Caltrain fare study update shows equity problems

Today, Thursday December 7, the Caltrain board is getting an update on the major fare study. The data shown reveals equity problems with the fare structure.  Low-income riders are much more likely to use more costly fares (one-way tickets, day passes) and less likely to use discounted monthly passes, which individuals can purchase, and much less likely to use deep-discount go-passes, which are only available to full-time employees of large employers.



Caltrain’s surveys of current riders show that fares are relatively inelastic – raising fares will not chase away *current* riders.  But Caltrain’s income breakdown shows that it already has a rider base skewed toward higher income riders (average income of $129,000), and likely already excludes many lower-income customers.

From the perspective of social equity – and even from the perspective of congestion relief – excluding lower-income riders is problematic.  The Palo Alto Transportation Management Association’s successful pilot programs providing discounted Caltrain passes to low-income services workers shows that there is demand that is being suppressed by the current fare structure.

Unfortunately, this sort of disparity doesn’t fail federal Title VI analysis, which requires changes to be studied for disparate impact on low-income and minority populations, because that law only considers current customers – it doesn’t consider populations that are already largely excluded.


Another topic that is discussed in the update is the use of zone-based fares, vs. distance-based fares.  The study compares Caltrain to other “commuter rail” systems in the US, showing that a majority (12) of such agencies use zone fares, and a notable minority (7) use distance-based fares).

The report briefly assess zone fares as “easier to understand.” Perhaps this is the case for people who primarily use the system for the same commute trip every day.  But this is more confusing for people who want to use the system for a variety of trips.

Once trains are electric, it will be easier for Caltrain to run schedules suitable for more trips (more frequent mid-day, evening, and weekend service, and more stops for stations such as Cal Ave that have good populations in walking distance but weren’t on the Baby Bullet schedule.

At that point, it would make sense for Caltrain to consider a distance-based fare.  Also, with electric service, Caltrain functions much more like BART, and it would help the ease of use of Bay Area transit for Caltrain fares and schedules to be compatible with BART.

Fares, goals, values, and business strategy

As the Caltrain board considers its business strategy in the context of the business plan, it will be important to consider the relative importance of social equity, ridership, and congestion relief in the agency’s priorities.

As the Caltrain board considers its strategy in the context of electric service, it will be helpful to think about the value of having pricing and service that is compatible with BART, to improve ease of use around the region.

Also as the board considers its business strategy, an important topic to consider is whether electric Caltrain service – or should be – designed as “commuter rail” service – a premium offering designed for higher-income commuters, and not well-designed for other types of trips.

Around the world, 50-60 major metropolitan areas have evolved their former “commuter rail” systems into “regional metro” systems that have frequent, all-day, all-week service; serve many kinds of trips; often have fare systems that are integrated with other kinds of connecting transit; and have designs and schedules well-integrated with local and regional transit.    Terminology used for these services around the world include French RER and German S-bahn).

As Caltrain works on its business plan, it would be helpful to review its fare structure, not just compared to US commuter rail, but to electric “regional metro” services around the world.