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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.

SamTrans new FLX service, mobility management, and the rise of transportation platforms

SamTrans is starting work on a strategic plan. A presentation at last week’s board meeting  was mostly about the process, which will start with input in the Spring of 2014, and is expected to be adopted by the board in the Fall.  Planning Douglas Kim’s presentation included a potentially transformative idea – becoming a “mobility management” service. What does this buzzphrase mean? What could or should it mean?

The term “mobility management” is sometimes used to mean a more flexible approach to serving the disabled, elderly, and very poor. In addition to fixed route buses (which are expensive on lightly travelled routes) and special purpose paratransit (which is very expensive to operate), a “mobility management” service might include contracting to taxi operators to provide transportation services, and education for older people about how to use the transit system after a lifetime of driving. This sense of the term focuses on providing more effective and cost-effective service for people whose needs cannot be met otherwise.

There is also a broader sense in which mobility management means the ability to coordinate a wider range of services and modes, from fixed route buses and shuttles provided by a public agency to contracted taxis, volunteer drivers, carpool, vanpool, carshare, bikeshare, and various other modes. This definition is potentially about serving many people, not only specific populations who can’t be served by driving and mass transit.

There is an even broader sense in which the phrase “mobility management” can be used to incorporate transportation demand management programs and land use policies to reduce vehicle trips.

It’s too early to tell what SamTrans has in mind, but what might it mean if “public transit” expanded to incorporate “mobility management” instead?

FLX on-demand service

SamTrans has taken a baby step in this direction by piloting what it calls  FLX service for two routes in San Carlos, formerly covered by route 295, and Pacifica, formerly served by Route 14.

The service was created on two lines where usage was too low to justify a driver running the route all day.  Instead, the bus runs the scheduled route at peak times. In the off peak, a user can schedule a pickup by calling a day in advance.  The two FLX services are slightly different – the San Carlos service travels a fixed route, but only comes if someone calls – the Pacifica service will deviate from the route to pick someone up. San Carlos is seeing about 15 on-demand riders per day which is a little more than the former service, and Pacifica is carrying over 100.   SamTrans will promote the service, and make tweaks to improve based on customer feedback in June.

The SamTrans planner who worked on the service says that the reason the service started with the need to call a day in advance was that they wanted to verify that the call center could handle the requests. If that goes well they can be more flexible.   The service requires the same number of employees, so there has been no impact on labor contracts.

The FLX service doesn’t have exact precedents, as far as its planners know. The models were based on other services created for rural areas and ADA service.   SamTrans is experimenting, trying to find out whether are ways to serve suburban areas more effectively.

Transportation as a platform

What would happen if this type of service was only one of multiple types of service that were brought together with a single platform?  The inspiration for this thought experiment comes from a few slides from a presentation on rail stations in Europe, showing apps and programs where transportation is seen as a service, not a particular mode.  With an app, a user plans her trip from origin to destination and pays for it in one click, including connecting bus, local rail, and long distance rail. The fact that the services might come from different providers is invisible to the user.

Integrated planning and ticketing

The same presentation about European stations described a transportation promotional program where the user gets a discount on carshare and taxi services, in addition to fixed route transit.  It doesn’t look like the flexible modes – taxi, carshare, bikeshare – are incorporated into the trip planning service yet, but that would be a great fit.   You want to go from point a to point b? What options are available to you, how long will it take, what will it cost, including the “first and last mile” for backbone transit, and including the flexible modes.   Portland’s TriMet already has ZipCar locations incorporated into its multimodal transportation API, enabling trip planning apps that include ZipCar (In the future, according to the FAQ, “TriMet hopes to show real-time data for car-share availability and to incorporate additional car-share providers.”)

Mobility service integration

Transportation as a Platform

With these apps and programs, the model is shifting from providing transportation service as mode – a bus or a train – to transportation as a platform.   The platform services provides schedule data, realtime data and station data, aggregate usage data, and transaction services.

A  particular transportation “agency” may run some of the services, and also sign up other providers to participate, similar to the way that Amazon lets you search and purchase from a database of products, some of which are stored and shipped by Amazon, and others which are provided by  vendors who use the Amazon platform for marketing and transactions.

Transportation Platform




Transit agencies, congestion management associations , transportation management associations (TMAs)

SamTrans seems like the wrong level to be the primary platform provider – that should be regional in scope.  (An evolution beyond MTC’s data services and Clipper?)  But it might make sense to have a county-based agency to select and vet the service providers that provide transportation services for the county, and to provide public funding based on public goals – coverage, equity, emissions reduction, congestion relief, etc.

If you think about SamTrans as an aggregator of mobility services, how is SamTrans different from the Congestion Management Authority in San Mateo County, uses the brand name to operate and market shuttles, carpool, and other programs for employers, and starting to provide services for cities?  Maybe should evolve to become the service and contract aggregator, and SamTrans should be a specialized operator that runs certain types of buses and vans?  Or maybe SamTrans should vet providers at a county level, and then should provide customized service for particular customers, like a corporation or the City of San Mateo?

