Keith Bearden took the subway to work for twenty years, but he can’t deal with it anymore. The 45-year-old, who works in publishing in downtown Manhattan, now opts for the NYC Ferry, recently championed by Mayor Bill de Blasio as “a game changer” for commuters in waterfront neighborhoods like Astoria, where Bearden lives.
Bearden’s commute is slightly longer now, but subway-less. “It got to the point where the MTA was giving me panic attacks,” Bearden told the Voice while riding the ferry on a recent beautiful spring day. He described the ferry as “really nice” and “a bit more civilized.”
“Also there’s beer,” Bearden added, noting the amenity is welcome in both directions of his commute. “Some days you just want to start your morning with a beer.”
On May 3, de Blasio announced NYC Ferry would be getting an additional $300 million in city funding over the next five years, bringing the grand total of taxpayer spending for the service to $600 million. The mayor’s goal is to allow more people to ditch the city’s subways and buses and enjoy the fresh harbor air, much like Bearden now does.
The question, though, is whether taxpayers should be paying for more than two-thirds of their ride. The new funding, which will be used to improve docks, run more frequent service, and buy bigger boats, comes on top of annual city subsidies of $30 million for operations, which the city projects as costing taxpayers $6.60 a ride once ridership hits 4.6 million. Riders pay just $2.75 per ride — lowered from as much as $6 on the pre–de Blasio East River ferries, in order to set fares at the same price as a subway ride.
There is no doubt the people who take the ferry love it. A survey by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which oversees the ferry service, found 66 percent of riders gave NYC Ferry a rating of 10 out of 10, and another 22 percent gave it an 8 or 9.
But who these ferry riders are is a question that the city has so far declined to answer. So far, neither NYC Ferry nor the NYCEDC have released the relevant demographic data to answer that question, other than to say that the vast majority of them are New Yorkers.
To get a glimpse into who is benefiting from ferry subsidies, the Voice interviewed sixty riders, covering all four existing ferry routes (two more are set to open this summer) during peak rush periods, to find out why they’re taking the ferry and where they’re from. Our findings: Ferry riders are, by and large, higher-income New Yorkers taking advantage of subsidized ferry rides to avoid subways and buses — not because it’s a faster commute, but because of the ferry’s creature comforts such as elbow room, concessions, alcohol, WiFi, and the fresh sea air.
“The time factor has nothing to do with it for me,” explained J. Scott Klossner, a 53-year-old freelancer currently working for the Today show who takes the Rockaway route, even though it adds almost 45 minutes each way to his commute.
“I can get a coffee, a bagel, everyone is nice. The opposite is true of the A train: Everyone is a fucking asshole.”
Nearly every rider interviewed by the Voice said they used to take the subway to work. Fifty-eight percent of them said they took the ferry exclusively for its comforts despite having viable — and often faster — subway alternatives. A few people said they preferred the ferry because they could bring bikes (which cost an extra dollar to take on board) or strollers during rush hour.
The remaining riders take it for a variety of reasons, mostly because it is more reliable or faster than the subway, especially the R through Bay Ridge and the A from Rockaway.
One thing ferry service does not appear to be doing is reducing car traffic. Several riders the Voice interviewed drive from their homes in Bay Ridge or Sunset Park to the Sunset Park terminal, park in a community lot, then take the ferry from there. Only one rider mentioned driving less frequently into Manhattan because of the ferry.
Just two riders, who ditched an Express Bus route — which costs $6.50 per ride — mentioned cost as a factor. That may be in part because the ferries, and their subsidies, appear to largely be serving higher-income commuters.
Of the 35 riders interviewed by the Voice who took the ferry for comfort, the vast majority work in white-collar industries. They also tended to live in neighborhoods whose residents have a median income higher than the city’s as a whole, such as Long Island City, Bay Ridge, and Astoria. They were lawyers and financiers, fashion designers and headhunters, software developers and data engineers, consultants and architects. There were some teachers, nurses, and others whose jobs are commonly regarded as solidly middle-class, too, but they were in the minority.
