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City Again Tries to Get New Yorkers to Board Ferries

NY Waterway
Photo (cc) Walter Burns
NY Waterway's plan to provide ferry service along the East River is the latest effort to get more New Yorkers to commute by boat.

Instead of packing onto crowded, often delayed and inconvenient subways, commuters along the Brooklyn/Queens waterfront will have an alternative way to travel when a new ferry service begins making stops along the East River later this year.

The service is the latest in a long line of attempts to boost commuting by water in New York in an effort to revitalize the waterfront and ease congestion. It comes in the wake of a few successes and many failures. The ferries, which will serve Greenpoint, Williamsburg, DUMBO, downtown Brooklyn and East 34th Street, will be operated by BillyBey Ferry Co., which contracts with NY Waterway and whose boats bear the NY Waterway logo.

"You can see from Edgewater to Weehawken all the way down to Hoboken and Jersey City that development has occurred on the Jersey side where the ferries were helpful to developing, and that's the development the city is trying to encourage on the Queens/Brooklyn waterfront," said Paul Goodman, co-owner and CEO of BillyBey Ferry said.

According to the city Economic Development Corp., the East River ferry system will cost passengers $3 to $5.50, depending on distance. Currently, the city is constructing piers for the new service, and hopes to have them operating by the time boats are ready to take passengers -- probably by June, although no date has been announced. According to development corporation spokesperson Julie Wood, if the new service becomes a success, the city will look to expand ferry service in other places.

Better by Boat?

The development corporation has been analyzing over 40 sites around the city to see if ferry service is feasible. According to its Comprehensive Citywide Ferry Study, new ferry service could serve a number of locations throughout the city including LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, Coney Island, Bay Ridge, Soundview, Hunts Point and City Island.

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This 2009 plan by the Economic Development Crop. envisions an entire network of ferry service for the five boroughs. (Click on the map to see a larger version of the graphic.)

"Using the waterway to connect New Yorkers to business districts as well as recreation destinations will encourage economic activity and growth on both sides of the East River," said development corporation president Seth Pinsky in a press release.

The project is part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Waterfront Vision and Enhancement Strategy (WAVES) initiative for the revitalization of 578 miles of city waterfront. The initiative calls for the redevelopment of the city waterfronts. One of WAVES' goals is to promote increased use of New York waters for transportation. Woods said the new ferry service will be part of that. "It's activating the blue network, it's consistent with all of the goals of waves to increase waterborne transportation," she said.

WAVES also aims to restore the natural habitats of wetlands in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan, and encourage and improve maritime commerce. The WAVES initiative, according to the city, reinforces some of the goals of the PlaNYC 2030 initiative, which has sought to encourage alternate modes of transportation including ferries.

"Many of New York City's fastest growing neighborhoods, like Williamsburg and Long Island City, have tremendous waterfront access, and we want to capitalize on that by providing a new, sustainable transportation option for residents," said Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Steel in a press release.

The service will run every 20 minutes during the day and evening, serving seven stops year round and two additional stops -- at Governors Island and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn -- during the summer. This, Steele said, will "create a transportation alternative while spurring private investment along the waterfront."


The new ferry service comes after years of unsuccessful effort to promote ferries. In the mid-1990s, then Gov. George Pataki and then Mayor Rudy Giuliani asked NY Waterway to provide service between Hunters Point and East 34th Street. The ferries ran between every 15 to 20 minutes, but only carried 135 people per day at its peak. The service was not subsidized by the city and ended in 2001.

In 2002, NY Waterway once again tried to bring ferries to the East Side of Manhattan. The ferry served the 90th Street pier on the Upper East Side, Long Island City, 34th Street and Pier 11 in Lower Manhattan. Costing only $5 per trip, the ferries operated every 30 minutes during rush hour and had no off-hour service. The second attempt faltered due to low ridership, having only carried 150 people per day. Upper East Side opposition to shuttle bus service NY Waterway provides to its terminals further complicated matters, and low ridership from Long Island City resulted in the service ending once more in 2004.

