Souls Waiting to Board the West Seattle Water Taxi 27 Sept 2019

SDOT’s plan for replacing 4,800 cars per hour that used the West Seattle Bridge at peak includes 950 more people per hour using waterborne transit. Once Covid has receded to the point that most people are returning to work, how feasible is this?

The draft SDOT framework requires “options to increase capacity for waterborne transit.” The regular West Seattle Water Taxi boat (Doc Maynard) holds 270 passengers. It generally takes 35-40 minutes to do a round trip, meaning the best case capacity is about 400 people per hour in one direction.

Back in 2019, water taxi ridership was about 2,500 per weekday. We don’t have per-trip data, but we can estimate that about 200 people were on each peak-direction trip, or roughly 300 per hour. So under pre-pandemic conditions the existing boat can only accept another 100 riders per hour.

It’s possible that cutting some corners could get the service up to 2 round trips per hour, providing another 140 spaces. This might involve not accepting passengers in the contrapeak direction to reduce time spent boarding and deboarding.

The framework says that “SDOT identified a list of potential vessels for expanded waterborne access and dock options on the West Seattle peninsula and along the Downtown Seattle waterfront. SDOT identified numerous vessels (private and publicly owned) that can carry between 50 and 400 people. Additionally, potential docks were identified on the West Seattle peninsula and Downtown Seattle sides that could accommodate new water taxi service.” Even a few of these boats, given sufficient docking points, could easily achieve another 850 riders per hour in capacity.

But are there riders?

Regardless of boat capacity, the biggest question here is actually identifying riders who aren’t already covered by other competitive rides to downtown and then figuring out how to get them to the dock. The West Seattle dock at Seacrest Park is a pain to access under normal conditions. Tthe existing shuttle mini-buses (773, 775) and their meandering loop routes are insufficient to handle an order-of-magnitude increase in ridership, and are an unreliable means of catching a boat. In any case, many parts of West Seattle already have a faster bus option. Harbor and Alki Avenues are in no shape to handle thousands of new drop-off trips. All else held equal, the Venn diagram of peak-time riders who are willing first to do the work to get to the waterfront and then deal with the crossing and for whom the Water Taxi would represent a materially-improved transit outcome during the bridge closure seems to have a pretty narrow intersection. In short, the current ridership isn’t where it is for no reason: the Water Taxi is a premium service (at premium fare) that provides service between a very specific set of destinations, but doesn’t obviously provide a premium travel time for most trips.

The existing terminal has neither an immediately accessible residential area nor a massive center of employment. Seacrest Park is just that — it’s a park. There are only a very limited number of residences along Harbor and Alki Avenues, and access to surrounding low-density residential neighborhoods is tough at best. The built environment over at Pier 50 isn’t helpful either: it’s a steep uphill climb from the terminal to the employment core. It’s also a massive construction zone at the moment, with major work ongoing at the State Ferry side of Colman Dock. Put more plainly, the potential catchment areas of the two terminals is pretty small, and it requires a pretty specific trip pair to find people willing to switch. Perhaps new routes can create new possibilities.

To sum this all up, the Water Taxi needs to find riders who don’t already consider it a second-best choice. There don’t seem to be that many of them within a short distance of the West Seattle dock.

What about the Fauntleroy Ferry Dock?

Washington State Ferries service from Fauntleroy/Southworth/Vashon directly to downtown is not currently possible because they’re able to operate only two of their usual three docking slips while the new downtown terminal is being built. It’s possible that a ferry ride from Fauntleroy to Downtown is faster than the bus for a foot passenger in terms of raw travel time; I wouldn’t put it up against the C Line once all the dwell time and boarding/deboarding is figured in, though.

Work on Colman Dock isn’t scheduled to wrap up until early 2023. However, once it does, the Ferry System planners can be re-engaged about diverting services from Fauntleroy to Downtown. This could be a good time to also kickstart long-planned work to renew the Fauntleroy Ferry Dock as well.


