Basics: Where Can Ferries Succeed?


Brisbane’s cross-river ferry

(Updated 2 May 2019)

Ferries are always an appealing transit idea. A serene way to travel when the weather is nice. Great views!  And they must be reliable, because they never get stuck in congestion!

As always, there’s more to it.  Ferries are sometimes the right answer, but the barriers they present often outweigh their benefits.  Where should they seriously be considered?

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 onto land, but the resulting passenger trips often require several changes of vehicle to continue in one direction, which is always less effective than services that can flow continuously across the city like a well-designed bus or rail line.  So if the same market is already served by land transit using bridges or tunnels, ferries often struggle to compete, because bus and rail services  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.

To overcome these limitations, a successful ferry line must have most or all the following necessary conditions.

  • High frequency. Unless you have a huge rush-hour commute market, low frequency makes a service t0o narrowly specialized.  Frequency 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.  Using Park-and-Ride as the main method of ferry access almost never works, because waterfront land is too expensive for such an inefficient land use.
  • 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.
  • A Direct Path.  Ferries along twisting rivers are often disappointing, unless the available land-based paths are equally indirect.
  • Few Major Terminals, Not Many Little Ones. A common mistake in ferry planning is to build too many little terminals, each with too small a market, so that they don’t support enough frequency to be useful.  Auckland and Sydney, for example, have lots of ferry terminals in bucolic suburban coves, down a steep hill from most nearby residents, where there are just not enough people.  These tend to become elite services and often not very productive ones. Fewer stops with larger demand is the key, just in the most productive land-based networks.
  • 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.  It’s often hard to justify that if there is more than one employee per vehicle.
The immensely successful Staten Island Ferry has all the necessary features, including huge transit networks converging on both ends.

The immensely successful Staten Island Ferry has all the necessary features, including huge transit networks converging on both ends.

Really successful ferries, like New York’s Staten Island Ferry or Hong Kong’s Star Ferry, have all of these features.  At a smaller scale, Brisbane’s cross river ferries and Vancouver’s False Creek ferries, both with just one employee per vehicle, scale well for short trips across a water barrier.

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.

39 Responses to Basics: Where Can Ferries Succeed?

  1. Christof Spieler December 27, 2016 at 1:30 pm #

    Vancouver SeaBus is my favorite example of a ferry that gets everything right: a corridor with no bridge or tunnel, frequency (every 15 min, 6 am to 8 pm, every half hour until after midnight), well designed transit connections on both ends, a lot of jobs within walking distance, and boats/docks designed for getting a lot of people on and off quickly. And 16,000 riders a day is pretty good. Unlike just about every other ferry I can think of, it feels like it was designed with transportation in mind, not nostalgia or the romance of the sea.

    • Ari Ofsevit December 27, 2016 at 1:54 pm #

      I was thinking of SeaBus, too. Many major ferries (Staten Island, SeaBus) have transit terminals at one or (in those cases, both) ends.

      In the US the other ferries I can think of are in Seattle (no bridge competition) and Boston (competition is from very congested highways). There is some talk of a last-mile ferry from North Station in Boston to the Seaport district, but this would work just as well as a BRT if you could get a lane on Congress Street.

    • asdf2 December 27, 2016 at 9:42 pm #

      The SeaBus is very succesful, bus as Jarrett alluded to, it’s mostly people headed to the immediate walkshed of the north Vancouver ferry station. Competing bridges do exist a few miles east or west of the ferry route, and for destinations further inland (e.g. where the ferry option would require a bus connection on both ends), busing across the bridges is usually faster, at least when there’s not rush hour traffic.

  2. P December 27, 2016 at 2:54 pm #

    Brisbane’s ferries are excellent because the water provides a dedicated transitway free of traffic. It also links together destinations along the river that aren’t accessible by bridges.

    Brisbane’s CityCat ferries are generally not located in built-up areas (many terminals are located in park lands) and have very poor connection to trains and buses.

