From Trucks to Tugs: Short Sea Shipping

Short sea shipping is any movement of freight by water that doesn’t cross oceans, on freight ferries, short-haul barges and various other marine vessels. Both public agencies and private companies are investigating the potential economic and environmental benefits of transferring more cargo from road to sea. The New York metro region, home to the Port of New York and New Jersey and an extensive network of waterways, seems well-suited for this mode of freight transport. The Port of NY/NJ is the largest port on the east coast and the third largest in the US. In 2010, over $175 billion worth of cargo flowed into and out of its terminals. For the freight that is offloaded at these facilities, this is just one stop in an extensive intermodal distribution chain. In New York City’s metro region, 80% of freight transport is carried by truck, a practice that wears on our roads, congests our thoroughfares and increases air pollution. Here, waterfront planner and licensed Captain Carter Craft and deckhand, illustrator and writer of Bowsprite: A New York Harbor Sketchbook Christina Sun tell us about the benefits of short sea shipping and how it can improve the health, efficiency and landscape of New York City. –V.S.


Illustration by Christina Sun

Illustration by Christina Sun

A new computer. Summer clothes. A better desk chair. Your cup of coffee. Tonight’s dinner. How all that stuff gets from factory to front door is largely a mystery to most people – unless you happen to be stuck behind a truck on your way home.

The Port of New York and New Jersey is the gateway for over $175 billion of cargo annually. It is an interconnected web of ship terminals, highways and rail lines, all connected like a circuit board. Goods travel from port to distribution center to store to front door, carried by a giant fleet of tankers, tugs, barges, boxcars and trucks — lots and lots of trucks.

Trucking is the predominant mode of freight transport in the US, carrying 58% of commercial freight (by tonnage). In the New York metro region, it’s more like 80%. Meanwhile, federal studies consistently describe truck routes, highways, bridges and tunnels as being chronically congested (PDF). This isn’t news. We see it on the BQE, the Gowanus and Staten Island Expressways and the George Washington Bridge. And these are routes — the very long trips, the heavily congested metropolitan corridors — that the truckers themselves don’t want. Our waterways, however, are underutilized, with existing capacity waiting to be filled.


Illustration by Christina Sun

Illustration by Christina Sun

New York is a city blessed with incredible waterways. They reach into every borough, across to New Jersey and out to the Long Island Sound. To the north runs the Hudson River, up to the locks of the Champlain and 524 miles of New York State canals, leading us to the Finger Lakes region. To the west are the indomitable salt marshes, the silting arteries of the Passaic and Hackensack, the very busy Kill van Kull and Arthur Kill, and the Raritan River, which once connected us to Delaware via a canal now long gone. The East River mingles with the Bronx River and flows out into the mighty Long Island Sound and beyond, or runs inland as Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal. Out the Narrows, the waters flow through Jamaica Bay, Sandy Hook… and out to sea.

Once upon a time, the waterways were used extensively. Manhattan Island was ringed with piers. The shores were so thick with vessels that one could walk for stretches by stepping from ship to ship. Ships, tugs and barges would bring goods into the city by water, where the raw materials were manufactured into products that were then shipped or transported by barge and train back out.


Illustration of Manhattan and Brooklyn, 1884 | via

Illustration of Manhattan and Brooklyn, 1884

Trucking, the least fuel-efficient means of freight transportation besides air, has relegated rail and shipping to second-class status. Spurred by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 — essentially the beginning of what has become a long history of invisible subsidies to trucking (PDF) — the proliferation of road- and air-based shipping options have led to a “warehouse on wheels” model. Cheap overseas products are aggregated in large pick-up depots. Whatever we need, we simply call in, order and have it shipped. Small neighborhood stores can’t compete. And so, as Kunstler said, we have sold out our communities to be able to buy a cheap hair dryer.

But the prices of what we consume don’t always reflect their true costs. Truck-centric shipping relies on stable bridges, clear tunnels, and smooth roads. It ensures that trucks will continue to rumble into the city, burning fossil fuels in snarled traffic and beating up the infrastructure even more. All of which demands significant maintenance, not to mention environmental, costs.


Regional Highway Corridors, Scaled by Freight Volume, 2004 | via the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council

Regional Highway Corridors, Scaled by Freight Volume, 2004 | via the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC)

But you never get a pothole in the water, as many shipping advocates say.

