Advocates say Bicycle Riders Could Save Caltrain from Service Cuts

3649924894_a229107487.jpgPhoto: sfbike

With Caltrain facing a $2.3 million deficit, and its governing board considering service cuts and fare hikes, bicycle advocates from three Bay Area counties who have been leading the call for more bicycle capacity have calculated that the commuter rail line could stave off reductions if it would just accommodate the increasing demand for bike space.

Dr. Shirley Johnson, a Caltrain rider and bicycle commuter, who heads up the BIKES ONboard project sponsored by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said the agency is losing over $1 million in annual fare box revenue because Caltrain continues to bump bicyclists, who she points out have become its fastest growing customer segment.

If Caltrain would provide 80 bike spaces per train, converting otherwise empty seats to racks, Johnson said it could help pull the agency out of its budget woes. A Gallery bike car can currently accommodate 40
bikes, while the Bombardier bike cars can handle up to 24 bikes. Some
trains have two bike cars, so bike capacity varies from 40 to 80 bikes
per train. Caltrain began increasing bike capacity last year, but it has been paltry compared to the demand.

"Caltrain needs more passengers and bicyclists want to ride the train
but we need to be able to have a space for our bikes and getting bumped
is not an option when we need to get to work on time," said Johnson. "If Caltrain provides the bike space, we’ll buy tickets, we’ll bring Caltrain revenue, we’ll make it so Caltrain does not need to cut service. Once a public transit agency starts cutting service it’s a death spiral."

Johnson said she suspects Caltrain views it as an issue of bicyclists versus walk-on passengers and "that’s just not the way it is at all." The reality, she said, is that most trains have hundreds of empty seats during peak hours.

Tracy Corral, who has been a multi-modal Caltrain commuter for "years and years," pedals from her San Jose home to the Diridon station for the daily train ride to her job in Redwood City.

"There is a lot of empty space that is not being utilized by people who just walk on the train. They have room to expand the bike program so more people can get on with their bikes and have the 80 spaces per train, and it wouldn’t cost that much to make that change, and they’d have room for people who pay to ride Caltrain with their bikes," said Corral.

Picture_2.pngBIKES ONboard graphic

Johnson calculated the demand for bicycle space on Caltrain by using SFMTA data, Bike to Work Day counts and SFBC membership numbers. She used a linear model "for each data set to determine the percentage increase in cyclists from 2006 to 2009" and then applied "that same percentage to Caltrain bike boardings to estimate revenue lost due to insufficient bike capacity." A majority of Caltrain riders live in San Francisco.

The city of San Francisco has made no significant improvements to its bicycle infrastructure since 2006 due to a legal issue with the city’s Bike Plan, so SFMTA bike counts are a worst-case model for increased bicycle ridership. With advertising and promotion, bicycle ridership is much higher, as evidenced by Bike-to-Work-Day bike counts and SFBC membership. If Caltrain had promoted its on board bicycle service (and had sufficient bike capacity), there would have been approximately 80% more bikes-on-board passengers in 2009 compared with 2006, corresponding to over $1 million in ticket revenue in 2009.

"I looked at the calculations, and I’m a skeptical guy, and I do analysis at work, and I believe these numbers," said Jeffrey Oldham, a member of the BIKES ONBoard project who works as a computer analyst in San Jose. "We’re collecting the number of bumps. It is an approximation because we don’t have full countings of every single person who is denied service but it’s pretty easy to see that we’d be able to make hundreds of thousands dollars in additional revenue if we weren’t having people bumped."

Picture_3.pngBIKES ONboard graphic

In July, BIKES ONboard received reports of 178 bumps, the most this year. Oldham said the most problematic stations for bumps are Palo Alto and Mountain View, but they often get reports in San Francisco, Sunnyvale and San Mateo. Johnson attributes the increased bumps to service disruptions that include everything from mechanical problems, like last week’s breakdown, to crashes or suicides.