I would push for the following package of solutions:

  • Put peak-hour bus lanes on Harbor Avenue (which is wide enough for two vehicles along most of its length).
  • If at all possible, increase the water taxi frequency itself to 2 round trips per hour in the peaks. If this means deadheading on reverse peak trips a few times a day, it might be worth it, assuming there is demand.
  • Increase frequency on the 773 and replace the mini-buses with full-size buses. Encourage transfers between this route and the already frequent and well-covered C and 21 for other West Seattle destinations.
  • Add a new route “774” Southwest Athletic Complex to Seacrest Dock via Delridge Way. Use parking at SWAC as official Park and Ride facilities. Yes, Delridge has frequent service, but no existing connection to the Water Taxi, and SWAC could provide ferry-exclusive parking.
  • Upgrade the Seacrest Park facility for off-board ticketing to speed up boarding procedures. Right now, fares are checked at boarding.

If the Water Taxi is supposed to absorb 20% of people abandoning driving, SDOT is going to have to think beyond capacity and make it an attractive trip for more residents. New trip pairs will help, but connectivity within West Seattle itself is equally important.

Martin H. Duke contributed to this report.

31 Replies to “The ferries and Reconnect West Seattle”

  1. “This might involve not accepting passengers in the contrapeak direction to reduce time spent boarding and deboarding.”

    If there’s not many passengers traveling in the contrapeak direction, boarding and deboarding them takes a negligible amount of time, so you may as well just let them on.

    The only possible benefit I can see of deadheading in the reverse direction is if there’s an implicit constraint that the ferry *has* to follow clockfacing headways, and it allows the maximum peak frequency to be 30 minutes, rather than 32 minutes, which would round up to 60. In that case, I say, just don’t bother with the clockfacing headways and run the boat every 32 minutes. As long as the connecting shuttles are timed to match it, it doesn’t matter.

    I’m not keen on the idea of a Fountleroy->Seattle ferry. Getting to the actual employment core of downtown, it would be slower than the C-line running on the lower bridge. Even in a worst-case scenario, where the lower bridge has to be closed too, I think it’s better to just create bus lanes on the detour route and work with downtown employers to encourage more work-from-home.

  2. The remedy is probably going to have to include that often-maligned thing called park-and-ride. The COVID precautions combined with high-frequency service to serve a largely auto-owning part of town seem to set up a situation that works well for park-and-ride.

    1. Yeah, probably. I could definitely see a few lots combined with a shuttle bus, which would get riders to the dock a few minutes before it leaves. I’m not sure where those lots would be, though. I’m also not sure if they would be cost effective — adding more buses (like the 775 and 773) might be a better value. Many of those riders will likely include people who drive to Harbor/Alki Avenue. There is a fair amount of all-day free parking along there that is likely unused on weekdays (especially in the mornings).

  3. I’ve always been wary of water transit around the Seattle area. The overall concept is great for commutes and events and I think there should be expanded service during the summer season. But making large investments to capture a noticeable share of motorists I believe is unrealistic, mainly due to the overall customer experience. Taking a bus to Seacrest, then a boat to downtown, walk 2-3 blocks to catch another bus? This is a major turn-off to the average non-transit user who can easily reach their destination with a single car and will pay extra to do so.

    Improvements to the overall experience of the West Seattle Water Taxi should be made, no doubt. But I think SDOT & KC should do so for the sake of peak commuters, event & summer crowds rather than considering it as a competitive option to driving.

    1. In general I agree. The big problem is that we just don’t have the geography where inter-city ferry service makes sense. The problem isn’t downtown, it is (in this case) West Seattle. This is a very low density spot in West Seattle. So even if you walk to work on the other end (and lots of people would) almost everyone would have to take a shuttle bus (or drive) to the dock. Meanwhile, under normal conditions, you could just ride a bus, on a freeway, that connects you right to downtown (yes, there is traffic, but nothing like going through traffic *and* traffic lights for miles).

      But these are not normal times. People who would normally just drive will instead take transit, or at the very least consider it. Imagine you live in West Seattle, and work at the UW (and have to get there by 8:00 AM). You are looking at an absolutely horrific driving commute. Just getting off of the peninsula is terrible. Then you have to slog through downtown. At best you take the new tunnel, but then what? You don’t want to slog through the Mercer Mess, but that is probably your best choice. Otherwise you are crossing the ship canal on Aurora, and then making a similar slog through Wallingford before you get to the UW.

