bay Area easier?

  • ride_it_like_you_stole_it

    Please replicate the Sea Bus, a very efficient ferry service that connects Vancouver with North Vancouver – they have it nailed down. The boardings and alightings happen simultaneously – everyone gets off the port side while everyone boards on the starboard side. And the ferry is double sided so it doesn’t have to make a U-turn as it travels back and forth. This will help a lot with shorter trips, such as between Treasure Island and downtown SF. Lastly, they have a countdown clock outside the terminal so you know if you need to hustle to catch the ferry or if you can relax and take your time. Turnaround time is 10 min, compared to what must take half an hour here at some landings. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SeaBus

  • Affen_Theater

    Excellent suggestion. Yeah, totally. The Vancouver “SeaBus model would work excellently as a frequent shuttle service linking downtown and Treasure Island. Each double-ended aluminum-hulled SeaBus catamaran ferry has an official capacity of 385. Using only 2 vessels that cross midway, you could easily run at 10-minute headways (6 trips per hour) during peak periods and move 3,850 people per direction, per hour … which far exceeds the maximum capacity of a dedicated 2-lane (one lane in each direction) carrying single-occupant vehicles.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I didn’t know the capacity of these ferries was so high. I know people value a single seat ride, but it seems like terminating AC Transit Transbay service at the Jack London Square ferry terminal and doubling the frequency of the ferry would get people to San Francisco much faster than sitting in traffic on the Bay Bridge and deadheading the bus all the way back to Oakland from SF, empty.

  • Kieran

    Yea I definitely agree…Why have an empty AC Transit bus going back to the East Bay when a properly run ferry boat system(where certain AC Transit Transbay lines can connect at Jack London Square) can help out in a more efficient manner? I really hope this stuff happens over the next couple decades…A fully integrated ferry system with terminals in places like Martinez, Petaluma, Redwood City, etc means more people will be connected overall…

    At least there will be actual progress sooner than later..Richmond’s ferry terminal will be operational before 2020 last I checked. It’ll be at the Craneway Pavilion and should be operating by September of this year IF all goes well

  • Why have an empty Ferry going back to the East Bay…?

    I have no opinion one way or another about ferries but I don’t follow how they are less subject to being mostly empty on reverse commute than any other mode. What am I missing?

  • Forget those suburban outposts. For reducing need for transbay trips (where ferries are relevant), downtown Oakland is the only place relevant, and has vast capacity for more jobs.

  • baklazhan

    I mean, BART is already one of the least-subsidized public transit systems in this country, with only 30% or so of its funding from subsidies. And it’s in no small part because it serves centralized locations like downtown SF, Oakland, and Berkeley.

    But I agree, it could be even better, and the low-hanging fruit is getting more passengers onto the underused trains in the anti-commute direction, and at the off-peak (although I’ll say that eastbound morning BART trains are certainly far from empty).

    But I also think it’s funny that you rail against adding more subsidized transit… and your solution is to add more subsidized transit in the form of private shuttles or circulator buses. In addition to the cost, it’s another inconvenient transfer. If we really wanted to encourage this sort of efficiency, the change we should be making is in land use, near the stations.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I guess you’re missing that the bay isn’t congested? The problem with buses going back empty is they still get stuck in, and create, traffic.

  • Taurussf

    But if the ferry is empty on the way back, then probably there isn’t any congestion either.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    You’re right about the morning but in the evening, for whatever reason, the Bay Bridge is hosed in both directions.

  • bs

    I have looked very closely at the ferry service in the bay area and used it myself. There are many very loyal riders who have been taking it for over 20 years and ridership has surged in the past few years. It is great to see them expand capacity.
    I’d also like to point out the distinct pleasure of riding the ferry. I had done ferry happy hours to the city. You can relax, have a drink, and look out over the bay.

  • Richard Bullington

    Jobs get added by Capitalists, not by transportation and city planners.

  • Ethan

    Private shuttles aren’t paid for by taxpayers. Circulator buses like Emery-go-round are paid for by Emeryville businesses. I favor using money wisely. For example, the West Contra Costa High-Capacity Transit Study board meeting pdf from 2/24/2017 considered adding express buses, BRT, expanding Capital Corridor service, and extending BART eastwards via two possible routes. In 2040 the cost per new rider of BRT is $17 or $18 depending on route. The cost for Express bus service is $21, but BART is $80 or $93. The number for BART is so high because building one route will cost $3.6 billion, or the other route $4.2 billion. Those new stations will add an estimated 6,370 new riders.

    Does $4.2 billion for a mere 6,370 new riders sound like a wise way to spend money? Not to me. Besides doing alternatives like BRT and Express buses, for $22 million a year, we could hypothetically pay 6,000 people in the area $10 a day to carpool 365 days a year.

    For taxpayers, ferry service is likely much more expensive per passenger than getting more jobs located in the East Bay so workers living in the East Bay don’t need to cross the water at all.

    Also consider the “inconvenient transfer” you labeled the shuttles and circulator buses. How many jobs are located within a block of SF’s ferry terminals? How many commuters still have to walk two, three, four or more blocks for 5 to 15+ minutes to get from the ferry to work? Dismissing walking distance and time doesn’t make sense.