    The Brisbane CityCat ferries however attract good patronage (ca 6 million passengers per year), however the three staff on board (captain, ticket seller and deckhand to open and close boarding gates) mean that it is more expensive than, say, bus transport.

    Dwell times on ferries are a killer. Stopping a bus or a train is a simple thing, but ferries require the vehicle to dock, ramps to go down, gates to open, and then the whole thing needs to go into reverse for departure.

    The most patronised day for Brisbane’s ferries are Sundays. The boats are full with tourists who want a cheap river tour.

    • Christof Spieler December 27, 2016 at 3:22 pm #

      Dwell time is one of the things that’s great about SeaBus. They have double ended boats with a single bridge that use their power to dock, a dock that cradles the boat, and automated, really wide, ramps. They claim a 3 minute turnaround time from arrival to departure. Halifax uses the same technology.

  3. Michael Robinson December 27, 2016 at 6:26 pm #

    I don’t think London’s River Bus services meet the criteria as the river routes are largely parallel to tube routes… except the river is generally slower. For example, it takes about 10 minutes from Westminster to Canary Wharf on the Jubilee line tube but about 30 minutes on the river bus.

    According to Transport for London, the river buses have over 10 million passengers a year although I don’t know the proportion of commuters and tourists.

    Maybe a seat, a view and less congestion are more important than journey time, even for some commuters?

    The London River Buses are integrated into the same Oyster card payment system used for tube, train and buses as well.

    • Jarrett December 27, 2016 at 10:37 pm #

      River Bus is also not frequent enough to be relevant in most cases, especially with parallel tube lines so close by.

      • Jonathan Monroe December 28, 2016 at 4:02 am #

        As a Londoner, who used to use the Thames Clipper regularly (but not for the everyday commute) when I lived near the route, I would say that there are three factors:
        – “Amusement-ride with multiple exits” demand is huge in Central London – both from tourists and suburbanites (the main reason I used the Thames Clipper was for the homeward journey after a date).
        – Public transport in London is capacity-constrained, so anything which adds capacity will be used.
        This ) – a lot of people need to commute by public transport, but find overcrowded tubes unbearable. For a lucky few of them, the Thames Clipper is a lifeline.

    • Philip December 28, 2016 at 2:47 am #

      Increasing riverbus services in London has been such a constant “cool idea” that doesn’t work, ever since WWII, that proposing it has become an anti-shibboleth to recognise people who don’t really understand public transport in London. As well as slow travel, as Michael said above, and parallel E-W tube lines, as Jarrett said, the big issue is that jetties are far enough from other kinds of public transport to be inconvenient but not far enough to be worth specifically serving. Another big problem is the strong tide in the Thames in central London, which mean that journey times against the tide are significantly affected, and the variation in the water level makes jetties more complicated. “Cool idea” attempts to create riverbus services along the Lea in East London during the Olympics similarly flopped due to lack of connections with other transport methods and low capacity.

      • Michael Robinson December 28, 2016 at 4:47 am #

        I appreciate that the London river buses shouldn’t work given the faster parallel tube lines but i was surprised that it has over 10 million passengers a year – I don’t think this is just from tourism. As Jonathan Monroe says, it looks like there are enough people,who are happy with a slower journey and a seat than be packed into a tube train.

        As a comparison, the London River Bus ridership dwarves the East River ferry which has over a million passengers per year. The (free) Staten Island ferry has just over 20 million.

        • Long Branch Mike December 29, 2016 at 2:59 am #

          London has six River Bus routes, but only one is strictly cross-Thames. The rest travel along the River, stopping on both banks intermittently. There are also two rush hour express services ‎based on the longest routes, and a special events express route.

          Frequency is every 20 minutes, and routes operate all day and evening, with lesser frequency evenings and weekends.