The administration also has attempted to bring ferry service to other parts of the city. In May 2008, NY Water Taxi offered service from Breezy Point in The Rockaways, to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. Despite having community support, the ferry only served 160 people per day and cost the city $1.5 million in subsidies. The service endedlast year 2010.

If at First You Don't Succeed...

Goodman and others hope this time will be different. Previous attempts, according to Goodman "were not the same effort as the one were doing. ... This time around, there are half a dozen departure points. ... It's a very robust schedule -- a degree of frequency at different locations on a scale never been attempted before."

In addition, the ferries will link up to a free bus service in Midtown as well as to the M34 bus. The ferries also will accommodate bicycles.

"This robust, regular service will be well-integrated with existing transportation options, providing a new sustainable and enjoyable way for commuters and tourists alike to get around the city," said Pinsky.

Despite all this Goodman warns that ridership levels could be low in the beginning, although he expects that to change. "It could take time for the ridership to develop as communities along the waterfront develop," he said, adding, "We think in the long term that it' s going to be viable. ... Access to ferries should enhance development on the waterfront, which should increase ridership."

According to NY Waterway spokesman Pat Smith, the city has dedicated $3.1 million in funding per year, over a three-year period.

"In order to make it affordable to the potential riders, the city is subsidizing. It is priced at a point that makes it attractive with other subsidized transportation," said Goodman.

NY Waterway and BillyBey already operate ferries across the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey. According to New York Waterways, its ferry system helps to keep 7,000 cars off the road, and carries 30,000 passenger trips per day.

Push for Bike Lanes Hits Some Bumps

bike lane
Photo by bitchcaksny

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Department of Transportation have made a strong push for expanding bike lanes throughout New York City, but as more streets boast a special area for cyclists, a backlash has emerged.

While opponents have long tried to block plans for specific lanes, now critics are taking on the program as a whole. Some community boards and politicians express concern that the lanes have been developed too quickly and say they make it harder to walk and drive around the city and can pose a safety hazard and hurt businesses. They attack the administration for what they see an anti-car bias. A numbers of these critics have mounted efforts on a variety of fronts to try to slow down the Bloomberg administration's cycling plans.

To dramatize his increasing skepticism about bike lanes, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz rolled into his State of the Borough speech this year on a tricycle, and then blasted the city's cycling initiatives. "For the majority of New Yorkers, it is simply not feasible to make bicycles their primary mode of transport, and unfortunately that's the direction I believe the city's policy is heading," Markowitz said.

On a more serious note, the City Council last week unanimously passed bills requiring that the police update statistics on bicycle and pedestrian traffic violations and accidents, as well as those involving cars and trucks, and that the Department of Transportation keep track of bicycle crashes. Advocates for cycling endorsed these measures. The council also approved Intro 377, which will require the Department of Transportation explain to council members and community boards why it has rejected certain suggestions to ease traffic.

These initiatives, however, seem unlikely to end the debate over bike lanes.

Full Speed Ahead

The city sees bicycles as a way to "reduce traffic and reach our clean air and greenhouse gas reduction goals," according to PlaNYC, its sustainability initiative.

Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, his administration has designated 373 miles of bike lanes throughout the city. Under PlaNYC, New York City will have 1,800 miles of bike lane by 2030. By the Department of Transportation's calculations, which some dispute, the number of people commuting by bike in the city has doubled since 2006.

That represents a major expansion. And to some critics that alone is a problem.

Councilmember James Oddo of Staten Island, said he has problems with the process the city uses to create bike lanes. "It's in the presentation. It's heavy-handed and has alienated people who may be a natural ally,” said Oddo. "No matter how powerful you are, no one likes the sense that they are being dictated to in that manner."

Oddo and fellow Staten Island Republican Councilmember Vincent Ignizio wrote an open letter to Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan last month questioning the administration's authority to expand bike lanes without first conducting a review to determine whether the change would adversely affect the environment.

