Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Water Taxi: Ridership down by 68%, so is service

Per their website the Baltimore Water Taxi system has only 36% of its landings open and runs its taxis at 1/2 hour schedules on weekends only. On a beautiful Wednesday afternoon with plenty of people strolling around, no vessel was in sight at the Harborplace stop or anywhere else. This wasn't how the service was run before Plank Industries owned it.
Waiting for Godot at HarborPlace: No water taxi
during the week in April (Photo: Philipsen)

Michael McDaniel, President and CEO of the Baltimore Water Taxi now owned by Plank Industries explains the reduced service this way:
The number of riders has significantly declined since 2015 from a high of 300,000+ to last year’s total of 96,000.  As you can imagine if any business lost 68% of their clientele it would directly affect their bottom line.  We are no exception and the impact of this has required us to scale things down. 
One has to wonder what is cause and effect. No doubt, Baltimore has been hit by its declining reputation and tourist numbers are down across the board. Still, its a catch 22. Once service becomes unreliable and unpredictable or inconvenient, ridership will drop further. Obviously, a decrease in service was not how the new partnership with Plank Industries  was envisioned. To the contrary, expectations were high when Under Armour's Sagamore was associated with the system and replaced the light and fragile vessels with  all new made-in-Baltimore boats for a significant cost.
Fancy no boats but no service

McDaniel explains the dramatic ridership loss with a whole litany of reasons. He wrote to me:

The decline in ridership for the Baltimore Water Taxi can be contributed to a lot of things:
  • Low tourism rates.  Number one question we are asked, "is that area safe?"
  • Low foot-traffic around Harbor Place and Fell's Point.
  • Competition with Uber, Lyft, Lime, Bird, Spin, and Jump as the "fun" and affordable way of getting around the water
  • Availability of affordable parking
One silver lining is an uptick in riders on the free commuter water shuttle Harbor Connector which is paid by the City and has maintained its schedule. McDaniel states that the service reduction on the tourist boats is based on an analysis under the following aspects:
"This Landing is Closed": Science Center
- System design (i.e., Harbor Connector vs. Baltimore Water Taxi)
- Historical ridership patterns/habits
- Current operating conditions
- Future ridership demands
- Financial
Scooters taking the butter off the bread for the Water Taxi?
He agrees that the drop in ridership and service is disheartening and says he wished 
"we can run the service 365 days a year from every location with direct routing and ample parking for zero dollars and zero cents.  However, that's not reality.  As stated we lost 68% of our ridership which means 68% of our revenue is gone.  I have to believe you understand what a loss like that does to a small business like ours. 
McDaniel considers the 2019 changes temporary as the company continues to evaluate routes and landings.  The Water Taxi operates under a license with the City of Baltimore which was renewed after Michelle Pourciau came on board as DOT Director, however under terms that were spelled out in a RFP that had been developed before her arrival and which, for example, spells out that the free Connector commuter shuttle service has to be operated under its own brand. McDaniel assures that

 of course, we are in close consultation with the City and in compliance with local, state, and federal regulations up to and including our contract.    
Plenty  of folks want to ride those boats on a Wednesday afternoon
An inquiry with DOT regarding requirements of the license agreement did not provide an immediate answer. Director Porciau stated that the department is looking into the matter. Trouble with the Water Taxi mirrors the calamities with another recently re-licensed transportation service, the Charm City Circulator. Here, too, was the RFP written in such a manner that optimal operations were made difficult. The previous operator, Veolia Transportation (Transdev) was sued by the City about services not performed but paid.  The current operator, RMA, has no experience with a fixed route transit system as large as the Charm City Circulator. After the departure of Transdev, Circulator service was severely curtailed because RMA didn't have enough buses or operators. It isn't clear if all those issues have since been resolved. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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