Is Caltrain’s GoPass leaving money on the table?

When Stanford University Medical Center started offering the GoPass to its employees in the last year, the impact on transit ridership was dramatic. Ridership at the Palo Alto’s University Avenue station went up by 17% in a year.   Overall, about 20% of Stanford’s employees take Caltrain to work, much higher than the region’s average of 15%.

The GoPass, Caltrain’s bulk pass program, generates about $6.5 million in revenue and serves  nearly 40,000 eligible employees (because the GoPass must be made available to all fulltime employees, a much lower percentage actually use the program.)

But Caltrain is hesitant to expand the use of the GoPass program, in part because it concerned that the discount may be too steep, and in part because of concerns about having enough room on the trains.

How deep a discount – lessons from VTA

So, if Caltrain analyzed and rebalanced GoPass pricing, would its corporate users flee?  Evidence suggests that employers would stay.  VTA has a longstanding policy that it’s EcoPass program should be “farebox neutral” – but in practice it wasn’t.  So VTA recently conducted a study in partnership with its organizational customers. VTA found that EcoPasses generate less than half of the revenue as regular adult fares. (the study results start on page 112 of this packet. Ridership had increased, but revenue per rider had declined.) So VTA analyzed the program, in partnership with institutional customers, and came up with a plan to phase in a fare increase.

Institutional customers accepted and preferred a change that would increase, but would have a lower pricing tier for educational institutions, and higher pricing for residences, phasing in the price changes over six years.

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a business trade association, partnered with VTA in its EcoPass revision, and is eager to work with Caltrain as well, according to Jessica Zenk, Transportation Policy Directory.    While adjusting the GoPass program may entail higher prices, Caltrain remains a good deal for businesses compared to running private shuttles.

VTA found that other agencies that use “Clipper” functionality to implement bulk passes are able to get much higher quality data about usage, which helps them refine the program further.  Like GoPass VTA’s Eco Pass program currently relies on stickers that are affixed to company IDs to identify eligible participants. Before raising fares, therefore, VTA is migrating the program to Clipper cards, to help track usage. The usage data is seen as a benefit for organizational users as well, who value the information about transit usage.

Broader transit use helps the business community achieve overall goals of employee satisfaction, health, and better workforce housing in the region. Silicon Valley’s employers are strong advocates of providing housing nearer to transit and reducing vehicle commutes, because long commutes hurt worker productivity and business competitiveness.

Opportunities to expand use

If Caltrain rebalances the GoPass, and expands marketing, there are significant opportunities to expand use.  The GoPass program is available to fewer than 40,000 employees, compared to about a million jobs within 2 miles of a Caltrain station.

One opportunity to expand the program is to make it practical for smaller companies. GoPass currently has a steep minimum purchase level of  $13,750.    A company needs to have 83 employees for a GoPass to be cost-effective (assuming that 20% of its employees take the train, and that employees average two zone trips).  The vast majority of the area’s companies work for have fewer than 83 employees. GoPass is impractical for the many startups and other smaller businesses.   A lower entry price would expand the market.

Another opportunity to expand the market for GoPass is to serve places, not just companies.  There is a growing trend for cities to establish  “transportation management” nonprofits to administer transportation benefits for a “growth area”.  These nonprofits are able to provide programs that were formerly available only to top-tier employers – Google, Facebook, Stanford – to a wider range of businesses and residential developments too.  San Francisco, San Mateo, and Mountain Views have set up TMAs to manage the Caltrain shuttles, transit passes, carpool programs, and related benefits for growth areas.  Redwood City has a similar program on the books but not yet implemented.

Caltrain could provide the “GoPass” to a TMA serving Mission Bay, or Mountain View’s San Antonio area, or Palo Alto downtown. This would enable companies of any size, and residential developments also, to buy into GoPass.  With this approach, we could see transit ridership in downtowns and other areas in the transit corridor achieve the mode share of the largest employers with good benefits.

Capacity for the riders

Caltrain’s other concern is capacity. The most popular “baby bullet” trains are standing room only right now. But Caltrain is seriously considering adding a sixth car on the bullet trains, adding another 20% in capacity.  In 2019, Caltrain is expected to electrify, adding a sixth train per hour, and having the ability to make train sets even longer, if platforms can be extended.

Instead of hesitating to grow ridership, Caltrain should take steps that would increase transit mode share.  The more that employers and places are dependent on transit for basic transportation, the more support that Caltrain will have to fund the increased capacity.

Expanding the GoPass program could be a plus for Caltrain’s budget and the region’s transit use but it would take changes to get there.    Given the challenge to Caltrain’s operating funding, now is a good time to investigate GoPass improvements.