Riders of Mayor Bill de Blasio's subsidy-soaked ferry system are significantly richer and whiter than their mass transit counterparts, according to new data reluctantly released by the city.
The long-sought figures reveal that 64 percent of ferry riders are white, with a median income ranging between $75,000 and $100,000. By comparison, studies have shown that two-thirds of subway riders and three-quarters of bus riders are people of color, with median incomes at around $40,000 and $29,000, respectively.
The disparities are likely to intensify criticism of the troubled transit project, which will cost New York City taxpayers more than $600 million over the next three years. In order to keep the price of a trip equal to a subway swipe, the system currently benefits from a per-rider subsidy of about $10, set to jump to nearly $25 on some newly-expanded routes, according to an analysis from the Citizen Budget Commission.
Faced with questions over the ballooning price-tag, de Blasio has repeatedly championed the service as an antidote to transit inequality, part of his broader agenda to make New York the "fairest big city." A spokesperson for the Mayor's Office did not respond to inquiries about whether this new breakdown in ridership would force him to reevaluate that position.
The Economic Development Corporation, the quasi-public agency that operates the system, previously declined to provide data to back up that claim. The results of three previous rider surveys were not made public, and the agency has ignored multiple freedom of information requests sent by Gothamist and other media outlets. The new demographics were shared with the media in a slideshow marked "not for distribution," which has not yet been posted online. An EDC spokesperson would not say why the slideshow was being withheld from the public.
The data also shows that most riders live near the waterfront, where rents tend to be higher, and earn slightly more than the median service area income of $73,000 (New York City's median income is $50,000). Fourteen percent of riders do not live in New York. Sixty percent are between the ages of 25 and 45.
"Our goal is make this service even more equitable and continue to connect New Yorkers from around the city using this system," a spokesperson for EDC said in a statement. She added that the ferry system is "massively popular," and has "enjoyed sky-high ridership."
Ferry skeptics, meanwhile, are quick to point out that the boats serve fewer people in a year than the subway does in a single day. Citi Bike, which does not receive any subsidy, moved nearly four times more people than NYC Ferry between May 2017 and June 2019; calls to add city funding to the bike-share system have been thus far rejected by the mayor.
“It is irresponsible and unjust for the de Blasio administration to continue pouring resources into NYC Ferry when it doesn’t reach the individuals or communities that most need it," said Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, who serves on the city's Transportation Committee. "I strongly urge the de Blasio administration to reprioritize how resources are spent on public transportation options within New York City based on equity and need."
Council Speaker Corey Johnson added that there are "real questions about the high levels of subsidy, especially since most New Yorkers ride subways and buses and those New Yorkers tend to have lower incomes."
Howard Babich, a retired Rockaway resident, told Gothamist on Tuesday that regular ferry users would likely continue riding even without such a substantial taxpayer subsidy. "It’s so much more comfortable, it's cool, there’s a breeze," he said. "It’s much more preferable to the subway."
“It’s the best way to move around in New York," echoed Ralf Strohschein, a Berlin resident who said he often rides the boats when he visits the city. The results of the survey were unsurprising to him, he said, noting: “I see there are so many tourists on the ferry, and not many other people."
"Maybe people just don't know about it," added Strohschein. "But I love the ferry. Please don't make it more expensive."
With Charline Charles