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Ferry ridership climbing back to pre-pandemic levels, with patrons finding the service ‘pretty cool.’

on September 25, 2023

Aboard the Mare Island vessel en route to Oakland, it’s easy to sit back, relax and enjoy a jaunt across the bay. Yet the journey of ferry transportation in the Bay Area hasn’t always been so smooth, and the COVID-19 pandemic reversed strides made in recent years. 

To recoup riders, the service, which is administered by the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority, cut fares by 30%, reworked schedules to address new commuting trends and weekend demand, and doubled down in offering passengers a pleasant cross-bay ride. Those changes and $39 million in federal aid are helping the authority right the ship. 

Weekend ridership is back to pre-pandemic levels and regular service on all routes is three-quarters of the way there, said Thomas Hall, San Francisco Bay Ferry spokesperson. More importantly, riders are enjoying the experience, with the service getting a 99% satisfaction rating from passengers in a 2022 survey by San Francisco Bay Ferry and CDM Smith.  

A graph shows ridership on the San Francisco Bay Ferry peaking in 2019 at slightly more than 3 million and falling to about 300,000 in 2021 before rebounding in 2023 to slightly more than 2 million.
Ferry ridership

“It’s less expensive, it’s less stressful, and at 67 years old, it’s pretty cool,” passenger Tommy Jones said during a recent crossing from San Francisco to Oakland with his two grandchildren. 

The recovery, launched in July 2021, was slow and methodical, after ferry ridership had plummeted to 8% of pre-pandemic levels. Senior Capt. Dushan Crawford called that time “spooky, scary, depressing.” 

San Francisco Bay Ferry Senior Capt. Dushan Crawford in blue uniform and sunglasses looks to the right with the bay and the Bay Bridge over his left shoulder.
San Francisco Bay Ferry Senior Capt. Dushan Crawford (Becca Duncan)

Public transportation systems across the country felt the pandemic sting, with BART hit particularly hard. The abrupt drop in ridership, followed by the reluctance of many to return to public transportation even when the worst of the pandemic had passed, left workers unmoored. 

“It gave me, definitely, a perspective around actually coming to work and having purpose,” said ferry Capt. Morgan Wodhams. 

Two years later, many more passengers are boarding ferries in Oakland, Richmond, Alameda, Vallejo and Mare Island, setting their sights on the city across the bay. They come with e-bikes and scooters in tow, along with children under 5, who ride for free. 

For Cliff Farrell, the experience is well worth the $9.30 fare. “It’s quick. It’s pretty convenient. And it’s clean,” he said, during a late August ride to Vallejo. 

A region made for ferries

In the 1930s, before the Bay Area’s iconic bridges linked cities and people, ferries carried up to 60 million passengers each year, according to the Water Emergency Transportation Authority. Fifty years later, BART was running, Muni service was well under way and car ridership had become ubiquitous. The ferry fell out of favor, and a fleet that once had 50 vessels was down to only four. 

Hall said the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which disabled BART and the Bay Bridge, fixed a spotlight on the ferry system, whose vessels were put to emergency use. In the aftermath, passengers started seeing the ferry as a reliable alternative to driving or taking other public transportation. The Legislature created the Water Transportation Authority (later replaced by the Water Emergency Transportation Authority) to expand ferry service and respond to transbay disasters. Voters approved a measure that reserved a portion of bridge tolls to allow for that expansion. 

Between 2012 and 2019, a ferry connected most East Bay communities to San Francisco, and ridership doubled to more than 3 million annually, Hall said. Then the coronavirus shut schools and offices, and forced people indoors.

Tommy Jones in a white cap and glasses sits with two grand daughters on his lap, one about 7 with glasses and the other about 5, both with long dark braids.
Tommy Jones rides the San Francisco Bay ferry with his grandchildren. (Lisa Plachy)

“In 2020, that growth evaporated overnight,” Hall said.

Since then, the service has been coaxing riders to return. Some, like Farrell, have made it part of their routine. Others, like Edna Coleman, are giving it a try. 

On a recent outing with a group of 10 retirees, Coleman found the experience pleasant. “Usually, we come over on BART from the East Bay, so we wanted to just come and see,” she said. 

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority’s recovery plan is banking on many more passengers like Coleman and her crew, who are looking for an experience or a transportation alternative. If they are like the riders in the 2022 survey, they may find the open-air ride preferable to the confinement of a car, bus or subway train. 

Matt Regan used to be a regular BART rider, but now finds the ferry more convenient. 

“It’s a really great way to commute. It’s a great way to start your day; a great way to end your day,” he said. “You’re on the bay, on the water. It’s quiet, peaceful … Your commute’s clean and safe . That’s all you can ask for.”

(Top photo by Becca Duncan)

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