Short Sea Shipping is the use of small vessels to bring goods from central container terminals to little ports around the city. By extending the distribution reach of waterborne vessels, fewer trucks and vehicles are on our streets and they are driving shorter distances. Roughly 40% of freight in Europe moves by short sea shipping. And in Hong Kong, mid-stream operation moves even more.

Let’s take a look at a few potential shipping routes. Imagine which one you would prefer to take – if you could.

At the foot of Astoria Boulevard, your big box store sells a variety of goods at wholesale prices. Memorial Day weekend is coming, meaning outdoor gatherings, barbecues and picnics — and plenty of party supplies and foodstuffs. You have to plan for a customer rush that is going to last five days. Maybe some of your baked goods come in locally, from one of Brooklyn’s commercial bakeries, but most of your packaged foods and fresh fruits get shipped in. From distribution centers in Philadelphia, the Meadowlands or farther, your stock arrives at the Port of NY/NJ at Newark or Elizabeth. From there, a daisy chain of highway trips begins: south along the Turnpike, east over the Goethals Bridge, a drive (or crawl) along the Staten Island Expressway, over the Verrazano Bridge and another crawl up the BQE through Brooklyn until you cross over into Queens, right on the banks of the East River at a calm embayment known as Hallet’s Cove.


Illustration by Christina Sun

Illustration by Christina Sun

Or, suppose you live in a new apartment building on West 42nd Street, where a few boxes from Fresh Direct have just been delivered. Your picture-perfect peppers, beef tenderloin and ears of corn were packed on the banks of Newtown Creek. They were then loaded into one of a legion of box trucks, which motored down the LIE into the maw of the Midtown tunnel. Once out at 2nd Avenue, they threaded their way across town, passing through, or avoiding, busy hubs like Grand Central or Penn Station, until finally it arrived in your delivery dock — just a baseball’s toss from the Hudson River.

Cargo capacities and relative energy efficiencies: truck vs. rail vs. inland barge

Imagine you’re a restaurant manager in the Meatpacking District. There is a good chance you get your paper towels, soap and cleaning supplies from Burke, a major distributor in Manhattan for paper, bathroom and kitchen cleaning supplies. Burke’s trucks all head out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, along Kent or Flushing Avenues at the edge of Williamsburg or Vinegar Hill, then over the East River bridges. Once in Manhattan, they make way across Delancey, Canal, 34th or 57th Streets to any of the thousands of restaurants in Manhattan.

Or, we could use our waterways to better link the Port with the big box stores, the Newtown Creek-based food distributors with Manhattan’s households, the Navy Yard with our central business districts. The scores of parking tickets, the hundreds of hours of driver time spent in traffic, the thousands of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), just to get across the water before a single delivery has been made — all of these problems could be mitigated if New York City moved towards short sea shipping.

It’s slowly starting to happen. A few days a week, tugs pull barges of containers from the Port of NY/NJ up the East River to Bridgeport, carrying goods that would otherwise be trucked across Manhattan and up the Cross Bronx or the Bruckner on their way to and through Connecticut. Further south, New York New Jersey Rail (formerly the New York Cross Harbor Railroad) uses New York Harbor to transport boxes and boxcars between New York and New Jersey, from Bush Terminal to Greenville Yards, in the last remaining car float operation in the Port.

Last year, the Port Authority bought Greenville Yards to allow more goods, in this case New York City’s municipal solid waste, to move off the land-based network and onto the water network. And ferries are mounting a comeback, with publicly subsidized commuter ferries returning to the East River for the first time in more than 50 years starting this June. (A ferry linking Rockaway to Lower Manhattan was tried recently but failed.) Freight ferries — a very local form of short sea shipping — may not be that far down the road.


NY and NJ Container Terminals | illustration by Christina Sun

Illustration by Christina Sun

Expansion of water-based intermodal shipping is a challenge and test projects haven’t always succeeded. The Albany Express Barge service, a 2003 pilot program to carry containers from NY/NJ to Albany operated by the private tug-and-barge firm Columbia Coastal, was terminated when cargo volumes didn’t meet expectations and their EPA funding ran out. Public perception still sees truck freight, erroneously, as a cheaper and faster option, either ignoring or unaware of the incredible inefficiencies of road-based transport, the costs of infrastructure wear-and-tear, the resulting air pollution and the hidden subsidies that pay for road maintenance and repair. The labor structure of who gets to work on the waterfront is very complicated. And of course New York City has lost most of its working piers and usable docks. But what we do have here in the heart of the harbor are the right conditions (traffic, congestion and a constant flow of goods), a revived appreciation for the potential of our network of waterways and a creative community of designers who can imagine new ways to re-activate its freight potential.