      In contrast, a bus, followed by a boat, followed by a train doesn’t sound that bad. It might take almost as much time, but it is a lot less stressful. What is true for the UW is true for Bellevue and of course downtown. I think it is reasonable to assume that lots of people who would never consider taking a boat would take it now. As to whether that is the best option for the money — that is a different issue.

      1. For Alki, I think the ferry makes sense, especially with the alternative requiring two buses.

        For those coming from West Seattle junction, not so much.

      2. Even for that example commute, I think most people West Seattle would be better served by just taking the 50 to Link in SoDo or the C/120/21 to Link downtown. Water taxi rides really only make sense for a small section of North Admiral and Alki.

      3. Even at Alki you can take one bus to get downtown (peak direction). The 37 will get you there, just as the 56 covers Admiral Way. It is really a matter of congestion and added frequency.

      4. I think most people West Seattle would be better served by just taking the 50 to Link in SoDo or the C/120/21 to Link downtown. Water taxi rides really only make sense for a small section of North Admiral and Alki.

        Yeah, you are probably right. It comes down to congestion and money. If the (post-pandemic) buses are stuck in traffic getting to the approaches to the low bridge, then it makes the ferry competitive. But that is an argument for adding bus lanes.

        Then there is the cost to deal with an expected increase in ridership (as drivers switch to transit). That means running more buses. Truncating the buses saves money. But running more ferries costs money as well. This makes it different than truncating buses at Link stations (back when they ran often). That might have been inconvenient for riders (who could often get downtown faster on the bus) but Metro was able to save a lot of money. In this case, running an extra boat (or two) along with additional shuttle buses is probably more expensive.

      5. It’s not just traffic on the bridge. It’s also sodo and downtown, and they ramps between them. One small gap in the bus lanes, anywhere, can delay the bus by several minutes.

        The 37 also has such a limited schedule that it may as well not exist.

        I think the water taxi is still a very good option for those able to walk or bike to it within 10 minutes. From West Seattle junction, the case for riding it gets weaker, although the shuttle still plays an important role for local circulation. Perhaps, in another world, the water taxi shuttle could be an extension of the 128, rather than a standalone route.

      6. It’s not just traffic on the bridge. It’s also Sodo and downtown, and the ramps between them.

        Yeah, sure. But a lot of work has been done in that regard, and it would be hard for the boat to beat the end to end time of a bus (for most trips) unless the bus is delayed in a lot of traffic. That is most likely to occur in West Seattle.

        The 37 also has such a limited schedule that it may as well not exist.

        Yeah, but is it cheaper to run the 37 more often, or run the ferry more often?

      7. The 37 is suspended.

        What does that have to do with anything? Either way we are talking about an increase in frequency (either of the boats or the buses). I’m just saying that until they run the numbers, we don’t know whether it is cheaper to increase frequency on the boat (and shuttle buses), or just the buses.

  4. a) Thanks for using my photo with credit. Big fan of the West Seattle Water Taxi – it’s quite the photo opportunity.

    b) As to

    Back in 2019, water taxi ridership was about 2,500 per weekday. We don’t have per-trip data, but we can estimate that about 200 people were on each peak-direction trip, or roughly 300 per hour. So under pre-pandemic conditions the existing boat can only accept another 100 riders per hour.

    It’s possible that cutting some corners could get the service up to 2 round trips per hour, providing another 140 spaces. This might involve not accepting passengers in the contrapeak direction to reduce time spent boarding and deboarding.

    So basically you want a very expensive peak only commuter service at a time when we have a lot more commuters going to work from home? I don’t think that makes a lot of sense, nor is a lot of time realistically saved when the water taxi has to head back anyway. Ought to as well get some fare revenue to offset the cost of the trip… from photographers like me for instance.

    1. Read the last sentence of that first paragraph again:

      Once Covid has receded to the point that most people are returning to work, how feasible is this?

      This is all about how to handle the post-Covid transit demand. Again, it all comes down to cost. Is it better to run the boat in the middle of the day (when very few people use it) or is it better to put that money into better bus service? Without looking at the numbers, it is hard to say.

      1. Well said. I think there should be the flexibility to pare back midday water taxi service for West Seattle if need be post-vaccination.

