Monday, July 10, 2017

Commuting by Boat

How about a water taxi between the Walnut Street dock and the Navy Yard? 


The esplanade by the Fairmount Water Works.
About ten years ago I was stuck at a hotel near the airport in Boston. The business conference I was attending was okay, but the evenings were starting to look like room service. Then one of my colleagues discovered the water taxis of Boston harbor. There was actually a dock right by our hotel (which did have a terrace on the water and a lovely view of downtown). We hopped in the boat and after a very pleasant nautical jaunt that was almost too brief, we landed at a dock and walked out to Faneuil Hall.

By the way, when was the last time you thought your commute was too brief?

I hadn't thought about this experience in years, and then a friend suggested I should do some reporting about ways to get more people onto the watery parts of the Schuylkill River (attracting people to the Schuylkill Banks doesn't seem to be a problem). And maybe write a story.

So I started talking to people. Bartram's Garden is doing some amazing stuff. Maitreyi Roy, the garden's executive director, introduced me to the Bartram's version of an ice cream float. In the good weather, the garden has kayaking and rowboating events for the local community every week. The season's pinnacle is the annual River Fest, when, among other things, the garden places a float out in the water. On the float is an ice cream stand. Row out to the float and get free ice cream. Or be a landlubber and buy a cone from the other stand, the one that's firmly anchored on dry land.

Fishing is also so popular at Bartram's Garden that Roy says they're looking into building more fishing docks.

In addition, there's the tour boat that has regular excursions from the Walnut Street dock down to Bartram's Garden. There's a lengthy layover so passengers can tour the garden, and then ride back to Walnut Street. Steve Narbus of Patriot Harbor Lines is very pleased with the Bartram's run, and he's also fond of the Walnut to Walnut ride, which takes people on a scenic tour from Walnut Street on the Schuylkill to Walnut Street at Penn's Landing, on the Delaware.

Walnut Street also has regular kayaking in the warm weather.

The Esplanade
An idea that's been kicking around for a while now focuses on the beautiful esplanade near the Fairmount Water Works, up by the Art Museum. A lot of people don't even know the esplanade is there. The idea is to place a dock, similar to the one at Walnut Street, next to this esplanade, and provide some kind of boat service between the Water Works and points downstream.

John Randolph, who heads the Schuylkill River Park Alliance, a community group that supports improvements to the river, has been toying with this idea for years - and he has not been alone. It seems like a natural. I asked John about access for the disabled - the stairs down from the Schuylkill Trail are impressive - and he told me that there was an elevator in the Water Works building, and a door from the building out onto the esplanade. How can this not work?

Next I spoke to Joe Syrnick, who heads the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, aka the Schuylkill Banks.  Joe and his organization are the people who manage the Schuylkill Banks, dealing with everything from graffiti to movies to the Walnut Street dock and the boat tours to Bartram's Garden.

During my conversation with Syrnick I occasionally felt like I was talking with the Robert Shaw character in Jaws. The Schuylkill generally looks placid, but all rivers are wild. Syrnick has a good stock of stories about what the Schuylkill can do when it's feeling frisky.

Some of the problems with the dock idea are straightforward. If you go to the esplanade and look down into the water, and the water is clear, you'll notice some really big rocks. Attaching a dock to this esplanade is not going to be a simple or inexpensive endeavor.

But that's just the beginning. There are questions about what construction of the dock would do to fish habitat along this part of the river. Also, there is the dam that sits just below Boathouse Row and next to the Water Works. Life downstream from a dam can get interesting. Just ask the fish who occasionally decide to go surfing over the dam.

Joe went through a number of these issues and then sent me on to Stephanie Craighead, who looks after these matters for the Parks Department. She told me Parks had conducted a very thorough investigation and come up with a price tag of $2 million for the dock, and also a list of unresolved issues. Parks decided not to proceed with the dock.

And then there's the question of who will use the dock. If a tour organizer put together a day that started with the Art Museum and then took customers down to Bartram's Garden, and maybe returned them to their hotels via the Walnut Street dock, then maybe this would make sense. Otherwise it's a large expenditure to build an underutilized asset.

