With Crowds Flocking to Ferries, Agency Adds New Runs

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The ferry Peralta eases into the Clay Street terminal at Oakland's Jack London Square.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Update 5:50 p.m. Monday, Aug. 24:

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority voted Monday to enhance rush hour service from a couple of San Francisco docks to a few East Bay stops.

The agency overseeing San Francisco Bay Ferry operations extended through October a temporary 5:30 p.m. boat from the city's Ferry Building to Vallejo.

The additional trip has alleviated some of the demand that saw would-be passengers stranded on the docks and drove 276 regular riders to sign a petition calling for more back-up buses. (That's a pretty long bus ride to wish for -- from San Francisco's Embarcadero to Vallejo over the Bay Bridge during rush hour.)

"The ferry service, like so many transit agencies in the region, is carrying more and more people," said Ernest Sanchez, marketing manager for San Francisco Bay Ferry. "The demand on the system is substantial and is beyond what we expected to happen, so what we’re trying to do is take our 11 boats and get them assigned in the most affective manner."


Bay Ferry has also redirected routes to create a direct 4 p.m. trip from San Francisco's Pier 41 to Alameda, then Oakland.

But the changes will only make a small dent in demand that shows no sign of waning.

"The numbers are going to be small," Sanchez said, adding the new runs amount to a temporary fix while the system awaits longer-term expansions, like two new 400-passenger boats expected to hit the Bay next winter.

"We are working hard to increase the capacity of this ferry system, but these things take a long time," Sanchez said. "What we need to do right now is get the incremental, carrying capability of the system as it is to our commuters at the time that they need it, and that's what we're working to do."

Original Post:
For years, the Bay Area's best-kept commuting secret was ferry service from Vallejo, Oakland and Alameda to San Francisco. Riders could hunker down in the passenger cabin with their laptops if they liked. Or they could sit outside and enjoy the ever-changing waterscape. And I'll admit that I relished the fact I'd often be one of the relative few who seemed to take the boat.

That's all ancient history now. Monday, the Water Emergency Transportation Authority, the urgently named agency that now oversees most Bay Area ferry operations, is considering adding runs to its Oakland/Alameda and Vallejo routes. The reason: The services have become so popular that there's not enough room to carry all the passengers who want to ride during the morning and evening rush hours.

The problem has become persistent enough that hundreds of commuters on the Vallejo route have signed a petition for extra bus service to accommodate "leave-behinds" -- passengers left at the dock because there's not enough room on the boat.

The proposal under consideration today would add an extra afternoon run both to Vallejo and Alameda/Oakland for the rest of the summer season, through Oct. 30. The WETA board is also being asked to add one extra morning and afternoon run on both routes beginning next March.

Those requests come as ridership on Bay Area ferry services continues to boom.

Based on newly released statistics, weekday ridership on San Francisco Bay Ferries' Oakland/Alameda-San Francisco route is up about 140 percent in the past five years -- from 1,187 trips in May 2010 to 2,841 trips in May 2015. Weekday trips rose to 3,267 in June.

The Vallejo ferry route saw a 75 percent increase in ridership -- from 1,624 daily trip to 2,843 -- from May 2010 to May 2015. Weekday ridership on the Golden Gate ferries, which run from Larkspur and Tiburon to downtown San Francisco, rose by about 30 percent in the same period, from 6,057 to 7,812 daily trips.

Not only is ferry ridership spiking, the level of traffic far surpasses what WETA has expected.

A 2012 ridership study made what seemed like a daring forecast for the Alameda/Oakland route: a 20 percent increase by this year, to 1,463 trips a day -- less than half of actual ridership in June.

The study's projections for 2035 were 2,454 daily riders on the conservative end and nearly 4,900 if ferry service is significantly expanded. June ridership was 33 percent ahead of the low-end projection for 20 years from now.