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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOAN WICKERSHAM

A waterbus on the Charles?

Johan Fredriksson/istockphoto/globe staff illustration

My husband and I were in Stockholm last month, and while I realize that certain aspects of Swedish life are inimitably Swedish (the lead story on the local blog while we were there was “Baby Elk Born In Volvo”), I found myself wondering how Stockholm’s system of waterbuses might translate to the Charles River in Boston. In 10 days in Stockholm, we crisscrossed the city without ever needing a car or taxi — on foot, on buses and subways, and on boats. Stockholm, like Boston, is a port city, and often a boat ride is the shortest distance between two points. Imagine, I thought as we rode over the sparkling blue water from Djurgården to Nybroplan, if it were this easy and enjoyable to get from Harvard Square to Back Bay, or from Kendall Square to BU. A waterbus on the Charles River could zig-zag back and forth between Boston and Cambridge, like a shoelace pulling the two sides of the river together.

When I got home, I asked some experts what would be the pros and cons of adding a Charles River waterbus to Boston’s transit system.

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It is the job of experts to be cautious, and mine were.

They pointed out some drawbacks:

Weather. The Charles freezes. The Boston Harbor ferries run all year, but a Charles waterbus would have to be seasonal. As architect Hubert Murray puts it, “The operable months would be broadly consistent with the baseball season, a little chilly on either end but definitely character-building.”

Redundancy. Water transportation planner Charles Norris points out that most of the potential stops for a Charles waterbus are already accessible by either the Red Line or the Green Line.

Competing river traffic. “There is one primary reason we don’t have water ferries — the 6 miles per hour speed limit on the Lower Basin,” says Bob Zimmerman, head of the Charles River Watershed Association. The Charles is heavily used by rowers, and crew shells can’t handle much of a wake.

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Erosion. Kate Bowditch, also of CRWA, says the speed limit also preserves the river’s banks, which “couldn’t withstand the wakes [of a fast ferry]. We already have substantial erosion in some areas.”

Money. A public waterbus on the Charles would need capital for new boats and docks, and an operating subsidy to keep the fare affordable. Public monies for water transit are scarce, and Norris believes that our first funding priority should be the Boston Harbor recreational shuttles and commuter ferries, both of which are essential.

Still, no one is dismissing the idea outright. As these experts also point out, other cities, from Seattle to New York to London to Brisbane, have made waterbuses or ferries an integral part of their transit systems. “Every ferry port in the world is different,” says Martha Bewick of The Harbor Consultancy International, “yet we can learn from every one too.” Water transit can provide a backup for other systems, as it did when New York’s subways failed in Hurricane Sandy. Crew shells and eroding banks could be protected by using catamarans and other low-wake boats, as other cities are doing. A zig-zagging waterbus would connect points of Boston and Cambridge that currently require long subway rides into and out of the hub at Park Street. And it would connect places along the Charles, notably Harvard’s Allston campus and Cambridgeport, that currently don’t have transit at all.

With Boston competing to host the Olympics, there’s going to be a lot of thinking over the next few years about how to move large numbers of people around the city. Whether or not we get the Olympics, we also need to think past them; whatever changes we make should offer long-term benefits to the people who live here. The ways we get around the city are constantly changing, and any new idea seems like a long shot at first. The subway certainly did, back in 1890. So, 20 years ago, did bikes in the city (we’re still figuring that one out). Unlike roads and subways, a waterbus would be relatively cheap in terms of infrastructure. And if necessary, both the docks and the boats could be repurposed.

So the next time you’re stuck in traffic on Storrow Drive, or riding the Red Line into Park Street so that you can take the Green Line out again, imagine what it would be like go by boat instead. Maybe it’s time for us to float the idea.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’

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