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Getting to San Francisco the old-fashioned way

photo by Julie Caine

The BART strike earlier this week left a lot of us scrambling to find a way from point A to point B. To get where we needed to go, we stood in casual carpool lines, boarded unfamiliar buses, and braved brutal traffic on overloaded bridges. But not everybody got to work on wheels.

Before there ever was BART or a Bay Bridge, people who wanted to cross the Bay did it by boat. At their peak, ferries carried over 46 million passengers. In a year.

“The Bay Area used to be built around ferries,” said Tony Bruzzone, a transportation planner who specializes in public transit for ARUP, a design firm with offices in San Francisco. “It was set up as an integrated system with trains. Piedmont and Broadway in Oakland and even Berkeley all had trains that came in and folded in where the Bay Bridge is now onto big ferry boats, and then everybody would come across on the ferry. The reason that the bridge was built in the 1930s was that people got tired of that. They wanted direct access.”

On a calm Tuesday afternoon on the docks of  San Francisco’s Ferry Building, a group of second graders giggle and jostle each other, excited to get on board the ferry to Alameda.

Crew members greet passengers and sell tickets. On the back of the boat, a couple of tourists take pictures of seagulls and the skyline. Regular commuters stop at the snack bar before settling in for the 20-minute ride.

Jack Dybas is one of those passengers. He lives in Alameda and works in San Francisco. He’s been commuting on the ferry for 15 years.

“It’s quite a bit more civilized than any other mode of transportation,” he says. “You’re not packed in like sardines. You can actually open your laptop and work. You can talk to people, you can hear people. And, there’s a full bar.”

That’s right. A full bar. For regular riders like Dybas, getting to and from work on the ferry can be a very social scene. People know each other, they have certain places they like to sit, and they’re friendly with the captain and crew.

Ernest Sanchez oversees ferry service between San Francisco and the East Bay for the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA).

“People take ownership of the ferries in a way that I don't think they do on other public transit,” says Sanchez. “It’s very much a community kind of thing.”

WETA was established in 2008 to consolidate existing ferry service, establish new routes, and to coordinate emergency services in case a terrorist attack or major earthquake takes out BART and the bridges.

“It could take several weeks, or months until we could be back where businesses could operate as normal,” says Sanchez. “And during that time, we'd need to move supplies, we'd need to move people, we'd need to move equipment and other things necessary to bring us back into a state of operation.”

Most mornings, however, the scene on the Bay is far from an emergency. So most of the time, Sanchez can focus on other things, like planning new ferry routes.

It was an emergency that really jump-started the region’s ferry service. Ferry ridership dropped significantly after the Bay Bridge opened in 1936, and ferries pretty much died out until 1970, when the Golden Gate Ferry started service from Marin.  When the Vallejo ferry opened in 1986, its main job was to take people to Marine World, which had just relocated from Southern California.

But then, in 1989, Damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake closed down the Bay Bridge for almost a month. During that time, ferries were one of the most direct ways to get into San Francisco. According to Bruzzone, that got service started from Alameda and Oakland, and increased the existing service from Vallejo.

Now, a million and half people ride those ferries every year.  It may not be much compared to the 350,000 people who ride BART every day.  Still, ferries are one of the region’s more financially stable transit services: Ticket sales pay for about half of what the ferries cost to operate. Only BART and Caltrain have a better record.

Still, the ferries’ busiest days are the ones when BART or the bridges are closed. And with the region’s population expected to increase by about two million people in the next 20 years, planners are starting to think about how they might once again play a major role in getting people around. Bruzzone says that raises some longer-term questions.

“What are the tradeoffs of building eventually a new BART tube, or providing more service on buses, or more service on ferries?” said Bruzzone. “If you're going to provide the service on ferries, you need to make sure that people will actually take it, and they can get to it.”

Bruzzone says it all comes down to land use and development.

“You have to look at a ferry terminal the same way you look at a train station,” he says. “It’s best to have a lot of people living around it. so that they don't have to drive to it and it's an easy walk for them. But on top of that, like a train station, it needs to have really good connecting bus service into it.”

In San Francisco, that’s easy. MUNI and BART bring passengers within a short walk from ferry terminals. But, says Ernest Sanchez, the situation in the East Bay is complicated.

“Especially recent economic problems have seriously affected public transit,” said Sanchez. “At one point we had a good bus service to our terminals, and that has changed.”

Getting more people to ferries is a long term challenge, but once they’re there, the ferries do have one big advantage over other modes of transit: They’re fun to ride. Sanchez says that enjoyment is so big a factor that when older boats were replaced with faster vessels, passengers started to complain.

“Because commute time was now 19 minutes from Alameda, rather than 27 or 28,” he said. “So people were concerned that they didn't have enough time to talk with their friends and hang out. Or for that matter, to have the additional cocktail, because we do serve liquor onboard. In the old days, when you read about the ferries in the heyday of ferries, that was taking an hour plus to go. So they had card games and weddings and feasts and all sorts of things.”

Regular commuter Noel Lawrence says she understands the appeal.

“Somebody said to me once it's the only commute that you wish it were longer. "

To listen to this story, click on the audio player above.