Though de Blasio administration officials touted the ferry service’s proximity to public housing in Red Hook and Astoria as a benefit for low-income New Yorkers, NYCHA residents warned two years ago that ferry service wasn’t intended for them, and they appear to have been right: In the Voice’s survey, only one rider worked hourly or part-time — a dog walker who was taking the ferry for comfort.
Pamela Jackson, a 31-year-old who works in nonprofit marketing, ditched the R train for the ferry because she no longer has to jostle with disgruntled commuters. “The R is maybe 2 minutes faster, technically, but you deal with everyone in a bad mood on the train in the morning. It’s packed and you rarely get a seat,” she says. Taking the ferry is a “better mental health choice, honestly.”
At the May 3 press conference, de Blasio proclaimed that the new spending for ferry expansion is a “very important part of our goal of making New York City the fairest big city in America,” a tagline he adopted for his final term.
But transit advocates have largely disagreed with this characterization. Rather than welcoming a new mode of public transit, they questioned the use of taxpayer funds to expand a service that serves a disproportionately small number of mostly well-off people.
In 2017, New York’s ferries carried fewer than 10,000 passengers per day, equivalent to about the 92nd busiest bus route in the city. The city’s buses as a whole have almost 2 million weekday trips, or more than 200 times the ferry’s ridership. As Streetsblog pointed out, even if NYC Ferry meets its ridership goals of 24,500 riders per day by 2023, that would still be fewer riders than fourteen individual bus routes.
The subway, meanwhile, has 5.5 million daily riders, or 550 times the ferry’s. Yet de Blasio fought the MTA for months on providing $418 million toward the authority’s Subway Action Plan before finally agreeing to do so. As noted by the New York Times, the mayor has also refused to spend $212 million a year to fund half-price Metrocards for New Yorkers living below the federal poverty line, approximately $25,000 for a family of four.
“Ferries are and will remain a marginal sliver of New York’s transportation system,” Jon Orcutt, director of communications and advocacy at TransitCenter, told the Voice. “At the very least, city government should match its ferry investment with a vastly expanded bus lane and bus priority street program.”
De Blasio’s choice to further subsidize ferry ridership comes at a time when the city’s transit system is in peril. The subway woes get the most headlines, but New York’s bus system is in crisis, too, as an aging fleet and a lack of dedicated bus lanes has led to the slowest speeds in the nation and declining ridership.
The average income of bus commuters is $28,455, well below the city’s median individual income of $38,840, according to a report by the city comptroller. Last year, de Blasio announced he was providing $270 million to expand the city’s Select Bus Service over the next decade — less than the ferries will receive over the next five years. Each of the existing SBS routes carries more passengers alone than the ferry system in total. Some individual SBS routes, such as the Bx12 (15,576,377 annual riders) or the M15 (14,128,504) carry orders of magnitude more New Yorkers per year than the entire ferry system.
And that’s to say nothing of Citibike, which receives no subsidies at all despite being the most-used bike sharing system in North America, averaging some 60,000 riders per day during summer months and 25,000 to 30,000 per day in winter months.
Any way one slices it, NYC Ferry is getting far more subsidies per rider than the city’s crucial transit systems.
To date, the only information released by NYCEDC about who ferry riders are comes from a survey of 1,345 riders from last August. Of the 1,229 who provided their home zip codes, NYCEDC found that 87 percent of them live in New York City. NYCEDC then created a heat map of the zip code results without numerical values or a legend. The agency declined to make the raw data of the survey available to the Voice; a Freedom of Information Law request for that data remains outstanding.
The riders interviewed by the Voice generally reflect the city’s findings, with the vast majority commuting from Rockaway (median household income: $49,414, according to the New York City Department of Planning), Bay Ridge ($63,539), Red Hook/Carroll Gardens ($91,757), and Long Island City/Queensbridge/Ravenswood/Astoria/Hunters Point/Sunnyside/West Maspeth ($58,971). The Voice’s results underrepresented commuters from DUMBO ($94,542) and Brooklyn Heights ($116,189) relative to the NYCEDC survey. Of those neighborhoods, only Rockaway is below New York City’s median household income of $55,191.
