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The Green Caltrain blog is sponsored by BayRail Alliance, an all-volunteer non-profit organization supporting green rail transit in the Bay Area. This blog and BayRail have no affiliation with Caltrain.

Archive for the ‘Friends of Caltrain’

Caltrain CAC Wednesday – MTC starting to take feedback on Clipper 2.0

Do you want Clipper to be better? This month, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and transit agencies are starting to make presentations and take feedback on a major initiative to upgrade the Clipper system.  The contract for Clipper expires in 2019, and MTC plans to gather requirements for the next-generation system by the end of this year.  Wednesday April 16, there will be a presentation at the Caltrain Citizens’ Advisory Committee – at 5pm, before the start time of the CAC meeting at Caltrain/Samtrans HQ at 1250 San Carlos Street in San Carlos.

So far, the ideas on the table seem to be relatively modest. The biggest idea is a standard 50 cent transfer for customers who transfer from one operator to another, along with a 25 cent transfer credit for youth and senior/disabled customers. Another proposal is to harmonize the eligibility for youth fares. Currently, agencies define the age range differently – the MTC is proposing a consistent age range from 5 to 18 years (Muni and VTA currently go up to 17).

A Clipper upgrade could potentially be an opportunity to integrate fares and transfers across the region, with features like a regional day pass and regional month pass which capped maximum fares and rewarded heavy transit users.    The challenge is compounded for large employers, large developments, and for cities that are starting to take responsibility for mode share in key growth areas and downtowns. They typically have customers who use a variety of transit systems, and need to purchase bulk transit passes separately, agency by agency.  There is an opportunity to provide coordinated bulk purchase programs that help increase ridership, reduct traffic and parking costs, and provide stable revenue for transit agencies.

Also, a Clipper upgrade could potentially be used to provide integrated payment for the growing number of first and last mile services.  Currently, Clipper cards can be used for car parking at 5 San Francisco garages.  Imagine if Clipper could be used for carshare, rideshare, bikeshare, bike lockers – and other emerging services that are helping riders make their first and last mile connections?

Egon Terplan, Regional Planning Director at SPUR, a think tank which has been studying the need for Bay Area regional transit integration believes that Clipper 2.0 is a big opportunity to move towards fare, transfer (and schedule) coordination. But the MTC efforts do not yet seem geared toward much greater integration.

The requirements gathering process is currently focused on transit agencies, rather than customers.  There are three committees advising the MTC – an Executive Committee comprised of General Managers and the MTC Executive Director; a Steering Committee and the Long Range Planning Committee are working committees comprised of various levels of MTC and operator staff.   Not yet included in the outreach – major customer stakeholders such as large employers and city-based TMAs and transit rider organizations.

Currently, Clipper can be used on AC Transit, BART, Caltrain, Golden Gate, Muni, SamTrans, VTA, and is being rolled out across the region’s smaller agencies.

Earlier this month, the progress report on  Clipper 2.0 was delivered to the VTA board (April 3) and the VTA Citizens’ Advisory Commitee (April 9).   There is likely to be a BART board agenda item on April 24.

Do you want Clipper 2.0 to do more? Come to the Caltrain CAC meeting if you can, sign this petition, and watch for more opportunities to take action.


Wednesday 4/9: MTC to consider divvying up Dumbarton funds, giving most to BART

On Wednesday, April 9, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission Programming and Allocations Committee will hold a public hearing on proposals to adjust  various Regional Measure 2 bridge toll funded projects that are not moving forward as planned.   One of the stalled projects is Dumbarton rail.   The proposal is to re-allocate $14.7 million to purchasing express buses currently serving the corridor including possible extension to Redwood City, and $20 million to Caltrain electrification – and to permanently forgive a $91Million loan made to the BART-Warm Springs project.

In addition, $50 million funding from San Mateo County Measure A funds, which were borrowed from the Caltrain grade separation account, are recommended by SMCTA staff to be moved back to grade separations.

