Boat Public Transit Scheme for Chicago?

An article in last Friday’s New York Times asks the question: why doesn’t New York City have more ferries?  The Staten Island Ferry is probably the most well known; and, of course, there is the popular water taxi from Wall Street to the Ikea in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  But in a high-density urban area surrounded by water, the author argues that the water transportation potential is underutilized.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation is currently putting together a “Comprehensive Citywide Ferry Study,” which should provide some guidance on expanding water transportation in the city.

I’ve always thought that here in Chicago water transportation options could be a fruitful area for reducing congestion and for expanding mobility options.  In particular, the Chicago River and its tributaries could be used in this regard.  Currently there are a couple of water taxi services that connect the main commuter rail stations on the west Loop with Michigan Avenue and Chinatown.  But aside from the water taxis, passenger travel on the river is limited to private boats and tours.

I am sure there are engineering, navigational, and health and safety issues that would need to be squared away before expanding passenger travel on the river, but below I’ve put together a “back of the napkin” map of an ideal route.

Docks are situated at 1.5-2 mile intervals.  In some areas the docks would serve neighborhoods with limited access to the rapid transit system while in others docks would be integrated with rail and bus to enhance mulitmodality.

I’m not sure about the timing or what sort of craft would be viable, but theoretically you could travel from the northern suburb of Evanston to downtown Chicago in a little more than an hour–making it competitive with local trains.  The greatest potential would be for the north side Chicago neighborhoods where boat transit could be integrated with neighborhood commercial districts in areas like Logan Square/Lincoln Square, North/Clybourn, or Lincoln/Peterson.

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5 thoughts on “Boat Public Transit Scheme for Chicago?”

  1. I’d like to see Riverine Transit in Chicago as much as the next person, but because of the long distances it’s really not feasible. If the Chicago Water Taxi is indicative, you can’t expect boats to average more than about 5-7 mph–even though your plan would have longer distances between stops, the snaking nature of the river on the north side prevents excessive speed.

    Your plan assumes 9 mph travel, and even that yields 90 minute travel times from downtown Evanston (Church St.) to Wolf Point. Perhaps people will accept the slower mode of travel as the land along the North Branch made more friendly to the river, (as opposed to the big box stores that currently back up to it) but certainly not yet.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Ted. Yeah, this is more of a thought experiment than a serious proposal.

    The time/distances to Evanston are probably not feasible. But I would have maybe a little more hope for, perhaps, going as far north as Lawrence?!?

    Integrating river transport with the transformation of riparian areas into recreation corridors would be essential.

    I guess the nice thing about boats is that there is no impact on existing surface routes and the capital investment would likely be lower than bus rapid transit, trains, etc…

  3. I totally agree we should better utilize the river for transit. Even if it’s not a great solution for getting people from the far north side to downtown, it would better connect communities along the river and could help solidify the river as an economic corridor. There are also several points where there could be transfers between the river transit and the CTA and Metra. So the river could act as a feeder service to better connect people to faster trains to downtown.

    I’d also love to see Chicago establish a ferry service to connect us to western Michigan communities. There are some great towns over there on Lake Michigan I’d love to visit, but they’re not easy to get to by train/bus. Summer ferry service to downtown Saugatuck would be very nice.

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