Q&A With the East River Ferry Operator: Perks on the Horizon

The East River Ferry has been in operation since June, 2011. A new report said that average daily ridership has dropped 50 percent over the winter. Photo courtesy of NY Waterway’s East River Ferry.

This week, news broke that average daily ridership on the seemingly popular East River Ferry had dropped nearly 50 percent since June. In light of the report, which surprised some based on high ridership in the summer and fallMetroFocus decided to see what was happening in ferry land. We went straight to the top: the operator of the ferry service, Billybey Ferry Company’s CEO Paul Goodman. Turns out this whole ferry pilot program might have some tricks up its sleeve…

Q: How are you working to increase ridership?

A: Part of it is improving amenities for riders. We are collaborating with the city and have plans to improve the waiting areas along the piers. Like a bus shelter. The open piers are not protected from weather. We want people to have a comfortable place to wait. The piers are mostly on city parkland, and there are plans for permanent structures in Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

We have to be first and foremost a convenient option. For ferry riders, there are no upland connections, no subways or buses. We are relying primarily on people who live within walking distance of the landings.

Q: What about drinks? Snacks?

A: We are actively considering that. We partnered with the Brooklyn Roasting Company to provide coffee in the morning, but we’re also looking at options for the afternoon. Beverages, snacks. We’re also looking at bars on board, but there are a lot of logistics.

Q: Without connections to other public transit, how will ridership continue to grow?

A: This has become an integral part of transit options for people along the Brooklyn waterfront. We continue to focus our efforts on making sure residents are aware of the option. There’s going to be an organic growth to ridership, based upon development that’s occurring along the waterfront. Ferry service plays a part in developers plans. In Greenpoint, you don’t see development yet the way you do in North Williamsburg, but it’s going to happen.

Q: What do you think about the drop in ridership this winter?

A: It’s interesting, the terminology one might employ to describe a set of facts. Ridership last week saw 1,500 riders per day. You use the word drop only in comparison to a robust level of ridership over the summer. It’s interesting how people choose to characterize the numbers. We are very impressed with how commuter ridership has grown through the winter. This is the nature of a pilot project. We are learning our customers patterns with each month.

The North Williamsburg stop on the East River Ferry is one of the busiest. Flickr/ alexrheadrick

Q: Are you concerned the city might cut off its funding for the pilot project?

A: No. It’s a three-year program and we are committed to running it.

Q: Who takes the East River Ferry?

A: We serve a lot of different communities and groups. We have commuters during commuter hour, leisure travelers and tourists on weekends. If you consider some of our destinations, like Brooklyn Bridge Park or the Brooklyn Flea, it’s surprising how much inter-borough traffic we carry. From Greenpoint to Dumbo, we’re the convenient travel alternative.

Q: Care to predict this summer’s ridership?

A: There’s no reason we won’t be equally as strong this summer compared to last summer. We think ridership will continue to grow on all of the routes.

Q: Will Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6, at the foot of Atlantic Avenue, ever be a permanent stop on the East River Ferry?

A: The free route from Pier 6 to Governor’s Island is seasonal and sponsored by Governor’s Island. When that route is open, the East River Ferry makes a stop at Pier 6, bringing people from other parts of Brooklyn and Queens, and traffic is significant. A permanent Pier 6 is not part of the current plan. As the operator, it’s a question of frequency. If you add Pier 6, you’d be decreasing the frequency of boats.

Q: What’s the busiest stop?

A: North Williamsburg and Dumbo.

MetroFocus Multimedia Web Editor Georgia Kral conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.

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