The Dumbarton Rail project was stalled following the failure of the last Alameda County transportation ballot measure which would have funded it.   The Dumbarton Express bus, which connects Union City and Menlo Park/Palo Alto/Stanford, has been seeing ridership increases, with 1328 daily boardings, up 15% from the previous year, following increase in service funded by RM2 money.
The shifting of funds to the Dumbarton buses and Caltrain electrification make sense. The Dumbarton buses build ridership on a corridor that is congested and is expected to gain in demand over time until it makes sense to upgrade to rail.  Having electrified Caltrain rail service on the west side of the bay will help with connections.
But dedicating the bulk of the funding to BART to Warm Springs makes less sense.   The Cities of Menlo Park and Palo Alto, which are the western points of the route, are both sending letters to the MTC requesting not to forgive the loan.  Instead, funding could be used for more improvements to the Dumbarton corridor, including transit signal priority to speed the bus, extending bus service to Redwood Shores, and developing a spur line serve the corridor from Redwood City to East Palo Alto.

Caltrain electrification environmental report: traffic, parking and bikes

Caltrain electrification will have significant environmental benefits, according to the Environmental Impact Report (EIR).  However, electrification might result increases in traffic at specific stations, due to the modestly increased number of trains.

Traffic impacts point to need for grade separation

The EIR analysis says that most of the expected intersection delay can be mitigated with signal timing improvements. However, there are a few intersections where the impact can’t be mitigated. These are known hot spots, and the expected delays after electrification will be increasing motivation for the cities to implement grade separation.

Unfortunately, Santa Clara County VTA has some money available for only one of the grade separations, Central and Rengstorff. Fortunately, VTA has said that they would consider grade separations for the next iteration of its longterm strategic plan. Communities on the corridor will need to watch closely and advocate for funding.

Also, some of the proposed mitigations that Caltrain proposes in the EIR are contrary to existing city policies, including widening Sand Hill at El Camino Real and Alma, and (I suspect) widening the intersection at 7th and 16th in San Francisco.

Soon, auto level of service (delay at intersections) will no longer be the metric used to assess CEQA impact for at least some of these issues. Instead, the state is likely to require assessment of vehicle miles travelled. If a project creates vehicle delay but doesn’t increase vehicle miles traveled in a transit area, it will no longer be considered an impact under CEQA. Nevertheless, if gate downtime results in blocking people trying to cross the station, there will be a need for grade separations. The money available for this is the money that we approve as voters.

Intersection Proposed mitigations Implications
Burlingame Carolan and Oak Grove Stop light; significant and unavoidable impacts remain Relation to policy preferences
Menlo Park El Camino Real and Glenwood Avenue, Oak Grove Avenue Signal timing Motivation for grade separation
Palo Alto Alma and Meadow, Churchill, and Charleston Signal timing; none feasible at Meadow Motivation for grade separation
Palo Alto El Camino Real and Alma Street and Sand Hill Road Widen west leg of Sand Hill Road by adding one lane to allow SB right turns on red Contrary to Palo Alto policy
Mountain View Central Expressway and North Rengstorff; and Moffett/Castro Signal timing Motivation for grade separation
Sunnyvale Evelyn and Mary Signal timing Motivation for grade separation

Station access and parking – opportunities for even more sustainable access

While the mental image of commuter rail is of vast park-and-ride lots, Caltrain is very different. A large majority –  77% of Caltrain passengers – get to the station without a car. Only 13% of Caltrain passengers get to Caltrain driving alone. Another 8% of passengers were dropped off, and 1% carpool to the station.

“The top daily access mode for Caltrain passengers traveling to stations is walking (36 percent). The high mode share for walking indicates that a high volume of passengers live or work within reasonable walking distance of their origin station. Travel by transit or public/private shuttle is the second most popular access mode (26 percent) followed by car (23 percent) and bicycle (14 percent).

The high share of nondriving modes suggests opportunities for Caltrain to work with cities to alleviate parking shortages by more improvements to other modes of station access. While parking is no longer considered a CEQA impact, Caltrain reported on the impact on parking capacity based on community request. The EIR Reports that:

Several stations are close to or beyond full parking capacity. Average daily parking is slightly beyond capacity at Sunnyvale, with more than 100 percent of cars parked in the lot. Parking in excess of 100 percent possibly indicates vehicles parked illegally in the Caltrain lot in restricted areas. Parking at some Baby Bullet stations is very close to full capacity (90 percent or above) at Mountain View, San Jose Diridon, and Tamien Station. Millbrae, Hillsdale, and Palo Alto Station parking lots are all between 75 percent and 90 percent full. At stations with lower ridership, many lots are not full. At stations where parking is at, near, or beyond capacity, passengers who choose to drive tend to look for parking in non-Caltrain lots or on streets near the stations.