With this architecture, where do city-based Transportation Management Associations fit?   They have an important role to play because they the strongest incentive to solve problems for specific places.  Palo Alto needs to provide access to downtown; they can do this by subsidizing more car parking and dealing with the traffic jams caused by encouraging more people to drive – or by incenting access with fewer cars. They have the ability to gather detailed local information about people’s origins, destinations, and needs, and then to create programs that will provide access tailored to those local needs.

So where is this platform model being used?  

Portland Trimet is the best example I have found providing a technology platform and application programming interface (API) for schedule, realtime, and station data.   They are migrating late to electronic payments – they haven’t said (or I haven’t found) whether the payment services will be incorporated into the regional platform with an API.  Several European regions have coordinating agencies that aggregate service across operators.  But I don’t know how their technology platforms work – yet.

Uber is promoting itself as the general-purpose transportation platform of the future, but it doesn’t have a public application programming interface (API) yet, so the PR seems premature at the moment (folk with special knowledge are welcome to comment).

There are several shifts in progress.  Clipper is being upgraded – with the potential to provide a much greater level of regional fare and schedule integration.   Transportation services are being re-oriented around users and data, rather than around vehicles and types of vehicles.   Cities are taking responsibility for traffic and parking, and becoming much more assertive customers for transportation services.

Will the Bay Area, which has helped invent the concepts of platforms and services, do an effective job of implementing them for the region for transportation?

Upcoming events in San Francisco, South City, Mountain View

Three very different events in the next two weeks explore the future of the Caltrain corridor.

San Francisco, Wednesday March 12, 2pm – Mode Share and Mode Shift on the Caltrain Corridor

A group of students at Stanford’s Sustainable Cities class have been researching trends in Caltrain corridor mode share, and the policies cites are taking to shift transportation away from driving, in a project for Professor Deland Chan, with Friends of Caltrain as the community sponsor.  The data the students have uncovered speak to opportunities for change in our region.   Sustainable Cities is a project-based, service-learning class where students collaborate with Bay Area NGOs and government agencies to support their sustainability efforts.
They present their results at San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin in San Francisco – RSVP via Facebook
Other presentations by class teams will cover:
* conducting oral histories and creating a map of residents who have faced evictions in San Francisco (Anti-Eviction Mapping Project)
* re-envisioning Golden Gate Park to be accessible for all users (San Francisco Bicycle Coalition).
* creating a feasibility study for establishing a farmers market at a health clinic in North Fair Oaks (San Mateo County Health Department)
South San Francisco, Saturday March 22, 10am – Walking Tour, the Future of Downtown South San Francisco
The City of South San Francisco has been conducting a long-term vision process for the downtown area.  Come see what changes may be in store.. The Coalition for Community Benefits invites you to attend a walking tour of the area that stretches from the Caltrain Station on the East side of Highway 101 to Linden Avenue and Spruce Avenue.    You will hear more about plans and ideas for Caltrain station improvements, pedestrian safety, affordable housing, economic vitality, parks and public space.

The walking tour is scheduled for Saturday, March 22 from 10am to 11:30am. The draft Station Area Plan will be made public at the end of March. Come learn from experts and fellow community members to prepare for important decisions for the City. Read more about the Downtown Plan and our Coalition’s Community Benefits’ Platform.

Please RSVP by March 17 and tell a friend!

Mountain View, Wednesday, March 26, 7pm - Transit Village: Traffic and Parking in Mountain View

On Wednesday, March 26, the Mountain View Human Relations Commission will host its fourth Civility Roundtable event, continuing its community discussion forum series. Previous events explored corporate responsibility, undocumented workers, and gun violence at schools.

“Transit Village: Traffic and Parking in Mountain View” will be a community conversation about the challenges residents face as the City implements its recently adopted General Plan, including bike/ped safety, parking availability, and transit accessibility. Project Sentinel will provide facilitators for the community dialogue.

The speaker participants include:
• Hon. Rod Diridon, Sr. – Former Santa Clara County Supervisor
• Hon. Tom Means – Former City of Mountain View Mayor and Councilmember
• Adina Levin – Co-founder of Friends of Caltrain
• Josette Langevine – Mountain View Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee
• Karen DeMello – Jackson Park Neighborhood Advocate
• Kevin Mathy – Google Transportation Manager

When: Wednesday, March 26
Time: 7 – 9 p.m .
Where: Mountain View Senior Center (266 Escuela Ave.)
Admission is free. Refreshments will be available.

Click here to RSVP via Facebook


Caltrain electrification EIR underplays environmental benefits

While the premise of Environmental Impact Reports is to disclose the negative environmental impacts of projects that might harm the environment, the most notable information in the EIR for Caltrain electrification is how it might benefit the environment.

Caltrain electrification is expected to increase ridership. By doing so, it will decrease vehicle miles travelled and greenhouse gas emissions.  The improvements are forecast to start in 2019 when electrification is planned to go live, and to escalate in 2040 by which time the downtown extension to Transbay terminal is expected to be implemented.
Caltrain Electrification Ridership

However, the EIR does not analyze a set of measures that could significantly increase environmental benefits.   One glaring gap is that schedule scenario assumes that in the 2040 period Caltrain will run only 2 out of 6 peak hour trains all the way to Transbay terminal, where there are more jobs nearby than the rest of the line put together.  It wouldn’t cost more to run the trains to Transbay, and Caltrain has said that there aren’t current technical limitations that would prevent them from running all the trains to Transbay. So there isn’t any good reason to underestimate the environmental benefits of the Downtown Extension project.

