The Ferry Ride

I love my Hudson River Greenway commute, but it wouldn’t be possible without the NY Waterway ferry connection between Manhattan and Jersey City.

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Approaching Manhattan on the ferry. The 39th Street Ferry Terminal is the glass building at the foot of the twin orange brick buildings (Lincoln Tunnel ventilation towers).

In contrast to so many other forms of public transportation in NYC, riding the ferry is a welcome relief.  There’s something just so calming about being on the serene waters of the Hudson River that momentarily relieves the stresses of work and life.  Unlike trips on the subway, bus, or commuter rail, I very rarely have to sit any closer than 2 feet from the nearest fellow passenger.  In fact, the only time I can remember the ferry ever being unexpectedly crowded was when the PATH train wasn’t working.  In an entire year of riding the ferry, it’s never been late due to traffic or signal problems or any of the other issues that plague other forms of mass transit.

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Hey, man, no need to wear the helmet off the bike.

Maybe it’s the view, or maybe it’s the feeling of luxury associated with being on a boat, but people on the ferry are also much more friendly.  On my rides to and from work, I often sit next to colleagues and chat.  We talk about kids/family, the weather, or plans for the upcoming weekend or a summer vacation.  Whatever it is about the ferry, I don’t think trains, with their constant grinding and screeching and close encounters with strangers, are nearly as conducive to these sorts of conversations.  Buses as well, with their constant stopping and starting, as well as relatively narrow confines, don’t work particularly well for friendly chats.  For some reason, though, the constant noise of the ferry engine seems to be just low enough that conversations can be heard from 3 feet away yet loud enough that you’re not disturbing the entire boat.

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I don’t get it. Is off-bike helmet wearing some kind of trend?

Even the strangers on the ferry can be nice.  On multiple occasions, now, I’ve had ferry riders ask me where I ride to and how I like it.  Most react with astonishment at quite how far I ride, but it’s really not bad when you consider the health benefits and the time saved going to the gym.  One time last Winter, when it’s dark, I lost a glove and the fellow cycle+ferry commuter shown here asked if perhaps I lost a light, because she carries a spare.

Any time ferries are brought up as a viable commuting option, even transit advocates seem to pooh-pooh the idea.  Environmentalists claim it isn’t green.  Fiscal watchdogs claim it is expensive.  But when one considers all the costs of running other forms of transit, particularly cross-river transit, I can’t help but feel the ferry is one of the cheapest ways of getting people across, and the environmental harm certainly can’t be worse than private cars.  After all, it takes billions of dollars and tons of fuel and raw materials to build a new rail tunnel.  New rail tunnels need new stations, as the current stations in NYC are already operating beyond capacity.  Cross-river buses need new bridges/tunnels and depots, both of which are also running beyond capacity.

Ferries take up very little land real estate, and water real estate, in the form of waterways, seem to me to be vastly underutilized.  Besides, the land-based terminals are already built and have plenty of capacity to spare.  Fuel costs may be high, but so are the fuel costs of the maintenance crews needed to repair the rails and roads.  Besides, NY Waterway manages to turn a profit operating cross-Hudson ferries at $6-$8 per trip, with no state subsidies!  If these ferries were subsidized to the same extent as trains and buses, they would probably cost less than a trip on NJTransit between the Penn Stations, and maybe be competitive with PATH.

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View of lower Manhattan from the top of the WFC ferry.  I may be the only one to prefer the open air views to the air conditioned lounge below.

Despite all of the joys of the ferry, though, there’s no doubt I would prefer to be able to ride all the way to work.  However, one bicycle commuting colleague who does just that (via the George Washington Bridge) tells me that the trip through the various New Jersey towns between Fort Lee and Jersey City can be rather hectic with traffic.  He’s tried various routes, but unfortunately there is no equivalent to the Hudson River Greenway on the NJ side.  Even the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway (which, despite the name, also permits cycling) meanders along the shores of the Hudson with many occasional interruptions.

No, what we really need is a bridge from lower Manhattan.  “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz has a plan for a bike/ped bridge from Chelsea to Hoboken.  I’d certainly pay the 50 cents per trip he proposes for that!  It sure beats the minimum $7 charge to get a bike across by ferry today.  Plus, considering how often a PATH or NJTransit outage causes massive flows of stranded commuters to head for the ferries, a pedestrian bridge linking the densely populated waterfront communities in Jersey City and Hoboken to NYC is vital for emergency preparedness.

Until that is built, though, what NY/NJ really needs to serve the masses of commuters crossing the Hudson daily is more ferries!

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