"When they have service disruptions they’ll send a different train up the line. So cyclists are expecting a two-bike car train, they have a last minute train set swap, and they send a one-bike car train up the line, and then cyclists get bumped," she said.

Asked for a response, Caltrain spokesperson Christine Dunn said the agency is currently conducting a bicycle count study.

"Results of the count are currently being analyzed and a report is being written, which will be provided to the public. The report will provide a better understanding of bicycle needs on Caltrain. The report will be one of the first items to be considered by the new Caltrain Bicycle Advisory Committee," she said. 

And regarding the calculation that Caltrain could avert service cuts by accommodating more bicyclists? 

"At first glance the report appears to be based on a number of
inaccurate assumptions. Since this is the first time we have seen the
report, we will need several days to review it before we can provide a
response."

BIKES ONboard is launching a campaign today to encourage all riders to "Take Action to Save Caltrain!" and write the agency to demand more bicycle capacity. Volunteers will also be handing out these flyers (PDF) at Caltrain stations.

"Service cuts hurt everybody and cyclists want the railroad to survive
for everybody’s sake. It’s not just a bicycling issue. It’s an issue of
saving Caltrain for the future," said Johnson.

  • Caltrain’s assumption has always been that bumped cyclists will get on the next available train, and if this isn’t acceptable, will in the future store bikes at a station, so revenue loss will be zero: the classic “captive customer” view characteristic of a government bureaucracy. The same view leads them to believe passengers will tolerate service reductions and fare increases without a reduction in demand.

    The reality is the train is in a competitive market of transportation services, where the car is a competitor. Every time a train is removed from the schedule, every time a cyclist is bumped, every time there’s a delay on the line, the car gains modeshare at the expense of the train. If Caltrain would begin acting like a competitive business and less like a government service provider, with some cooperation from local counties it could break through the stagnated ridership levels it accepts as inevitable.

  • I love the persistence and go big attitude of the bikes-on-board crew. Refreshing to see a willingness to just keep demanding big changes that are what we really need if we’re serious about getting people out of their cars.

    – J

  • Yassinov

    The biggest problem is FRA regulation, which require bikes to be fixed in certain location of train. So, the number of bicycle is limited regardless the seat availablities. Non-FRA regulated BART have no limitation if there is enough space for bicycle.
    Caltrain should apply the waiver for this regulation to FRA. Then, Caltrain should modify bicycle policy. Allow more bicycle on reverse commute, which is less utilized. On the other hand, allow less bicycle on traditional commute with standing room only train.

  • FRA may be an issue, but the larger problem is consistency: that not all sets have two bike cars. If you could simply make that one change: bring all sets up to two cars, that would make the service more reliable for cyclists.

  • I love to bring my bike on Caltrain, but this arguement is simply not valid. Bumped bikers are not causing lost revenue, first of all. Those bikers simply wait for the next train — they’ve already bought a ticket. Consistent bike availability may be deterring some potential Caltrain riders, but what about the riders that are deterred from riding Caltrain because express trains are incredibly crowded? That would be even worse if seats were traded for bike spots.

    I’d like to see this issue resolved somehow (and I think more bike parking is a solution, that’s what I typically do, though I realize not everyone can), but adding more bike spaces on the train is NOT going to solve Caltrain’s budget problems.

  • patrick

    @evan

    The lost revenue is in the individual rider being bumped, it’s the people who aren’t riding because they’ve been bumped too many times.

    If people knew they could reliably take their bike on Caltrain there would be more people riding, thus more revenue. It’s pretty clearly stated in the graph above that states how bike ridership growth significantly dropped once cyclists started getting bumped.

  • patrick

    oops, the first sentence should have been:

    The lost revenue is NOT in the individual rider being bumped, it’s the people who aren’t riding because they’ve been bumped too many times.

  • Travis

    Absolutely not. If for only that I take offense to that first graph.

