Video, presentations and next steps: How Caltrain and Bay Area transit can survive the pandemic

Last week’s webinar (recorded here) explored how serving a greater diversity of riders and and types of trips can help improve transportation for more people and make Caltrain less financial vulnerable and more resilient.  Here’s a quick summary:

National transit TransitCenter has been covering how commuter rail service in the US have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic (recent webinar video). TransitCenter explains that “commuter rail” is a uniquely American institution, designed to move wealthy white collar commuters from their homes in affluent suburbs.  Fares are high, designed to serve an affluent audience, and service focuses on white collar peak commute periods.  This “Commuter Rail” pattern turns out to be uniquely vulnerable during a pandemic when white collar workers are staying home.

Caltrain has a distinctive problem on top of this because the remaining public funding comes from voluntary contributions from 3 county partner agencies whose budgets depend heavily on sales taxes.

Sebastian Petty of Caltrain presented some recent findings from Caltrain’s Business Plan, showing that, while Caltrain’s ridership is currently whiter and wealthier than the corridor population, and its service is has been focused on peak commute times, there is pent-up demand to use Caltrain for a greater diversity of types of trips, throughout the day and week, among a greater diversity of riders.  Strategies to improve access to Caltrain particularly for lower-income riders include more affordable fares, and better fare and schedule connectivity to local transit, which is more often used by low-income transit users.

Zareen Umair of Zareen’s Restaurant in Palo Alto gave a concrete example of this pent-up need. She talked about her experience, participating in a pilot program offered by Palo Alto’s Transportation Management Association providing free transit passes for workers at her restaurant in the Cal Ave area.  Five workers used the offer for a fast and lower-stress commute; over 300 service workers in the downtown area had been using Caltrain with the PATMA program

Zareen showed a compelling video of Omar Chavez telling the story of how he moved across the Bay from Hayward to Bayshore to take advantage of the Caltrain commute. Now that the Cal Ave pilot has ended, Omar is considering buying a car, since driving is now cheaper for him than the Caltrain ticket. 

Chris Lepe of TransForm talked about work with the Voices for Public Transportation Coalition to ensure that public transit is safe for riders and workers, and to restore public transportation in a way that serves the needs of riders across the income spectrum. Lepe also talked about opportunities for forms of funding that are less regressive than sales taxes, and may be less vulnerable in a recession.

Ian Griffiths of Seamless Bay Area talked about the fragmented nature of Bay Area transit governance and funding, which makes it harder to provide coordinated and affordable fares and schedules which would benefit Omar and his coworkers, and would bring a broader rider base for rail services. And Ian talked about a Blue Ribbon Task Force convened by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission starting next week, which brings potential for governance and funding structural changes to fix the fragmentation that leaves some parts of the system more vulnerable.  Seamless and TransForm will be serving on the Task Force.

There are local, state and federal opportunities for funding to stabilize Caltrain and transit. Adina Levin of Friends of Caltrain (your blogger) presented a set of milestones starting this Spring and Summer with key decisions that could set Caltrain and Bay Area transit on a path toward greater equity, financial and environmental sustainability.  

About 200 people signed up for the webinar. It is gratifying to see that there are so many people who are interested in how Caltrain and Bay Area transit can survive the pandemic, we are going to need everyone participating. We’ll keep you posted with next steps you can take to save Caltrain and Bay Area Transit.