An email from a transit professional asks what I have to say about ferries.
Think of a ferry as a rapid transit line, minus the huge cost of land and rails and power supply, but unable to continue across a land-water boundary.
Like rail, ferries carry the limitation that everyone has to get off at the end of the line. Obviously you need transit connections there for onward journeys, but the result is multiple connections to continue in one direction, which is always less effective than grid structures where service can flow onward across the city. Ferries, of course, have even more constraints about where the end of the line must be. So ferries often struggle to compete with transit lines using adjacent bridges or tunnels, because these can penetrate deeper into the city on both sides to complete logical networks.
Another constraint of ferries is that waterfront land is expensive, so it’s hard to find space at a ferry terminal for everything you’d want at a transit node, including terminals for connecting transit, transit-oriented development, and (if you must) commuter parking.
This means that a really successful ferry line, especially all day, has the following necessary conditions.
- High frequency. This requires minimizing on-board labor, as labor drives operating cost and thus constrains frequency. (Marine regulations in many countries are an obstacle to this.) Ferries with only one employee on board achieve frequency through low labor costs. See, for example, the privately owned micro-ferries on Vancouver’s False Creek (really a small, sheltered harbor) or the small cross-river ferries in Brisbane. These can do well with only moderate demand because they are so cheap to operate, and can build up useful frequency for the same reason.
- Very high density right in walking distance of the ferry terminal, preferably without major grades to climb. This is a challenge because if you draw a walk-access circle around a ferry terminal, most of it is usually water. Cities that slope upward steeply from the water, like Seattle, present further barriers.
- Quality landside access by frequent connecting transit modes, sufficient to draw adequate all-day demand. This and the previous one can substitute for each other to a degree, but the most successful services have both. In Hong Kong, for example, there are large bus terminals at the major ferry terminals, despite astronomical land value and the many competing demands, because they really understand the importance of total networks, which in turn are built on easy connections.
- No competition from bridges or tunnels, especially those carrying frequent transit lines (rail or bus). Ferries just can’t compete, for high volume, with bridge-and-tunnel services. Sometimes ferries are run to densely populated coves where the competing bridge or tunnel lands too far back from the water to serve the area, as on New York’s East River, but in this case you have to fill the ferry solely with waterfront demand, because people inland will take the bridge or tunnel service.
- Favorable Pricing. If there is any possible competition with bridge/tunnel service, the ferry needs to be cheaper to use, counting the total trip including any connections.
Really successful ferries, like New York’s Staten Island Ferry or Hong Kong’s Star Ferry, have all of these features.
The most common problem in ferry planning is to build too many little terminals, each with too small a market, so that they don’t support much service outside of rush hour and often not even then. Auckland and Sydney, for example, have lots of ferry terminals in bucolic suburban coves, downhill from most nearby residents, where there are just not enough people. These tend to become elite services and often not very productive ones. Fewer terminals with larger demand is the key, just as fewer stops is a key to the most productive land-based networks.
The romantic and scenic qualities of ferries always generate support, just as happens with rail services, but service must be useful, compared to your alternatives, if it is to succeed long-term. Tourism and recreation are often cited as markets, but unless you have a supercharged tourism sector, and the right kind of service and connections, this market is easily overstated due to inevitable private sector boosterism.
As always, if the ridership prospects are low and the benefits are mostly private, the funding should be private as well. Encourage the tourist sector to fund tourist ferries directly, just as you would for any service precision-designed around a single interest. The same could be said for small, low-demand ferries that mostly benefit a single development or specialized community.
So yes, ferries are good at certain things, but destinations along the water, and some local enthusiasm, isn’t enough to ensure a successful ferry project.