Ferries are great. They're one of the best bargains with which to tour a waterfront city.
In some areas -- such as Sydney, Seattle, New York City -- they're also a vital link in regional mass transit systems. Not so much in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here ferries may be convenient, but they're also expensive and redundant.
With BART, multiple bridges and an active bus system crossing the Bay, ferries are mostly a novelty -- and a costly one at that.
While Oakland and Marin ferries to San Francisco get decent passenger numbers, an 18-month-old ferry from Oakland to South San Francisco has been struggling to find riders. It started off with much fanfare, but once the novelty (and free first-week rides) wore off, ridership dropped and costs continued to mount.
One reason is that because the service is heavily geared toward those commuting to SSF from the East Bay, those who live in South San Francisco itself find it quite difficult to board the ferry. There is no real transit service from the bulk of South San Francisco to the ferry terminal, located on the far east side of the city, save for an inconvenient, infrequent shuttle that does not share any stops with mainstream SamTrans lines. Nor are there any sidewalks on the main walk to the terminal.
Ridership, as one might expect suffered, dropping to an average of just 136 passengers per day -- subsidized to the tune of more than $80 per trip -- in the ferry's second financial quarter.
So far the ferry, which costs commuters $7 each way, has tallied big bills. These include a new ferry terminal that cost about $26 million and a $2.6 million annual operating subsidy funded mainly by San Mateo County Measure A sales taxes. And, whether it hemorrhages money or not, the ballot measure authorizing the SSF Ferry requires it be funded for a minimum of five years, according to Joe Hurley, director of the San Mateo County Transportation Authority.
But in the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2013-2014, a couple exogenous events bumped up ridership. First, a short strike by BART workers in July, then a brief closure of the Bay Bridge during the week leading up to Labor Day. Also in July, a big change as Genentech, the biotech titan that dominates the east side of South City, began to offer fully subsidized rides for all its employees.
As this graph shows, ridership has grown to about 332 riders daily, on average -- about double what it had been a year earlier.
"I think we're moving toward the right direction," said April Chan, a planning a development officer for the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, which partially funds the SSF Ferry. "It's not there yet, but much better than in our last report."
Some members of the Authority's Citizen's Advisory Committee (disclaimer, your blog author is a member of said committee) said that the progress has been insufficient.
"This is not even close to acceptable," said CAC member Jim Whittemore at the CAC's monthly meeting on Tuesday. "I understand it's new and they're trying things ... but it's not good enough and needs to get better soon."
With the jump in ridership, the government subsidy has effectively fallen to "just" $33.72 per rider, per trip (below). By contrast, the median subsidy for a bus ride in San Mateo County is around $8 per passenger, with the largest subsidy for a regular SamTrans route being about $19 (for line 359, which is about to be cut).
Fringe benefits that come from a ferry system shouldn't be overlooked, said CAC member John Fox. For example, Fox pointed out that the agency that coordinates ferries in the Bay Area is called the Water Emergency Transportation Authority.
"I don't think you can compartmentalize this as a farebox recovery ratio," he said. "You have to fold in that this was for natural disaster preparedness."
The upward ridership trend is promising, but it remains to be seen how much of it was permanent and how much was the result of the BART strike. Moreover, unless Genentech keeps up its subsidy, ridership will drop precipitously. I like the concept of a ferry to the town I live in, but I'd rather see the money invested in a more cost-effective manner.
Update (Jan. 21, 2014): The Transportation Authority released addition figures after the initial blog post showing that ridership has dropped even further post-BART strike resolution. In December, the South San Francisco Ferry averaged fewer than 250 riders per day. Granted, December is a light month in most transit systems, but ridership had also dropped significantly in November, as shown in the graph below: