Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Can Baltimore's water taxi system become viable transit?

A few weeks ago and without fanfare the City DOT released a detailed report  "City Alternative Transportation Expansion Study: Water Transit Strategies".  With a title that bulky nobody seems to have picked up what it really tries to answer: Can Baltimore's water taxi system become viable transit?

Now, in the post-Red-Line era, there is a sweeping search underway for anything that moves and could be called transit, so it is astounding that there has been no publicity on this report yet. Like Uber, bike share, Zip Cars, the Circulator and streetcars, water transportation can get millennials excited and can set our city apart from all those without a water surface on which to run it. And, by the way, all those hip modes should be assembled near the water taxi stops to continue the journey, but that is not in the report.
Baltimore Water Taxi
This study hasn't been approached from the millennials perspective at all. It doesn't look for hip nor does it cast a big vision. Not even desirable precedents of viable water transportation are presented. This reports plods solidly through a whole bunch of facts and figures, and that is, no doubt, useful, too.
New York water transit

We learn that there is some confusion between the tourist oriented Water Taxi that cost $14 for a day of unlimited use (WT) and the Harbor Connector (HC) that uses the same operator, captains and similar boats but is free. In Fells Point those two services dock side by side; the confusion is just as inevitable as the tourist's envy why she can't use the Connector. Well, she learns, she wouldn't be able to do an immediate return trip, only after a day's work. The HC is aimed at commuters, you see. While the WT operator pays the City 7% of his gross proceeds ($159,741) as a fee for the use of the docks and for the license to make money of tourists, the City pays this same operator nearly six times what they take in ($928,069), to operate the three free shuttle lines, even though the City owns and provides two of the three boats.

We also learn that WT operates five routes and the HC only three and that the HC is essentially an extension of the Charm City Circulator, also a brainchild of City DOT and operated by a private company (Veolia, now called TransDev).

The facts around ridership require careful attention and need to be pieced together. The report shows that the Water Taxi has a peak of 40,000 riders in the month of July, no riders in January and February for an annual total of 200,000 in 2014. The Harbor Connector ridership apparently also reached 200,000 riders in 2014, its peak is provided with 835 riders a day on all three lines combined, with operations being limited to workdays between 7am and 7pm. To reach the given annual rider volume, the HC would have to maintain its peak rider level every single workday of the year through all seasons, something that is not easy to believe. One has to wonder how accurate those annual ridership figures are.
Branding? The Harbor Connector is a Water Taxi with a veil

Nevertheless, we have 15 WT plus three HC vessels in service for about 400,000 riders a year. For comparison, Bostons Bay Transportation Authority carries 1,2 million passengers a year, whereby most of Boston's operation is real transit and not tourist entertainment. The Charm City Circulator carries around 4 million people a year and the MTA bus system about 76 million.

So, what does all this mean? Can water transit become a viable complement to the Baltimore regional transit system? Could it do what the Boston Bay system does, carry folks all around the Bay? This question was not really asked. There is no grand scenario with commuter service to Annapolis or Have de Grace or Rock Hall. There is a small mention of the possibility of having a line go around Fort McHenry to Westport, but that option is dismissed for its extravagant travel time of 40 minutes. Apparently a faster boat is not considered or not allowed.

The issue of the two services is considered, though, and the recommendation is to brand them more differently. But then there is also a recommendation to make them more similar by charging a fare for the Connector as well. Not asked is if the two services wouldn't be best merged entirely with a simple distinction in fare passes (for example, commuters could get a monthly pass that tourists can't get). Also not included is the option of a demand based fare structure like Uber uses it for its taxis or airlines for their planes. In that scenario, riders during low volume hours and months could be lured onto the water with low fares. Since the cost for operating a vessel is about the same, whether it is full or runs for just one passenger, additional paying customers would quickly make up for lower fares.

Unanswered remains also the issue of the fleet and if  a robust year round system wouldn't need entirely different vessels to deliver a safe, comfortable, dependable and trust inspiring journey. Even in sunny Venice, the Vaporetto water buses are much sturdier than our rickety pontoon boats.
Venice, Italy "vaporetto"

All this would suggest that Baltimore's water transport will remain the smallish boutique operation it currently is, were it not for HarborPoint and Under Armour, for Michael Beatty and Kevin Plank, two figures that have become dominant players in Baltimore's sandbox, or better, her harbor.

With the Plank brothers just beginning a major masterplanning effort for their future corporate campus and HarborPoint already showing the outline of Exelon's new skyscraper, one would imagine that these two would have a lot to say about the future of water transport and what attracts millennials and makes their locations easily accessible. I hope DOT is inviting them to craft a somewhat bigger vision as an extension of this recent report. They also could and should provide the financial horsepower that would be needed, to make Baltimore's water transport top notch and a very special feature of this city.

Great water transport isn't a substitute for robust rail transit such as the Red Line, but taken seriously, it could very well provide relief for congestion in Canton, Fells Point and Harbor East.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Charm City Circulator Financial Report

Blog article about Water Taxis on Community Architect

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