  5. Could they explore other piers? Perhaps rent out the Victoria clipped and run a ferry from their terminal to west Seattle. Then run add a bus towards SLU.

    1. I’m not sure what that gets you. You would end up splitting up service, with a boat going to each one. That means that in the afternoon, if you miss a boat, you have to find a way to the other dock. I think in general the Colman Dock is a better location. It is pretty close to the heart of downtown (where the biggest office buildings are). Either way folks could walk a few blocks and pick up a bus on Third (running a shuttle isn’t worth it, especially since a waterfront shuttle can be stopped by train traffic).

    2. As soon as you exceed hull speed and transition to a planing mode the fuel consumption goes up dramatically. Any “green” benefit is lost and the subsidy required makes North Sounder look cheap. A ship with a waterline length of 200′ has a hull speed of 20 knots (22 mph). The Doc Maynard is only 100′ and operates at 24 knots which is extremely inefficient compared to a bus.

  6. Martin, I think it might be productive to concentrate less on mode (cars, buses, boats) and more on motion. Only creature I know that hates being stuck in traffic more than I do is my car. Oh my sufferin’ gas mileage, oh my achin’ brakes!

    Now, infrastructure-wise, when I first got Ethnoevictionarily-Cleansed out of Ballard six years ago, I already had the lanes, the buses, and the Link for a faster ride to Beacon Hill’s fervently pro-transit Station Cafe than I would’ve had if I’d just moved elsewhere in Seattle. While my car stayed snoozing in its very own “port”, dreaming of woodsy two-lanes all the way to Port Townsend.

    But years before this (FAKE) “COVIDCRASH”, what’s destroyed my Freedom worse than Jay Inslee, Socialism and masks combined? Thousands of motionless motor vehicles that Dave Ross always says still have their tail-lights in Everett, that’s what!

    So my question about the C-line is, between buses and boats, from Southworth in via West Seattle, hulls and bumpers, which mode has less motionless rubber-tired machinery in its way?

    For me, “I” and “S”T, missing signal-priority starts at Olympia Transit Center and ends at Sea-Tac, elevator or stairs, I no longer cares. Sacred Sign I’m awaiting is first onset of RapidRide getting finally permanently green-lighted out from behind right- turning car traffic for its whole route, whatever the Letter.

    BUT. Whether it’s a lie or not, my Sources tell me we need to get active when the first SUV manufacturer starts offering a “Rollin’ Romance” package, where a push of the button converts all seats into a King-sized bed, every window frosts or curtains, the onboard toilet starts to gurgle and the sound system goes X-rated.

    And a flash of thunder reveals the REAL motive behind the push for blanket (and in this case also quilt and furry comforter) motive for the Seriously-SELF-DRIVEN. Which will above all remove the need for any vehicular motion at all that isn’t bed-generated.

    I’m begging you, Elon. ‘Til we at least get those Russian airborne jet hydrofoils for the Southworth-Colman Dock, please confine this technology to the Earth-Mars corridor!

    Mark Dublin

  7. When it comes to capacity, I think the only thing that matters is how long it takes for a boat to turnaround. Travel time would determine how many boats you need, but turnaround time (and the size of each boat) determines overall capacity.

    If it takes ten minutes for the boat to turnaround, then you can have six boats an hour. At 270 per boat, that is 1,620 people per hour. With a forty minute round-trip, you would need four boats. The first boat leaves at 7:00, then the second boat at 7:10, etc. By the time you are ready for a fifth boat (at 7:40) that first boat is back at West Seattle. Of course that assumes that all boats go at the same speed.

    As mentioned though, four boats is probably overkill. My understanding is that there is only one boat operating right now, and the other boat is a backup. Leasing a second boat would double capacity, and increase frequency considerably. Two boats would give you the potential for 20 minute frequency, which would be a huge improvement. If that leads to crowding, then add a third boat.

    Of course you would also need to improve the 775 and 773. Even with just increased frequency they could compete with alternatives, like the 37, 56 and 57 (which run infrequently). I could also see the shuttle system changing. I would truncate the 775 at Alki (where the 56 lays over) while keeping the 773 the same. I would then run a new bus from Alaska Junction to the ferry dock (laying over where the 773 lays over). It might be cheaper to just extend some of the 128 trips to the ferry dock. That means no connecting bus service on parts of Admiral which are relatively low density, but more service on California (and California to the ferry dock service being more direct).