While some parking lots are close to full, almost all of these stations already have a majority of customers accessing the station without driving alone (see image below). Caltrain already has an established policy to increase the share of people accessing the station without driving alone. Caltrain describes its policy as encouraging “alternative modes” – but today, the “alternative mode” to get to the station is driving. There are opportunities for Caltrain to work with cities to futher improve access to the station for modes other than driving. Watch for progress on this after Caltrain finishes up its strategic plan.

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 2.59.29 PM.png

Based on the EIR’s report about Sunnyvale, and anecdotal reports about station areas in cities including Mountain View and Palo Alto, there may be custom of “cheating” in these cities, where vehicles are parking illegally in Caltrain lots, and where Caltrain riders are parking in the neighborhoods. In Palo Alto, this issue will soon be addressed with residential parking permits; Mountain View may have an incentive to go in this direction as well.

The station where parking really does seem to be a problem (though not formally a CEQA impact) is Tamien). Unlike most Caltrain stations, where only a minority of riders get to the station in a car, Tamien station gets 69% of its riders from the parking lot, and another 9% dropped off by car.  A proposed development on land owned by VTA has the potential to make station access even worse.  The Caltrain electrification EIR is an opportunity to speak up about the need to preserve and improve station access at Tamien.

Missing the point on bicycle access

Data in the EIR shows that Caltrain passengers using a bicycle has increased to an astonishing 14 percent. The new electric rail cars will accommodate bicycles, but the EIR raises concern that not all bikes might be accommodated. Unfortunately, the EIR misses the point about the role of bicycles for Caltrain users.

The EIR states that “Any unmet on-board demand for bikes-on-board could be accommodated through the provision of increased bike parking at stations.”

This statement does not take into account the fact that Caltrain riders bring their bikes on board, not because they are fond of their bicycles, but because a bicycle is the most useful last mile connection. Given land use on the Caltrain corridor, many land uses and other destinations are between half a mile and 3 miles from the Caltrain station – too far to walk.

A bicycle has several advantages, allowing commuters to:

  • get to destinations that may not have convenient shuttle access
  • run errands and make trips in the middle of the day
  • make a flexible decision about which train to take – a faster bullet, or a more geographically convenient local

A user who parks her bicycle at her origin station gets none of these benefits. To meet these real first/last mile needs for more users, Caltrain could analyze destinations and commonly used alternative station pairs, and improve bike share access at these locations. The initial rollout of the Bay Area Bike Share system was based on the idea that stations should be located in downtown areas very close to each other, rather than at the destinations that many users need.

While Caltrain is concerned about the space occupied by bicycles, it is important to consider that the alternatives to meet the first/last mile needs aren’t free either. Shuttle connections cost $5-$6, and bikeshare stations also incur costs to install and operate. For Caltrain to reduce capacity demand, it will be important to understand the role of bicycles as a first/last mile solution for riders, and finding alternatives to meet these real needs.

Send comments by April 29

The deadline for public comment is April 29 – send comments to with the subject line “Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project.”

April 2: Friends of Caltrain Meetup in San Francisco

Protests against Google buses call attention to the need to improve transit between San Francisco and Silicon Valley.  There are lots of opportunities to improve how well Caltrain serves SF.

  • Proposed November ballot measures will enable San Francisco to pay its annual Caltrain bills without annual last-minute heroics
  • The Transbay team is exploring ways to pay for and accelerate the Downtown Extension, which will bring Caltrain to a central location with many more transit connections and jobs
  • San Francisco is studying the potential for new buildings where Caltrain currently stores trains
  • Bike and pedestrian improvements are planned near 4th and King, including Embarcadero bike lanes, a 2nd street road diet, improvements on Howard and Folsom, and 8th street pedestrian improvements
  • Bike share expansion is planned (though slowed due to bike vendor bankruptcy)

Do you want to support Caltrain in SF, and find out where to focus and how to take action?