          London River Services estimate that approximately half of the ridership are commuters and locals (occasional riders like Jonathan Monroe), and the other half tourists (as River Buses are significantly cheaper and faster than ‎River tours). Some routes are primarily for commuters, others mainly for tourists, and the rest cater to both.

          The 10 million annual rides is comprised of about ‎40% River Buses, with the rest being the aforementioned river tours, Woolwich free ferry, and river charters & party/dinner boats.

          Still, 4m rides a year is darn good considering the River Buses started only in 1999 with one boat.

          The entire River Bus fleet, except for the ‎cross River ferry shuttle, are catamarans, which are powerful enough to deal with the Thames tides, as well as sufficiently maneuverable to quickly move around other River Buses and tourist boats.

          Note that along the north bank of the Thames, there is no single Tube line that traverses the length of the River that the River Buses cover. Along the south bank, there is not a Tube line that runs parallel to the River.

          The Lea River ferry run during the 2012 Olympics was run by a different company, who charged £60-80 one way between Olympic Park and the Thames. Massively overpriced, it lasted about two weeks.

          There is an article which describes London’s Thames transport in more detail here:

  4. Claude Boucher December 28, 2016 at 6:50 am #

    Although it doesn’t meet all criteria set by Jarrett, the Québec City-Lévis (population 700,000) ferry is pretty successful with 1.8 M passengers per year. Located 15 km east of the two bridges across the Saint Lawrence River, it’s operated with large vessels (571 passengers, 54 cars and 80 bicycles) and runs every 20 minutes during peak hours (30 minutes day/60 minutes at night until 2 am).

    With a new intermodal terminal on the south shore, with direct connexion to buses and bike lanes, the ferry is a interesting option for residents since access to the ferry is free for monthly bus pass holders from either side. However, the ferry growth is constrained by geography. The steep cliffs on both sides require an effort from commuters to access the heart of the old city.

  5. Robin Sandell December 28, 2016 at 12:01 pm #

    Geography is a critical consideration. If a ferry route is a short, straight line and the alternative is a long circuitous bus route (which is often the case in Sydney), then a ferry is a better option. And intermediate stops are not necessarily an issue so long as they are not cul de sac diversions and proper attention is given to the design of the landing/ vessel interface to speed up passenger loading. Unfortunately, loading speed is not given enough attention at Sydney Australia, unlike the Vancouver SeaBus which has superb turnarounds. For all its faults, the Sydney Ferry network carries over 15 million passengers per year, with a higher cost recovery rate than either buses or trains.

    • Vince December 29, 2016 at 4:54 am #

      The F3 Parramatta River service has pretty good dwell times, everything is relatively quick on this service, maybe because it’s the most “normal” route on the ferry network and is expected to perform like a train or bus or maybe the waters are calmer on the river making it easier to rendezvous. The other routes are generally nothing but a glorified shuttle service.

  6. Ruediger Herold December 28, 2016 at 1:14 pm #

    Some thought food:
    1. In my city there is a bus which goes by ferry! (to Priwall peninsula). Both ferry and bus are run by the same public transport company. Cars have to pay for the ferry.
    2. To get there you might’ve used the tunnel Herrentunnel for which both cars and busses have to pay. For bikes and pedestrians there’s a “shuttle bus” with stops at both ends of the tunnel – free of charge.
    3. In Hamburg there is at least one ferry stop where only staff of a specific company may get on and off, although the ferry line itself is open to the public and can be used with a day pass for the tube. Never heard of a tube or bus station like this…

  7. Jacob Mason December 28, 2016 at 4:18 pm #

    Another interesting example of a ferry that gets it right is the ferry across the harbor from Dar Es Salaam to Kigamboni. It has a huge minibus terminal on one end, a new BRT terminal on the other, 15 minute frequencies, and no bridge competition. The beautiful views of downtown Dar are a bonus(especially at sunset!). No idea what the ridership is, but it’s surely quite high.

