A Ferry Etiquette Lesson

Courtesy photo  With brand new MV Hydrus plying the waters of San Francisco Bay, it might be a good time to review tips on how to be a considerate commuter.

A Ferry Etiquette Lesson


I commute daily to the Autodesk office in San Francisco via ferry.  The ferry terminal in Alameda (where I live) is called Gateway Alameda. It gets its name because years ago, before the Bay Bridge opened in 1936, the Southern Pacific Railroad terminated at that location. Passengers wanting to continue to San Francisco then boarded a ferry. The railroad stop was considered the gateway to San Francisco.

Today the ferry service is operated by the Blue & Gold Fleet. I normally take the 6 a.m. ferry and get to my desk by 6:30 since the San Francisco Ferry Building is just across the street from my One Market Street office. To get home, I catch the 4:30, 5:20, or 5:45 p.m. ferry. It’s about a 5-minute drive from Gateway Alameda to my home. 

As a ferry commuter for the past eight years, I have observed these unwritten rules. Like they said in Fast Times at Ridgemont High: “These are the rules. Learn them. Know them. Live them.” Abiding by these rules ensures a pleasant commute for everyone involved.

One line
When lining up for the 6 a.m. ferry at Gateway Alameda, form one line. This early in the morning, there aren’t enough people to form two parallel lines.

Quiet time
With the morning commute starting so early, some passengers are not fully awake yet. It’s quiet time on the morning ride. Passengers talk quietly or listen to music with headphones.

Be ready
While waiting in line, get any Clipper Cards ready. Passengers tag their cards as they board. If boarding without a Clipper Card, board, purchase a one-way or round-trip ticket on the boat, on the first floor, near the front. A one-way fare is $6.25. With a Clipper Card, the fare is $5 each way.

Form a line
While on board, there will be a pre-recorded announcement that passengers are not to form a line and remain seated until the boat is docked. Everyone ignores that and forms a line. However, when doing so, expect those in chairs along the exit aisle to merge into the line when disembarking begins. Even though one might have been standing there long before those passengers left their seats, don’t expect them to wait before disembarking when other passengers ignored the rule and formed a line.

Merge by alternating one from each line
Prior to disembarking, have Clipper Cards ready. When disembarking, there are multiple lines. As passengers approach the door, they use the merge process, alternating one person from each line. The goal is to exit as efficiently as possible. 

Passengers involved in conversations should pause for a moment as it is likely that a person will come between traveling companions as part of the merge process. After leaving the ferry, regroup and continue the conversation. 

While disembarking, put phones away. The exit process only takes a minute or two, so it won’t take much to look up and walk in unison with the other passengers instead of plodding along slowly or bumping into the person ahead.

Tag off
For riders with Clipper Cards, just tag on and tag off. It’s like using BART. This is necessary because the ferry terminals are used for a variety of destinations, and cardreaders at the origin don’t know the destination. For those who have purchased tickets, hand them to the ferry agent on the way out.

Line up on the right
When lining up for the ferry at Gate E adjacent to the Ferry Building in San Francisco, there are two separate lines. The line on the left is for the Harbor Bay Ferry. This ferry goes to the end of Alameda that is closest to the Oakland Airport. The line on the right is for Oakland and Gateway Alameda. This ferry stops at Gateway Alameda and then continues to Jack London Square in Oakland. For years, I have asked for signage to this effect, but my pleas have been ignored. The boarding process in San Francisco is the same as in Alameda.

Locked entry doors
The doors at Gate E in San Francisco lock when the dock is not in use. They open 10 minutes before the arrival of each boat. Since passengers show up as early as 30 minutes before, they form a line just outside the entry. When it rains, passengers stand in the rain, blocked from using the covered awning.

Don’t delay
Passengers with bicycles disembark after all of the other passengers. If there are 350 passengers, and each takes an extra 4 seconds to disembark, that’s an extra 23 minutes and 20 seconds that the 50 cyclists need to wait. That’s another example of why it’s important for everyone to follow the unwritten rules of ferry etiquette and be prepared to disembark properly. It only takes 4 extra seconds per person to really add up.

To stay up to date with the latest changes to published ferry schedules, riders are encouraged to sign up for Bay Area Alerts.


Alameda resident and ferry commuter Scott Sheppard has worked for Autodesk for 25 out of the last 27 years depending on if you count acquisitions and dot coms. He can be reached at scott.sheppard@autodesk.com.