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Water transit sails past gridlock

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Passengers board a Golden Gate Ferry at the Ferry Building. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Every week, along with 600,000 other commuters, I make multiple trips across the Bay. Stuck bumper-to-bumper, we daydream about how we’d otherwise use the time wasted in the worst traffic in our region’s history. But if you look at the open blue waters while stalled on one of our many Bay Area bridges, there is another alternative.

Over the past decade, traffic has nearly doubled; we have the second worst congestion in the country, and our transit systems are bursting at the seams. Due to our growing population, booming economy and housing shortage, residents lose 79 hours a year sitting in gridlock, on top of horribly long commutes – severely impacting our quality of life. But history, other cities, and good transit policy point toward another way across our Bay — with water transit.

During the centuries before cars, buses and trains, there were boats. In 1850, the first ferry started between San Francisco and Oakland. During the 1930s, 55 million passengers crisscrossed the Bay on ferries, an essential part of the lives of Bay Area residents. But then came the construction of our bridges, California’s car culture, and congestion.

Other great cities have thriving modern water transit systems. In Hong Kong, Singapore, Sidney, Copenhagen, the Greek isles, Seattle and Vancouver, residents and visitors enjoy the open air and avoid traffic woes. Last year, New York City launched a robust water transit network that was so wildly successful that Mayor de Blasio had to scramble to accommodate overwhelming demand.

Here in the Bay, the popularity of ferries has surged. In recent years, ridership across the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) system that manages much of our Bay Area ferry service has nearly doubled. Employers and employees are looking to cut commute times; environmentalists are excited about clean, high-speed ferry technologies; transit analysts point to strong farebox recovery. But the 3.2 million water transit passengers annually are a mere fraction of the 55 million who travelled over water years ago.

In June, Bay Area voters passed Regional Measure 3, a comprehensive plan to invest in congestion relief and mass transit projects across the region. RM3 includes new funding to rapidly build out our Bay Area ferry system. Ferry terminals are relatively inexpensive to build, and the infrastructure for ferries and water taxis can be scaled quickly, one of our few short-term opportunities to greatly expand transit capacity. Water transit can help connect the job centers of San Francisco, Oakland and Silicon Valley to San Francisco’s growing southern waterfront as well as the Peninsula, Berkeley, Richmond, and other points around the Bay.

With RM3’s passage, we can’t drift idly – we must power forward. WETA and the Golden Gate Ferry system need to coordinate the expansion of new routes. Cities need to commit to building new terminals – with housing and commercial development nearby. The 27 transit agencies around the Bay need to integrate water transit and solve last-mile issues. And our residents need to rediscover the joy of the 21st century version of a historic transit mode.

During San Francisco’s Transit Week, let’s embrace a once-in-a-generation opportunity to alleviate our transportation crisis, offer one of the most beautiful commutes in the world, and knit our region together across the Bay. Ride a San Francisco Bay Ferry or Golden Gate Ferry and use our vast body of water as an asset rather than an obstacle. Let’s leave congestion in our wake – join us on the water!

David Chiu is an Assemblymember representing Eastern San Francisco and was the Assembly lead on Regional Measure 3. On Thursday, join the San Francisco Transit Riders on a ferry for a water transit discussion.

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