With ridership down 90 percent, US ferries endure pandemic pause


Most U.S. ferry operators saw ridership declines of more than 90 percent during certain weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Passenger Vessel Association. Going into the summer months, ferry systems from coast to coast are retaining as many crewmembers as they can while waiting for passengers to return.

Compared to last year, NYC Ferry ridership was down 87 percent for the two months beginning March 23. During that same period, the ferry operator reduced service by about half, including reconfiguring three routes and temporarily ending all service at 9 p.m. Even so, staff reductions have been needed, beginning with voluntary furloughs.

“Once New York starts to slowly open back up, we will carefully add service to meet demand,” said Chris Singleton, a spokesman for New York City Economic Development Corp.

The story is much the same on the West Coast.

San Francisco Bay Ferry saw its biggest year in 2019, carrying 3.2 million passengers on five routes. Then, when California’s shelter-in-place order was put in effect at the end of March 2020, ridership dropped 80 percent nearly overnight.

“Everyone’s staying home,” said public information manager Thomas Hall in late May. “We’re down more than 95 percent now.”

Because there were land transit options for essential workers, the San Francisco Water Emergency Transportation Authority was able to suspend three commuter ferry routes — Richmond, Harbor Bay and South San Francisco.

“We’re still looking at a massive budget hole of about $20 million going into next fiscal year,” Hall said. “And that’s after we received $12 million from the federal CARES Act.”

Another industry protocol is sanitizing frequently touched surfaces between sailings, as shown aboard a Washington State Ferries vessel.

Courtesy Washington State Ferries

Washington State Ferries dropped sailings on the Seattle-to-Bainbridge route by half and suspended the route between Anacortes, Wash., and Sidney, British Columbia, due to the international border closure.

“Ridership declined about 70 percent on average through much of March and April,” said public information officer Ian Sterling. “Walk-on ridership saw declines in the 90 percent range some days, with vehicle ticket sales declining to a lesser degree.”

Across the nation, ferry systems are taking the same precautions as other public transit options and businesses, including offering touchless payment, sanitizing frequently touched surfaces, requiring masks and ensuring that physical distancing is possible. Ventilation is paramount in slowing the spread of COVID-19, and open decks and windows make ferry travel an appealing choice as people go back to commuting.

The ferry industry’s major players in New York, San Francisco and Washington state are publicly funded, positioning them to ride out the passenger pause. At press time, San Francisco and Washington reported no major staffing cuts.

In contrast, privately held Fire Island Ferries — which transports tourists to eight beach communities on a barrier island 50 miles from New York City — was looking to Memorial Day weekend for a turnaround. The 27-vessel ferry system was operating at 25 percent capacity and 25 percent of its pre-pandemic crew.

“Then we took a 90 percent hit in our ridership from previous Memorial Day weekends, Friday to Sunday,” said Dave Anderson, the ferry line’s general manager. “Without the influx of day-trip traffic, there’s very little cash coming in.”

On the West Coast, Washington State Ferries’ Memorial Day weekend passenger counts were down by half compared to 2019 — but that was still an uptick compared to previous weeks.

“It’s difficult to forecast what recovery looks like right now,” Sterling said. “But we expect demand to increase to an unknown degree as stay-at-home orders are lifted.”

By Professional Mariner Staff