Waterborne transport: novelty player or smart transport solution?

photo of waterborne transport in New York

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Cities all over the world are returning to the water. Once the primary mode of transport for world-class metropolises like London, Liverpool, Gothenburg, Oslo and Hamburg, waterways and waterborne transport are making a comeback.

Waterways have acted as corridors of commerce and transportation for thousands of years, but a reduction in industrial activity and the rise of highways meant they fell out of favour with urban planners. But in recent years, renewed interest in waterfront development and urban rejuvenation, coupled with increased congestion on land-based transportation services, has provided an opportunity for waterborne transport to play a significant role in urban mobility schemes.

Until recently, many waterborne systems operated independently from policies that guide land-based urban planning and transport policies. Successful systems today, whether they be leisure or commuter services, attempt to design services that are consistent with, and integrated into, local urban planning and mobility schemes.

What are the arguments in favour of waterborne transport?

Cities on water with usable natural water corridors negate the need to invest in expensive infrastructure. Waterborne transport also offers fixed and reliable travelling time since it doesn’t have to contend with congestion.

It is a unique mode of travel that is often more pleasant than other transport modes (decks for lounging in the sun, on-board concession areas, a guaranteed seat, plenty of space…) and often there’s also plenty of space for bikes. There’s also extra space to cater for those with reduced mobility.

If done properly, waterborne transport can become a fully integrated mode of travel that complements other modes of transport in urban development schemes. In cities where waterborne transport is part of the urban environment, ferry stops are often located in close proximity to land-based transportation systems, which minimises walking distance between modes while encouraging connectivity between the modes.

Possible disadvantages and potential solutions

Waterborne transport has traditionally been seen as expensive to run: vessel construction, terminal design and fuel costs all contribute to the high cost of operating services. Nevertheless, there are methods to make it more cost effective. These include diversifying services, such as by proposing leisure transport for tourists (at a higher rate) during off-peak periods.

Waterborne transport is not typically considered a very environmental friendly mode since its operations can have a negative impact on banks, sea and river life and air. Many developments are taking place in to counter these effects and make it more environmentally friendly. Hybrids boat and solar boats are being more commonly used to reduce emissions, as are fuel cell boats and supercapacitor boats, while specially-designed hulls are being used to prevent wash and damages on riverbanks.

Cities are taking to water

The Waterborne system in London transports around 7 million passenger per year and is planning to double this number by 2020. Venice transports around 110 million passengers per year (only 23% of which are tourists) and Lisbon around 23 million. Other cities with much smaller systems are also using this mode to promote the attractiveness and efficiency of city mobility.

Many other cities with waterways are currently considering adopting a waterborne system, mainly to decongest roads built along waterways. While waterborne transport is well established in a number of cities, such as Venice, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Lisbon, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Hong Kong and New York, newcomers are also starting to catch on with projects underway or planned for cities such as Abidjan, Lagos, Liège and Monaco, among others.

By focusing on service quality and integration with other modes of transport and waterfront development projects, waterborne transport has a bright future in the overall mobility options for cities on water.

  • Join the UITP Waterborne Transport Platform on MyUITP, our secured professional social network, exclusively dedicated to UITP members.
  • For more infomation, please contact Anne Mordret, anne.mordret(at)uitp.org


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