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Planners miss boat with ill-conceived ferry service

After several months of going nowhere, a pilot plan aimed at reviving Shanghai’s slowly dying water transport network is quietly sailing off to the land of local projects that sank after failing to find an audience. In this case the quiet closure of a ferry service connecting destinations in Hongkou District, the Bund and Lujiazui financial district was almost inevitable, since it really didn’t seem well conceived and was operating at big losses.

That said, I do have to commend the city for taking an innovative step to try to revive a dying water culture that is one of Shanghai’s most unique and picturesque assets. Perhaps the city should send a team to study the example of Hong Kong, which has been far more successful at developing a vibrant water transport network that serves local commuters and is also a major tourist attraction.

Shanghai’s newest water ferry didn’t fail for lack of publicity, since I’ve seen it mentioned numerous times on the local news following its debut last December. But many of the reports after its high-profile launch weren’t too buoyant, mostly pointing out its notable lack of riders.

The service along the Huangpu River sounded good in theory, since commuters looking to avoid Shanghai’s ever-worsening road traffic should have been drawn to it by the prospect of a relaxing ferry ride from the populous Hongkou area to the Bund and Lujiazui.

But things didn’t quite work out that way. First commuters complained about the operation times, since the ferry only ran during peak hours that made it unreliable for people who sometimes had to work overtime or come late to the office. The docks themselves also weren’t very well integrated with local bus networks, and involved long walks for anyone traveling to the central Bund or Lujiazui areas, also lowering their appeal for commuters.

The limited operating hours also lowered appeal for tourists, another potential audience. But it doesn’t seem like the service was even designed for or promoted to that group anyhow, even though the Bund and Lujiazui are two of our city’s biggest tourist attractions.

With all those factors working against it, this experiment seemed almost destined to sink. The ferry’s operator said the service carried an average of just eight passengers on each of the 684 trips made during its brief lifetime, even though the boats have a capacity of about 500. As a result the service was operating at a big loss, and will be scuttled on April 1.

This kind of poor result is unfortunately far more common than it should be in a city with global aspirations like Shanghai. Part of the reason lies in insufficient planning, and part also in lack of private participation. City leaders should look to Hong Kong as a good example of how such cooperations could work.

One of Hong Kong’s oldest and most famous services is the Star Ferry, which for years was the main way for commuters to cross Victoria Harbor from Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. That service came under threat in the 1970s and 80s after Hong Kong started building roads and subway connections under the harbor, sharply reducing travel times. But the ferry’s private operators fought back with a plan that today has transformed the green and white boats into a major tourist draw.

Hong Kong also has a major system of privately run ferries that connect its downtown areas with many of the territory’s outlying islands.

There’s no reason that Shanghai can’t follow either of these models, though some careful planning, building of new infrastructure and publicity would be needed. A tourist-friendly ferry service along the Huangpu River would almost certainly be embraced by out-of-towners due to the growing number of stops that would be of interest. Those include not only the Bund and Lujiazui, but also big redevelopment projects like the Cool Docks south of the city center.

Water is one of the most special features of Shanghai and its nearby towns, flowing through the area in a vast network that ranges from tiny streams to the larger Huangpu River, and even the huge Yangzte River to our north. The city should be commended for trying to bring this part of its heritage into sharper focus with its water-bus concept. But it should do better planning and also try to bring in more private participation.

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