And neighborhood median household income likely understates the discrepancy between ferry riders’ income and average New Yorkers’. The ferry disproportionately caters to residents of waterfront properties, particularly the high-rise luxury towers popping up along Brooklyn and Queens. The Astoria route was particularly illustrative, as most of the riders interviewed by the Voice live in one of the many luxury high-rises along the East River.
Ryan Burda is a software developer who just moved to Long Island City. “I had no idea the ferry was right here when I signed my lease” at one of the waterfront high-rises, he says. “Now I take it every day” because “the subway is always jammed, and this is just a much lighter start to my morning.”
Some of these riders who live particularly close to the ferry do experience significant time savings on their commute, because the ferry landing is only a few feet from their door. Kristen Ayscue, a 33-year-old who works in TV production, cut her commute time by as much as 30 minutes thanks to the ferry’s reliability. She takes the ferry from Long Island City to Wall Street instead of the 7 train to the 4 or 5. “I kind of rave about it. The workers are really pleasant, the views — it’s like a vacation.”
The Bay Ridge route seems to cater largely to R train refugees. Stephen Pickering, a 41-year-old teacher, was on the ferry with his son Bodie. “Taking the R train in Bay Ridge is absolutely detestable, and our local elected officials like Marty Golden who sit on the MTA Capital Review Board have done nothing other than cosmetic upgrades,” he fumed. “So when the ferry came along finally, we got ourselves what I would call a civil commute.”
Passengers from Red Hook, a neighborhood notorious for its lack of transit options, were excited to commute to Manhattan by ferry, even if it didn’t save them much time. Several boarded the ferry with bikes. Genevieve Walker, a 33-year-old working in publishing, says she either bikes 25 minutes to work in Tribeca or takes the ferry, which takes 45 minutes door-to-door. Katie Diamond, a 33-year-old working in Times Square for Theatre of the Oppressed, says she will occasionally use the ferry if she doesn’t feel like biking over the bridge: “It’s great, especially at the end of the day.”
One Red Hook resident who works in the arts, Lindsey Packer, seemed fairly stunned by her ferry commute, which is now 10 minutes to the Brooklyn Army Terminal. “The idea of walking a long way to the F train or the G train and taking it to the R train and then walking a long way back to the Brooklyn Army Terminal, or taking a beautiful 10-minute boat ride?” She shrugged as if demonstrating the obvious.
The Rockaway route, while serving the lowest-income neighborhoods of the ferry network, is the best case for the ferry’s massive subsidy. Yet all of the commuters the Voice interviewed who live in Rockaway work in white-collar industries such as engineering, law, media, and finance. Almost all of them said the subway, via the A train, was faster than the ferry but less pleasant.
Marylou Grimaldi, a 50-year-old media professional who commutes from her home on Rockaway Beach to Wall Street, vowed to never return to the subway. “I would rather wait two hours for this boat. Because of the quality of the commute and the people on the boat and the rules and regulations and what doesn’t go on on the boat. It’s a cleanliness thing, it’s a safety thing, it’s a cursing and playing music thing, it’s garbage, it’s everything.”
Ann Martin, a 52-year-old legal secretary making the same commute, spends 20 minutes longer per day on the ferry versus the A train, but believes “the A train wasn’t safe. The crowd isn’t good on it. It’d go through East New York. This is more comfortable, more relaxing. It’s a different type of clientele and people.” (There were zero murders, seven rapes, and 332 assaults in the New York City subway system in 2017, according to the MTA’s annual report.)
Few others said they felt unsafe on the subway, but the sentiment that the A train was a thing of the past came up in almost every conversation. Mirta Mendez was far more representative of ferry riders as a whole. A 40-year-old accountant who commutes from Rockaway to midtown, she has a ferry ride of about 90 minutes door-to-door, roughly the same as the subway as long as there are no delays. But she opts for the ferry more than anything else because of how it makes her feel.
“You close your eyes and feel like you’re on a private yacht,” Mendez beamed, gesturing at the harbor. “It’s wonderful.”