    I’m not sure if all of that is worth it though. It would probably be cheaper to just run more express buses. The low bridge still works, and only transit (and trucks) can use it. If I’m coming from Delridge, for example, then I’m taking the 120, and I would probably get up and over the low bridge before a similar bus got to the ferry dock. I would be downtown before everyone boarded the boat.

    The ferry mainly makes sense for those at the north end of West Seattle (especially now). They avoid the traffic that has occurred in the past heading towards the bridge. In the future, they avoid the traffic heading towards the First Avenue South Bridge. The buses avoid a lot of that traffic because they are running opposite it. But if you add bus lanes on the approach to the low bridge, then it isn’t as big of an issue.

    Then it becomes a matter of money. Running shuttles is a lot cheaper than running buses to downtown, just because they spend so much time downtown. But leasing another boat is expensive. My guess is the best approach is to make the pathway to the low bridge congestion free, and then add a few more express buses (over the low bridge).

    1. It all hinges on this: “to make the pathway to the low bridge congestion free”.

      But that is extraordinarily unlikely to occur. Admiral and Avalon already used to get EPIC traffic jams that obstructed access to the WSB bus lanes, even back when the SOVs had literally at least 4x the bridge+lane capacity to flow away from the peninsula around Spokane and the WSB. As commutes return to normal, there will likely be, once again, 15-20 minute traffic snarls that ensnare buses just as much as SOVs and freight inching their way toward the spaghetti noodle 5-way intersection. Toss at least one bridge opening for boat traffic at random into every morning and evening commute, and you get a recipe for gridlock.

      If SDOT could cut that gordian knot and actually keep buses moving, I think adding runs to the existing bus routes (after restoring them of course) would be almost certainly the best option. In the meantime I wish they’d run at least a skeleton schedule of the 37/55/56/57, rather than letting them gather dust. A whole lot of Admiral residents are probably learning how to car commute for the first time now that Metro has entirely stranded everyone north and/or west of AKJCT.

      You’re right to take a look at turnaround time. Try riding the water taxi for a week to observe the room for operational efficiencies. They frequently wait until 2 to 3 minutes after scheduled time to raise the ramp, much less back out and get underway. There’s a 2nd door in the Doc Maynard, seemingly designed for two ramps of embarking/disembarking passengers, which has never been used (disembarking a full ship can add 3 or 4 minutes to commutes of last folks off). And if there is a car ferry pretty much anywhere in sight coming in from Bainbridge or Bremerton, they sit in place to yield all of Elliott Bay, adding several minutes to make sure to let the cars get there first (there might be some maritime etiquette to explain this, but it has struck me as incredibly slow).

  8. “Once Covid has receded to the point that most people are returning to work, how feasible is this?”

    The bad news (but good news for traffic) is that the timeline is going to be really long. Not as long as the bridge saga (hopefully), but Fauci is now saying end-2021 for potential “back to normal” but that hinges heavily on a workable vaccine that people actually can and want to get.

    I think we’ll see a natural sorting of WS residents over the next year as leases roll over and homes sell. People who have severely difficult commutes will move out, replaced by people who are 100% WFH or for whom alternatives like the Water Taxi or biking are feasible.

    Not everyone affected will move – parents have to think about schools, many couples have at least one bad commute regardless of where they live, etc.

    1. Yes, Fauci said he thinks a vaccine will likely be identified by the end of this year, but producing it and distributing it to a majority of the population probably won’t be complete until late 2021. This gives a more precise target for ramping up transit. I’m assuming things will remain as they are until say October 2021. That implies ST’s next three service changes and Northgate Link’s opening will be in a covid environment. Metro’s sales tax revenue may remain depressed until then. The federal govt may start helping in January. There’s still a potential wave of bankrupcies and evictions which may change the economy.

      Oh, and since Sam is counting, Amazon declined to renew a lease in SLU.

  9. The only folks for whom the water taxi is a faster option are those who live on the north end of the West Seattle peninsula. Bike riders are a niche market as well. For the rest of West Seattle, the only time the water taxi is faster than a C/21/120 is if there is a cataclysmic event like an overturned fish truck or a major stadium event. One common gripe about the water taxi is “how expensive” it is (albeit that is not currently an issue).

