Learning from international best practices – Alon Levy on Caltrain and Bay Area transit

From a vantage point of reviewing transit around the world, transit writer and analyst Alon Levy offered recipes for regional rail excellence, at two talks reaching over 300 people in San Francisco and Mountain View.

Some of the patterns Levy described seem straightforward to implement – if decision-makers recognize the value – and others will take some major coordination in our famously decentralized region.

The slides are posted here, and an audio recording of the Mountain View session will be posted here shortly.

Beyond commuter rail – frequent, all-day service

Around the world, metropolitan regions including Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo use conventional rail (like Caltrain) to provide frequent, all-day service like the subway, providing extra capacity in dense urban cores, and enabling high ridership by supporting many types of trips with local stops.

This represents a transformation from a “commuter rail” model, which considers the primary role of rail to alleviate congestion for drivers at rush hour, and underestimates the value of other types of trips. Levy explained that it is more efficient to employ trains and workers all day carrying passengers, rather than leaving them idle much of the day.

Fewer staff per train for more service

Systems around the world are able to run more efficiently with fewer staff per train. Caltrain already has a “proof-of-payment” system, but has multiple operators per train.  It would be logically possible to keep the same number of workers, but spread them out over more service throughout the day.

One task that Caltrain workers perform is helping disabled passengers board, since Caltrain currently has stairs, and lifts or extensions are needed to help passengers with mobility issues.  Caltrain is planning level boarding – would level boarding be needed to move to a more efficient staffing pattern with more service per worker?

Affordable, coordinated fares – regional mandate needed

Regions around the world with great transit typically don’t treat rail as a premium product – fares are the same as the subway, and it doesn’t cost extra to use multiple agencies.

Caltrain has control over its own policies and could make some changes to improve equitable access, including fixing the GoPass to be accessible to a greater diversity of commuters, and tweaks to the zone system so as not to penalize some short trips.

But the broader challenge of an atomized fare system, where passengers pay a different fare for each color vehicle they use, is something that no agency can solve alone.  A bottom-up, consensus-based approach is resulting in minimal changes. Much stronger regional coordination is needed, with funding to reduce risk.

Coordinating buses and trains – regional mandate needed

Classic US transit models consider train service for well-off people, buses for low-income people, with little overlap in customer base, and therefore little need to coordinate.   By contrast, regions around the world with great transit design systems where buses and trains work together, providing timed connections where bus service isn’t super-frequent.

Organization before electronics before concrete – regional mandate needed

In order to achieve this level of coordination, high-performing regions work together. A motto used in German-speaking regions is “organization before electronics before concrete.”

Before making major capital investments, get the most out of the current system with fare and schedule coordination. Then make major capital investments in a coordinated fashion to get the most out of investments.

In the Bay Area, traditions of decentralized governance – where projects are often planned to please local voters, with customer experience and ridership as much lower consideration – make it difficult to achieve this level of coordination.

A major strategy initiative from regional think tank SPUR, and advocacy initiatives from the new Seamless Bay Area nonprofit strive to overcome the decentralization.  Zurich achieved coordination with citizen organization and a ballot measure.  The crowds in Mountain View and San Francisco indicate that there’s an appetite for change. Can we do it?