Come to a Friends of Caltrain San Francisco meetup, Wednesday April 2, 6pm, Panera on King Street across from the Caltrain station.  Presenters include Gillian Gillett of the Mayor’s office, Darby Watson of SFMTA,  Sunny Angulo with Supervisor Kim.

RSVP so we’ll be sure to have enough space.

Are there other topics you care about that aren’t on the list? Let us know, we can get an expert this time or at an upcoming meetup. Send email to

Thursday: Caltrain Board reviews strategic plan goals to meet the region’s capacity needs, balance ridership and revenue

On Thursday, the Caltrain board will review the draft strategic plan which will guide the system for the next decide.

The draft plan includes several goals related to capacity that will need to be closely linked together, and will require leadership by Caltrain and stakeholders to define effectively and to implement.

Also, the draft Strategic Plan includes goals for ridership, environmental sustainability, social equity, and revenue that could be in tension. This will require regional attention over time to balance these competing goals.

Capacity opportunities and challenges

As ridership continues to grow, trains have been getting crowded. Cities and employers whose dependence on Caltrain is increasing are concerned about whether Caltrain will continue to meet the growing capacity needs.

The good news is that the Caltrain strategic plan includes several statements that, if closely linked together, could help Caltrain meet the region’s growing needs for sustainable transportation and congestion relief.

  • Grow and manage customer demand with expanded and enhanced service; meet current and future mobility needs.
  • Expand capacity with timely investments
  • Encourage transit-supportive development at and around stations
  • Improve connectivity to local and regional transportation systems

As the statements imply, it is not enough for Caltrain to set a goal to increase ridership.  Caltrain’s ridership goal needs to be be driven by the needs of customers and stakeholders, including:

  • Cities including San Francisco, San Mateo, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose that have set goals for greater use of transit and lower levels of driving.
  • Caltrain’s future capacity is particularly important for cities that are adding development near transit stations and depend on transit service for these areas to function without gridlock
  • Employers such as Google and Palantir which depend on Caltrain to serve employees who increasingly prefer not to commute by car
  • Regional stakeholders – Counties and the MTC, with goals to reduce carbon emissions and traffic congestion

As Caltrain takes the Strategic Plan from a set of high level statements to a set of more concrete objectives, it will be important to quantify and implement the linkages between these high level goals

  • Caltrain electrification needs to stay funded
  • Capital improvements which enable greater capacity and foster ridership should be assessed in terms of their ability to achieve these goals
  • These improvements include platform improvements to enable longer trains and level boarding, full electrification to San Francisco, the downtown Extension to Transbay, and grade separations which enable more reliability and eventually faster service.
  • Caltrain will need to partner with cities, employers and regional stakeholders to quantify  the expected future increases in capacity need
  • In the long run, Caltrain will need to partner with the High Speed Rail authority to ensure that capacity on long distance trains is used for Peninsula corridor travel, as indicated in the latest High Speed Rail business plan

One intriguing statement in the chart includes “balancing service and amenities to address different travel markets.”  This could conceivably include working with other service providers and travel modes, including express bus service on El Camino and on the freeways, to address an overall goal to reduce driving in the 3-county Peninsula Corridor.  The challenge today is that there is no entity with the responsibility to manage travel demand and mode share on the corridor.

One option is to ignore the problem and deal with continuing congestion issues and piecemeal approaches to meeting transportation needs. Another option is for an entity to step up – the Grand Boulevard Initiative? The Peninsula Joint Powers Board?  Some other entity? To take responsibility for regional corridor travel.

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 3.48.15 PM.png

Tension between revenue, ridership and equity goals

The draft Strategic Plan includes a goal to “maximize revenue” which could be in tension with its goals for customer growth, environmental sustainability, social equity, and revenue that could be in tension.

As international rail consultant and High Speed Rail Peer Review Board member Lou Thompson observed at a Friends of Caltrain event in February, Caltrain charges less per passenger-mile than some other services, which suggests it could raise fares.

However, stakeholders including cities and employers want to see more people using the train, and less driving which generates congestion, pollution, and demand for costly parking.  If Caltrain raised fares, this could conceivably limit rider demand.  This would reduce the burden on Caltrain capacity, but increase the burden on local traffic and parking, and regional pollution.

