Caltrain considers unprecedented commitments to equity and connectivity

In the next month, the Caltrain board will be considering an unprecedented set of equity and connectivity policies intended to increase ridership through increased diversity and better connections.

If the Caltrain board adopts these policies in August, they would be incorporated into the Caltrain business plan, and would therefore guide the spending of the proposed ballot measure, if it moves forward and if it passes.

Caltrain has historically been run in the US tradition of commuter rail, which has historically been whiter and wealthier than the community it traverses, and has been managed as a single-purpose, standalone service intended to move suburban white collar commuters from their homes in affluent suburbs to jobs in the urban downtown. 

In a transformation from the historical tradition, the board is being asked to adopt principles of equity and connectivity. Caltrain’s research has showed that these principles are closely connected, since low income people are much more likely to use other transit to get to Caltrain, and so fare and schedule connections can help provide better access to low income people.   The policies proposed will prioritize station service, transit and active transportation connections for low-income communities. 

The policy includes support for improved affordability including

  • Support for region’s means-based fare program – where the Caltrain board in June increased its discount to 50%
  • Pursuing opportunities to improve the equity of Caltrain’s fare structure, which the agencies own studies showed charge the highest fares to its lowest income riders and vice versa
  • Constructive participation in the Regional Fare Coordination and Integration Study, with goals of increasing ridership and enhancing the ease and affordability of trips made using multiple transit providers.

The point about constructive participation in regional initiatives for fare integration is not all to be taken for granted – in the regional policy discussions about fare integration over the last several years, Caltrain has been among the skeptics.  There will be issues of startup costs and how to govern and manage a system of integrated fares; it is a meaningful step for the Caltrain board to direct its staff to engage in the discussions with goals of increasing affordability and ease of use.

On connectivity, the policy proposal calls for moving toward with “a standardized “clock face” schedule with consistent arrivals and departures at stations so that shuttle, bus, and light rail transit providers and intercity rail operators have the ability to predict and plan to Caltrain’s service.  Not only that, the policy proposal describes schedule coordination as a goal that Caltrain should pursue starting now – as a strategy to improve service to win back ridership – not only as an aspiration to start to consider once electric service starts in 2023.

Improved fare and schedule connections would improve the attractiveness of transit for travellers across the income spectrum, setting the stage for higher transit ridership around the region.

Thes proposed policies would represent a major change from how the agency has historically seen and designed its service. While the policies don’t yet include many implementation specifics – the Millbrae connection is called out as one priority – the policies calls for a process of working with local communities to develop the specifics.

Also, some of the actions need to implement the policies, such as regional fare integration, are things that Caltrain can’t do alone. In addition to the Caltrain board to set policies for actions it can take alone, it will be important for Caltrain to engage in and support regional governance initiatives that will be needed to improve equity and connectivity for transit around the region.