Caltrain, Bikes and 21st Century Choices

28 May

If you don’t know me in real life or follow me on Twitter you may not realize how much I spend at planning meetings in my city. It’s not fun, believe me. I’m there because the people who make important decisions have a hard time seeing things from non-Baby Boomer perspective. I speak up in the hope that a different point of view will be considered. Last week I was honored to be asked to write an opinion piece on Caltrain and bikes by the editor of the Mountain View Voice. Here it is, as it appeared in the May 23 print edition, now available online.

All it takes is a trip downtown at 6 p.m. on a weeknight to see the changes. Bikes overflow the racks on Castro Street and are locked to every available tree and post. Crowds of people cross Central Expressway on foot and on bikes with each signal cycle. The Caltrain platform teems with riders pushing their way onto trains that are standing room-only by the time they reach Palo Alto.

Caltrain Platform

This is not just casual observation either. Caltrain recently released the results of their passenger counts and triennial customer survey: ridership is at an all-time high with a 54% increase since 2010; ridership growth continues to strain capacity in peak periods; and all but one station saw growth. Caltrain sees this growth as a sign of continued economic recovery, as would anyone who fights workday traffic on Hwy 101 can attest.

Much of Caltrain’s growth comes from bikes. The number of people bringing bikes aboard has grown a whopping 121 percent since 2010, more than double the overall ridership growth rate. While the growth is partly due to Caltrain adding a second bike car to every train in 2011, bike-aboard ridership has continued to increase, up 19.6 percent last year. This year bike-aboard riders make up over 11 percent of all riders, making Caltrain the nation’s leader in bikes-on-transit.

Caltrain Bike car

And yet, despite a capacity of 80 bikes on most trains, people with bikes are still regularly denied boarding due to overcrowding, primarily in Peninsula cities from Millbrae to Mountain View. That’s how popular the service is.

What’s more, how people arrive and depart stations is rapidly changing. While walking to reach stations has increased modestly by 7 percent since 2010, taking transit (VTA, BART, Muni or shuttles) is flat at 4 to 7 percent. The most dramatic changes are that driving to and parking at stations has dropped by 24 percent and bicycling to the station is up 30 percent. And that’s just the last three years.

Crossing Central Expwy

So what does this mean? It means that some commonly-held assumptions that we’re too suburban to rely on walking, biking and transit, and that people won’t shift from solo driving, are wrong. People already are. In fact, 40 percent of Caltrain riders report they are car-free and that doesn’t include “car-lite” riders like me who own a car they rarely use.

Today’s transit-dependent riders are not low-income either. The average Caltrain rider makes $117,000 a year. Most riders are making a conscious choice to not drive that’s not simply driven by economics. It’s driven by a desire to escape wasting time driving in traffic.

Caltrain Beer

For Caltrain, it means recognizing that for many riders, bikes are the most convenient first and last mile solution, faster than shuttles for trips up to 3 miles when there’s congestion, and cheaper than car parking at stations, both for the rider and for Caltrain. It means ensuring that bike capacity of new electrified trains is at least 10 percent of total capacity. It means expanding bike share into office areas like North Bayshore and into popular housing areas like the Mission in San Francisco.

Bay Area Bike Share

For cities, it means not spending money on expensive parking garages that will bring more vehicles into congested areas, and instead improve walking and biking connections to existing and emerging office and housing areas like San Antonio Center and El Camino Real. It means implementing Transportation Demand Management programs (TDMs) like Stanford did, with incentives that go beyond shuttles to include benefits for people who take transit, bike, walk, carpool or drive at off-peak times. And consider charging for parking at office sites. It’s hard to compete with free.

Times have changed and people are showing they want options other than driving. How will we invest to support them?

In your city, is vehicle traffic heavier with the economic recovery? Is your city investing in bicycling, transit or widening roads to accommodate more cars? What would you like your city to do to improve transportation?

Caltrain Family Bikes


Posted by on May 28, 2014 in Issues & Infrastructure


7 responses to “Caltrain, Bikes and 21st Century Choices

  1. Billy James

    May 28, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    OTOH, here in Redwood City we have disabled seniors who often find no parking, disabled or otherwise, to shop downtown,use banks’ ATM machines etc. I believe it’s a matter of fact that increasing parking options increases traffic, but it ain’t clear what a disabled senior can do on these ever more crowded streets, when neither biking or walking aren’t options.

    • ladyfleur

      May 28, 2014 at 3:58 pm

      First, if there’s not enough parking for disabled people, then they should convert standard parking to handicapped parking. People with disabilities should have priority over those who don’t.

      Also, seniors and people with disabilities are more likely to rely on transit, which means walking or rolling in a wheelchair to get to transit stops. Wider intersections, heavier vehicle traffic and large parking lots to traverse make things far more dangerous for them. Wider sidewalks, slower moving vehicles, and denser development are much safer for them.

      Seniors and disabled people are disproportionately killed by motor vehicles as pedestrians. We can do better by them by reducing car use among the general population.

  2. Psy

    May 30, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    Getting a bike on Caltrain lately has been awful, to say the least.

    If I take the train in the morning, there’s now only one train that I can reliably have a chance of getting on. If I take it home at night, I used to be able to catch a train around 6:30, but now I have to wait until well after 7. I commute along the peninsula, and trains are packed coming from both directions by the time they reach either of my stops.

    The sad part is that I have friends who gave up riding because they kept getting bumped from the trains.

    • ladyfleur

      May 30, 2014 at 8:51 pm

      I’m lucky to travel between Mountain View and San Jose, which is definitely outside the crush zone. In the morning 12-20 people with bikes get off as I get on with at most 3 people with bikes.

      If I had to deal with getting bumped I probably have to buy a folding bike. I had a good time on the Brompton in London. But I have plenty of cash and a big garage. Not everyone has that advantage.

  3. parker

    May 31, 2014 at 7:50 pm

    Sorry you’re having problems with “Baby Boomer perspective”. I’m not of that younger group since I was a (slightly) pre-WW2 baby. 🙂 I’m not a Californian (any more) but did enjoy Caltrain when I visited Silicon Valley on business a while ago. Meanwhile I bike-commute about 150 miles a week to my full-time techie-type job. I enjoy your blog; ride on!

    • ladyfleur

      May 31, 2014 at 9:54 pm

      I actually don’t have trouble seeing the Baby Boomer perspective, especially since I technically am one of them. 🙂 The problem is that many of the older decision makers can’t see how things are changing and how the younger generation doesn’t have the same preferences they have.

      In particular, younger people don’t have the same emotional attachment to car, nor do they have the same aversion to riding public buses that many of their parents do. The fallout is that in my area the older people with influence are resisting adding more dense housing because they’re afraid of traffic. This restricts supply and making it that much harder for younger people to afford to pay the rent, much less buy a home.

      150 miles a week is a lot of riding. Congrats!


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