There are some other options that Caltrain omits, because they are only analyzing the projects for which they currently have funding.

  • The scenario assumes that Caltrain will keep running 25% diesel trains between San Jose and San Francisco until 2040. Getting rid of the diesels sooner will further reduce emissions, improve performance, and likely increase ridership

  • The scenarios studied do not include level boarding. Level boarding could increase speed 50% over and above basic electrification, would improve Caltrain’s ability to make scheduled transfers with BART, MUNI, VTA and other services, and would increase service quality for all users, especially the disabled and elderly, as well as everyone with a bicycle, stroller, or luggage.

  • The scenario assumes that Caltrain will run six car trains.  Caltrain could extend platform length to run longer trains, adding substantially more capacity.

Benefits Compared to what?

The Environmental Impact Report shows that electrification is expected to reduce vehicle miles travelled in the region.  The EIR shows that the project will reduce overall VMT by .18% at peak periods, and .12% overall. This is a miniscule amount. It is also almost completely irrelevant.

By considering all vehicle miles travelled in the 3 counties, the EIR compares trips on Caltrain to vehicle trips crossing the Golden Gate bridge between San Francisco and Marin, Interstates 880 and 680 in Santa Clara County, 92 in San Mateo County, and many other routes which are unrelated to trips on the Caltrain corridor.

The vehicle routes that are relevant for the purposes of comparison, vehicle trip reduction, mode share and market share are Highway 101, and to a lesser extent El Camino Real and 280.

Caltrain ridership has doubled over the last decade. The increase is both absolute and relative.  Nondrivealone mode share at most leading stations has jumped, per census data. Cities on the Caltrain corridor, including San Francisco, San Mateo, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and likely San Jose are investing programs in more aggressive mode shift.

Caltrain could provide much more meaningful comparison in terms of VMT, GHC, and commute trips on the corridor.

Budget benefits

The EIR explains that the project will reduce costs to Caltrain, by replacing diesel fuel with cheaper electricity, and will increase revenues by increasing ridership.  This will presumably make it easier to provide operating funding for Caltrain.   Obviously financial stability is not an environmental impact, but Caltrain could use the information it has in its spreadsheets to communicate to stakeholders and taxpayers how much the operating budget stands to benefit financially.

Selling the benefits

While Caltrain is in the process of communicating the environmental results of electrification, there is a powerful opportunity to communicate the benefits of the project –  including the features that would generate even more environmental benefits; including a meaningful comparison to vehicle travel on the corridor, and including benefits for the operating budget.

This would be valuable for several reasons:

  • To help stakeholders – including cities and employers – depending on Caltrain capacity to understand the options and benefits
  • To communicate the value for incremental investments that will create more “bang for the buck” from the basic electrification investment
  • To communicate the benefits in terms of greenhouse gas emissions to help attract support from stakeholders and funding sources focused on climate change
  • To communicate the value to the operating budget

In the unwelcome event that Caltrain electrification gets stalled amidst the legal challenges of the High Speed Rail project, communicating these benefits now will help rally the region to keep electrification funded going forward.

Caltrain to start marketing offpeak travel

Today, the Caltrain board approved a program to advertise offpeak travel.  The ad campaign may include radio, print ads, social media and possibly television.   It’s financially smart to market capacity that is available offpeak, and good to get people in the habit of using transit.

There may be opportunities to work with cities whose lively downtowns are crowded nights and weekends, putting pressure on car parking.   Not everyone enjoying dinner in downtown Palo Alto, Redwood City, and San Mateo has easy access to the train or bus – but some do.   Could marketing transit help postpone the need to build new parking structures?

Do you use transit for travel nights, afternoons and weekends, in addition to rush hour commutes?

There are related opportunities to encourage commute trips that are earlier or later than the peak of rush hour, to relieve crowding. Stanford professor Balaji Prabhakar had developed a program offering commuters incentives to travel outside of the most crowded times.  Caltrain and MTC are looking into this, according to Caltrain staff in response to a question at the borad meeting.

To alleviate crowding and bike bumps, Caltrain could also adapt a practice from BART, and show in its schedules how crowded a given train is likely to be.

BART crowding




Caltrain electrification environmental report is out

The Caltrain electrification environmental impact report is published.

Here’s the schedule for the public meetings.

Tuesday, March 18, 6 – 8 p.m.
Caltrain Offices, 2nd Floor Auditorium
1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos

Wednesday, April 2, 6 – 8 p.m.
Redwood City Library
1044 Middlefield Rd., Redwood City

Monday, April 7, 6 – 8 p.m.
San Jose Main Library
150 E. San Fernando St., San Jose

Wednesday, April 9, 6 – 8 p.m.
UCSF Mission Bay,
Genentech Hall Room N114
600 16th St., San Francisco

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

Reading the EIR? Add thoughts in blog comments.

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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