Caltrain Go Pass Donation Program attracts new riders

Caltrain’s Go Pass donation program, which was launched in 2021, is providing access to Caltrain service to cashiers, cooks, grounds keepers, medical assistants, and other low-wage workers, many of whom use Caltrain for the first time with this program, according to a word cloud generated by, one of the nonprofits distributing the passes.

The program engages nonprofits including, Samaritan House, and the Palo Alto Transportation Management, Alta Housing and Sacred Heart Community Services to distribute the passes.

The program reaches a much higher share of low income people and people of color than Caltrain ridership as a whole.  60% of participants have an annual household income under $50,000. Riders are 4x more likely to be Hispanic / Latino and 2x more likely to be Black / African American compared to Caltrain ridership as a whole. 

The GoPass donation program allows employers to donate unused passes to a network of non-profit organizations. Companies may receive a tax write off for donated passes and positive publicity if desired.

As Caltrain works to regrow ridership, the GoPass donation program appears to be an early success at increasing ridership by reaching people who didn’t have access to Caltrain before. Caltrain hasn’t provided apples to apples numbers, but the program has added several percent to Caltrain’s ridership that has been slowly regrowing from steep pandemic declines.

Caltrain reports that the Go Pass Donation Program has reached more customers than Clipper Start, the region’s means-based discount program administered via MTC, which provides a 50% discount to low-income households.   Clipper Start has had low usage, reaching only about 1% of the eligible population.  Both programs are being extended, and MTC will be working to improve marketing, outreach, and the signup process for Clipper Start. 

Having a trusted nonprofit distribute and administer the Caltrain Donation program seems obviously helpful. However, the Go Pass donation program has a logical limit to the ability to grow, because it relies on voluntary donations by employers.  Public funding may eventually be helpful. We also wonder how relatively important it is for the fare to be entirely free, vs at a lower price.  For example, how many of the Go Pass donation users already pay for bus service, and would be willing to pay a more moderate sum for a multi-agency pass. And we also wonder about other barriers are faced by low-income potential customers, such as hours of service – does Caltrain run when the cook and health aide need to get to and from work – and convenient local transit connections. The Go Pass donation program seems like a good opportunity to find out more about the needs of people who have been underserved by Caltrain in the past.