More than a Work Commute, the East River Ferry Leads to Fun

Encore: July 20, 2012

View from the back of the East River Ferry as it cruises from Greenpoint, Brooklyn to Midtown Manhattan. MetroFocus/John Farley

Last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the East River Ferry  recently transported its millionth passenger. With seven stops regular stops in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the service began a little over a year ago. The city had originally projected under half that many passengers in as much time — a testament to the popularity of both the ferry itself and the city’s efforts to improve waterfront access.

The public has responded to the service in a way the city and the ferry operators hadn’t fully anticipated.

“When it was first introduced to us back in the early days of the request for proposals, it was a commuter-based product. But within the first month we realized there were really three different audiences,” said Paul Samulski, vice president of marketing at BillyBey Ferry Co., the company that operates the ferries, in association with NY Waterway.

In addition to commuters, Samulski said the other riders are composed of “leisure” riders — New Yorkers going out for a meal or on a shopping trip — and tourists.


MetroFocus host Rafael Pi Roman speaks with NYCEDC president Seth Pinsky about the East River Ferry and its positive impact on the subway system and future housing development.


Recognizing the diverse demographics of their ridership, BillyBey recently teamed up with the popular New York City parenting blog, Mommy Poppins, to create a brochure for families who ride the ferry.

The brochure, “Fun Off the Ferry: 101 Things to Do with Kids  Off the East River Ferry,” is available at all ferry entrances. For each of the five non-Manhattan stops, it recommends  kid-friendly activities, like the food market, Smorgasburg, in Williamsburg, and the Circus Warehouse in Long Island City.

“I do see tons of families on the ferry and they’ve opened up bigger ferries on the weekends,” said Anna Fader, founding editor of Mommy Poppins. “Last summer there were huge lines on the weekends and you couldn’t even get on sometimes.”

The brochure’s mapped list of places to eat, shop and play, plus suggestions of things to do or events to attend, could be put to good use by anyone unfamiliar with the waterfront areas of Queens and Brooklyn.  It includes street murals, rooftop farms, art centers and eateries that appeal to any age. Efforts like the brochure continue the trend of the ferry supporting local businesses.

“What better offer is there for the creative than to live in Williamsburg and take the East River to work every day. It’s easy and enjoyable. The ferry has also dramatically increased tourism traffic to our businesses. It’s the key to enjoying the borough’s waterfront,” said Alexandra Soca, executive director of the Dumbo Business Improvement District, in a written statement.

East River Ferry passengers cruise past Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Sunshine Sachs.

Despite the added focus on day-trippers, the city is still very much interested in the ferry as a commuting vehicle, particularly as a substitute for overcrowded subways and buses.

“We’re relieving pressure from our existing transit systems,” said Seth Pinsky, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), who considers the city’s $10 million capital investment in the ferry service an “incredible bargain.”

“In addition, if you look at the areas the East River Ferry serves, especially in Queens and Brooklyn, they’ve recently been rezoned for the creation of about another 20,000 units of housing,” he said. “Much of that has not yet happened because of the poor transportation access. Now that the ferry is there we think that we’re going to see that development occur.”

In an effort to further determine how riders are using the ferry, and what they’d like to see happen if ferry service is expanded, BillyBey and NYCEDC are handing a survey out to passengers a survey this week.

“We’re still young and we’re maturing with this process day by day, whether it has to do with service, marketing or operations, up until the day we stop doing this, which we hope is far, far in the future,” said Samulski.

“MetroFocus: Transforming Transportation” premieres on Tuesday, July 24 at 10:30 p.m. on WLIW21; Wednesday, July 25 at 10:30 p.m. on NJTV; and Thursday, July 26 at 8:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.


MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.


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