The newsletter of the Active Transportation Alliance
modeshift volume 4, issue 3
by Mary Chris Jaklevic
Long considered primarily a tourist attraction, Chicago’s water taxis are gaining popularity among commuters, who find them quicker, cheaper and more pleasant than buses and cabs.
“It’s just a little 10-minute vacation in the morning,” said Glen Ellyn resident Suzanne Holtz, a market researcher at C+R Research in River North, who started cruising to work on water taxis a year and a half ago.
The city’s two water taxi companies point to service expansions and wider awareness, partly because of more aggressive marketing. Some commuters are also deciding to dodge street congestion caused by the massive Wacker Drive reconstruction project.
“This year has been so far a record year for us,” said Andrew Sargis, manager of the Chicago Water Taxi operated by Wendella Boats, which began offering commuter service in 1962.
Shoreline Sightseeing launched a commuter business in 2009, partly as an amenity for the buildings where it docks its boats, company Vice President Matt Collopy said. He said the service has steadily gained customers and broke even for the first time this year.
Each company carries several hundred commuters daily, but both believe they could greatly expand their role by increasing docks and departure frequency, adding amenities, and fostering more connections with other forms of transit such as the city’s planned bicycle-share hubs.
“Tourism is great, but we’re really part of the city’s transportation network,” Sargis said. “We see ourselves as a complement not only to the bikes but also the CTA and the Metra as well.”
While the companies use different docks, both primarily serve commuters who disembark on Metra trains in the West Loop and work in River North or North Michigan Avenue. A smaller number live in River North and work in the West Loop. Wendella recently launched commuter service between Chinatown and the Loop.
Many passengers say they love the service—some even using water taxis for leisure trips on the weekends.
“It works as advertised. It’s been on time. It’s convenient,” said Michael Doyle, who commutes from his River North apartment to his West Loop job as the online communications coordinator at the Illinois chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “It’s a lot nicer than stopping at the traffic lights.”
It’s not hard to see the appeal. On a recent morning, about 40 passengers embarked at the Madison Street dock of the Chicago Water Taxi for a 10-minute ride to Michigan Avenue. Some opted to sit at the helm of the boat enjoying a breeze, while others sought shelter in an enclosed portion in back.
The boat cut through the water, propelled by a gently humming engine, while riders focused on electronic devices, sipped coffee, read, or stared at skyscrapers and arching iron bridges passing overhead.
“It’s beautiful to be able to use the waterways as a mode of transportation,” said Karen Wegrzyn, an accounting manager at OnPeak hospitality company in River North, who commutes on Metra from northwest Chicago.
“It’s practical as well as fun,” Wegrzyn said.
Water taxis charge $2 for rush-hour commuter rides, compared with $2.25 for a CTA bus.
Despite their appeal, water taxis still suffer from a lack of awareness among commuters. “When I tell people (I take a water taxi to work) they are kind of surprised,” said Downers Grove resident Matt Hair, who takes Shoreline’s water taxi from its stop near Union Station to the 401 North Michigan building.
There are drawbacks. Water taxis stop running in the winter due to ice. Not all docks are handicapped accessible, and boats can get crowded. “If it’s drizzly weather or not walkable and the buses are packed, (the boats) will be packed as well,” said Holtz.
Sometimes there are service disruptions. In July intense rain drove water levels in the river so high that some runs had to be canceled. And river traffic is sometimes halted for security reasons during presidential visits, Sargis said.
Still, water taxi operators said they are poised to play a greater role in Chicago’s transportation infrastructure, given the city’s aims to encourage riverfront development and adopt more fuel-efficient mass transit. Water taxis are one way for commuters to shrink their carbon footprint, since boat travel consumes less fuel than buses and taxis.
Chicago Water Taxi is exploring a possible expansion to the river’s North Branch, where it could serve Kendall College as well as growing retail and residential development, Sargis said. “Now that the mayor and the EPA are going to clean up the river it’s looking like it will be an even better place to be,” he said.
Sargis said he wants to add more green features, such as solar panels and wind turbines to replace onboard generators. He said future expansions could include floating plastic docks that won’t leave a footprint on the shoreline. Sargis would also like to the city establish bicycle-share hubs near water taxi stops.
Shoreline would like to gradually add more runs including on weekends and stretch its operation beyond five months, for which it would need dock amenities such as covered shelters and heat lamps, Collopy said.
“The people who ride it all like it. They just want more departures throughout the day and they wish that the season was longer. Those are the common themes,” Collopy said.
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Mary Chris Jaklevic provided the photos for this article. She lives in Oak Park and blogs at fourthickwalls.net.