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A new drive to commute by boat

Gridlock and a dash of nostalgia cause San Francisco to push for more

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This city is most famous for a golden-hued bridge that soars over its surrounding bay.

But grasping San Francisco's essence really requires a journey to water's edge. More precisely, riding a ferryboat, which the city's late beloved newspaper columnist Herb Caen once described as a good way to bring one "close to the foaming heart of the matter."

Pressed by modern gridlock and beckoned by the whiff of nostalgia, San Francisco is laying plans for a solution to congested roads and freeways that will take it back to its watery roots.

Wending its way through the California state legislature and already blessed by the region's political heavyweights - former governor and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown - is a plan for the most extensive ferryboat system in the world.

Sitting in traffic on the backed-up bridges that span the San Francisco Bay seems to have produced one of the largest collective "duhs" in transportation history. There below, it was realized, was a vast, underutilized waterway that in the early 1900s was the platform for an enormous ferryboat transit system.

Ferryboat nostalgia

While nearly killed by the automobile, that system was such a powerful shaper of the city that one of San Francisco's dominant landmarks remains known as, simply, the Ferry Building. In its heyday, the main boulevard leading to that waterfront tower darkened each evening around 5 p.m. as throngs of pedestrians, buses, and taxis funneled workers onto boats for a leisurely ride to communities across the water.

Today, "we lose 100,000 hours each day sitting in traffic," fumes Russell Hancock of the Bay Area Council, the regional agency pushing the ferryboat plan. "It's never been worse."

Grasping the resurgent appeal of a gentler and more collegial era, local maritime historian Nancy Olmsted says of the ferryboats: "People feel they've lost some of the good things and they want them back."

Indeed, it's become obvious to most everyone, says Mr. Hancock, that the explosive growth of the San Francisco Bay region is overwhelming the existing transit infrastructure. And with no plans for any new freeways, the water provides an obvious opportunity.


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