Delays, headaches reign on an overloaded Saturday ferry

Bikes are piled against the railing. Photo by the author.

Bikes are piled against the railing. Photo by the author.

The San Francisco Bay Ferry System exists to provide resiliency in the region’s transportation network, specifically for routes connecting San Francisco to the North and East.  Since the Bay Bridge and the Transbay Tube are likely to be taken off-line for inspections and repairs after a major earthquake, the ferries operated by the Blue & Gold Fleet offer a much needed alternative means to cross the bay.  This year, the two BART strikes and the Bay Bridge closure pushed the fleet into service, to make the closures a little less painful.

I often ride the ferry between San Francisco and Oakland as part of my daily commute and came to rely on it during the BART strikes. While it is more expensive, slower, and doesn’t come as often as BART, the ferry is much more enjoyable.  On normal days, it’s scenic and there’s even a full service bar on board every boat.

Saturday morning, I arrived at the Jack London Square terminal for the Oakland-San Francisco ferry ten minutes before its scheduled 9 o’clock departure.  There were already about 150 people in front of me, and at least 100 more behind me by the time the boat arrived a 9:17.  Many – including myself – had bicycles, and I was left to wonder whether I would have room to bring my bike aboard.

The SF Bay Ferry’s BART strike service announcement mentioned that bikes would be limited to 16 to 44 per boat, depending on configuration. Though this particular ferry was configured toward the lower end of that spectrum we were fortunate that no one in Oakland was denied boarding and we all found space hanging our bikes on the rail or stacking them next to bikes already on the rail.

We pulled away from Oakland about 26 minutes late and with a very full boat, so I was surprised when we pulled alongside the dock in Alameda.  In fairness, the schedule indicated we would stop, but my previous experience during BART strikes was that the ferries operated direct service to downtown San Francisco only.  (As I found out later, direct service only happens during peak hours of the disrupted service schedule.)

While we stopped in Alameda I found a place overlooking the bike parking area to ensure that my bike didn’t leave the boat without me.  I was amazed how the rear deck filled with even more bikes, stopping only when bikes were stacked all the way up to the one door leading to the deck.  I found it odd that no ferry workers were directing the bike parking, as I had seen them do so on previous strike days.

Then I realized that I hadn’t even seen any ferry workers supervising people on either of the two exterior decks – something else I was accustomed to.  There were many people enjoying the weather outside on the upper decks and far fewer inside.  I wondered if any one was paying attention to the individual decks’ capacity limitations – limitations which ensure that the boat stays within its designed stability parameters.

Fortunately that good weather didn’t test the vessel’s stability and we made it safely to Pier 41.  Upon arrival, the Captain announced that this boat was continuing to Angel Island, rather than connecting with a boat to Angel Island as indicated by the schedule.  Normally this would just be a minor difference, but it became a big deal given our bike parking situation.  Since the Angel Island-bound folks weren’t getting off, they didn’t come down to get their bikes out of the way of the other bikes.  Again, this wouldn’t usually be a problem, but we had bikes stacked up to the point of blocking the one door that provided access to the rear deck.  Thus, those of us needing to get our bikes off the boat in San Francisco had to dig them out, moving bikes one at a time in to the passenger compartment and re-stacking them there.

The passageway to the rear deck was so narrow that only one person could come in or out at a time.  Between unstacking and restacking the bikes and working through the narrow passageway to retrieve our bikes, we added at least 10 minutes to unloading the boat, delaying those going to Angel Island, and contributing to further delays throughout the day.  By the time I was off the boat, I was 52 minutes behind schedule – unacceptable for what was to have been a 35 minute trip.

The Bay Area relies on the SF Bay Ferry to provide a reliable alternative means of transportation.  As such, we must have better service, operating on published, realistic timelines; with policies in place that are designed to work with the crowds expected during BART or Bay Bridge service disruptions.

If a ferry is serving multiple destinations, the bike parking needs to be configured so that everyone can access their bike at every stop.  If the boat can’t be configured that way, then we need to go to a Caltrain-style bike tag system. None of the ferry personnel were present to direct the loading or unloading of bikes at any point in the voyage.  Even that could have helped to avoid the bike unloading issues that we experienced.

The ferry did seem short staffed (but not short staffed enough to lack a bartender) due to the need to operate a larger-than-normal fleet. However, if we’re going to rely on their ability to get us across the Bay, then they need to have an appropriate surge staffing plan too.  I’m happy to have the ferry in my commute, I just hope feedback like this will get Blue & Gold to run their system a bit more smoothly.

Written by Daniel Diiulio

Daniel Diiulio

Daniel DiIulio is a civil engineer who lives in San Francisco and works in Oakland. He considers bicycles vital to humanity’s future prosperity.

2 comments to Delays, headaches reign on an overloaded Saturday ferry

  • Easy

    Seems like BABS could reduce the number of bikes needed on board.

  • Dan

    Yes it could, but not before the bike share system is expanded. The closest BABS station to pier 41 is a quarter mile away at Sansome and Embarcadero and there are currently no plans to expand BABS to Oakland.