    How can you reasonably draw that ‘expected’ line up with the same linear slope? Do they think that just because you can put a little arrow on a graph that it’s the only determining factor? I’d say it’s much more likely that, coincident with the “routine bumping”, they reached a saturation point for people willing to use Caltrain’s bike service even in the best of conditions.

    I take my bike on Caltrain occasionally, but it’s a shitty experience; having to figure out whose bike to stack on, having to queue up early before a stop to unstack, worrying if someone with their bike on top of yours won’t show. I bike daily in my commute but do so by keeping a bike on both ends.

    I appreciate the Caltrain bike service but expecting the inconvenient bicycle program to make up the shortfall is lunacy.

  • Michael Smith

    I’m getting old. I remember when to solve the problem once and for all Caltrain increased the bike capacity from 2 bikes to 4!

  • “I’d say it’s much more likely that, coincident with the “routine bumping”, they reached a saturation point for people willing to use Caltrain’s bike service even in the best of conditions.”

    I take your anecdote and raise you 200 anecdotes. At least.

    “I take my bike on Caltrain occasionally, but it’s a shitty experience; having to figure out whose bike to stack on, having to queue up early before a stop to unstack, worrying if someone with their bike on top of yours won’t show”

    If the Caltrain bikecar drives you to this level, I can only imagine how many blood vessels would pop in your brain for any real inconvenice in today’s modern world.

    “I appreciate the Caltrain bike service but expecting the inconvenient bicycle program to make up the shortfall is lunacy.”

    At one of this years JPB meetings, Scanlon reported that overall ridership was down 10%, bike ridership was up 30% – after the increased capacity reduced the bump problem. What’s sad is that there are some riders who were turned away from Caltrain FOREVER before we got the extra capacity. The increased capacity didn’t bring them back – it just meant that new riders to the system haven’t abandoned it because they aren’t being bumped at 2008 levels.

  • Matt B

    The orientation of how bikes are stored on the car could also be re-thought. Right now there are four bikes per bay, parked horizontally along the wall. What if instead there were hooks so that bikes could be hung, and at an angle to the wall? You’d get a ton more bikes in there, and it might also cut down on the annoying experience of people piling their bikes on top of yours even though you get off before them (yes, even when you have a clearly visible tag on your bike).

  • People just don’t think remotely straight where feel-good greenie stuff is concerned.

    Yes, more bikes on Caltrain would mean more revenue. Yes, I’ve been bumped from Caltrain several hundred times over more than a decade. Yes, I hate Caltrain’s stupid, hidebound, uncreative staff with a passion.

    But believing or suggesting that more bikes will “save” Caltrain is muddy, wishful, innumerate thinking.

    Caltrain’s problem is that its operating (labour) costs are catastrophically high. Putting a tiny revenue bandaid on the bleeding haemorrhage of train driver+conductor+assistant conductor+assistant assistant conductor is as useful as, well, throwing money into the black hole of Muni (= TWU-250A.) And then on top of that the inefficiency of the scheduling of these far-too-many wage-drawing bodies is something to behold.

    Without dragging Olde Tyme Commuter Railroading out of its 19th century mindset on the operating cost side, anything involving more revenue (be that rider fares from turned away bike+train+bike travellers or be that sales tax blank checks) is a pointless feel-good exercise.

  • Richard – as someone who gets bumped occasionally – I don’t think that extra bike capacity would be pointless – revenue expansion or not…

  • Just to be fair and balanced about this: The ‘hundreds of empty seats’ may be true of reverse commute (southbound in the AM, northbound PM), but this is not the case for morning South Bay and evening Peninsula trains. Walk on passengers are standing in the vestibules because there’s no seating by the time we get to Sunnyvale on at least a few of the morning northbound trains.

