San Francisco's subway is so packed, people will soon pay US$16 a day to take 'water taxis' to work

San Francisco, the birthplace of innovation, is looking to an old-school transit system to ease subway congestion: ferries.

Over the weekend, the city gave two private “water taxi” companies, Tideline Marine Group and PROP SF, the green-light to begin scheduled commuter runs across the San Francisco Bay.

If they opt into the Tideline service, passengers will board one of a handful of ferries in Berkeley, California (with more pick-up locations coming at a later date) and reach their destination at San Francisco’s Pier 15 in only 20 minutes, according to Tideline’s website. The company plans to charge $8 one-way and will hit the water later this month.

Instead of squeezing into a jam-packed subway car for half an hour, water-taxi commuters will sprawl across 40-person vessels, complete with free WiFi, flatscreen televisions, and beverage service.

PROP SF promises 12-minute transit times from Emeryville to San Francisco when it launches in early 2017. Eventually, routes connecting Berkeley and Emeryville with Redwood City and San Francisco will also be added. Its vessels seat up 99 people at prices comparable to Tideline.

Tideline san francisco ferry water taxi 5Facebook/TidelineSFA ferry in Tideline’s fleet cruises past the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

By adding a private tier on top of the city’s existing ferry services, San Francisco will hopefully shuffle more commuters out of its incredibly congested subways and get people to work faster.

Existing public ferry systems make frequent runs throughout the Bay Area. The northern side of the Easy Bay has been largely ignored, however.

The Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay Ferry systems handled some 15,000 passengers a day in 2015. That’s still less than 1% of all city transit tracked by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in 2015, a spokesperson for the agency tells local news network KQED.

The demand for ferries is growing, though, as more commuters look for alternatives to driving and other forms of public transportation. The Bay Ferry will add two new boats and service to Richmond and Treasure Island before 2022, broadening its regional service. A one-way ticket costs $6.50.

The proprietors of the new ferry services, PROP SF and Tideline, say the expansion will not stretch far enough to meet demand.

“We have an untapped waterway,” James Jaber, CEO of PROP SF, tells the San Francisco Chronicle. “Unlike the bigger lines, we can offer cities an inexpensive look at public ferries without a 10-year, multimillion-dollar commitment on their part.”

Because PROP SF and Tideline are private operations, they receive no public subsidies. The companies will rely on commuters who can afford the near $20 round-trip fare to keep them afloat. For comparison, a round-trip ride on the city’s subway system, BART, costs $8 for a similar trip from downtown Berkeley to the Embarcadero.

Tideline san francisco ferry water taxi 1Facebook/TidelineSFTideline turns from party boat to commuter service.

Tideline currently operates an on-demand system where groups of 10 or more passengers can book a private charter across the Bay. It also offers cocktail cruises and rides from Marin and the East Bay to the ballpark during San Francisco Giants games.

“We want to build a water highway,” Taylor Lewis, founder and CEO of Tideline, tells The Daily Californian, a student-run newspaper out of University of California — Berkeley. “Our service is operational right now, but we’re trying to redefine how waterfront transportation works.”

The company is currently selling six-packs of one-way tickets on crowdfunding website Tilt,. Only 58 customers bought in, as of writing.

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