  8. Jarrett December 28, 2016 at 10:07 pm #

    I edited the post to add a note about pricing to the bullet list (h/t Cap’n Transit), on 28 Dec.

  9. asdf2 December 29, 2016 at 10:10 pm #

    There is enough benefit to ferries, at least in the U.S – so long as the ferries carry cars, they become eligible for highway funds, which are much more numerous than transit funds, and not available for ferries that carry only passengers.

    In the Seattle area, there are lots of rural areas to the west of the city that are connected by car ferries. While these ferries do require huge taxpayer subsidies to operate, they have highway money, rather than transit money, to pay for it. Yet, people can and do ride these ferries without cars, so they still serve a transit function (in fact, the passenger capacity is, by necessity, much higher than the car capacity, so during high demand times, walking on the ferry can save hours of waiting in line with one’s car).

    Sometimes, as a thought experiment, I pretend that these communities were connected to Seattle by a car bridge, and imagine what kind of transit service would run across the bridge. Considering the nature of the communities on the other side, and that neither county would be enthusiastic about paying to run their buses in the other county (or across the miles of water in between, with no passenger stops), the result would probably be rush-hour service only, in one direction only. Instead, we have bi-directional ferry service, running 20 hours a day, seven days a week, paid for with highway funds, rather than transit funds. So, for transit, it’s definitely a good deal.

    • Donde Groovily January 4, 2017 at 2:13 pm #

      For Seattle area ferries, it’s important to keep in mind that many of these communities have no other reasonable alternative. For Bremerton-Seattle, for example, the go-around route is 60 minutes thru the worst traffic Seattle has to offer. The Mukilteo-Clinton go-around is about two hours. Go-around from Port Townsend to Coupeville will take all day (5 hours). And, of course, Vashon and San Juans are impossible to get to any other way.

      The Washington State Ferry network is better thought of as a safety net service – it’s there because these communities desperately need it.

  10. el_slapper December 29, 2016 at 11:50 pm #

    Makes me think about the failure of Vogueo in Paris. It was a boat line that was on the river Seine.

    _with only average frequency, compared to the subway
    _with average density, being on the side of the town, not in the center
    _with OK access(probably the lone of the 5 points filled)
    _with huge tunnel & bridge opposition, for both cars, buses, subways, suburban trains
    _costlier than a subway ticket

    And the green were absolutely scandalized when it was closed. It was just used by a few tourists, losing a massive amount of money, but still, they shouted it was the “future”. Errrm, no. When a service fills no need, it’s not needed(by definition).

    • Donde Groovily January 4, 2017 at 2:15 pm #

      Since you mention the Seine, this also brings up an important note about river ferries. Transit needs to be direct to someplace. There is not way to follow the Seine in Paris and be a direct route to anywhere. The route of the Seine is inseine.

  11. Groningen December 30, 2016 at 7:39 am #

    I think there are two types of ferries: Firstly, there’s the short & frequent shuttle-type that fills the gap where you’d expect a bridge or tunnel. In Amsterdam the free ‘foot & bike ferries’ are good examples, as well as the Staten Island ferry and many more. Secondly, there are longer routes with multiple stops, acting as water buses. In Rotterdam such a line operates to Dordrecht, using the Dutch river system. The service is frequent, quick and cheap, and delivers its passengers directly in the city centre. It has a bunch of intermediate stops and bikes are taken at no charge, solving the problem of limited access to the hinterland. It connects to some trams and buses, and even other ferries. This has made this link competative with cars and train services.

    Venice – of course – has bus-like services, the vaporettoes, which offer good connections within Venice and with Ludo and the Mainland. At Ludo, you don’;t even have to cross the street to change from ferry to bus, and one of those bus routes (# 11) takes a car ferry to another island, in order to get you to another vaporetto… However, Venice isn’t a perfect fairytale. The airport is served by a separate, more expensive system, and the route to Fusina is expensive, slow, infrequent, and has no intermediate stops. Its end station is quite random. And there are no vaporetto services to Mestre. So even the water capital of the world can improve quite a bit!

