First ferry leaves Rockaway terminal for run back to city on May 1. Total ridership for ferry during first week was 11,000, about 1/3 of capacity.
The Beach 108 Street terminal as seen from Jamaica Bay.
While there was a large crowd on the first 5:30 a.m. ferry, the number of riders has reportedly dropped since the first run on May 1.
The Rockaway commuter ferry service is a start-up and nobody really knows what the ridership will look like going forward, including the Rockaway “experts” who predicted that the ferry would be overcrowded from its first week and the city’s experts at the Economic Development Corporation, who predict that eventually the city’s ferry service will eventually carry 4.6 million riders annually.
How many riders is enough? That’s a question that nobody is ready to answer.
It’s clear that some runs from Rockaway to Manhattan are grossly underused. On the first day, the 5:30 a.m. run, the first ever for the service, was mobbed, but the numbers included dozens of media types, politicians and city officials. The next day, the run reportedly included a dozen or so riders.
In all, according to DEC numbers, the ferry service from Rockaway carried 11,000 riders in its first week of operation.
What does that mean? There are 149 seats on the boat, a number that many locals decried as being too small, predicting that boats would quickly become overwhelmed by riders. Except for one of two runs during that week, that turned out not to be the case.
There are 32 runs daily back and forth from Rockaway to Pier 11 in Manhattan. That means the maximum capacity for the boats daily is 4,768 riders, or a maximum of 33,376 riders each week. The 11,000 number for the first week is about 1/3 of the boat’s capacity.
According to AM New York, the numbers were hailed by the mayor, who committed $325 million to launch the service and another $30 million annually for operations, but some experts say it’s too soon to call the endeavor a success. Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, told the digital publication that only time will tell.
“A ferry system for some areas of the city is going to be an acquired taste,” he said. “We have to give the service a full summer and full winter to see how the Rockaway population decides to use it.”
One Rockaway resident on the inaugural run was more succinct.
“You got the ferry back, now you have to either use it or lose it,” Joe Hartigan told reporters on that first bumpy run through the harbor.
While the ferry contract runs for five years, it is widely expected that changes and deletions to service would be made along the way. For example, locals fought for the 5:30 a.m. run (losing a run later in the day in the process) to accommodate construction workers who begin work early. It is widely expected that the early run will disappear sooner rather than later is ridership does not improve.
The mayor was upbeat.
“Thousands of New Yorkers are starting and ending their day riding NYC Ferry—and this is just the beginning,” de Blasio said in a statement. “We’re bringing people back to the water. With two more routes set to launch this summer, these numbers are only going to grow from here on out.”
A one-way ticket costs $2.75, but service is not incorporated with the MTA, a state-run agency. This means riders won’t be able to transfer freely to subways or city buses. Critics of the service have argued that this will limit ridership.
Rising costs led to the demise of an older, now-defunct Rockaway ferry service that the city supported after Superstorm Sandy badly damaged A train tracks in the area. Despite vocal support from Rockaway residents, that iteration of ferry service only served about 3,000 riders per week and was discontinued in 2013, according to the city’s Economic Development Corporation.
De Blasio and James Patchett, the commissioner of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, the agency overseeing ferry operations, have marketed NYC Ferry as an alternative to driving or taking the subway.
Moss countered to AM New York that the ferries, each with a 150-person capacity, would at best complement—not supplement—the subway system. For instance, the Rockaway route served 11,000 riders in a week while the 11 A train subway stations in the area combined serve 16,400 riders in one day, according to MTA statistics.
“Ferries are not going to be competitive,” Moss said. “The subway system has more than 400 stations with meaningful transit connections. This is much more of a specialized mode but it’s a delightful innovation. I think over time it’s going to develop a serious following.”
Locals are looking to the summer, when ridership is expected to balloon as visitors come to the beach, to improve the ridership to the point where the service is out of danger.
It is clear, however, just an informal check, shows that locals continue to use both the subway and the more-expensive express bus service to Manhattan.