Is water the last frontier for urban transportation? Given that the presence of water has become an economic booster for cities, this wouldn't be an overly speculative assumption.
Take Baltimore: its Inner Harbor has not only become Baltimore's largest attraction – drawing about 14 million visitors every year – it is also a considerable barrier separating south Baltimore from Downtown. It disrupts the street grid, road traffic and bus lines alike, while its surface spreading into the Chesapeake Bay would be the ideal shortcut between all those thriving waterfront communities.
These facts haven't gone unnoticed, of course. There has been a "water taxi" in place in Baltimore for 35 years and also in many other places. Still, name and mode of transportation need some explaining. In fact, Baltimore's Water Taxi really isn't a taxi at all. It has fixed routes and tries to adhere to some a schedule. Both make it more like a bus. It serves mostly tourists who want to get from one waterfront attraction to another, which makes it most comparable to the privately operated red double-decker buses found in most tourist hubs around the world, originally derived from junked London buses with the tops sawed off.
|Baltimore Water Taxi with Federal Hill in the background|
|Baltimore landing place in Canton, signage and amenities|
the result of 2008 Inner Harbor Task Force
An accurate description of the Baltimore Water Taxi as a transportation option is further complicated by the fact that the operations are not only licensed by Baltimore City, but that in 2006 the City also contracted the same company to provide a free commuter service (Harbor Connector) across the harbor during rush hours (no round-trips allowed). This additional water transit currently has three routes, servicing docking points near the tourist boats. It continues to cause confusion among visitors who wonder which boat goes where and why one costs a steep fee while
the other is free. The Baltimore Water
Taxi offers one way
tickets for $7, day passes for $12 and a "frequent floater" all-year
pass for $150. In a recent attempt of making land-side access trouble free, the
Water Taxi began offering online parking reservations near its docks via Parking
Panda, a Baltimore startup bringing
innovation to parking nationwide.
|Baltimore Water Services Route Map (Source: Waterfront Partnership)|
As the City is getting ready to re-advertise the taxi service for the next contract period, the city department of transportation is deliberating what needs to be in the request for proposals (RFP), from docking fees to insurances and service requirements. This would be a good time to step back, look at the big picture, and see what urban water transportation looks like across America and the world. It’s an expanding business, as The Wall Street Journal noted as early as 2006 in an article entitled, "Cities Encourage Commuters to Take to the Water," which gave a run-down of services found in the US, noting also Baltimore's free commuter service. People chose the water to go to work in new York, San Francisco, Chicago and in Boston one can even take the boat to get to downtown after arriving by plane.
|New York water taxi, a sturdy catamaran|
|Chicago water taxi, yellow like a taxi, but sized like a bus|
Here are some initial findings:
- There are at least 27 water transit services in the US alone which have significant passenger transfer between boats and land transit (indicating that they provide real transit service and not just sightseeing). This number is based on the TCRP study which is not comprehensive and does not include services in Chicago and Baltimore, for example.
- Most water service is not operated by transit agencies (except for Boston, Sausalito, and a few lines in New York City).
- Facts about water transportation ridership, transfers, and trip purpose appear to be hard to come by even in a federally-funded research study.
- The few references to international cities (Vancouver, Sidney) indicate that their water passenger volumes are high and services are integrated and operated by the same agency.
|Hamburg's water bus, also yellow|
But integration is a key point, as residents in the Baltimore metropolitan area know, since they have a transit system which today is anything but integrated, regardless if we talk about bus, rail or water. (And this sad fact they share with many other US metros with fragmented transit).
Since the City of Baltimore as the licensing agency also runs a downtown circulator known here as the Charm City Circulator bus, the first goal of integration would be that the city-licensed boats become extensions of the circulator system. Already, both the free Charm bus and the free Harbor Connector are funded from downtown parking surcharges. The bus is operated by Veolia Transportation, an international conglomerate providing a plethora of urban mobility services, and the boats by Michael McDaniel, a local businessman and former captain of Ed Kane's Water Taxi, the initial Baltimore company. His company employed 125 people in 2010, according to the Baltimore Business Journal, Veolia Transportation claims to have 18,000 employees in the US alone.
