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.