They also challenged Sadik-Khan's authority to make decisions on bike lane. "The City Charter does not identify the creation of bike lanes as a stated power or duty of the commissioner," the council members wrote.

The Department of Transportation did not respond to repeated requests to comment on this.

Oddo also questions the priority the department has placed on bike paths while, he said, Staten Island streets are "not drivable." Whatever cycling's benefits, he said, it is not practical for Staten Island. "We're addicted to the automobile," he said. "We don’t have an alternative [public transportation] like the other four boroughs do."

Oddo is scheduled to meet with the deputy mayor in early March to discuss environmental review changes.

Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group that enthusiastically supports bike lanes, bemoaned the expenses the city might incur if every bike lane prompted the kind of review that road changes face. It would be "an enormous waste of resources for the city," said Caroline Samponaro, director of bicycle advocacy at Transportation Alternatives.

Reflecting concerns similar to Oddo's, Councilmember Lew Fidler of Brooklyn has proposed that the Department of Transportation notify the relevant community board of any proposed bike lanes within its border, enabling the board to hold hearings on the plan.

"Bike lanes drop out of the sky without any notice to the community and they're based on a master plan that's more than 10 years ago," Fidler told a meeting last year.

Last year Fidler blocked -- at least temporarily -- a planned bike lane in Canarsie.

Making Streets Safer for All

Samponaro thinks traffic laws offer a better was best way to address any safety concerns. "Enforcement is the way to address bike behavior, not red tape," she said.

Evidence does seem to indicate the bike lanes have created safety problems, caused by motorists and cyclists. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer recently released a study, conducted from Oct. 5 to Oct. 7, 2010, that documented hundreds of traffic violations at 11 different locations citywide involving motorists, cyclists and bike lanes, including vehicles parking in bike lanes and cyclists riding the wrong way. The report fond, for example, 42 instances of cyclists riding the wrong way on the street on Centre and Chambers streets.

Vincent Tedesco, a South Street Seaport resident who commutes on his motorized scooter, believes that bike lanes only make roads safer if cyclists obey the rules. "Sometimes you get somebody who doesn't have any experience riding bicycles in the street," he said. "It's kind of dangerous. I've come close to hitting cyclists."

To rein in bad behavior on the part of the cyclists, Councilmember Eric Ulrich has proposed that people be required to post an identification tag, purchased from the city for a small fee, on their bikes. This, he has said, would end a "double standard when it comes to enforcing traffic laws"

Transportation Alternatives has mounted a campaign to stop this idea from ever becoming law. "Practically speaking, bicycle registration would criminalize bicycling, waste valuable city resources and erect yet another obstacle for those seeking to ride a bike. It would do nothing to improve safety or enforcement," the group's web site says.

Samponaro maintains that bicycle riders already are held responsible for their actions, noting that all cyclists must carry identification and can be taken into police custody if they are caught without it. "There’s already accountability. It's a point that is really lost in the public," she said. "We should be having a conversation based in fact."

She said the Department of Transportation has found that bike lanes make commuting safer. According to the department's web site, streets with bicycle lanes have 40 percent less fatal or injurious accidents than roads without them. "Bike lanes are necessary for street safety. It's essential," Samponaro said.

Jesse Smith, a Queens College student who both rides his bicycle and commutes by car, agrees bike lanes are essential. However, he thinks only experienced cyclists should use them. "It would be ill-advisable for a family to bike down a lane during rush hour," he said.

Street Fight

Noah Pffeferblit, district manager of Community Board 1, which covers Lower Manhattan, has heard complaints that the bike lane that cuts through City Hall Park is dangerously close to kids walking to school with their parents. "There is no dedicated space for them [pedestrians] specifically," said Pffeferblit.

He also hears gripes that, despite the bike paths, some cyclists still ride on the sidewalks. It is a violation, punishable by a fine of up to $100, for a cyclist over 12 years old to ride on a sidewalk.