    • Groningen December 30, 2016 at 8:07 am #


      1. Shuttle ferries: short, frequent, no intermediate stops, filling missing links

      2. Water bus: long, with intermediate stops, acting as a bus route, useful when waterways are quicker than roads.

      *Ludo = Lido.

    • halmar January 6, 2017 at 2:56 am #

      Waterbuses between Rotterdam en Dordrecht are not an alternative for landtransport. As a citizen of Dordrecht and working in Rotterdam (both within bicycle range of the Waterbus steps) I never take the bus but use train& metro. Reason: travelling by Waterbus & bike will take my commute over an hour, while by train and metro it willl only take 30 minutes (and also frequencies favour rail).
      The speed of Waterbus on the river is so low that even commutes between Krimpen and Leuvehaven (first two ferry points) is almost as fast as a detour over land using bus & metro, but being 4x less frequent.
      Even the Waterbus between Leuvehaven en Heijplaat is from the city center almost as fast as the detour by bus & metro, but has less connections southwards, is far less frequent too and not running in the evening.

      Waterbus is a very popular system, especially by bycicle users and tourists, and because of very well done marketing. The views, I admit, are great, the staff very friendly and the journey over water is pleasant.
      But as a transit mode for commuting, it is only a niche market, because the speed of watertransport is too low. Passenger use of Waterbus boats is only fractional of that by parallel rail and busses.

      On the Amsterdam-IJmuiden canal Fast Ferry did manage to get better travel times as landtransport. Here the hydrofoil boats proved to be expensive in use, difficult in heavy water traffic and finally passenger demand from IJmuiden appeared to little for keeping the Fast Ferry afloat in the end.

  12. Nathanael December 30, 2016 at 9:27 pm #

    The multitude of ferries from the mainland to the islands west of Seattle are quite successful, and largely because there isn’t really another option — nobody’s going to build bridges or tunnels that long to all the islands. That’s perhaps the most archetypal use case for ferries.

    But then there’s Hawaii, where everyone flies in pollution-belching, CO2-belching planes between the islands! Insanity! Surely fast ferry systems should work in Hawaii?

    • Joshua January 4, 2017 at 3:21 pm #

      There have been a few attempts at starting ferry service in Hawaii but all have failed. Residents of other islands were afraid of Oahu’s homeless population migrating to other islands and cars/traffic from Oahu. There were also concerns about pollution from the ferry.

      • Nathanael January 12, 2017 at 8:37 am #

        Oh my god. NIMBYism and bigotry at its worst. So basically the other islands are drawing up moats to keep the riff-raff from Oahu out. Yuck.

        Concerns about “pollution” from the ferry are a joke; the airplanes pollute far more.

  13. Joseph December 31, 2016 at 3:46 am #

    I have to say that I think Hong Kong is unique as far as ferries go, specifically the Star Ferry. It competes with 3 highway tunnels and 2 (I think it’s 3 now) subway lines. The reasons why it is still successful in my opinion is a combination of: price (at around 2 hkd it has to be one of, if not the, cheapest ferry service in the world), low-stress (it is much less stressful to ride the ferry than sit in traffic on a bus or navigate a crowded subway station), above-ground scenery (not to mention riding through one of the busiest harbors in the world, always interesting), nostalgia (these boats are around 100 years old I think) and, last but definitely not least, the extremely high density of the Hong Kong built environment which generates such high demand that any moderately useful transportation service will be patronized (you could open a row boat service and people will ride it – okay maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point… although I did ride a ferry in Hong Kong that was just a wooden boat propelled by a long wooden pole, it was in the New Territories. I would post a picture of it if I could.).

    Regarding demand – I think demand is so high in Hong Kong that you can hardly call it a competing service. It is more of a complementary service as it can take pressure off of the overcrowded subway and road network.

