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Could Vancouver's ferries work in the Anacostia?

A fleet of tiny ferries zigzags back and forth between neighborhoods and major tourist attractions on both sides of Vancouver's False Creek. Could the same work on the Anacostia River, connecting sites on Buzzard Point, Near Southeast, Poplar Point and Anacostia Park?

Photo by Potjie on Flickr.

When visiting Vancouver a few years ago, Greater Greater Wife and I took a hop on-hop off bus tour. When we got to the city's aquatic center, the guide suggested catching a small ferry to Granville Island, where a major food market draws locals and tourists. After we took in the market, we rode the ferry to other neighborhoods where we could get back on the bus.

Most ferries we're familiar with in eastern US cities are huge 1,000 passenger, car-carrying ferries like the Cape May-Lewes ferry, or 150-250 passenger water taxis like in New York. These ferries are far, far smaller, closer to the size of a van and hold only 12 or 20 passengers.

Top: The Spirit of False Creek 3. Bottom left: Cape May-Lewes ferry.
Bottom right: NY water taxi. Images from Wikipedia.

An operator stands on a platform in the center and drives the boat with a few joysticks and handles, while passengers sit around the edges. It operates a lot like a bus; in fact, the drivers even cruise past some of the docks and won't stop if nobody's waiting to get on or off.

The False Creek ferries only ply a route about 2 miles from end to end as the crow flies, or 3 route miles, zigzagging back and forth across the waterway.

Besides Granville Island and the science museum, they stop at a maritime museum, science museum, and a space museum with a planetarium and observatory. A stop in Stamps Landing takes you to a neighborhood with a lot of restaurants, and another, Yaletown, is a district with many new condo towers.

False Creek Ferries route map.

Each stop is only about 2-5 minutes apart, and costs $3.25 to $6.50 CAD depending on how far you go. The most popular route, the aquatic center to Granville Island, runs every 5 minutes from 7 am to 9 pm, or 10:30 pm in the summer. The other routes run every 15 minutes from about 9 am to 5-6 pm (depending on destination) in the winter and 7-9 pm during summer.

Best of all, the ferries actually operate completely self-sufficiently. In fact, there are 2 ferry companies that compete with one another!

Is this relevant to DC? It turns out that False Creek is about the size of the Anacostia:

False Creek (top) and Anacostia River (bottom) at the same scale. Images from Google Maps.

While not very wide, the Anacostia is a mighty gulf separating two sides of the river. For a long time, there was little on the banks of the Anacostia, on either side. But that is changing. We already have the ballpark, and Yards Park. Buzzard Point could get a soccer stadium.

On the east, Poplar Point is slated for development, possibly including a boulevard from Anacostia Metro to the water's edge. Historic Anacostia is not far from the river. Plus, if DC builds the 11th Street Recreation Bridge, we could have a significant attraction right on the river.

A ferry bouncing back and forth across the river, with stops at all of these attractions, could bring the two sides closer together than ever before and make the water a public space. These 7 stops cover a route about 2 miles long, or about the same length as the part of the the False Creek Ferries route network east of Granville Island.

Potential ferry stops on the Anacostia. Image by the author on Google Maps.

The Buzzard Point stop would be near a future soccer stadium and the Poplar Point stop at the end of a retail-lined avenue leading to Anacostia Metro. A stop at the 11th Street recreation bridge would connect directly to the streetcar and to all of the activities on the bridge, as well as being a short walk to Historic Anacostia.

A set of office buildings is going in the triangle east of the 11th Street Bridge and south of the freeway, and once the freeway segment to Barney Circle gets turned into a boulevard, there could be a pedestrian connection from the water up to Capitol Hill and Potomac Avenue Metro. Sadly, the CSX railroad bridge is too low for boats to travel under, so the ferries couldn't reach Hill East.

