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A Sea-Bus Future for the Bay Area?

The Heron, one of Tideline’s small boats, is able to spin around in the small space of Pier 1.5 to return to Berkeley. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick unless noted

Note: Metropolitan Shuttle, a leader in bus shuttle rentals, regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog Los Angeles. Unless noted in the story, Metropolitan Shuttle is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

"You're going to need a bigger boat," goes the famous line from Jaws. But maybe when it comes to transportation, the opposite is true.

It's been a little over a year since Tideline Marine Group, a small waterborne transportation service formed by local Marin County residents, started running regular commuter boats between San Francisco's Pier 1.5 and the Berkeley Marina. For $9.50 (there are discounts for monthly passes) passengers get a stress-free ride that takes between twenty and thirty minutes (about the same as BART).

The departing view of San Francisco. Note bicycles are welcome.

The 45-passenger vessels make a few peak-hour round trips per day and, like their larger ferry cousins, offer an alternative to BART and bus commutes and to long drives in stressful traffic. Streetsblog, after learning about the small-boat philosophy behind the service, tried it out from San Francisco to the Berkeley Marina and found the boat comfortable and pleasant, if a bit bumpier than the larger ferry boats Bay Area commuters are accustomed to. On a 4:30 p.m. run the boat carried just fifteen people, most of them occasional commuters who make the trip to San Francisco a couple of times a week. They all seemed quite happy with the new service and want it to expand.

Some regular commuters who are over the view.

The SF-to-Berkeley service is the only regular commuter service offered by the company for the moment. It also runs specials to Giant's games, as well as charters. But Nathan Nayman, President of Tideline Marine Group, sees privately run, small-boat ferries as a way to open up alternative, flexible routes for commuters and, presuming significant expansion in fleet size, an opportunity to get cars off the roads and supplement existing public transit.

Unlike large ferrys, the smaller boats can dock at almost any pier, and therefore don't require expensive new infrastructure. Of course, they also don't carry as many people, but given how infrequent current ferry services run, there's certainly room for smaller, niche market services--at least that's what Tideline is betting on.

If it's not quite Uber on the ocean, it might be compared to a water-borne version of Chariot. Unlike those services, this mode of transportation won't be blocking any bike lanes. That's why, after a boat ride, Streetsblog phoned Nayman to discuss his vision for the future of small-craft ferry services in the Bay Area.


Streetsblog: So I rode the Heron to Berkeley yesterday evening and it didn't feel like a ferry--it felt like I was riding a friend's boat. Your crew even offered me a beer.

Nathan Nayman: We are going for an informal yet professional and safe service. I think that historically when people hear the term “ferry” they think of this gargantuan vessel where people are herded on board--some massive thing. But our premise is based on being efficient but also having some enjoyment while going to work, so we embrace the size and nature of our vessels.

SB: Speaking of which, it took a bit of balance to board and walk around. I'm wondering how your service would work for the disabled.

NN: We are Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) certified by the maritime industry and all federal and Coast Guard certifications.

SB: So if someone is waiting to board in a wheelchair or something you have a ramp or some other accommodation?

NN: Right. You were on the vessel Herron and the boarding is normally done on the starboard side, but we also have rear boarding and a gangway plank that allows people to get on as well if they need it; we’ve had passengers in wheelchairs.

SB: The vessels seemed to move a lot when it was docked.

NN: If someone has a wheelchair we make sure the vessel is tied in a different way.

SB: I see. So it's pulled in tight and a ramp goes out.

NN: Once we see there’s someone in a wheelchair, the crew and captain go into a different mindset.

SB: Got it. I noticed the boat seemed to bounce up and down a lot more than the big ferries. I guess that's not surprising, given its relative size.

NN: We do plan on getting new boats and we're looking at catamarans that may be faster, but honestly with the width of our boats it is smooth.

SB: I dunno. The first part of the trip, though the shipping channel, was pretty choppy.

NN: You may have hit a wake that was more of an anomaly, but it depends on the traffic on the Bay and the northerly winds more than anything else. Quite honestly I've never heard that complaint in over a year. You must have caught it on one of those days.

SB: My luck, I guess. So at the SPUR talk in February, you mentioned Chariot as an operator you work with. Do you see yourself as another transportation “disruptor” of an inefficient model?

NN: We’ve collaborated with everyone from Chariot to Ford GoBike to Lyft to Uber to work on the first-mile-last mile problem... and Amtrak and AC Transit. But we don't see ourselves as a disruptor, not at all. We're a transportation adjunct.

SB: An adjunct?

NN: There's a transportation system in the Bay Area. We see ourselves as complementary.

SB: How do you complement?

NN: There’s no ferry terminal at Berkeley. Should someone have to go down to Jack London Square to take a ferry? Should we add big ferry services in Berkeley that require dredging the Bay, with all that disruption for the environment? We want to complement what's already out there, whether it’s BART, or driving, or the bus, AC Transit or Muni. The bottom line is we see ourselves as integrating into the fabric of a transportation system. People should not be limited by one mindset when it comes to water transportation; there’s no reason someone in Berkeley should have to go to Oakland to take a ferry. We're looking at the South Bay as well. We’re looking at the I-80 corridor along the border of SF.

SB: Tell me more about how you coordinate with other services.

NN: We want to do stuff with AC Transit. The 81 bus down University--they are aware of our schedule and we try to coordinate it. But this is something that’s still fairly new, and we’ve spoken to so many different people about what will it take to make these connections more seamless. Some of it is about money, and some of it is about educating people.

SB: I saw a few bikes on the boat, so I guess people are figuring out how to make those connections via pedal power, if nothing else. You mentioned the Jack London ferry. Even if you're in Oakland it can be hard to use, given the infrequent schedule. Is there room for a supplemental service on the existing routes?

NN: Yes. Not just off-peak. Our thinking is, 'look, if your boat is full and you’re leaving people on the dock at 8:00 a.m, why can't we come in at 8:15 and take the remainder of your passengers?' We don’t want to compete with the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA)--

SB: That's the regulator of the conventional ferry services?

NN: Right. And we don't want to compete with WETA, we want to fill in the gaps. WETA is already looking at a small vessel ferry study that will take six months to a year. But the question comes up--you have a small vessel provider now, meaning us, so let's try to use it in some beta testing. Any good fleet of ferries requires a mix of fleet types. We’re looking at larger vessels as we speak now, for 75 to 100 people, as opposed to the 45-person boats we have now. We also have a smaller vessel that’s a 25-passenger vessel. Each boat has a different use.

SB: Well, as an occasional user of the Oakland ferry, I'd certainly be inclined to use it more if your boats filled in the schedule gaps, or swept me up if there was no room on the big boat during peak times. That said, it would be annoying if I had to use a different payment system. You don't take Clipper cards.

NN: We’ve tried to get on Clipper, but Clipper is controlled by the Clipper Board of Directors, including WETA, Golden Gate Ferry, Caltrain, AC Transit--when we try to submit applications we are told that we are not eligible.

SB: That's a pity.

NN: But we accept Venmo and all other types of electronic transactions--there’s even another version of Clipper that acts as a debit card which we accept. But most of our transactions are done online.

SB: Right. And I paid on the boat with a credit card, so no big deal I guess. So at SPUR you mentioned that WETA is working on a large ferry terminal at Treasure Island, but you would approach a San Francisco-to-Treasure Island service differently.

NN: We would work with the County Transportation Authority and Muni and other providers to coordinate the transportation to and from Treasure Island to different parts of San Francisco. Instead of landing at one particular spot at the Ferry Building, we would want to also land at Mission Bay, South San Francisco, and who knows where else, depending on demand. Do we want to go from Treasure Island to Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond? Do we want to use Treasure Island as a transfer hub for where people want to go? It’s too easy to be San Francisco-centric and think all we need is a ten-minute ride back and forth from Treasure Island to the Ferry Building.

SB: But isn't the Ferry Building the biggest destination?

NN: What about the Marina and Fisherman’s Wharf? One of the things we’ve talked about is there's a small-vessel landing in the Marina adjacent to Fort Mason or the yacht club. We'd be able to bring people to downtown SF in fifteen minutes.

SB: That really is like Chariot--basically like another bus line that happens to use the water. We've talked about transportation agencies, but do you see yourself working with developers to offer a transportation option for coastal developments, like on Treasure Island?

NN: We’re working with Signature about providing service to their development in Brooklyn Basin in Oakland.

SB: That makes was a shipyard after all.

NN: And we're talking with the Lands Commission on potential ferry service for the shipyard development in San Francisco and Candlestick Point, providing a transportation service from the shipyard to the ferry building. We’re also in conversation with other developers around the bay that are looking at South San Francisco, Brisbane, Oyster Point. They've actually talked about making our service part of their Homeowners Association dues.

SB: And Alameda Island?

NN: Alameda is becoming like the new Oakland, but there's only one landing site at Harbor Bay... we think that landing site should be open to private vessels as well.

SB: That's fine and all if it works out, but your tickets are kind of pricey. Are we creating a kind of two-tier transportation service, where some people have to slog on the bus, while some get to enjoy a boat ride?

NN: Is it elitist to have different choices of the kind of car you buy? You can buy a small car. Or you can buy a car that’s ridiculously expensive. It still just takes you from A to B.

SB: Or some people can take a boat and not buy a car at all?

NN: Right. Our boats are not meant to create any class distinctions; it’s just another alternative. Also, we accept WageWorks and Navia, and all the different transportation subsidies... employers provide vouchers that minimize out-of-pocket costs.

SB: One silly question to conclude. All this talk about driverless cars. Do you see a future for autonomous boats?

NN: Never happen. The Coast Guard is really really strict and that’s a good thing because people can get really hurt.

SB: In cars too.

NN: Piloting a boat requires a lot of skill, so I don’t see it. Who knows, but there are so many variables to take into consideration; a change in wind direction that changes the whole way you navigate. I dunno, seems very far-fetched.

SB: Fair enough. Well, bon voyage then.

NN: Thanks.

The interview was edited.

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