    Routing the FVS ferries downtown is a bad value proposition. Sailing times would probably double, which would force a reduction in service. The worst idea I’ve heard about reconnecting West Seattle involves ferries between Fauntleroy and Colman Dock. Irrespective of capacity limitations at both terminals, we’re going to move 80,000 daily vehicle Duwamish crossings 125 vehicles at a time? And how is running the water taxi from Fauntleroy downtown going to be faster than the C (which already has a stop at the Fauntleroy ferry terminal)?

    I really don’t think a Water Taxi shuttle from SWAC makes any sense either. The 120 or 21 are going to be faster. It’s probably darn near a 30 drive from SWAC to Westcrest. If someone in that general area is too far to walk to the existing bus, they don’t need a formal lot, they can just park and hide along Delridge or 35th.

    One point this article did not make is the easiest way to increase Water Tax capacity is to run the backup boat (Spirit Of Kingston) concurrently with the Doc Maynard. Combined, that would provide the ability to move about 900 people an hour (in a pre-COVID configuration). With two boats running 35-minute roundtrips get you close to 15-minute headways. That’s frequent enough it becomes “just go down to the dock and catch the next boat” vs. agonizing over the schedule.

    Nevertheless, I think SDOT is deluding themselves thinking that they are going to divert a significant number of people to the Water Taxi over the bus. There just aren’t enough potential Water Taxi riders. As a result, let’s just focus on making the bus faster.

  10. Ross B and Alex, thanks for bearing with me. My main point is how bad we need to lose the habit of tolerating our highest-design-speed speed roadways being used as parking lots for decades.

    Major source of pollution, worse waste of time. With the tracks so close to the road, whether it’s a bullet-train or not, I think we can afford enough rail service to turn Route 2 over Stevens Pass back into a highway.

    Same advantages I see being offered by a streetcar sister-city relationship between the ST service area and both Oslo and Gothenburg, we should be able to at least try out a couple of the high speed waterfcraft in use on the Baltic, both hydrofoil and “ground effect”, meaning flying low enough to float on the plane’s own cushion of air.

    But again, I’m not so much advocating for a mode as checking out what’s come available that could possibly work. However, permanent working contact with the transit world overseas is definitely worth what it’ll cost.

    Also serious part of my PCC streetcar preoccupation. That kind of super-durable simplicity could be worth its weight in uranium to a transit world that’s so long had to view over-delicate complexity as a trade-mark. Though pretty sure both Oslo and Gothenburg now join us in considering certain Breda products an act of war.

    Mark Dublin

  11. And also, for an ongoing theme, bus tires or steel wheels, hyrofoils or hulls, I’d like to start laying the groundwork for a transit future that fights homelessness and welfare dependency by paying people a living wage to build and operate it. Just time to start keeping our eyes open.

    Mark Dublin

  12. Has anyone looked at rail between ws and downtown on existing track? From the satellite pics there appears to be a single track between the west edge of harbor island and king st on first. With the siding on Spokane you could run two trains, about every 30 minutes at 30 mph.

  13. The focus on the water taxi seems misplaced. It is gold plated. SDOT has provided transit priority on the low level bridge; SDOT is about to open the South Lander Street overcrossing; we have to talk ST into running Link more often. The draw area of the water taxi is limited; the operating cost of a water taxi hour is several times higher than a bus hour; the water taxi trip has wide seams; Pier 50 is several hundred feet from connecting transit service. The better answer seems to be to a frequent network of bus service connecting with Link and routes 101, 102, 150, and 594 at SODO station; the C Line and Route 120 could continue to penetrate downtown via their new pathway on two-way Columbia Street. But other routes could be revised to meet Link and run in two directions; this would improve intra-peninsula trips. the transfer walks at South Lander Street are short; Link and the bus routes serve the length of downtown Seattle. Link extends to the U District and to Northgate in 2021. Revising Route 56 to be two-way and all-day seems strong as well. There is much more bang for our limited bucks in a bus network than in the water taxi. The water taxi docks have limited capacity and that is costly to expand.

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