But Pffeferblit supports adding more bike lane in his community "given that the Department of Transportation and other agencies consult with us before they are installed."

Transportation Alternatives has recognized that cyclists can create problems -- and wants bike riders to address the concerns.

"Everyone from the local crossing guard to our grandma has been complaining about bicyclist behavior. Every elected official in the city has gotten the call," it says on its web site. "Now is when we need to do better. Give pedestrians more space. Make eye contact and smile. If you screw up, or startle someone, apologize.

Bikes and Business

Then there are the economic issues. Some businesses say bikes infringe on their work and hurt sales. The Columbus Avenue Working Group, a business advocacy group from the Upper West Side, found that 72 percent of the 36 businesses they surveyed said the protected bike lane between West 77th Street and West 96th Street negatively affected them, according to a survey released by Stringer early this month.

The business operators complained about a lack of space to load and unload materials, difficulty receiving deliveries and more vehicles getting ticketed in places where they were previously able to park. Fourteen percent of the affected businesses believe that the lack of parking space has decreased revenue.

On Feb. 6 Community Board 7, which represents that area, recommended that the Department of Transportation establish clearer traffic rules to reduce the number of tickets.

Samponaro contends that the Columbus area does not reflect the experience of businesses citywide. "Change takes some adjustments," she said.

Bike Bills Cruise through the Council

Photo (cc) Sailing Nomad

In the latest iteration of the bike lane debate, the City Council unanimously approved a package of legislation Wednesday to force the Bloomberg administration to report on pedestrian and bike-related accidents.

One bill requires the Police Department to update statistics on pedestrian or bicycle related traffic citations, accidents, injuries and fatalities online monthly. Another will force the Department of Transportation to track bicycle crashes for the first time.

The legislation is part of a larger citywide dialogue on bike regulations and the number of bike lanes the Bloomberg administration has created. While bicycle advocates claim the lanes have increased traffic safety and encouraged more New Yorkers to trade in their four wheels for two, some communities have vehemently opposed their construction, contending they take away parking and present a safety hazard.

Yesterday, Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the information gleaned from the legislation would help the city determine where bike lanes and other traffic calming measures should be.

"Getting people out of cars and on to bikes is a good thing," said Quinn. But, she added, "Bike lanes work great in some neighborhoods and don’t work well in others."

Bicycle Bills

Last year, Stuart Gruskin, then 50 years old, was walking to lunch in Midtown when a deliveryman on a bicycle struck him. Gruskin lost his life due to injuries from the accident.

His wife, Nancy, joined the City Council yesterday to applaud the approval of the bike bills package, specifically legislation (Intro 374) that would compile collision statistics involving bicycles, including those between bikes and pedestrians, in an annual report.

"There were no accurate bicycle versus pedestrian statistics," said Gruskin. "These statistics are the foundation on which policy is built."

In addition to the bike crash bill, the package (Intro 370-a) will require the police department to post moving violation data on its site every month. The data will reveal who was involved, whether bike, car or pedestrian, and what the contributing factors were.

The final bill (Intro 377) forces the Department of Transportation to explain to community boards why it rejects a certain traffic measure in a neighborhood, which was proposed by the board itself or a councilmember.

The bike debate has heated up in recent months as communities question whether the lanes actually make riders, walkers and drivers safe. Some residents have called for the removal of bike lanes, while at least one councilmember wants to force all adult bicyclists to register and have licenses.

On Wednesday, both the speaker and the council's Transportation Committee Chair Jimmy Vacca said once the data is released the city should consult it before installing any more bike lanes.

The city's leading bike advocacy organization, Transportation Alternatives, says studies have shows bike lanes actually reduce the frequency of reckless riding. The group supports all three bills and suggests once the data is released it will support their side.

"We're hopeful that many more will support bike lanes as a safety improvement," said the group's executive director, Paul Steely White.

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