  • Ethan

    City planners determine where jobs can be added. The SoMa plan adds 50,000 new jobs, but only 7,500 new units of housing. The city wasn’t obligated to allow those jobs, which are making the commute across the Bay worse for drivers, BART riders, and would-be ferry users who are “left behind every day because of a hard cap on our ridership.”

  • David Kaye

    STUPID STUPID STUPID — I said over a decade ago that the plan to house 29,000 people on Treasure Island is a big mistake because there is no good way to move that many folks. 29,000 people is ONE FULL LANE on the Bay Bridge per day. It’s 300 ferry boat trips. Treasure Island should have been turned into a city park or a small college campus. But with the development, TI will have 29,000 people PLUS thousands of workers who will run the stores, offices, and cafes and bars that TI will have. So, figure more like 35,000 to 40,000 people a day going to AND from Treasure Island. No way any additional ferries, buses, or cars can handle that without a LOT of pissed off people who will be stuck in traffic or waiting hours for ferries.

  • I suppose not. Though just to my eye (as a regular transbay bus rider) buses are a tiny contributor to congestion, except *possibly* in the block right around the SF transbay terminal (but it that block doesn’t strike me as being very congested, and bus ingress/egress seems smooth). Even in the routes between the terminal and the bridge, it looks to me like the problem is cars. More buses are part of the solution, not the problem. Best paired with higher bridge tolls and a greater downtown SF congestion charge and elimination of gratis parking anywhere near downtown (eg it’s absurd that there are non-metered spaces anywhere on Beale).

    More ferries might make sense on their own merits. But at this point I’m unconvinced that more ferries would be better than more buses *due to buses contributing to bridge congestion*. Of course I’d be happy to see data to the contrary. I did a quick search and found http://tjpa.org/uploads/2010/11/ED-Rpt_Bay-Bridge-Corridor-Congestion-Study.pdf#page=3 which said AM peak is 9200 cars/hours and 100 buses. Of course buses are bigger than cars, but that ratio strikes me as matching what my eyes see. Cars are the problem.

  • Richard Bullington

    And so you’d put “those jobs” in Oakland? In Berzerkley? In Orinda? In Livermore? In Stockton? In Grass Valley? In Yreka?

    How far is far enough from SoMa to meet your need for sprawling?

  • Ethan

    No to Stockton, Grass Valley, Yreka, because most companies are unwilling to locate there. Orinda doesn’t have room. Yes to Oakland, Berkeley, Livermore (with a BART extension). I don’t want sprawl. I don’t want people unnecessarily having to cross a body of water at huge expense both personal and massively subsidized by other taxpayers. I want jobs located on the same side of the bay as where people live. I want jobs located closer to where people live. I want the jobs location imbalance corrected.

  • Ethan

    The 2.5 mile distance is well within the range of gondolas. Each line has a capacity of about 5000 per hour. For the price of a few miles of BART, five gondola lines could be built moving 25,000 people between 7:30 and 8:30am. Two could go to SoMa and the transit center. Another over Market Street, and two to FiDi. If popular, run them west and south flying over the traffic and stoplights.

  • Richard Bullington

    Well, then, I guess you need to become a successful “angel investor” based in the East Bay and refuse to invest your clients’ money in Silicon Valley startups. Demand that they be in Oakland.

    Because it’s the capitalists who decide where the jobs will be, not we transit nerds.

  • Ethan

    Some tech companies have already moved to Oakland because SF has gotten too expensive. The SoMa plan is letting new development add 50,000 jobs and only 7,500 units of housing. It’s absolutely within the power of the city officials to change the plan, stop adding new jobs to SoMa, and businesses can choose where else to locate instead.

  • Richard Bullington

    And why do you think that San Francisco would refuse jobs and the tax income that they generate? Take a reality pill.

  • Ethan

    So because SF will benefit, it shouldn’t alter course and instead force spending on subsidized ferries, and a new, estimated $15 billion transbay tube, paid for by the whole region, likely the whole state, and several billions in federal dollars as well?

  • baklazhan

    Simply put– it’s a lot easier to figure out how to move people a couple of miles, than it is to figure out how to move people dozens of miles, which is the alternative if housing is only built far away.

  • baklazhan

    Private shuttles aren’t paid for by taxpayers, but they must still be paid for. Effectively it becomes an additional tax on businesses in the area, making locating there less attractive. And infrastructure costs per new rider are one thing– operating costs are another.

    But I’m not defending the low-ridership, expensive Bart extensions. Those are dumb. Bart has plenty of low-hanging fruit to pick, and it involves changing the land use around its stations.

    I don’t dismiss walking time, but walking is very cheap. And I think it’s easy to underestimate how many jobs can be in walking distance– most of the financial district is in easy walking distance of the ferry building, and that’s a lot of jobs. A ten minute walk is 8 blocks.

    Finally, ferries actually post some pretty good financials — they’re up there with Bart as covering about 2/3 of their costs from fares– much better than just about any bus transit system.

  • Richard Bullington

    It’s great to be an optimist and visionary. But don’t expect most of your neighbors to agree.

  • Nick Roosevelt

    Silly to say it’s pennies on the dollar. Adding a couple of buses is likely cheaper, and much better for the environment.


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