None of this precludes other types of ferries, like the longer-distance water taxis from places like Alexandria or Georgetown, or even farther south in Virginia, if those make sense. Those would use larger boats, running much less often.

Could this ferry system work here? I'll give my take in Part 2. Meanwhile, what do you think?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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That's a lot like the small ferries in Annapolis that run from the city dock around to College Creek or wherever. About the same size.

by Steve D on Oct 1, 2012 11:57 am • linkreport

and the baltimore water taxis, although there the distances are greater.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 1, 2012 12:00 pm • linkreport

Baltimore has not one but two ferry services between the Inner Harbor and other neighborhoods along the water, like Locust Point, Fells Point and Canton. I think it's a great idea, but I'm not sure if it would work along the Anacostia yet - there just isn't enough within walking distance of the water on either side, and unlike Baltimore there are several bridges and three Metro lines that cross it, giving people a direct alternative. It might be worth looking at when future development occurs, however.

by dan reed! on Oct 1, 2012 12:02 pm • linkreport

Could it work? Probably not, and the reason is land use. Vancouver has very dense development right up to the water, and DC does not in this case. You have density, but walled off from the public (the navy yard), and you have large parks and a freeway walling off the developed areas from the water on the other side.

Also, all of the Anacostia there is a no wake zone, so the boats would be going rather slow.

If an operator wanted to give it a shot, by all means, let them. But I don't know that it would be a great transit option.

by Alex B. on Oct 1, 2012 12:13 pm • linkreport

This is decades away from being really worth it. The Navy Yard is barely worth it and a Buzzard Point stadium wouldn't be on the water.

by selxic on Oct 1, 2012 12:51 pm • linkreport

Yeah. This would be a great pipe dream, but is totally incompatible with the land use along the river today.

There are virtually *no* walkable destinations on either side of the river.

Right now, you've got Nats Stadium/Yards Park and the Southwest Waterfront, neither of which are consistently active, and not much between.

But, since you asked, I'll walk you along the river starting in the northeast:
We'll start all the way up in Bladensburg. From there, it's actually a few miles before you even notice civilization (the only signs being a few bridges). The river banks are lush parkland. Not at all what you'd think of when you mention the Anacostia River. Also, not something you'd ride a ferry to.

Kingman island (and access to the RFK site) are really the only real accessible destinations north of the CSX Railroad bridge, and neither of them are much of a draw at the moment. Right now, most of the RFK river frontage is being occupied by DC Water construction activity (for those huge storage tunnels).

Not that any of this matters. This part of the river is too shallow even for small craft, and the clearances under the CSX bridge are less than 10 feet. (The river's narrow here, and presents a great opportunity for a pedestrian bridge along the railroad bridge or a bridge that would connect Mass Ave over the river. This would be way better than a ferry.)

Past the CSX bridge, you have the Anacostia Community Boathouse and Seafarers Yacht Club. These are isolated from the street grid by the railroad, and the nearest access point to the city is at 11th St: 9 blocks and roughly a mile away. There is also an awkwardly-configured bike/ped bridge over the tracks to the RFK site via the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail.

Across the river is Anacostia Park. It's actually a fairly well-used park, but probably can't justify a water taxi today.

Moving further west, there's the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge, the Eastern Power Boat Club, and then the 11th St Bridge. All this land is extremely polluted. It might be some day developed, but the railroad-related access issues will remain.

Across the river, is more of Anacostia Park and a public pool. Again, it's fairly well used, but couldn't support a water taxi.

Next up is the 11th St Bridge. It should be noted here that the 11th Street Bridge is just about a mile from the nearest residential or commercial property, and that the spans that would have supported the "Recreation Bridge" were demolished last week. That project is never going to happen.

Past 11th St, there's the Navy Yard (no access), and finally Yards Park/Diamond Teague/Nats Park. The one destination in the area that you might want to go to by boat.

Across the river is Poplar Point. Someday, we might be able to support a ferry between Nats Park and Poplar Point/Anacostia Park. That time certainly has not yet come.

