Ferrying Towards Green: NYC-Area Ferries Lead the Charge in Climate-Conscious Urban Transit

Across the iconic waters of the New York Harbor, a green revolution is underway. The bustling ferries that traverse the Upper and Lower Bay, the East River, and the Hudson River are making changes to fight climate change, even as other parts of the city’s transit lag behind. 

Over 40 million passengers are transported across the New York Harbor annually, moving between the five boroughs, Jersey City, Hoboken, and Monmouth County, NJ. Many of the ferries are operated by the city, including NYC Ferries, the Staten Island Ferry, and the Governors Island Ferry. This year, the NYC Ferries hit a new ridership milestone with 6.6 million passengers using the NYC Ferry, up from 5.7 million in 2019.

Ferries, like many other public transportation options, are a known method of greener transit. Transportation is responsible for a large chunk of greenhouse gas emissions in New York state. According to the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, “Every year motor vehicles contribute approximately 11% of the local fine particulate matter and 28% of the nitrogen oxide emissions.” 

NYC Ferries, launched in 2017 to expand existing NYC transportation options, is at the forefront of this green revolution. In March, NYC Ferries announced that the Governors Island route would host NYC Ferry’s first hybrid ferry. As of December 1, the route received a $7.5 million grant from the U.S. Federal Transit Administration to install new shoreside rapid charging stations. These stations will enable the hybrid ferry to operate on battery-only propulsion, nearly eliminating emissions. The ferry is set to launch in summer 2024.

A 2019 map from the NYC EDC shows most of the ferry lines that operate in the New York Harbor. Some stops are not shown. Map: NYC EDC

Beyond the public sector, private companies are also joining the race for eco-friendly transit solutions. New York Cruise Lines, operators of the New York Water Taxi, are set to launch the first high-speed zero-emissions electric ferry in New York Harbor come spring 2024. This new vessel, cruising the Hudson River between Brooklyn and Manhattan, represents a step towards a cleaner and faster future for waterborne transit.

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Within the developing ferry system, calls for expanded service to areas like Canarsie and Coney Island are gaining momentum. Advocates argue that the efficiency of ferries, coupled with their unique ability to reach waterfront communities often underserved by subways, makes them a key player in transforming New York's transit landscape. The NYC Ferry service also offers great views of the water, snack stands, and onboard Wi-Fi

Canarsie residents are campaigning for expanded ferry service, while Coney Island residents, despite setbacks with a bungled ferry landing that was built and torn down, eagerly anticipate the prospect of a new landing on their shores.

However, the true litmus test for New York's commitment to sustainable transit lies in legislation like 2023-S2966. Introduced into the New York State Senate on May 20, 2021, this bill ambitiously aims to transition all public transportation in the state to zero-emission by 2035. While it has stalled in the State Congress with no movement for the past two years, ferries in the NYC harbor, these two new green vessels, are charting their course toward a more sustainable future, seemingly making necessary climate changes all on their own.

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Michaela Keil
Michaela Keil
Michaela Keil is the Editor of Bluedot Living Brooklyn, and the Managing Editor, Special Projects, for the Brooklyn Eagle. When she's not writing, you can either find her outside — in the rain, shine, snow, or cold — or inside baking bread. Find her on twitter @mkeil16.
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