Another challenge is social equity.  Caltrain ridership tends to be relatively high income, and riders of SamTrans and VTA tend to be lower income.   The class-based stereotype is that rich people like trains and poor people like buses – well, of course, unless the buses are tall and white, and travel to Google, Facebook and Apple.  Or perhaps, just maybe, lower income people like services that they can afford, and wealthier people demand services that is competitive with driving.

In the Bay Area, anecdotally, many lower-income workers drive to work, because the cash cost of driving is cheaper than Caltrain.  Unfortunately, this situation does not is not considered an impact under federal law, because federal law requires analysis of changes to existing service – not the inequities of the services that already exist.

One opportunity that Caltrain is already pursuing is an increase in the price of GoPass. This bulk-purchase program provides a 90% per-rider discount for organizations – employers or residential developments – that purchase a Caltrain pass for all users.  The use of GoPass often causes Caltrain ridership to spike, and organizations that use it are still getting a great deal.  Increasing the price for organizations can improve equity while improving Caltrain’s revenue.

With a price structure that does a better job of recovering costs, Caltrain and the region would also benefit from expanding the use of the Go Pass. Caltrain has already expanded the GoPass to cover large residential developments.  The region is seeing growing use of Transportation Management Associations which provide incentives to reduce driving, similar to the effective programs provided by major employers, to pools of smaller organizations and residences within cities, for example downtown Palo Alto and the City of San Mateo Rail Corridor.

With management by the TMA, Caltrain should expand the use of GoPass to pools of users served by the TMA.  This would increase equity. Caltrain discounts would be available to more people, not just those lucky enough to work for the largest employers. It would increase ridership, reduce parking and traffic burdens, and help reduce opposition to transit-oriented development that is due to fear of traffic.

Caltrain should strive to increase revenue, but not at the cost of the region’s environmental goals. Electrification will make Caltrain more cost-effective to run, improving opportunities to balance its goals for equity, ridership, and revenue.  Riders and stakeholders will need to pay attention over time to balance these competing goals.

Some argue that Caltrain should focus primarily on the improving the financial returns of the agency.  But in a world where Caltrain covers about 60% of its cost with fares, and freeways cover less than 50% of their costs via gas taxes, it is heading in the wrong direction to change public policy to favor even greater subsidies for driving, given the impacts of congestion and pollution.

What do you think about the goals and principles for Caltrain’s draft strategic plan?.

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  • Interactive Caltrain schedule

  • Calendar of events

    • May 1, 2014

      Caltrain JPB meeting

      Starts: 10:00 am

      Location: Location: 2nd Floor Auditorium San Mateo County Transit District 1250 San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos

    • May 7, 2014

      SamTrans Board meeting

      Starts: 2:00 pm

      Location: 1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos, CA

    • May 8, 2014

      TJPA Board Meeting

      Starts: 9:30 am

      Location: City Hall, Room 416, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, San Francisco, CA 94102

    • May 13, 2014

      TJPA CAC Meeting

      Starts: 5:30 pm

      Location: 201 Mission Street, Suite 2100 San Francisco, CA

    • May 15, 2014

      Caltrain BAC meeting

      Starts: 6:30 pm

      Location: 1250 San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos, CA

      Description: Bicycle Advisory Committee

    • May 21, 2014

      Caltrain CAC meeting

      Starts: 5:30 pm

      Location: Location: 2nd Floor Auditorium San Mateo County Transit District 1250 San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos

    • June 4, 2014

      SamTrans Board meeting

      Starts: 2:00 pm

      Location: 1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos, CA

    • June 5, 2014

      Caltrain JPB meeting

      Starts: 10:00 am

      Location: Location: 2nd Floor Auditorium San Mateo County Transit District 1250 San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos

    • June 10, 2014

      TJPA CAC Meeting

      Starts: 5:30 pm

      Location: 201 Mission Street, Suite 2100 San Francisco, CA

    • June 12, 2014

      TJPA Board Meeting

      Starts: 9:30 am

      Location: City Hall, Room 416, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, San Francisco, CA 94102