Public Comment

Commentary: Is a Ferry a Good, Cost-Effective Environmental Alternative?

By Roy Nakedegawa
Friday April 20, 2007

A ferry from Berkeley to San Francisco may be a good idea, but such a service should usefully augment the public transit we have. Sure, it’s good to have an alternative if the bridge or BART suffers damage from a quake, but with increasing global warming, we really need to reduce the number of car trips. The ferry is going to rely on cars with parking to achieve any decent ridership; therefore, it is questionable whether it will help in reducing car trips. Even short trips to a ferry terminal can generate as much pollution as a trip of 10 miles, due to the cold start. 

If one examines overall public cost and rider convenience, together with the speed and frequency of travel across the bay, buses are the best mode. If an earthquake damages both the Bridge and BART, it will require more than 10 times the current fleet of ferries and infrastructure to handle the load. Also, a lot of money is being spent on the Bay Bridge and BART on reinforcement to resist the predicted big quake, so we should have more faith in them. It will take a truly devastating quake to damage the new bridge or BART and if that occurs, it will eliminate much of the need to cross the bay, since people will be trying just to survive locally. 

The ferry should be planned as part of a fully integrated public transit system. If the ferry terminal is built at the Berkeley Marina, the ferry project should subsidize additional public transit buses for a few years, until ridership stabilizes. 

Paul Kamen’s energy analysis, in several Daily Planet commentaries, of cars, buses, rail and ferry may be correct on energy used to propel one vehicle. This is fine for a bus system, but a rail system operates multiple cars (3-10) per train and requires additional infrastructures that use energy to operate. Rail stations require area lighting, all night lighting for parking and energy for communication and signaling as well as numerous additional costs to operate the system. When all of the required energy and costs are accounted for, the cost per rail passenger can exceed that for bus operation. Of course, a ferry terminal will also have such additional energy and costs. 

Another question on transit development: MTC has established development criteria for transit stations and ferry terminals, requiring some minimal number of dwellings within a half-mile radius for the system to be considered viable. None of the East Bay ferry sites meets this criterion, except possibly Oakland’s existing Jack London ferry terminal. However, if the ferry plan subsidizes supplemental bus service as part of the project cost, MTC development criteria may be considered offset. 

Paul Kamen says that people will want to ride the Berkeley Ferry, but says it’s wishful thinking to say people will flock to better bus rapid transit (BRT) bus service. Then he says that a passenger-only ferry service should be a bus advocate’s dream because it forces people to use the bus for at least one end of their trip. Great, if most access the ferry sans autos, for autos are the major generators of greenhouse gases (GHG) that add to global warming. With bus access, there will be less pollution with no cold starts or added GHG emission. Most Seattle ferry terminals have residential developments nearby as well as interconnecting bus service, even for automobile ferries. 

Like the smoothly integrated ferry system of New York’s Staten Island ferry or those in Vancouver, B.C., or Sydney, Australia, a Bay Area ferry should not depend on parking. Parking should not be a major mode for access to the ferry, since GHG emission should be a major concern in ferry planning, and that means reducing car use. 

Regarding BRT, New Jersey Transit has a multi-route bus system that includes privately operated buses entering NYC using a contra-flow bus-only freeway lane during morning peak leading into the Lincoln Tunnel. This Busway carries about 2.5 times what BART carries during peak hour, and BART currently carries more passengers than vehicles are transporting on the Bridge. Interestingly, even before BART started operating to SF, AC Transit operated Transbay buses every 14 seconds on the bridge, and were carrying as many riders as there were passengers in cars during morning peak hour. The buses first picked up riders in their neighborhoods and without transfer transported them to San Francisco. This was without a bus-only lane on the Bridge.  

A really great vision of buses is to extend BRT down University Avenue to connect to the freeway, which already has HOV lanes that buses use, and speedily transport riders to San Francisco. This would cost far less than the ferry operation and would be more convenient, frequent and faster service that would not require transfer. Eventually these HOV lanes could be converted into busways on the freeways and bridge. In 2000 there was a “Bus Challenge” to a car starting from Hilltop Park and Ride, going to San Francisco. The bus got to San Francisco 15 minutes faster than the car, and the slowest section was crossing the bridge, which took up 50-plus percent of the trip time. 

The ferry could be a favorable alternative if extensive development around the ferry terminal would actually reduce car use, but this is unlikely at the marina. Overall, from public cost, usability and benefits, we will be better off improving our bus service than funding a new ferry. 


Roy Nakadegawa has 45 years of public service as a civil servant and elected official. He has worked as a civil engineer in Richmond, served as the president of the Institute for Transportation of the American Public Works Association, as a director of the AC Transit district, and as a member of the Bay Area Rapid Transit board. He also serves on a Standing Committee of the Transportation Research Board, a branch of the National Academy of Science.