A Good Idea Returns, Watery Edition

by Don Friedman on May 8, 2017

The Fulton Ferry, circa 1900:


New York City is an archipelago. Manhattan is an island, Staten Island is an island, Brooklyn and Queens are the west end of Long Island, and we have significant reasons to visit Roosevelt, Wards, Rikers, City, and Governor’s Island, along with Broad Channel. The Bronx is the only part of the city on mainland.

Prior to the 1883 completion of the Brooklyn Bridge*, the only bridges connecting the various pieces of land were the bridges over the Harlem River, linking Manhattan to the Bronx. These included two heavy rail bridges and two bridges that carried elevated trains. The first tunnels were the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad (now the PATH), linking New Jersey to Manhattan, in 1906 and 1909, with the first Brooklyn branch of the IRT subway opening in 1908. In short, New York depended heavily on ferries in the nineteenth century, because there was literally no other way to get around most of the time. The last remnant of the old system is the Staten Island Ferry.

Ferries have been slowly making a return in recent years** and we’ve reached the stage of new and significant municipal involvement. That’s great, particularly since we’ve been seeing a lot of new development along the East River, in areas a long walk from the nearest subway stations.*** However, and I can’t emphasize this enough, there is no way that ferries can make a real contribution to our overall transportation needs. First, few people live next to the river and work near another part of the river, so another form of transportation will usually be needed to get from the ferry terminal to the destination. Second, and more importantly, ferries simply don’t have the capacity. For comparison, a single lane of highway maxes out at about 2400 cars per hour, so 10,000 people per hour if we’re really optimistic about carpooling. Heavily rail (subways or commuter trains) can carry anywhere from 50,000 to 90,000 people per track per hour. The new ferries each carries fewer than 160 people; the old Staten Island ferries max out at about 6000 people but are far less maneuverable and would have some difficulty in the Eats River.

If we look at transportation between Long Island and Manhattan right now, across the East River, we have, from south to north:

  • the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, 4 lanes of cars
  • the Joralemon Street tunnel carrying the 4/5 trains, 2 tracks
  • the Montague Street tunnel carrying the R train, 2 tracks
  • the Clark Street tunnel carrying the 2/3 trains, 2 tracks
  • the Cranberry Street tunnel carrying the A/C trains, 2 tracks
  • the Brooklyn Bridge, 6 lanes of cars
  • the Manhattan Bridge carrying 7 lanes of cars and 4 tracks for the B/D/N/Q trains
  • the Rutgers Street tunnel carrying the F train, 2 tracks
  • the Williamsburg Bridge carrying 8 lanes of cars and 2 tracks for the J/Z/M trains
  • the Canarsie tunnel carrying the L train, 2 tracks
  • the East River tunnels carrying Amtrak and the Long Island Railroad, 4 tracks total
  • the Queens-Midtown Tunnel carrying 4 lanes of traffic
  • the Steinway tunnel carrying the 7 train, 2 tracks
  • the 53rd Street tunnel carrying the E/M trains, 2 tracks
  • the Queensboro Bridge carrying 9 lanes of traffic
  • the 60th Street tunnel carrying the N/R trains, 2 tracks
  • the 63rd Street tunnel carrying the F train, 2 tracks (subway level*****)
  • and the Triboro Bridge, 6 lanes of cars on the Manhattan span.

We have 44 lanes for cars and 30 tracks for trains. Being simplistic and assuming that half of the traffic is in each direction**** we get 22 lanes and 15 tracks or a very, very crudely calculated maximum hourly capacity of about 220,000 people by car and 750,000 by subway. If we had the new ferries running at five-minute headway, which may not even be possible, they could carry fewer than 2000 people per hour. If there were ten ferry routes just crossing the East River, that gets us up to 20,000 people per hour, or five percent of the existing capacity.

This has been a really long-winded way of saying that the ferries are great if you live in a new building on the water, but what the city needs is more subway capacity.


*  The bridge looks particularly nice in the photo above.

** The name “Water Taxi” annoys me no end. If anything, it’s a bus service: a regular schedule for multiple passengers.

*** Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Long Island City.

**** That’s obviously not true during rush hour, but it’s a conservative error for the argument at hand since it reduces the number of passengers calculated. In addition, there’s nothing stopping the city and the MTA from introducing more lane- and track-direction reversals in the future.

***** The second level of the tunnel is currently unused, but will be part of the East Side Access project.

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