Would a Caltrain fare increase depress ridership?

Currently, Caltrain is proposing to increase fares, before completing a fare study that will look at whether increasing fares would be likely to depress ridership.

After Caltrain increased fares on individual riders in the previous year, ridership decreased slightly.

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Caltrain ridership dipped even though highway congestion was terrible, and Caltrain’s customer survey shows that riders feel that Caltrain is time-competitive with driving. While bus ridership was down around the region, Caltrain doesn’t get stuck in traffic, unlike buses (except for a few red lanes in San Francisco). Unlike buses (and sometimes BART) which are more often used for short trips, Caltrain is currently used more often for long trips, so Caltrain faces less competition from Uber/Lyft.

If you look at the average income of a Caltrain rider, you would think “but of course Caltrain can increase fares – the average income of a Caltrain rider is $129,000.”

But if you look more closely, you can seen that Caltrain has a notable minority – about 25% of riders in households who making below 75,000 per household, which is considered “very low income” in the counties on the Caltrain corridor.

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Now, Caltrain is proposing to increase fares on individual riders, before assessing what share of riders would likely choose to drive instead.

Another important piece of missing information – Caltrain reported in a recent board meeting that GoPass use has gone up.  But Caltrain has not reported on the income of GoPass riders, who are mostly employees of larger employers, compared to employees of smaller companies don’t have access to the bulk-discount GoPass.  

Are employees with relatively lower-income over-represented in the non-GoPass customer base? Is this likely to put more price pressure on commuters with relatively lower income? We don’t know, because Caltrain hasn’t published its fare study yet.

We do know that in downtown Palo Alto, employees of large, GoPass-eligible companies drive at a rate of half or less than the driving rate of employees of smaller companies.

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The price of a 3-zone monthly pass for individual customers without a GoPass is proposed to increase from $190 to $230. This is well over double the most expensive downtown parking permit in corridor cities other than San Francisco. Not to mention the many office parks that provide fully subsidized (so-called free) parking.

In several previous years, the rapidly increasing Caltrain ridership contributed extra revenue to help Caltrain balance its budget, even though partner contributions were temporarily low due to SamTrans’ budget challenges.

But in the last year, after the fare increase, ridership dipped slightly, and Caltrain didn’t have strong unexpected fare revenue to add to its operating budget, contributing to a higher ask of its partners, contributing to this year’s budget challenge.

By increasing fares without a fare study, is Caltrain risking driving ridership down, failing to generate hoped-for additional revenue, while creating more congestion on highways and more crowded parking conditions in downtowns? Can Caltrain’s partners come up with creative solutions to postpone a fare increase without the data that would inform board members about the risk?

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