Caltrain’s equity and access studies show opportunities to diversify the rider base

As Caltrain’s fare study showed earlier, Caltrain’s fare structure is currently regressive – low-income riders pay the most per ride, monthly passes that cost less per ride are used by higher income riders who can afford to pay upfront, and commuters who are provided the GoPass by large employers – on average the highest-paid set of riders – pay the least per ride.

As part of its Business Plan, Caltrain is assessing ways to improve access to a greater diversity of riders. This topic will be discussed on Wednesday at a committee of the board, which is meeting remotely and open to the public by Zoom and dial-in.

But strategies to improve equitable access to Caltrain go beyond making the fare structure less regressive.  Connectivity, it turns out, is a big part of the picture.

A key strategy to diversify access to Caltrain could be bus and other transit access – Caltrain’s studies show that low income people are much more likely to take transit to the station

With transfers also, the fare structure currently has built-in inequities. Discounts on local transit are given for people who can afford monthly Caltrain passes, but no discount for bus users to take the train

Caltrain’s assessment acknowledges that “improved fare coordination could make transfers more seamless & convenient for all riders and could help Caltrain provide more equitable access for low-and-middle-income riders who are more likely to connect via transit.

Better connections

Improving local transit access to Caltrain also requires better connections.

Today, Caltrain’s customized schedule is hard for local transit to connect to, but “shifting to standardized clockface schedules with electrification will help Caltrain better coordinate transit connections.” A clockface schedule means service at regular time intervals, like 7am, 7:15am, 7:30am, 7:45am.

Caltrain’s assessment reports that providing more mid-day, evening, and early morning service –  already a goal of electrification – would help improve equity by serving work schedules that aren’t 9-5, and non-work trips. Caltrain’s schedule is currently designed for white collar jobs, and changing the schedule could help a greater diversity of riders.

SamTrans riders also want better rail connections

The desire for better bus-train connections also surfaced in the recent studies conducted by SamTrans for the “Reimagine SamTrans” comprehensive operational analysis to review the bus network. In focus groups and quantitative surveys, current Samtrans bus riders place a high priority on better connections to rail.

Whiter and wealthier ridership

But is Caltrain ridership really unrepresentative of the community it serves? The study concludes that this is the case.

The study reports that Latinx and low-income people are significantly underrepresented.

Conclusions and what you can do

When considering the segregated pattern of the transit system – trains for the well-off and buses for the poor, conventional wisdom has been that this is not subject to change – high-income and low-income prefer different things.  But Caltrain’s study suggests that there are opportunities to increase Caltrain ridership to be more ethnically and economically diverse, with fare and schedule integration as key strategies.

Caltrain could attract more low-income riders by: 

  • Expanding service during off-peak hours and non-traditional commute times 
  • Offering low-income fare products. Caltrain has committed to piloting low-income fare products starting this year as part of the regional MTC SMART program launch 
  • Evolving and simplifying fare structure so that discounts and transfer benefits accrue equitably to all types of riders 
  • Expanding and investing in first- and last-mile access that benefits all types of trips and people with a focus on Communities of Concern that have expressed a desire for better station access such as Bayview in SF and North Fair Oaks in San Mateo County

What do you think? Share your ideas in comments, and you can send comments to the board committee at: