This Bay Area transit service is booming after adding more service on the weekends

This Bay Area transit service is booming after adding more service on the weekends

When the San Francisco Bay Ferry increased service beyond pre-pandemic levels in July, it did so by discounting rides and beefing up the number of its weekend trips offered, in favor of the peak-hour weekday service that used to make up much of its ridership.

By Ricardo Cano

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

(MCT)

September 13, 2021

When the San Francisco Bay Ferry increased service beyond pre-pandemic levels in July, it did so by discounting rides and beefing up the number of its weekend trips offered, in favor of the peak-hour weekday service that used to make up much of its ridership.

Two months later, the service increases seem to be paying off, and the ferry's ridership surge marks the latest example of how the pandemic has changed the way people get around the Bay Area, perhaps for the long run.

The ferry's ridership is a fraction of some of the region's largest operators, such as Muni and BART, and weekday ridership remains at 32% of pre-pandemic figures despite its recent ridership bumps. But the ferry's surging popularity on the weekends illustrates how weekend and leisure travel have taken center stage during the Bay Area's summer of reopening.

Ferry service to Giants baseball games is selling out. And though its weekday ridership has increased by 67%, particularly during midday hours, Saturdays and Sundays have now become the most popular days to ride the ferry, reaching more than 60% of pre-pandemic levels since service resumed in July.

"The weekend and midday travel has to be the biggest surprise," Seamus Murphy, the ferry's executive director, said. "We were not expecting our weekend service to be at 70%, of pre-pandemic levels on our holiday weekends."

In response to its growing weekend ridership, the ferry added more weekend service from Oakland and Alameda starting Labor Day weekend. It also plans to bring back limited service to South San Francisco in October.

Research by the San Francisco Bay Ferry found that many people boarding ferries since July are first-time riders who didn't use the service before the pandemic.

"For us, that suggests that they weren't ferry riders prior to the pandemic because either the service didn't work for them because it was peak hour-based and this new off-peak focus has made it relevant for their needs," Murphy said, "or they were priced out of the ferry system prior to the pandemic."

Still, it's unclear whether the shift is part of more permanent ridership behaviors or merely a symptom of a tumultuous moment for the region's transit providers.

Saturday and Sunday traffic congestion on Bay Area roads has neared and sometimes exceeded 2019 levels, a recent Chronicle data analysis found. Public transit ridership, overall, remains far below what it was before the pandemic but is rising faster on weekends for many operators: BART's weekend ridership, for example, is at about 40% of pre-COVID figures compared to roughly 25% on weekdays.

On highways, weekday traffic congestion's dramatic peaks during the morning and afternoon commute hours have depressed as more motorists have spread out their travels throughout the day. On Muni, downtown travel has gone down as most offices remain closed while trips between neighborhoods have increased.

The pandemic tanked public transit ridership and many operators project it will take years to recover to 2019 numbers.

"I think we're going to have to be nimble to adjust to the realities of a new economy, new ways that people are working and the direction the pandemic takes and make adjustments as we need to so the (ridership) trends that we're seeing continue," said Jim Wunderman, CEO of the Bay Area Council business group.

Wunderman, who also chairs the board of the Water Emergency Transportation Authority that operates the ferry, said its service restorations took "a very different approach to what we had before, which was focused on commute peak periods."

By June, the San Francisco Ferry aims to reach 50% of its 2019 ridership levels, when nearly 7,000 people boarded from Oakland, Alameda, Richmond and Vallejo on weekends. More than 5,400 people boarded ferries the first weekend of September.

"That seems to be really working for us now," Wunderman said.

The San Francisco Bay Ferry is using federal emergency funds it received during the pandemic to sustain service and is banking that the funds will sustain operations through the next few years. The ferry is adding service at a time when many of the Bay Area's transit operators are taking conservative approaches to restoring service.

But Murphy said the ferry and other Bay Area transit operators could look to the ballot box to help fund service, long-term.

"The region is going to need to come together and figure out a way to sustain transit service that hasn't returned to pre-pandemic ridership," Murphy said.

Ricardo Cano is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: ricardo.cano@sfchronicle.com

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