Standing on the deck of Long Beach's AquaLink water taxi, I was reminded of a story my grandmother once told me about riding the Staten Island Ferry back and forth to stay cool during the muggy New York summers of her childhood.
Minutes earlier I had been sweating at the city’s downtown marina, wondering why I hadn't worn shorts. But once the boat got moving, the cool sea breeze became a natural air conditioner—more refreshing even than the climate-controlled confines of the cabin (where riders can purchase cocktails).
I looked around at the crisp blue water and watched clusters of office buildings and beachfront high-rises fade into the distance.
“Not a bad way to travel,” I thought, as a pair of dolphins emerged from the surf.
Bright orange catamarans and cabin cruisers have ferried riders around the Long Beach’s waterfront since 2001, and hopping aboard the vessels is one of the most accessible seafaring experiences available in Los Angeles County.
But I wanted to find out if the water taxi system could be a true form of public transportation. As Los Angeles County grows its transit network—and deals with the effects of crippling traffic congestion—should local leaders consider how sea routes might be used to move people throughout the region?
In the last decade, several coastal U.S. cities, including New York and San Francisco, have adopted ferry systems or expanded existing ones in an effort to bypass gridlocked streets and provide commuters with new ways to get around.
In the Los Angeles area, proposals for ferry systems connecting the region’s beach cities have been explored by local officials for at least a century. In 1991, Santa Monica planners explicitly pitched ferry service as an alternative for drivers afflicted by traffic on the 405 freeway.
Former USC student David Bailey mapped out a similar concept in 2017 that would provide an aquatic link between Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica, and Malibu.
“LA has the car alternative figured out, we’re working on rail, but the ocean is a huge opportunity, and we’re not using it,” Bailey told Curbed last year.
Long Beach is the only Los Angeles County city that’s incorporated ferry service into its transportation system. Though technically operated by ferry company Catalina Express, the water taxi is funded by the city’s public transit agency and operates in the same network as its buses (fares can be paid through the same mobile app used to purchase bus trips).
Up until now, the ferries have only been brought out during summer months and for special events. But Long Beach Transit announced earlier this year that it would begin offering year-round weekend service on the boats.
The city operates two lines: the longer-distance AquaLink ferry and the AquaBus, which serves mainly as a link between the Queen Mary ocean liner (permanently moored at the mouth of the Los Angeles River) and the other tourist attractions positioned around the city’s downtown marina.
A ride on the AquaBus costs just $1 and lines for the boat wind around the dock during special events and seasonal attractions onboard the Queen Mary. But its limited route clearly has more appeal for tourists than residents trying to get around the city.
The $5 AquaLink travels between the downtown harbor and Alamitos Bay, close to the Orange County border. Complete with a small park-and-ride lot near the Alamitos marina, the ferry is a more viable option for commuters—or, it would be if it offered rides during the morning rush hour.
Even during the summer, when the AquaLink runs on weekdays, the first boats don’t launch until 11 a.m. (final departures are between 9:45 and 10:30, depending on the day of the week). Long Beach Transit also has just two AquaLink vessels, meaning that boats can only depart every 45 minutes
Long Beach Transit spokesperson Michael Gold says the agency has mulled the possibility of expanding service hours attract riders who work in downtown Long Beach, but right now there’s no budget for those additional trips.
The ferry probably also wouldn’t save any time for passengers who could otherwise drive. On my recent trip, the journey to Alamitos Bay took about 35 minutes. A car ride back to downtown lasted 19 minutes, complete with a missed turn.
Time savings by boat would probably only be realized over longer distances and in places where the region’s geography makes a trip by sea more direct—like the journey from Santa Monica to Malibu.
A 1979 landslide that buried part of Pacific Coast Highway offered residents a brief preview of what that service might look like. During a weeks-long road closure, Caltrans ran a ferry between Malibu and Santa Monica, at a cost of $2 for a one-way trip.
As the Los Angeles Times reported at the time, the service was far from seamless. On the first day, boats departed behind schedule and encountered rocky surf, leaving at least one rider seasick. The ride from Malibu Pier also took 50 minutes—longer than a bus trip today.
In his proposal, Bailey points out that, at a speed of 27 knots (31 miles per hour), a ferry trip from Santa Monica to Malibu could be made in just 23 minutes—including two minutes docking time. At that speed, a boat ride might be more appealing to travelers seeking to avoid rush hour traffic.
But Move LA director Denny Zane, who sat on the Santa Monica City Council when the city considered reviving the ferry idea in the 1990s, says he’s skeptical that a ferry service would ever draw in a high number of commuters.
“As difficult as our traffic is, I seriously doubt a ferry service would be a competitive alternative [to driving]—except as a see-the-sea recreational option,” he writes in an email.
One major reason why ferries might not be well-suited as public transit workhorses relied upon by daily commuters is that they are relatively inefficient as a form of transportation. A single AquaLink vessel in Long Beach’s fleet can carry 75 passengers; Metro’s Blue Line train, which departs from downtown Long Beach every 12 minutes, can hold almost 400 riders at maximum capacity.
Of course, Long Beach could buy bigger boats—or run mid-size vessels more frequently—but these options come with new costs and challenges. Gold says that the city’s transit agency has considered adding new ferries to its fleet, but that the service “hasn’t grown yet to that point.”
Right now, Gold says that the water taxi service has a farebox recovery rate of 34 percent, meaning that passenger payment covers only about one-third of the cost of operating the ferries. That’s actually far better than the farebox recovery rate for the city’s bus network (17.1 percent in 2018), but it does suggest that the purchase of new boats would be unlikely to pay for itself.
As it is, Long Beach already spends almost three times as much per rider subsidizing the ferry service as it does the local bus system.
For now, then, the water taxi system is likely to mainly draw in out-of-towners and locals looking to beat the summer heat.
“We get people coming from all over LA—even the Valley,” AquaLink deckhand Steve Bebich told me as he tended the ferry’s onboard bar. “I think a lot of people see it as a little vacation, and I guess it kind of is.”