40% of Caltrain riders don’t drive – customer survey shows cultural shifts

According to Caltrain’s most recent customer survey, 40% of Caltrain riders either don’t have access to a car, or don’t drive. The survey didn’t even ask if riders use a car for a minority of their trips (“car-light” rather than “carfree”) – which would likely increase the percentage even more.

Similarly, only 23% of Caltrain riders get to the train station by driving and parking. The vast majority get to the train station by walking, bicycling, and taking transit.

Caltrain station access modes

Caltrain station access modes

Meanwhile, the share of Caltrain customers using a bicycle to get to and from stations has spiked from an already nation-leading 13% to 17%. The survey did not ask customers if they use bikeshare. I wonder many of the new folk are using bikeshare, and how much, if any diversion there is from folk who used to bring bikes onboard. The absolute number of people bringing bikes on board is still going up, according to the latest ridership survey.

Caltrain riders report these preferences not drive despite the fact that the average salary of a Caltrain rider is over $100k. These stats contradict the stereotype that wealthier people are more likely to prefer driving, and point to an ongoing cultural shift in transportation preferences.

Meanwhile, Caltrain riders say they greatly prefer to get their information from the internet (78%) vs. tv (32%), radio (22%) and newspapers (19%), and get their information about Caltrain mostly via web and mobile apps. (Although, a board member noted that the survey didn’t differentiate between medium and brand; it’s possible that people who get their news from the internet are using the Chronicle and Mercury News online).

These preferences have several implications:
* Cities with high Caltrain ridership that face decisions about policies like complete streets, parking, and transit-oriented development may want to assess whether they’re getting input from the rapidly growing segment of the population that uses Caltrain and has a strong preference not to drive. When you look at who speaks at city council meetings, is this population represented? Are you reaching out to them via media that this constituency prefers?
* Cities with stations that have high shares of station access by bicycling, walking, and transit, but also have tight parking (such as Palo Alto and Mountain View) may want to think about how best to improve access to the station. Both cities are considering expanding vehicle parking at the station, but might want to be working with Caltrain to assess if it would be effective to improve station access by improving bicycle parking and better bus/shuttle connections. Caltrain is working on a station access plan – these stats strongly suggest continued focus on the current policy direction to improve station access by means other than driving.
* Bicycling is a major form of first and last mile connectivity. Caltrain has a capacity crunch. To assess the role of bicycles on board in capacity, Caltrain should analyze the relative cost-effectiveness of various last-mile modes (bikes on board ~$5, shuttles $5 and higher, bikeshare kiosks at popular destinations ($2-$4), and should do more research to find out what alternatives might or might not work for people with bikes.

Salary, ethnicity, fares and equity

The report of the salary and ethnic mix of Caltrain riders (Hispanic riders are substantially under-represented compared to population) sparked a lively board conversation, with board members from San Jose and San Francisco calling out the need to think about the equity implications of the mix.

There were several public comments on the topic. This blogger noted that the GoPass program, which currently gives deep discounts to employees of large corporations, could conceivably be expanded to cover a service area of a city-based Transportation Management Association (like, say, downtown Palo Alto). That has the potential to increase equity by offering similar discounts to employees of companies with fewer employees and lower margins, including lower income workers. Other public comments talked about the potential for a low income fare (the LA area offers breaks on its toll lane program for workers who make under $25k). Such programs would cost money and have administrative costs, and might well require regional support. Still others see the current high income of Caltrain riders as an opportunity to raise fares and reduce the operating subsidy – Caltrain currently gets 64% of operating revenue from riders.   Executive Director Mike Scanlon noted at the meeting that roads and freeways also receive a substantial operating subside.  This blogger wonders whether people who want transit user fees be increased to cover operating costs also want many more roads to be tolled to cover operating costs).

The topic was sufficiently lively that Friends of Caltrain may host a forum on the topic, to have a more in-depth discussion and provide feedback for Caltrain’s strategic plan.