Equity benefits of coordinating Caltrain and SamTrans

Better connections between SamTrans buses and Caltrain have the potential to improve access for people who live in “Communities of Concern” in San Mateo County, according to a report published by the Stanford’s Sustainable Urban Studies class in a project in partnership with Friends of Caltrain and Seamless Bay Area.

In July 2019, the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury released a report calling for the improved schedule coordination between SamTrans Caltrain. The report found that 65% of people on SamTrans’ 16 “Caltrain Connection” bus routes wait longer than 15 minutes for the train or have fewer than 5 to make their connection.  Only 3% of all Caltrain commuters utilize SamTrans connections, not surprising considering the lack of coordination between the “Caltrain Connector” route on SamTrans and the scheduling of Caltrain (San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury, 2018).

Reviewing this assessment, we wondered whether the potential benefits of improving SamTrans-Caltrain connections might include improved access to Caltrain for people living in “communities of concern” – areas with high shares of residents who are low-income, cost-burdened renters and minorities. 

Yes, there are people in Communities of Concern who could benefit

The first question is whether there are Communities of Concern in San Mateo County that have potential access to Caltrain via connecting bus routes.  The students’ initial analysis showed that along the Caltrain corridor, that there are approximately 662,000 residents living in Communities of Concern within a 3-mile radius of Caltrain.

This is a notable number of people. Caltrain sees about 65,000 average daily boardings, so doing a better job of making connections would be meaningful for Caltrain ridership, and improving the economic diversity of Caltrain ridership, and alleviating traffic caused by lower-income people who drive because of the lack of affordable and fast transit options.

The second question is which communities in San Mateo County have potential access to Caltrain. The students did GIS analysis showing significant shares of the population within communities of concern located within walking distance of a SamTrans bus that connects to Caltrain, in South San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City, North Fair Oaks, and East Palo Alto.  

The analysis also showed that there are areas in communities of concern in San Bruno that are near the Caltrain corridor but don’t have a Caltrain Connector bus route

The areas served by Caltrain-connecting bus routes in South San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City, North Fair Oaks and East Palo Alto already have relatively high bus ridership, serving 5000-33,000 people who might benefit from the ability to travel more rapidly to places along the Caltrain line.

Transfer time and travel time 

The third logical question is about the quality of the connections between these bus routes connecting Communities of Concern to Caltrain, considering transfer time and travel time.   

Heading Southbound in the morning, there are areas in communities of concern in South San Francisco that have access to buses connecting to Caltrain, but the median transfer times are 16-30 minutes, making a two-step commute that much less practical.  Similarly, heading Northbound there are neighborhoods in Communities of Concern in San Mateo and East Palo Alto that have media transfer times between 16 and 30 minutes.

Also, some of the connecting routes to Caltrain are slow.  Particularly in South San Francisco and East Palo Alto, the route connecting to Caltrain takes between 15 and 30 minutes to get to the train.

Potential improvements

This mapping analysis indicates a variety of areas to explore potential improvements that might give residents of Communities of Concern better access to job, school, and other opportunities along the Caltrain line. 

Improving schedules

  • The students’ analysis shows that 81% of first SamTrans buses arriving at Caltrain station miss the first train of the day. This may disincentivize early morning commuters from using public transportation. 
  • The analysis indicates potential to attract riders by improving morning transfer times from South San Francisco southbound, as well as Northbound from San Mateo and East Palo Alto. 

New/improved routes

  • The analysis indicates that there are communities of concern areas in San Bruno that have potential access to Caltrain but lack a connecting route – might a new or extended route help to make this connection?  
  • Also, there are community of concern areas in Daly City that require a 3-step connection from SamTrans for BART to Caltrain.  Would providing a more direct route from neighborhood to a Caltrain transfer point pick up new riders?

Improving connection speed

  • For the routes in East Palo Alto and South San Francisco where the connecting bus takes a relatively long time, it would be worth further analysis to assess whether changes to speed the routes using techniques such as signal priority, queue jumps, and dedicated lane segments, would make travel times more competitive and appealing.

Improving fares

We suspect that changes to schedules and routes would have a much greater benefit in attracting residents of Communities of Concern to Caltrain if these improvements were accompanied by changes to fares.

Currently, Caltrain’s monthly pass provides access to SamTrans and VTA buses (but not Muni), but holders of a SamTrans pass (who are much more likely to be low-income) do not get access or discount for a Caltrain).  Caltrain’s fare studies show that low-income riders are more likely to buy single-ride tickets, and there are no transfer discounts between Caltrain and SamTrans for single rides.

In the coming year, Caltrain will be participating in the region’s means-based fare pilot program, which will give a 20% discount for riders with household income below 2x the federal poverty rate ($50,000 for a family of 4).  For a North Fair Oaks resident interested in a job or educational opportunity in Mission Bay near 4th and King in San Francisco, this would reduce their fare from $8.25 to $7.05. A bus trip would cost $3.50, with means-based discounts on the Muni connection, but would make the commute take nearly an hour longer each way.

Changing to integrated fares without any transfer penalties would make the commute more affordable, including for households making, say, $75,000 who would still be considered very low income in qualifying for affordable housing.  A means-based fare discount could be applied to an integrated fare, to provide deeper affordability for those who need it most.

The region is just starting a business case study for integrated fares. This study shows a few of the opportunities where integrated fares might provide improved access to transit and to opportunity. 

More research is needed to verify opportunities in all 3 counties

Currently, the average Caltrain riders have an average household income around $130,000; only 20% of Caltrain riders are low income.  Better bus connections, and better fare integration, have the potential to increase the diversity of Caltrain ridership, and could provide more opportunities for jobs, education, and other access for residents. 

The students focused on San Mateo County because of the opportunity posed by the current “Reimagine SamTrans” initiative which is working on overhauling the bus routes, and the motivation from the Grand Jury report. Similar research would also be valuable to identify areas for improvement San Francisco and Santa Clara County.

As the student report notes, analyzing a potential gap with map and schedule data is not enough to justify improvements.  Direct outreach to residents would be needed to assess whether potential improvements would be likely to attract riders. There are improvements that Caltrain and SamTrans could explore directly, and additional improvements that could be made in the context of a regional program of integrated and equitable fares.

The study focused on improvements for communities of concern, however better connections have the potential to increase transit ridership more broadly. Experience from regions with well-connected transit systems – including quality bus service – shows that more people use good, affordable transit across the income spectrum.

Equity improvements and transit funding

Providing low-income residents with better access to jobs, education, and other destinations would improve people’s lives. It could also help attract funding to make further transportation improvements. The region’s scoring of transit projects to prioritize projects to fund is starting to take equity into account, and serving a more economically diverse rider base is likely to help attract funding in the future.