The Potomac Water Taxi Service is more than a recreational boat that tourists flood to every year to see the cherry blossoms and that sports fans use to cruise to Nats Park and Audi Field. It's also a useful transportation system for commuters—I should know, because I take it to work myself.
Water taxis can help fill the gap when Metro is shut down
Currently, the water taxi operates between Georgetown and The Wharf in DC, National Harbor in Maryland, and Alexandria in Virginia. The National Harbor-to-Alexandria service began in 2008, and the service expanded to the Wharf in 2017.
Mary Rinaldo, Regional Vice President of Entertainment Cruises, says, “We launched the water taxi service in response to feedback from our guests and city contacts that were looking for efficient, more environmentally-friendly alternatives to the traditional transportation services on offer at the time.” In 2018 it serviced about 250,000 riders.
The Potomac River Boat Company, which operates the water taxi, is courting commuters. Currently its website has an alert that reads: “Alexandria commuter service begins Memorial Day. Updated schedules coming soon!”
That service upgrade coincides with the Metro shutdown at the stops beyond National Airport, which starts on Memorial Day and lasts until September 8. The shutdown will cut off one of the main entry points between Northern Virginia and the District, and the water taxi could help fill the gap for some riders.
“Our schedule is determined by demand as well as local restrictions/regulations,” says Rinaldo, “We have recently been approved to operate commuter runs prior to 9:30 am during the Metro shutdown. This will add four runs between 7 am and 9 am.”
What my commute by water taxi is like
To commute by water taxi, it helps to live and work in or near areas by the riverfront that are within the boat’s reach. Currently, I know of two regular water taxi commuters other than myself. One takes it from Georgetown to the Wharf. The other, my commute buddy Soohyun Kim, is an architect who works in Old Town Alexandria. She lives in Navy Yard and takes the DC Circulator to the Wharf every day, where she hops on the boat. I walk to the Wharf to catch it.
“Are you telling your friends about us?” Rogers Ferguson, a water taxi employee, once asked me on my morning commute. A retired veteran and native Washingtonian of 53 years, Ferguson thinks that the water taxi has the ability to “fully utilize the river,” as well as respond to a need for more transit options. “One [sentence],” he said, punctuating his words with hand gestures. “Water taxi commute.”
My commute by land requires a transfer, which always includes the element of surprise. While trains technically run every four to eight minutes during rush hour, water taxi headways are currently at around an hour or more, though they come more frequently during prime dates such as during the Cherry Blossom festival. My commute by water is a 25-minute, one-seat ride, with no traffic or ‘other train on the platform’ delay.
To plan my commute for the day, I use real-time apps like Transit, where I can usually see all my options (including scooters.) For the taxi’s real-time updates, there’s a tracker available on their website. The taxi offers its own card or printed booth ticket, but doesn't use SmarTrip at the moment.
“We would love to accept SmarTrip if the demand is there; this is something we continue to explore and evaluate,” Rinaldo says. She says they will “grow the service as demand allows.”
The season pass for the Water Taxi is just below $200, and operates March 1 through January 1. That falls in the vicinity of what my monthly on-land commute from DC to Alexandria costs.
Other cities have commuter water taxis
Other cities from around the US and the world already have their own versions of water-operated modes of transportation. Vancouver’s privately owned Aquabus started off as tour boats and water taxis as well. Today it has eight stops along False Creek with certain vessels carrying bicycles, strollers, and wheelchairs.
The Ferry Building, a San Francisco landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, has various lines that sprout out to different parts of the Bay Area and also has multimodal hub potential. It connects to the historic streetcar as well as to nearby bus routes and a Metro and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station. There is also a late bus for people who miss the last ferry.
Washington State has the largest fleet in the US and can accommodate passengers as well as automobiles. Seattle is famous for its ferries, which grew out of private companies that eventually merged under Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which currently operates them. They have an elaborate schedule online that keeps riders informed.
Venice runs boats along the Canale Grande that operate in a bus-like manner. The “Mofoscofati” are the smaller ones that are able to pass under low bridges and in narrow canals. The “Vaporetti” are the bigger and taller boats that are able to carry more people. The “Motonave” are even bigger boats that operate in large canals with no bridges.
Some ferry services even connect continents. Istanbul’s ferries sail the Bosphorus Strait and the city’s Asian side with its European one, as well as a few islands (Princes’ Islands) that do not permit motorized vehicles.
The Potomac Water Taxi has lots of potential
All of the cities above have utilized water to create a service that better serves their dwellers. Similarly, the Potomac Water Taxi has the potential to connect more than the current four points that are close to the water, though sometimes requiring additional infrastructure to provide safe and quick access to the docks.
Service to additional locations could promote connections that do not exist at the moment. The existing north-south connection of the Wharf-Alexandria-National Harbor could add Buzzard Point to the mix, an area that is adding more people as it develops and could benefit from greater connectivity.
The east-west connection could link Georgetown to the Kennedy Center and Rosslyn, in addition to Diamond Teague in Navy Yard, with Buzzard Point as a transfer point between lines and maybe even Hill East in the future. This connection would also provide better access to and from neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
For now, Rinaldo says, “Our primary focus is on delivering an exceptional guest experience across our current network. Whilst we have no plans to expand our routes at this time, we are open to exploring new opportunities to help better serve the local community.”
Still, with its four stops located in major commercial business hubs, many of us can ride the water taxi today. What would it take for you to use it? Is there anywhere else you think the taxi should dock?