Past that is the South Capitol Bridge (soon to be a major construction zone), a few industrial sites, a power plant, and the marina.

Across the river here is Bolling AFB. Good luck convincing the Air Force to open a ferry terminal on their base.

Past this, you get to the Potomac and Washington Channel. Up the channel, you might be able to support a stop along the Southwest waterfront or at the East Potomac Golf Course. However, a pedestrian bridge (again) would be a much better solution, and it's only an odd twist of history that one was never built.

It should be noted that the water around Hains point can get pretty rough. Riding a small ferry would be unpleasant in those conditions.

From Hains Point to the Kennedy Center is 3 miles. That's too far of a distance for a small ferry to cover.

by andrew on Oct 1, 2012 1:01 pm • linkreport

Ferries make sense where you have lots of population AND the river is proximate to major activity centers/destinations.

Therefore, right now, ferries don't make sense in DC on the Anacostia and for the most part, on the Potomac.

1. On the "east of the river" (really south) side there isn't demand.

2. On the west of the river (really north) in Capitol Hill/SE Waterfront there are some jobs but not tens and tens of thousands.

3. Downtown DC, where the bulk of jobs are in the city isn't proximate to the river.

E.g., I happened to ride one of the new ferry routes linking Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn a day or two after it had been launched. We went from Queens to Manhattan, and the Queens dock is very very very very very very very far from activity centers, making it less likely to be used, although it might be for Brooklyn people lacking better direct connections to Queens.

I don't know enough about the Brooklyn (via Queens which therefore takes longer) to Manhattan connections to know if that makes sense.

c.f. the "ferry" from Alexandria to National Harbor.

When Poplar Point develops, a more touristy ferry system could develop, comparable to Baltimore. That's probably 20 years off.

by Richard Layman on Oct 1, 2012 1:31 pm • linkreport

Washington is a city that has really turned away from its rivers. Perhaps the pollution in the past was that bad. Certainly the smell of the canal in the summer would sugget so.

With the closing of the power plant, it would be interesting to see if this is a long term trend towards investing on the water.

Pentagon to Ft. Belvoir.

by charlie on Oct 1, 2012 1:35 pm • linkreport

While I don't know about Anacostia, a more frequent (and less obviously touristy) water taxi service running from National Harbor to Georgetown via Old Town, Nats Park, and other destinations would be a better (and more lucrative) alternative.

Alexandria is certainly moving towards reclaiming their waterfront from warehouses and the power plant, so maybe other development will occur along to banks of the Potomac and Anacostia.

by Thad on Oct 1, 2012 1:52 pm • linkreport

We already have ferries that go between Georgetown and Old Town, right? - couldn't some of them be re-routed if there's a need - such as a ball game or event at the park, etc?

Also, wasn't there supposed to be a velodrome at Buzzard Point - what ever happened with that? How about the Kennedy Center water steps being redesigned to allow for people to arrive by boat? And finally, what about the new dock around National Airport? - wasn't that supposed to have a redesign?

by Shipsa01 on Oct 1, 2012 2:25 pm • linkreport

American River Taxi kind of fits this bill in terms of size of boats and whatnot, though it doesn't serve any EotR locations and their service is not that frequent (I think most of their business is ferrying people between Georgetown and Nats Park).

by Steven Yates on Oct 1, 2012 2:47 pm • linkreport

The American River Taxi boats are the larger kind like the NYC water taxi ones, not the Vancouver size, I think. Not that there's anything wrong with those boats, but they serve a different market niche for less-frequent, longer-distance service.

by David Alpert on Oct 1, 2012 3:11 pm • linkreport

These are niche services priced accordingly (ART, the National Harbor stuff). So when they are priced like that are they really transportation or entertainment?