Potential economic benefit exists for both shipper and consumer. Hundreds of hours of driving time would be saved, as truck drivers could come to work via mass transit, meeting the incoming barge at East 35th Street or Downtown to start their day. Wear and tear on roads and river crossings would be reduced, as would traffic. Job opportunities would increase as tug companies need more captains, deckhands, cargo handlers, longshoremen, stevedores and cargo facility workers.

The environmental implications are also significant — and crucial to bear in mind. Less traffic means less congestion, which means better air quality for everyone. 73% fewer air emissions are released with every ton of cargo moved by barge rather than by truck. An increase in sea shipping also means fewer gas-guzzling trucks on our roads, an important shift in the face of maxed-out global oil production and the increasingly risky and destructive practices we are employing to get at what’s left.


National Highway Freight Network, 2004 | Reebie Associates and FHWA Freight Analysis Framework Project, via NYMTC

National Highway Freight Network, 2004 | Reebie Associates and FHWA Freight Analysis Framework Project, via NYMTC

No picture is simple, no matter how it’s painted. Our nearly 100-year-old national highway system and its financial underpinnings are, for better or worse, ingrained in our transportation policy, our tax structure and our infrastructure. But looking ahead, we aren’t going to see a plentiful purse for the public sector for a generation or more and we need to use what we have to its fullest potential. The US Department of Transportation is taking notice. Last year, the USDOT launched the America’s Marine Highways Program, an initiative to develop marine transportation corridors in response to the same congestion, pollution and economic challenges we have been discussing here.

Just as the East River ferry plans will improve mobility for many individuals, so can the marine highway for the movement of goods. Making our waterways a more integral and reliable component of our transportation system provides an opportunity for us to improve the urban environment on land.


New York Harbor, 1951 | image by Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc. via the New York State Archives

New York Harbor, 1951 | image by Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc. via the New York State Archives


Carter Craft is principal of Outside New York, a small consulting firm that provides a broad range of services including project management, program development, waterfront planning, communications, and fundraising. Current clients include the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, Randall’s Island Sports Foundation, NYC Swim, and Ver Nautica/ The Ferry Lab. Previous clients included the Red Bull Air Race – New York / NJ (2010) and the Kingdom of the Netherlands’ “Holland on the Hudson” Celebration (2009). Carter is a licensed Captain, and serves as a Visiting Associate Professor at Pratt Institute, Adjunct Professor at Fordham University, and co-Chair of the Harbor Education Subcommittee of the full Harbor Operations Committee of the Port of New York and New Jersey.

Christina Sun is an illustrator and a part-time deckhand. She writes and illustrates Bowsprite, a blog on New York Harbor.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Andrew Willner May 26, 2011

Christina and Carter are right on target. There are economic, environmental, and equity reasons why short sea shipping, especially for local food is necessary in the short term. Europe has learned the lesson that not every port can be the largest,(unlike the US), and moving goods by water is logistically less expensive, and generates a significantly lower amount of carbon.

Scott Grimm-Lyon May 27, 2011

This is one reason why we must be careful and not give all of our waterfront over to public space. While I am all for increasing parkland and allowing access to the waterfront those efforts need to be balanced with the realization that cites developed along the water for practical historical reasons that may well be needed again in the future.

will van dorp May 28, 2011

hundreds of thousands of tons of steel, concrete, and other building materials get transported to site like 1WTC . . . by truck. we’re missing opportunities to implement short sea shipping every day.

Gregg Zukowski May 29, 2011

Great article, y’all. Great overview of the situation. Trouble is, you managed to skip the reasons we won’t see your dream come true: last-mile hauling issues, hidden gov’t subsidies for trucking, and petroleum-based public relations.

For instance, I run Revolution Rickshaws and we’re committed to relinking local inputs supply chains including heavy-duty freight trikes for city-center delivery as a critical link in many such chains.

Simply put, the economic incentives do not exist to incorporate short sea shipping today. Instead, our taxpayer dollars serve to subsidize petrol guzzling truck infrastructure, in turn subsidizing truck and truck related industries.

I’m happy to team up and build the local-inputs freight infrastructure, if it pleases anyone in the meantime!

