Lyft plays a growing role in Caltrain connections; first/last mile connections are barriers for many

At a panel discussion several weeks ago in San Francisco, a representative of Lyft mentioned that At yesterday’s panel discussion on making it easier for commuters to get to rail stations, Rogers said that 25 percent of Lyft trips on the Peninsula are to or from Caltrain stations. The top stations other than San Francisco are San Jose Diridon, Santa Clara, Millbrae, Mountain View, and Redwood City, according to Rogers at meeting at the advisory board for Palo Alto Downtown TMA.

This is potentially an important role to play, first/last mile challenges are a substantial barrier to using transit in the Peninsula corridor. According to a recent survey conducted by the emerging Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, 43% of people who drive to work in Downtown Palo Alto said that they would be more likely to use transit if it was easier to get to a transit stop.

Barriers to Palo Alto Transit Use

One of the benefits of using Lyft is being able to make a predictable connection. At Caltrain’s June Citizens’ Advisory Committee, VTA Senior Planner Kermit Cuff explained that there were some VTA bus routes that were designed for a schedule connection to Caltrain, and some that were not designed for a schedule connection. Unfortunately, there is currently no way for a rider to tell which bus routes are designed to connect. Cuff said at the meeting that he would consider ways of communicating this information.

Cuff also explained the complexities of actually making the connection. For example, the difficulty for a passenger using VTA bus 55 to connect to Caltrain is that the bus travels northbound and southbound. For the Northbound 55, a passenger might be goingto a southbound Caltrain or a northbound Caltrain, or could be getting off a northbound Caltrain wanting to go north on Line 55, or from a southbound Caltrain wanting to go north on Line 55. For that one direction, there are four different options, and when the southbound direction is included, there are eight possible options. Nevertheless, the 55 is designed to connect, and it would be helpful for passengers to know which buses are designed to connect. Update: VTA has concluded that because the timing will be different for different directions, there is no reliable way to tell customers that their bus is likely to connect to the train.

Also, transportation planners need to consider different destinations. The route that connects to Caltrain also serves De Anza College. The 55 also needs to be scheduled to pick up students after the last class of the evening.

Improving a first or last mile connection might be as simple as letting a potential rider know that bus 55 will get them to/from Caltrain. Lyft is offering a “Lyft for Work” package allowing companies to subsidize first-last mile connections for workers. For price-sensitive low-income workers, it might make sense for city TMAs to provide such benefits as well.

In order to assess opportunities to improve first and last mile connections, trip data is important. Data from Palo Alto and other emerging transportation management associations will provide a rich set of data that can help identify improvements. Unfortunately, Lyft and Uber do not make their trip data publicly available, making it more difficult for cities and public agencies to figure out how these services might be complementary.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is in the process of conducting its major, infrequent, full Bay Area commuter origin/destination study, with information about where people start and end their trips (not just transit stop to transit stop), with results expected this fall. This information will be very valuable to assess opportunities to reduce the first/last mile barrier.