Floating a plan for Miami-Dade for commuting by boat
Written by Michael Lewis on August 16, 2016
One of the more romantic notions among the serious efforts to alleviate Miami-Dade’s traffic congestion is to try boatloads of commuters.
It’s under serious study in the county’s transit department, a way to get us out of bumper-to-bumper cars and gasoline fumes and onto colorful boat trips with no traffic and good clean fresh air.
It works around the globe, from Hong Kong to Sydney to Venice, where boats ferry commuters as well as sightseers. It works in Manhattan and Boston, San Francisco and Seattle.
But it doesn’t work everywhere or for everyone, and county researchers will have multiple issues to chew over in trying to find a way to make commuting by boat succeed here 52 weeks a year.
An obvious concern is whether boats can meet schedules. It sounds simple, but on the busiest routes that have been running for decades, county buses routinely are late a third of the time or more.
Can boats run on time in bad weather? If not, you can’t commute in them – they become merely tourist boats, which fails to achieve the mission.
Another concern is the total time of a trip. If boats stop at multiple docks along the way, how much time is spent landing, tying up, boarding and then departing? And how much time is spent on water? If they’re significantly slower than other transit options, boats won’t cut it.
The fare is critical. Bus and Metrorail fares are $2.25. Boats may be more pleasant, but if they’re going to serve commuters they also have to be priced in the ballpark or they become merely novelties to be tried once or twice and discarded.
A boat service that Washington, DC, tried five years ago lured commuters for a peaceful half-hour commute but couldn’t hold them for an $8 fare that was four times as high as mass transit.
The economics of boat travel are tough. When Sarasota’s metropolitan planning organization considered water taxis more than a decade ago they estimated the cost of each vessel at a quarter of a million dollars or more. Boats that carry more people cost more. And if each route doesn’t have multiple vessels going both ways constantly it won’t work for commuters. The longer the wait between boats, the less useful the service.
Sarasota planners estimated the fare for each commuter at $2 to $5. But they also assumed that the public would subsidize some sort of public-private service. Miami-Dade’s planners will surely look at every combination of public service, private service and public-private partnership to see what’s feasible.
A hidden financial issue is all the free and part-fare passes the county mandates to favor one group or another. You ride county transit free or at substantial discount if you’re over 65, over 65 but don’t live here, are a military veteran with income below a stated ceiling, are on Medicare, are a commuter, are below school age or are disabled.
Would water taxis have to honor all these rate breaks? That would make break-even harder.
How about docks? Would water taxi operators have to pay to use those that exist? Would the county or private operators have to build new ones? Or covered waiting areas? Or ticket offices?
Even clearing these hurdles, water taxis can’t serve most of us without seamless connectivity to other transit at both ends. Unless you happen to live or work near the dock, you still must travel on land. How would connections work?
Gear whatever service the county picks to commuters, not tourists. Tourists may certainly ride – although Venice this year gave priority to commuters, with tourists boarding last if room remains – but the priority is mobility, not sightseeing.
Finally, the numbers game. A county of 2.7 million people needs a whole lot of boatloads at 24 passengers a trip to dent auto traffic. At the same time, the county’s study will have to divide the number of daily passengers by daily capital and operating costs of a fleet of boats to find a cost per commuter and see if it’s in the ballpark.
Having commuted three days a week by ferry, we can attest that it can serve well. But we had a choice of three ferry lines landing within a few blocks of one another, all running as frequently as every 15 minutes. Two of the three made money, the other didn’t. It’s a tough business – even though service was to an island where no alternate transit was possible.
An inexpensive trial might be to lure an entire ferry line that operates in a northern resort in summer to operate in Miami in winter. The boats and trained crews already exist. If a winter’s tryout succeeds, operators might make the capital investment to add a taxi or ferry fleet here.
Water transportation is certainly worth probing. We have the waterways in abundance. We have the need. If ferries can work in snow and sleet in the north, they can do better in Miami’s sunshine.
One thing for sure: a boat commute is head and shoulders ahead of the sinking feeling of rush hour on Dixie Highway or the Palmetto or I-95.