Craighead told me that the Water Department had recently come up with the concept of a Learning Barge. The original idea was to moor the barge at the esplanade - the department's education program is housed at the Water Works - but after investigating, PWD is looking for other sites.

I still nurse the dream. The esplanade is a gorgeous place that most people never see. It would be nice to activate it. But you should never underestimate the power of water. Leonardo da Vinci certainly never did. He was fascinated by water, and having watched the Arno river flood on several occasions, the engineer in the artist spent a good bit of time looking at ways to control something that is inherently unruly.

There are a lot of reasons to want to put a dock at the Water Works. But we need to answer all the questions first.

The Learning Barge
Craighead then sent me on to Joanne Dahme at the Water Department to learn more about the Learning Barge. Dahme emphasized that the project is still at a very early, conceptual stage. The inspiration is a Science Barge located on the Hudson at Yonkers, N.Y. (There is a newer Science Barge in Miami, and a Learning Barge in Norfolk, Va.) All of these are environmental education centers that emphasize sustainability. The one in Yonkers seems to be mainly a vegetable garden. I'd thought they might be propagating oysters. It will be interesting to see what the Water Department comes up with.

Water Taxis
Beyond recreation and education, are there any other appropriate uses for the waters of the Schuylkill? Well, for a number of years I've been paying attention to the world of bicycling in Philadelphia. Not so long ago, this was a world that was almost entirely recreational. But recently there has been a large increase in the number of people who are using their bicycles to get to and from work, to drop the kids off at school, to go grocery shopping - you name it. Okay, I will: utility bicycling.

My experience with water taxis in Boston definitely sensitized me to the potential, but I hadn't really grasped how hot water taxis and commuter ferries have become in other cities recently. New York City in particular has inaugurated a new ferry service on the East River that ties together Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. San Francisco is expanding its existing public ferry system and also adding private water taxis to relieve the strain on land-based transportation. And Paris is looking at a new type of water taxi that makes no noise and no waves. It's called a Sea Bubble by its inventor.

So who wants to use the Schuylkill to commute?

I'm so glad you asked. How about the Navy Yard? It's not easy to get to, except by car, and the Schuylkill Expressway is never an idyllic experience. Are there people who live near the Walnut Street dock and work in the Navy Yard? Would they be interested in commuting by boat?

The answers are I don't know and I don't know. A good first step would be finding out.

I can say, though, that people seem to like the idea when I mention it to them. I had a very nice chat with Jennifer Tran, marketing director for the Navy Yard. She pointed out that, back when the Navy Yard was still repairing aircraft carriers, there was a ferry that ran between New Jersey and the yard, giving workers an attractive commuting option.

An Empty Niche
So what would a business plan look like for a water taxi service between the Walnut Street dock and the Navy Yard?

First, I think it should be a premium service. Mayor de Blasio in New York City is holding the price of the new East River ferry service down to the price of a subway ride. And the service is swamped. This tells me two things. First, there is substantial latent demand for water transport and, second, planners tend to underestimate that demand. At least in New York City. On the East River.

The way out of the swamp that New York finds itself in is to establish a premium service that will be viable with a relatively small passenger base. Then, in the short term, you can adjust the price to keep demand in balance with the number of seats available. And in the longer term you can add more boats, or bigger boats.

And, since this is the 21st century, I would sell reserved seats online. If you have a ticket, you should be able to get a seat on the boat. That's what Amtrak does now (it took a while). The analogy should not be the subway or Jersey Transit. The pictures and stories from the East River are not pretty.

Finally, recognize that you're serving a relatively limited geographical area. There's no substantial parking available near the Walnut Street dock. You could walk to the boat if you live close enough. And now that there's an Indego bike stand at 25th and Locust - about a block from the Walnut Street dock - you have an easy way to bike to the boat. That probably gets you up into Fairmount, out to West Philly, and east of Broad.

But it's still a niche product. Keep it small, know success, and be happy.

Philadelphia Navy Yard at South Broad Street.