Sunday, July 13, 2008

Avoiding the traffic by taking the ferry

My daily commute is a daily reminder of another way Brazil is quite different than the US. In this case it is a study in contrasts between the Rio de Janeiro bay area and the San Francisco bay area vis a vis public transportation.

I begin my commute just around the block from our apartment where I pick up a bus that takes me to the ferry terminal. During the commute hours a bus passes that stop about every 3 or 4 minutes. If I walk out of our front door and see my bus coming I don’t scramble and race to the stop – I know another will arrive in literally no time at all.

The bus fills up as we make our way to the ferry terminal and the downtown bus depot (with transfers to all corners.) At the ferry terminal stop the bus nearly empties.

The popularity of the ferries is remarkable. They run between Rio and Niteroí around the clock. Between the 7:00 - 10:00 a.m. and 4:30 – 7:30 p.m. commute hours they depart every 10 minutes. Six ferries loop across the bay and back in rapid succession. Moving out from peak commute hours they run every 20 minutes, then every 30 minutes throughout midday, then once per hour through the wee hours of the night.

The new ferries hold 1,300 passengers (although it appears they ‘only’ load them up with 1,200 riders.) And every one that I have ever been on has been packed. So that would be some 21,600 commuters in three hours (read: less cars on the road!)

It’s safe to say that many of the riders do not own a car (or two cars if their spouse is using the sole family car to get to work in another direction.) Or folks are just leaving the car at home as there is scant parking in Rio anyway and what there is is terribly expensive relative to wages.

So folks pack the ferries. (And I should add there is a steady stream of packed busses making the ride over the bay bridge pouring commuters into the streets as well.)

Very impressive. And it’s fun (more fun than waiting in traffic to pay the toll on the bridge!) Newspaper vendors sell all the daily papers. A snack bar on the second floor sells coffee, tea, juice, sodas and a wide variety of savory favorites. Fifteen minutes of calm on the way to and from work.

The commuter ferries between San Francisco and Oakland are lucky to stay afloat financially – and I think even that is accomplished via subsidies from bridge tolls.

Perhaps this is a window into San Francisco’s future. Gas prices here are around R$2.40 per liter. At 3.79 liters to the gallon that’s R$9.10 per gallon. In dollars that would be about US$5.69 per gallon. But I think the R$9.10 is really the better relative comparison. It may be a safe bet that when gas tops US$9.00 per gallon in the San Francisco Bay Area more people will take the ferry. Let’s hope we don’t have to go there!

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