A fleet of three San Francisco ferries gliding across the water on a clear day, with the Bay Bridge and San Francisco skyline in the background.

Smooth Sailing Across the Bay

Amit Cohen

During the mid-1800s Gold Rush era, Horace Carpentier and his associates founded Oakland in part as a stop for their transbay ferry service to San Francisco. Ferries continued to swiftly rise in popularity—by the late 19th century, as many as 27 active ferry companies served approximately 30 stops, mostly along the San Francisco-Oakland corridor, with boats often seating over 1,000 passengers. Ferry traffic peaked in the early 1930s before the construction of the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge caused significant drops in demand. Eventually, the decrease in customers led to the consolidation of ferry lines. As smaller companies were bought out, the Southern Pacific Company became the region’s largest maritime operator, followed by the Key System, which owned Oakland’s early 20th-century streetcar network. 

A ferry docked at a pier north of the San Francisco Ferry Building. Plumes of smoke drift in the background.
The Asbury Park ferry docked at a pier just north of the San Francisco Ferry Building. Credit: Found SF (Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Ferries continued to struggle after the construction of the two bridges. However, the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake gave the industry a boost as state transportation funding became available for ferry companies to provide emergency services. The boats took on an elevated role due to the collapse of the Bay Bridge, serving as a more convenient choice for cross-bay commutes. Ferry usage also jumped in 1997 during a week-long strike against the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, the main rail transportation system for the San Francisco Bay Area. Today, ferry service is run by the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), carrying about four percent of trans-bay ridership during peak morning and evening hours.
As the Bay Area recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, local residents are beginning to return to public transit. Proponents of the ferry, including Oakland Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan, hope to boost ridership by increasing the frequency of ferry service and adding new routes. However, improved service likely depends on the release of transportation funds from Regional Measure 3, which was passed in 2018 but is held up in litigation over a toll increase for Bay Area bridges. Should the measure be upheld, ferries could receive the resources they need to grow in prominence and become a more common choice for trips across the Bay, much like in Oakland’s early days.

Cover image credit: San Francisco Bay Ferry

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