Theoretically, the Wharf and development in SW could drive demand sort of, but since we don't have steamboat transportation on the Chesapeake and Eastern Seaboard anymore there aren't enough services using the river to make such a service profitable, although I think steamboat "service" should be brought back as more of a weekend tourism-excursion thing, focused on reconnecting the region to the water.

wrt Charlie's point about DC and the river, it's also related Andrew's point about the riverbanks (Anacostia and by extension the Potomac) being devoted to parks and not mixed/variety of uses.

I think someone made a similar point in another entry wrt Poplar Point and the mix of park use and other use and how "big parks" aren't necessarily usable.

by Richard Layman on Oct 1, 2012 3:48 pm • linkreport

What is actually along the Anacostia for people to go to ?

On the Northern side the only area where there could be a stop or ferries in near the Stadium, there is no reason for the average person to go to Navy Yard or beyond. The boulevard where the SW/SE freeway is who in there right mind will walk up a hill or im assuming new steps to the top of the cliff where everything else is unless they plan on raising the ground level masses will never considering walking over there.

On the Southern side there is nothing for atleast a half mile until you get near River Terrace where the ferries wont go. If we truly want a ferry service along the Anacostia what we need to do is asking and trying to figure ways to get all bridges high enough so that boats can go under them all with no problems or making every bridge into a tunnel.

Unless we get rid of a few bridges or Anacostia Park (doubt the public or resident of the area east of the Anacostia will give a damn about getting rid of half of it since it is mostly unused wasted space).

by kk on Oct 1, 2012 6:47 pm • linkreport

Water is rather the least efficient way of moving people these days. Which is why most forms of water transportation are recreation vice transportation oriented. Even Hawaii couldn't get either an intracity or an interisland ferry to work. (though the latter was almost entirely NIMBY politics)

by Kolohe on Oct 1, 2012 7:56 pm • linkreport

IIRC, Insurance and liability is a much bigger issue in the USA versus Canada. This tends to discourage these sort of small scale affairs, or make them very expensive.

by SJE on Oct 1, 2012 9:20 pm • linkreport

What everyone else said about why it wouldn't work.

But I'll add that in Bangkok they do this, they run one line on one side of the river and another on the other with a few that go across. Like a ladder. And the Elevated train ends right at the river's edge.

by David C on Oct 1, 2012 10:13 pm • linkreport

One thing I noticed in the pictures is that the buildings - unlike most of those here - are interesting to look at. They have height, curves, and setbacks. Hardly a squat box in the bunch and they don't all look alike.

by ceefer on Oct 2, 2012 9:51 am • linkreport

I know some of the setbacks have to do with Vancouver's zoning. High rises in vancouver have to be tapered so they're much wider at the bottom. At least in some neighborhoods in the downtown area.

The curves also allow for more units to have some sort of water view than could be allowed with a flatter frame.

And when you can build (theoretically) as high as you want then you don't worry as much about fitting as much sellable space into a finite amount of airspace. The height limit in DC encourages architects to max out what space they have since the buildings definitely aren't getting any taller any time soon.

by drumz on Oct 2, 2012 9:57 am • linkreport



Just saying what I always do - the DC height limits make for some very boring, uninspired buildings. I wish they would go away.

by ceefer on Oct 2, 2012 11:41 am • linkreport

@ drumz

How many buildings in DC push the top of the limit most buildings in DC are about 8-12 stories when they could fit more in. Another issue when concerning space is that many buildings here have 2 and 3 story lobbies for no real reason except for looks which provides no function.

by kk on Oct 2, 2012 9:35 pm • linkreport

Show Anacostia "east" some love, and let the ferries come to Anacostia Park, which is walkable to GHR/MLK downtown Anacostia; which is rapidly changing.... Have some vision, and take a chance for once....

by Anacostiaque on Oct 8, 2012 7:28 am • linkreport

Anacostiaque: The diagram does show the ferries going to Anacostia Park.

by David Alpert on Oct 8, 2012 8:39 am • linkreport

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