Real integration is hard when there are different operators even when both services are funded and licensed by the same entity. While the Circulator website refers to the Harbor Connector, its system map doesn't show the routes across the water, nor will the popular bus app show real time arrival for the boats. Meanwhile, both services dabble with new environmentally-friendly technologies for their transport. The Charm bus bought some innovative micro turbine charged electric buses before that experiment was considered failed. The Harbor Connector recently received a federal grant and plans to buy a new electric boat with part of the money, an investment that probably does little for making the boat more viable as transit.
|Rotterdam Route Map|
As already demonstrated, it is easy to demand integration, but much harder to translate this into robust, everyday practice. To make it work, the boat’s service needs to be beefed up: sturdier boats need to operate not only during stronger winds but also in the winter, when they need to be heated and may have to battle ice formation en route, especially on rivers (like in Chicago). Landing points need to be navigable from the water side, accessible from the land side, safe in inclement weather and provide some shelter for those waiting for service. Anybody who knows how crowded urban waterfronts often are can see that it can be tricky to provide those amenities at all service points; accessibility under ADA is an especially pesky item, particularly at tidal waters where the height between pier and boat can vary considerably.
However hard implementation may be, certain practices have been proven to be successful in places that have operated water transit for a long time. One example is the famous "Vaporetto" in Venice (Italy), a place where pretty much all transit occurs on water. Vaporettos are the size of buses, have stop amenities and run around the clock and in any weather (although, for Venice that doesn't mean much). A robust transit service is also offered in Rotterdam where the ferries are appropriately called Waterbus. There they even have a phone app for real-time arrival. (Als klap op de vuurpijl kun je ook de actuele positie van de verschillende Waterbussen live op de kaart te zien). Another robust service can be found in Sidney (Australia). Here rail, bus, and ferry are all united in one transit system and one provider.
The little journey through water transport leads us to these mostly common sense conclusions which all should be included for anybody licensing or operating water transit:
- full schedule integration with buses, trains and shuttles at transfer points
- proximity of landing and land side transfer service
- landing points that are central, easy to locate and provide seating, shelter and real time next service information
- full fare integration (same tickets and passes need to be recognized as on the rest of the transit system without a need for transfers or new tickets)
- full information integration, i.e. comprehensive maps, schedules and universal ticket availability
- sturdy, safe, comfortable and reasonably fast all-weather boats with seating and standing options in enclosed and open sections of the boat and minimally polluting propulsion
- a clear differentiation between commuter-oriented express service and tourist-oriented leisure service
- an option for express services that reach further out into the metro region (in the case of Baltimore, for example to Annapolis, to the Eastern Shore).
- frequent service that doesn't require memorizing a schedule
Baltimore free Circulator: Full integration still elusive
Uber, Lyft, and the Super Shuttle, to name only a few recent transportation service innovations, show tomorrow's transportation service options often come from unexpected directions and involve much more than incremental improvement of what we already know. In fact, we can expect innovations to be disruptive, whether they deal with the dispatch methods, the scheduling or the mode technology itself.
Water transportation, be it ferries, water taxis or freight have remained very much the same for a long time, a fact that lets me speculate that drastic changes are afoot after which ships and boats may look nothing like anything we see today. With GPS and computer-based dispatch the boundaries between fixed-route, fixed-schedule and demand-based service may blur further, especially on water, a principally very flexible surface, especially when compared to rail. So, no need to rename Baltimore's Water Taxi, even if it really isn't a taxi.
Klaus Philipsen FAIA
edited by Ben Groff
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External links related to the topic:
Baltimore Brew about city provided water taxi service
Cities and water based transit for urban mobility
Integrating Passenger Ferry Service with Mass Transit
Water Taxis Play a Greater Role in.... (Modeshift)
Cities Developing Water Transit...(Sustainable Cities)