    • Koverp January 2, 2017 at 8:55 am #

      The ships now are half a century old. The service itself existed for almost as long as Hong Kong opened up.

      The complementary and supplementary role ferries play in Hong Kong is being increasingly neglected. Lines aside from Star Ferry are left alone and almost fending for themselves. Star Ferry itself is getting pushed back after reclamation. While that might give it an edge on accessing waterfront destination the loss of accessibility is noticeable and lamenting. The new Wan Chai pier remotely located from the center of the area got hit pretty hard. Can’t imagine how much ridership would fall after the Shatin-Central Link opens (cross-harbor buses too) with the Exhitbition station right next to it. Central – Tsim Sha Tsui is unique and care-free for us.

      There’s another nostalgia on a Tuen Mun – Tsim Sha Tsui / Central high speed ferry route (closed due to cost) away from the pressure of traffic and accidents on the Tuen Mun highway and jam-packed sardines on West Rail. The almost-conspiracy of a “rail-based transit system” means the solution to everything is build a railway and that’s it. There’s no sense of an inter-modal system and cooperation between competing services. Bus lines get slashed randomly (still much room of improvement on bus operators and the route alignment). Expensive new connecting minibus lines to transfer at a station.

      Which brings us to the new South Island Line. Riders on the yet to be constructed western section are literally forced to transfer or take that worsened bus service. Fortunately there’s this minutes long journey on a boat across to the island where lies the end of the Line, making the their lives at transfer slightly easier. Not sure on the immediate results and ridership change but people will take it. Coverage should be decent enough without official endorsement of this option the ferry will survive.

      • Fredrik January 13, 2017 at 11:15 pm #

        I just visited Hong Kong for the first time, and I think the ferries are in deep trouble. The Star Ferry Central pier was moved 500m away to give space for a road. I imagine a typical commuter arrived on a bus to Tsim Sha Tsui or Hung Hom, hopped on the ferry to Central and then walked to work.
        I also used the Hung Hom to North Point Ferry The ferry is not frequent, and the bus terminal has lots of spare capacity.
        It been many years since I was in Bangkok, but the Chao Praya River Express solved the dwell time problem. Need two crew for that too work though.
        Gothenburg has a cross river line. I don’t know how well that works, but it seems to me that the boats are too big and too infrequent.
        Stockholm has boats that are used by commuters from Nacka and some other places.
        Ferries could make it easy for people to bring bikes onboard. 2-3km to the ferry, 1 km from the ferry to work is a viable commute. But I don’t know any that allows you to ride your bike onboard, stand next to it during the ride, and then ride off.

  14. 89iq January 5, 2017 at 7:14 am #

    One funny thing, ferries in Rio de Janeiro metro area- which includes Niteroi, São Gonçalo and the whole Guanabara bay- have limited speed because of their closeness to an industrial and freight port around Galeão.

    So you have ferries doing a 20km trip in a very slow speed in what is basically a daily commuting movement from a residential area (Niterói) to a commercial and professional district (Rio downtown). This, added to the lacked of connections with metros and buses, lack of coverage of the transport by not going to places like Copacabana, Barra or Botafogo even though they are important coastal spots with hospitals, universities, residencies and offices, makes the ferry extremely unprofitable.

  15. RossB January 7, 2017 at 10:10 am #

    If you remove item number 4 (No competition from bridges or tunnels) then you could say the same thing about a subway (metro) line. In other words, all of these are major factors in determining the success of a major investment in transit. I would say that item number could actually be altered to be more general. How about “No competition from other forms of transit or transportation”. Thus a subway line that parallels an uncongested freeway will be less successful than one that goes under a major barrier.

    To me this doesn’t speak to the main advantages and disadvantages of ferries. I would say the following about the big boats:

    1) They can carry huge numbers of people per trip. The same can be said for a train, of course, but you can’t say that about a bus or a gondola.

