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AS IT IS - Workers Escape Crowds on San Francisco Ferries

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Commuters board a ferry to San Francisco Oct. 21, 2013, from Jack London Square in Oakland, California.
Commuters board a ferry to San Francisco Oct. 21, 2013, from Jack London Square in Oakland, California.

Commuting is often a major issue in America's big cities. Many people live outside cities, and spend a lot of time just going to and from work. Now, some San Francisco area commuters are beating the traffic by taking ferry boats. A ferry ride can offer a nice change from busy roads and crowded trains.

Ferries are a small but growing part of the transportation solution in northern California. Historic cable cars may help visitors to San Francisco travel around the city. But local people usually use cars, taxis and public transportation, including the Bay Area Rapid Transit rail system. Ferry rider Dan Haggerty really likes the two ferry systems on San Francisco Bay. He says they provide a much more pleasant ride from far away communities.

"It's faster than the rail transit. And there's nothing like being on the water in the morning, and coming home from work. It's relaxing."

Ferry passenger Christine Loehrlein says the ferry ride is a lot better than the trip she once made by car.

"There is something about getting out of the bubble of being in a car and out into an open environment that's just so much more social and interactive. And on the ferry, people are really, really friendly."

Whatever the weather, Bob Bodnar always takes a ferry ride.

"It's always a good say to ride the ferry. Like I never regret taking the ferry to work instead of the train."

Ernest Sanchez works for the San Francisco Bay Ferry. He says each boat is like a car pool, with more than one person making the trip.

"Some of our boats can carry, for example, up to 388 passengers, and so that's one large car pool. We take advantage of the natural road, which is the Bay, and address the problem that way."

Ferries have been moving people and their vehicles around San Francisco Bay for more than 150 years. The first ferry service was launched in the 1850s. Today, the ferry system includes more than 10 boats. They stop at ports all around the Bay area.

Researchers are developing technology that could make the boats more energy efficient. They have been studying the high-tech sails on America's Cup racers. A firm wind-wing is a new kind of sail being tested on the Bay. The 14-meter tall device stands upright like a sail, but is made of lightweight carbon fiber. A solar-powered computer helps to control its movement.

Early tests show fuel reductions of up to 25 percent when the wind- wing is connected to a small boat. Tim Lipman works for the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley.

"You can hold a certain course, to say, have a passenger ferry run along a prescribed course, and simply use the wing where it's advantageous to assist the boat moving forward, and then let it drift if it's not advantageous and simply use the motor on the boat."

Researchers are also exploring the idea of hybrid ferries – boats powered by traditional fuel and electricity. Hybrid ferries with experimental sails are still a few years away in the future. But the current ferries offer a pleasant ride for thousands of people in the San Francisco Bay area. I'm Anne Ball.

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