Tom Fox will be the first to tell you it’s not actually a taxi.
“It’s really a water bus,” the recently retired Fox explained from his home in Breezy Point in Queens. A short walk away is a beach on the mouth of the New York harbor that has been the focus of so much of his professional life. “We run a fixed route. We don’t do on demand pickups. But what are we going to say: take a water bus?”
Yet despite the misnomer, the moniker New York Water Taxi was broadly accurate. It conveyed the reality that this boat would take you to a variety of places in New York City you might want to go to. It was not a traditional ferry, taking you solely from point A to point B.
Even more effective than the name was the visual chutzpa of painting the large boats canary yellow with stripes of black and white checks, similar to old cabs. People on land experienced a visual gestalt. These boats could take you places. You had choices.
The name and paint choices for Fox were just ones in a series of decisions that had brought him from impassioned parks advocate, a green guerrilla, to entrepreneur with a fleet of boats under his command, looking to provide a service and make some money. If there are any lessons to be gained from his story, it’s perhaps the usual ones.
One, life leads us to possibilities impossible to predict in advance. Fox would be the first to admit he would never have predicted that his role of parks advocate would lead him to being ferryboat commander.
Two, relationships matter. Douglas Durst, a real estate developer with several skyscrapers under his belt including the first Leeds-certified platinum skyscraper One Bryant Park, provided start-up capital to Fox. Their acquaintance of more than 20 years through various park matters almost certainly was pivotal.
Three, things take time. Fox conceived of the idea in the early 1990s. It would be the early 2000s before the project was firmly underway. And even today, the long-term success of the service is not assured. Start-up costs were high, margins are thin and the business must make a go of it without the city funding that goes to publicly owned transportation systems, such subway service or highways. But Water Taxi has in recent years been turning a profit, Fox says. The service appears firmly imbedded in the life of the city.
New York Water Taxi now has 12 boats, most named after a variety of obscure civic heroes such as Ed Rogowsky, who was a longtime planner and activist in Brooklyn. The boats loop along the lower half of Manhattan, loading and unloading passengers at various centers, such as the World Financial Center, Greenwich Village, Chelsea Piers on 26th Street, and West 44th Street. They also can carry you to downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City in Queens. The boats vary in size and carry from 74 to 149 people. The company recently bought the longtime tourist boat service, Circle Line Downtown, which leads tours around the harbor with its 600-passenger luxury catamaran Zephyr.
Fox, age 64, no longer has any direct role in Water Taxi. He recently sold his share of the water taxi business, and Douglas Durst’s daughter Helena now is Water Taxi’s President and CEO. Fox is still involved with other projects with Durst, who Fox praises as a visionary in both business and environmental matters. A native of Brooklyn and a proud Vietnam vet, Fox has a grizzled visage that lights up when telling stories of his various travails and adventures over the decades.
The idea for a waterborne transit service along the coastline of Manhattan emerged in the early 1990s as part of negotiations in the aftermath of the defeat of the proposed Westway highway and park project. Defeating the proposed billion-dollar waterfront project was perhaps the defining civic battle of the 1980s. Fox’s involvement is what led him to receive a Loeb Fellowship in 1988.
As Fox explains it, the concept of ferry service along the west side of Manhattan emerged as an alternative to building a heavy highway. If there were ferry service, then the highway needn’t be as wide since heavy buses would not use it. The argument was successful. But it remained simply a planning concept. Eventually, the current West Side Highway was built, still an auto-dominated boulevard but not as bad is it could have been. The focus of parks advocates moved to fleshing out a new kind of recreational and green areas along the waterfront and piers of the Hudson River beside the new highway. Fox, as the first president of Hudson River Park Conservancy in 1992, was a key player here as well.
When the election of a Republican Governor George Pataki in 1995 resulted in Fox’s ouster as president of the Hudson River Parks Conservancy, Fox went looking for backers for the water taxi idea. Although he got it briefly off the ground in 1997, the project would essentially have to wait until Durst fully backed the project in 2001. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2011 would play a role in unexpected ways by illustrating the greater need for water borne transport. The first yellow boats were launched in September 2002.
Now retired, Fox says his priorities are playing guitar, riding motorcycles, taking photographs and exercise. But he still is involved in some new projects with Durst and recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Rotterdam. Perhaps if things work out we will see new Fox-inspired sights along the New York City waterfront.