On Stranger Tides: The NYC Ferry

Diving into Ridership Data on the NYC Ferry Between September 1st, 2019 to September 30th, 2020

September — 2020

Bill De Blasio is the Mayor of New York

Only the MTA, Bikes, Ride-Sharing Fleets & Landlords Stand Before Him

The East River is now used for Public Transportation

There is no way to talk about the history of New York City without talking about transportation over water. From its early days as a deep water trading port to the current global metropolis, crossing over oceans, bays and rivers is entrenched in the city’s foundations. In the latest chapter of this long sea-tale is the NYC Ferry, introduced by Mayor Bill de Blasio and operated by private company Hornblower Cruises. While expected to compete with the city’s bus and subway network, it has never come close to the expected ridership envisioned by the city. But like all forms of transportation in New York, it has been severely affected in the last year by the COVID-19 Pandemic, slowly rising back up in terms of riders, but nowhere close to the same levels of ridership during its peak year.

We will look at ridership data, provided by the NYC Department of Transportation, whose open data is the base of this analysis and can be found HERE, from September 1st, 2019 to September 30th, 2020 to see the ebbs and flows that winter weather and COVID-19 have had on the Ferry system. This analysis and chart making is open to anyone to look at by clicking HERE to see the RStudio code used to find and present this information.

Map of the NYC Ferry Routes — Source: https://ferry.nyc/routes-and-schedules/

Currently, the NYC Ferry connects four of the five boroughs of NYC across five permanent routes, with one route (Governors Island) operating on a seasonal schedule. There are plans to connect to Staten Island and Coney Island in 2021, but these plans may be put on hold. According to the Ferry’s website, over one million New Yorkers live within half a mile of a Ferry Pier. It costs $2.75 for a one-way ride on the Ferry, the same price the MTA charges for a ride on the subway. Saturdays and Sundays are the most popular days for the Ferry, with about 76,000 and 73,000 average riders respectively. Weekdays average between 58,000 and 62,000 daily riders.

Ferries can hold up to 150 people indoors, holding up to 350 including outdoor seating. With over 50% of total seating being outdoors, this would explain falling ridership on days with poor weather and the winter months, but maybe why some travelers wanted to ride the Ferry over the underground subways during a global pandemic. The chart below maps out ridership on weekdays between 9/2/2019 to 9/30/2020.

Chart I

The sporadic nature of ridership shows how important weather affects daily rider counts. It is also clear to see that, in the first half of the chart, ridership slowly creeps down from 20,000 riders, plateaus in the winter months, and a slight rise as spring arrives. But with the arrival of spring also marks the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic, and a massive drop occurs. As spring turns into summer, ridership increases and as city dwellers want to travel to the beaches without traveling on a bus or subway with circulated air, ridership stabilizes at around 13,000 daily riders. This same pattern can be seen by looking at total ridership on a month by month scale as well.

Chart II

The Ferry is very seasonal dependent, which in a city like New York that gets colder winters, doesn’t favor the system. But seeing ridership with a September 2019 peak of over 700,00 riders to less than 50,000 riders in April of 2020 tracks to the citywide shutdown. And this peak, drop, and rise affected all lines and all boroughs.

Every single one of the 21 Piers that the NYC Ferry connects to saw the same dramatic fall in ridership between March and April of 2020, with a small rise between April and May.

Chart III

From the most popular route, the East River Line that connects Wall Street to the Brooklyn Coast then turns back to Manhattan at 34th Street, to the Soundview Line which connects the east side of the Manhattan island to the eastern coastline of the Bronx, every line saw the same pattern.

The Ferry system had to take action to cut costs and salvage as much from the wreckage as possible. On May 18th, 2020, the NYC Ferry announced major changes to the system including: the suspension of the Lower East Side Line, cutting service to every 30 minutes, and ending daily service at 9PM. These changed added one more stop to the South Brooklyn Line, and two more to the Soundview Line. These changes did increase these two lines usages, but as May turned into summer, how did these changes effect each line?

Did the new May changes help the NYC Ferry system overall, in the short term, the answer is … somewhat.

Chart IV

This chart is the same as Chart II, but broken down by each individual ferry line. As shown, the East River Line still remains the most popular line, but the Astoria and Soundview Lines saw an increase in ridership. This could be explained by East Siders of Manhattan who needed to commute didn’t want to take the 4/5/6 Trains, or perhaps residents of Brooklyn and Queens who wanted to connect to Pier 11, the central hub, to get to the Rockaway beaches.

Perhaps in the long run, we will see these changes have more outcomes, but as a short term solution to a major transportation disruption, centralizing the system has helped the overall health of the NYC Ferry. In fact, comparing ridership on the Astoria, East River, and the Soundview Lines between September of 2019 to September of 2020 shows that these changes will be beneficial to the Ferry in the long run. The charts below show these three lines.

Chart V — Astoria
Chart V — East River
Chart V — Soundview

Overall, the number of riders from 2019 are higher than those of 2020, but there are some days in the latter year that are higher than those of the former. Some of this can be explained by bad weather (for example, on 9/24/2019, the temperature dropped 15 degrees from the day before). But looking at the Astoria Line shows that there are more riders using the service overall, having the most overall days with higher 2020 than 2019 service amongst the three lines. Yes, ridership in September of 2019 averaged about 24,5000 riders compared to the 15,550 riders in 2020, but there are signs that the future may be better for certain Ferry Lines.

It will take a couple of years to see if the health of the NYC Ferry system (along with the health of all transit in New York City) will recover. But, by looking at data between September 1st, 2019 to September 30th, 2020 — we see that not all is hopeless for the newest form of travel in New York City. As a sign of life, looking at the season Governor Island Shuttle Line, the top ten days of ridership are split between 2019 and 2020 (although the top three days are from 2019, with about 2,400 weekend riders). Ferries and river-crossings will always be a part of the history of New York, and how COVID-19 will affect the NYC Ferry system will come as the story sails along.

On October 19th, the NYC Ferry announced that it would be suspending its service at the Greenpoint Pier, as the new Pier landowners has blocked the ferries from docking. This article is not about the merits of a public transit system that uses entirely privately owned piers/stations, but of the effects of COVID-19 and weather on the Ferry. However, having piers closed because of land ownership issues is not great for ridership counts.

NYU Wagner — Master’s of Urban Planning Candidate, 2022