    2) Dwell times and headways are large. I don’t think there is any ferry system that operates like a good subway system (with two minute headways and short dwell times), let alone a BRT system or gondola line, where headways and dwell times are measured in the seconds.

    3) They are relatively slow from stop to stop. There are exceptions of course, but generally speaking a ferry travels much slower than a train or a bus (although much faster than a gondola).

    Given all that, I think ferries have their place in various situations. Obviously they are very successful when geography works in their favor — when the alternative is a very long trip around. When that isn’t the case, they can still be popular in classic urban transit situations (lots of people and congestion). In many cases, they remind me of commuter trains. Not really appropriate for the middle of the day (a bus would make more sense) but there is plenty of demand (and congestion) during rush hour to justify their use.

    What makes them different than a subway (and more like a commuter train) is that stops along the way are usually a negative. An inner city subway may make ten stops before it gets to downtown, but typically there are large numbers of people getting on and off at those stops. In other words, a large percentage of the ridership is between stops. With commuter rail it is the opposite — almost everyone is headed to or from downtown. With the really big dwell times, it rarely makes sense to build a ferry system like that. Almost everyone is simply going from one stop to the next (or at least would like to).

  16. Halmar January 9, 2017 at 2:44 am #

    Taking bikes on a ferry increases the catchment area for the ferry a lot. Another option is getting buslines to or on a ferry. Question is: Should a bus service go on a ferry or should it terminate at the ferry ports at both ends?

    In Texel, Netherlands an experiment with a bus service using the ferry was ended due to poor punctuality, because of influence by the sea (high tide). Crossing passengers now have to change from bus to boat and back. Which means that crossing times can be long due to poor connections or high (bus) frequencies must be run.

    In Norway some buslines use the ferries and ferrytimes are planned for good bus crossing, but in the fjords sea and wheater influence may be much lower.

    Are there any more examples of buslines using ferries and what is the influence of using a boat on punctuality of the bus?

    • Jason McHuff January 12, 2017 at 6:51 pm #

      I’ve seen pictures of a King County Metro (Seattle) bus on a ferry. I would think that the lack of having to transfer would be desirable, but it would mean the bus and operator really wouldn’t be productive while parked on the ferry.

  17. Ruediger Herold January 10, 2017 at 1:57 pm #

    More confusion 😉
    1. There is a “ferry” in German which is a “bridge” in English (see “Rendsburg High Bridge” on wikipedia).
    2. Once upon a time, between the then villages Genin and Moisling there was a “ferry that was only moving when it wasn’t running”. The ferry was as long as the river was wide. People paid for it and then crossed like on a bridge. When a boat on the river approached, the ferry was turned by 90°.

  18. Ruediger Herold January 10, 2017 at 2:01 pm #

    Oops! Canal, not river!

  19. Kristina Wensaas January 17, 2017 at 9:37 am #

    Not sure if this has already been mentioned in one of the many comments above, but another way a ferry can compete with say a bus service using adjacent bridges/tunnels, is its predictability and speed. In Bergen, Norway, people I know from municipalities north of the city (Askøy and Meland) commute by ferry because the bus is stuck in traffic on the bridge (which is a two-lane bridge so no possibility of a lane dedicated to public transport for the foreseeable future). The ferry might be less frequent, but at least you know you’re going to make it to work on time. The county is looking into possibilities of increasing frequency as ferry is becoming increasingly popular.

  20. Long Branch Mike January 17, 2017 at 12:52 pm #


    I agree. As Jarrett has often pointed out, reliability is often as, and sometimes more, important as speed. Do Bergen’s ferries require all passengers have seats? I can’t recall the situation on Vancouver’s SeaBuses between downtown and North Van(couver), standees may be allowed. London’s River Buses operate under Maritime legislation that requires a seat for each passenger. Which restricts rush hour surges, but allows a more comfortable ride.