Paul Bea May 30, 2011

Carter, Christina
I enjoyed your piece. The region has many navigable waters and active and inactive terminal areas. So in that way we’re in good shape. It’s more complicated than that, of course. To generalize, around the country trucking is stiff competition for the marine mode, less so for the longer haul. In the tri-state area trucking is pricier so maybe freight ferries and integrated marine highway services are just a matter of time. Meanwhile the Coastwise Coalition in Washington is advocating for changes in Federal policy to give marine highway services a start. The more the NY/NJ/CT congressional delegations hear about the short sea potential in the region from persons such as you the better chance we have of getting those policies made. Pbea

Tim Troxler December 6, 2014

Carter, Christina,
I just wanted to express how pleased I am at having come across this article. I have come to a lot of the same conclusions, that looking to the waterways is a great potential solution for many of the region’s problems. I had never heard of short sea shipping, but now I am convinced that we could benefit from its use here. I am a landscape architect, and I now do construction management for NYC parks projects and have also had some work for municipalities outside of the city. Of course I get very frustrated with traffic congestion. My job has taken me to many waterfront locations, and I find it amazing how empty of traffic the waterways are, especially in comparison to what you see in historic images of the harbor. Having only three vehicle links across the Hudson Is obviously not enough. In a post-Sandy NYC, another obvious use of short-sea shipping would be to get a lot of vehicles and people out of the flood-prone areas in a hurry. Here are a few of my ideas:
A truck ferry running from Pelham Bay, where I-95 runs right near the water, to Perth Amboy, NJ, with a road connection to 440, so trucks traversing the NYC metro area could go from the point where congestion often starts to a point where they could connect with the NJ Turnpike and I-287 to reach points beyond. It would be kind of a truck bypass route for the city.
A car and truck ferry going from Red Hook, Brooklyn, with a connection to the Gowanus expressway, going all the way up the Hudson river to a point near the Tappan Zee bridge. There is already a rail ferry at Red Hook. I noticed there is some underutilized land on the Nyack side right near the interchange ramps. This would allow easier vehicle access to the Catskills and upstate vacation areas, reducing congestion on the Thruway and allowing trucks to get out of the urbanized area without stress and without adding to pollution and congestion problems.
With these ferry ideas, one has to consider that they still would be slower than driving, even with heavily congested traffic, when you add in waiting time and loading and unloading. Trucking companies may not like the idea that they are paying people to sit and wait, and truckers who get paid by the mile may not find enough incentive in it when they are losing miles traveled. To make them more attractive an option, my idea is to make them more like floating rest areas. As long as trucks are piloted by humans, they will need meal breaks, bathroom breaks, rest, time to do paperwork, etc. Of course you would have wifi throughout so people could work or entertain themselves online while they are floating through the metro area. Imagine driving onto a ferry, taking in the skyline of Manhattan as you enjoy a dinner, and then arriving outside of the worst traffic of the region without stress and without contributing to poor air quality. One should also consider how robotic vehicles will change the economics of trucking in the future. Without having to worry about a driver’s needs, it could become more acceptable to have trucks waiting for ferries, or have trucks drive themselves onto a ferry in the evening for a trip through the region in the wee hours of the morning, to disembark in the morning and arrive at a business right when they open. It would also be a better option for oversize vehicles that now have to wait until certain times of the day to cross the George Washington bridge and pay exorbitant tolls and pay for escort vehicles. Another upside I see to ferries is that they could be built in places far away from NYC’s high labor rates, which push construction projects into the stratosphere. Who knows, there may be ferries for sale right now that could fit the bill. A quick internet search found that there are many. I also found that Siemens has pioneered electric motors for ferries in Sweden that operate without emissions. We should be doing everything we can to improve air quality and lower our carbon footprint here.
I also think a low-cost walk-on and bike-on ferry going from Hoboken or Jersey City to Manhattan is sorely needed. There are thousands of apartments under construction within walking distance of the waterfront. The PATH trains are already at capacity during rush hours. I don’t see how all those new residents will be able to get to work. The NY Waterways ferries are expensive, and they don’t allow bikes as far as I know.
I was also thinking that floating concrete plants could help to reduce traffic congestion. One of our projects is the rebuilding of Pier 40 for the Hudson River Greenway. They have been pouring new concrete for the parking deck. Loads sometimes have to be turned away because it takes them too long to get their from their plant in Queens. I thought, why not just have a plant on a barge docked next to the pier? You could just pump it over as needed. They are using a concrete plant mounted on a barge for the Tappan Zee bridge reconstruction, so this is nothing new or untested.

I am going to start writing letters to elected officials and DOT commissioners urging development of these strategies. I hope to see it come to fruition.