Who’s not riding Caltrain? Caltrain board wants to explore opportunities to improve equitable access

In response to comments from the public at last week’s board meeting, the Caltrain board expressed interest in going above and beyond its basic obligations under federal law to pursue the agency’s goal of improving equitable access.  At last week’s board meeting, the Caltrain board considered its obligations under Title VI, a provision of the federal Civil RIghts Act of 1964 that prohibits agencies from discriminating against minority and low-income populations.  The way the law works, however,  it only prohibits new actions that discriminate.  If low-income and minority travelers are already excluded from Caltrain service, the agency could be technically in compliance.   

At the meeting, several members of the public (including your blogger) pointed out that Caltrain riders currently have an average income of $117,000, which implies that few low-income people are currently using the service.  The recent fare hikes logically put an even greater barrier before low-income people.  One public comment speculated that Caltrain’s recent dip in ridership may be related to the fare hike, and another expressed concern that the upcoming fare study’s exploration of “fare elasticity” – whether existing riders would reduce use with higher prices – could even further lock out lower-income non-users.

Your blogger shared research findings from the downtown Palo Alto Transportation Management Association that lower-income service workers drive to work at a rate that’s about double that of high-income tech workers – around 80% compared to below 40%.  Further analysis showed that there are sizeable numbers of workers who live near the Caltrain corridor but find price to be a barrier.  To test the hypothesis of whether lower-income workers would use Caltrain if offered, the TMA presented Caltrain’s deep-discount GoPass to workers at the Epiphany Hotel, with explanations in English and Spanish, and found that 25-30% of riders would take the train with the deep discount.  Unfortunately, the GoPass is currently available only to large companies, excluding most low-income service workers who work for smaller restaurants, retailers, and other small businesses.    This problem could be solved by offering the GoPass program to collections of smaller businesses in a local area, the way that VTA provides EcoPasses for workers at San Jose airport, including workers at small service businesses. 

Epiphany Hotel

Epiphany Hotel

Caltrain Board members including Malia Cohen and Joel Ramos of San Francisco, and Raul Peralez of San Jose, agreed with these concerns.  Cohen notes that the federal law set a floor for equity, not a ceiling.  These board members wanted Caltrain’s fare study and equity program to look, not only at who’s using the service, but who has geographical access to Caltrain (including feeder transit) but isn’t using the service.  Director Cohen commented that since the agency’s goal is to improve ridership, it makes sense to explore opportunities to serve new groups of riders who may be priced out.  Cohen also suggested that improving equitable access would also help build political support for Caltrain, which would help with measures to provide the service with stable funding.   Following a suggestion from Director Ramos, board members were interested in holding a board study session to explore opportunities to improve access.

Hopefully this discussion will set the stage for opportunities to increase Caltrain ridership by serving people who currently are priced out of the system.