It's a question Angelenos have considered for at least a quarter-century: Can our waterways help deliver us from the soul-sucking gridlock of Southern California's freeway?
Watching his former colleagues make the daily trek from the South Bay to Santa Monica, USC alum David Bailey thought there had to be a better way. Last March, he sat down and drew up a plan of his own.
"I was just thinking, maybe we could use the old piers that we had: Redondo Beach, Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach, [Malibu] and provide some sort of ferry service so it would be a strong alternative to the road system that we have," Bailey says.
Bailey estimates that a ferry from Santa Monica to Manhattan Beach would have to travel about ten miles by sea and would take between 17 and 21 minutes. A quick Google-mapping of the same route on the 405 reveals that 17-mile drive would take more than 30 minutes.
Bailey's estimates are attractive enough to make us ask: "Yeah, why can't we have a ferry?" We've broken that quandary down into three separate questions.
Is it feasible?
USC civil engineering professor Jim Moore says a ferry would have a unique advantage:
One of the things that's appealing about this is that docks are about as expensive as stations, and there's no right of way to be maintained here. So a service like this could be put in place fairly quickly, and it could have a fairly high capacity because you don't have to separate ships by a great deal of time... You could turn around ferry-sized ships quickly.
Is it faster?
"Under ideal circumstances, an open road would probably get you there faster, but how often is the 405 an open road?" Moore says.
While David Bailey's estimates show a hypothetical ferry providing a faster route, KPCC transportation reporter Meghan McCarty-Carino says that any time saved on the ferry would likely be lost upon docking. Those disembarking would still have to get to their desired destinations:
So say you take the ferry, then you gotta take another bus, another train... Those are the kinds of things that really deter people from using transit in general and would probably deter people from using a ferry as a form of transit: the fact that it's not going to be as convenient as just taking your car, even though it might be more fun.
Who would back it financially?
USC civil engineering professor Jim Moore says a ferry system could be an interesting prospect for private investors:
This is something that would be useful, by definition, to anybody who chose to use it because it would be an option for them: they're not required to use it. If they elected, it means they're happier with it than the alternative, and if they're paying for it then the people who are providing it are also benefiting.
Another possible benefit...
Moore adds that a ferry could help with disaster relief efforts on the Westside in the event of a natural disaster.
The day will come that we will have a major earthquake in Los Angeles. I'm not taking any statistical risks by saying that. It's gonna happen. I hope it doesn't happen on my watch, but it could happen tomorrow. If we're thinking about making public investments in transportation, one of the attributes we ought to consider is redundancy and resiliency. It would be fairly useful to have a fleet of ferries in place if we have a 7.0 earthquake anywhere, say, Newport, Inglewood. We're gonna lose a lot of transportation capacity if that happens and we're gonna be desperate for alternatives. This looks to me like it's an interesting enough idea we should investigate it as an alternative.
Also worth noting...
David Bailey acknowledges that there are other concerns that will likely need to be addressed to push a project like this forward. They include questions about public subsidies, inequality, dock condition, and pollution.
(Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.)