  • “Caltrain needs more passengers and bicyclists want to ride the train but we need to be able to have a space for our bikes and getting bumped is not an option when we need to get to work on time,” said Johnson. “If Caltrain provides the bike space, we’ll buy tickets, we’ll bring Caltrain revenue, we’ll make it so Caltrain does not need to cut service. Once a public transit agency starts cutting service it’s a death spiral.”

    this is laughable. seriously. do you really believe this?

    try demanding room for your bike on any northeast corridor train. you’d get laughed off the platform. you folks have no idea how good you’ve got it.

    i understand the need for room for a certain number of *non-folding* bikes on the train and i also understand that by removing seats, caltrain is potentially removing revenue from it’s coffers. the last time i rode caltrain, there were literally groups of people standing for their entire journey because there weren’t enough seats. they stood in the bike area while there were maybe 10 bikes. if that was my first time riding, i’d certainly make it a point of never riding, er i mean “standing” on caltrain again. back to my car!!!

    if caltrain wants to maintain the same number of seats, they will have to buy more rolling stock. each bilevel bombardier car costs at least $1.9 mil. plus there would be more gas as the train needs to pull another car and so on. how is this going to be paid for? bake sale?

    reality check: get a foldie and stop whining.

  • airAndMagic – how did you enjoy the sold out Giants/Dodgers game after your Caltrain ride?

  • This isn’t the NE corridor. Local service to Penn Station:
    http://www.mta.info/nyct/service/schemain.htm
    There’s nothing even remotely close here.

    And please stop this fiction about there not being enough seats. Non-cyclists are not being turned away because of lack of room at anywhere remotely close to the cyclist bump rate, with or without two bike cars. Cyclists are if anything doing driving commuters a favor by not taking up precious parking spots.

  • “Cyclists are if anything doing driving commuters a favor by not taking up precious parking spots.”

    Word – there are probably more people deciding to say “Screw it” and just drive all the way in because the parking lot is full, than there are riders finding they have to stand. Certainly on BART the capacity problem in the East Bay is parking.

  • patrick

    @a&m

    “try demanding room for your bike on any northeast corridor train. you’d get laughed off the platform. you folks have no idea how good you’ve got it.”

    The point is that Caltrain has available space, a large group of people who want to ride, but are unable, combined with a drastic revenue problem. If the trains were consistently full, it would be a different story, and charging for bikes would make sense (as long as it were significantly less than what is charged for parking).

    I agree that this is not the solution to all Caltrain’s problems, but it’s something that would be beneficial to all parties involved.

  • I very rarely ride Caltrain anymore. Money is tight and, because I have a car regardless, its cheaper to drive. I feel a bit bad every time I’m sailing down 280, but I get to work in about half the time and save a good bit of money. NPR deadens the pain.

  • SFResident is a good example of why we need a good stiff $3/gallon gas tax, more compatible with European models: to help balance the economic inequities between the train, which has limited externalized costs, and a car, which has enormous externalized costs.

    For me, money isn’t so tight, perhaps in part because I never got that car.

  • @djc

    Word.

  • @dj – I don’t see how raising the gas tax is a viable solution unless we combine it with more comprehensive and less expensive public transportation system and increase density with mixed-use and mixed-income housing. While raising the gas tax is certainly a necessary long-term solution, without also increasing public infrastructure and reducing the price of housing near workplaces it will simply result in a tighter squeeze for working folk and people who make moderate incomes. I know that I personally have already given up most of the ‘extras’ (no iphone or nice dinners for me). Anything else cuts into the basic staples of food, rent, and health care. And I work a full time job.

  • @SFR. but you’re ignoring the point that your car is not cheaper, even without its externalities factored in. AAA’s figure of $8000 per year to own a car is correct. I travel by Amtrak, buses, and my bicycle a lot in the bay and across the country and I guarantee you that I’m spending no where near 8000 a year on my transportation costs. So yes it would be nicer if public transit were cheaper, and if we put more of our resources into it (which a gas tax would help induce), then yes, it would probably become cheaper. But its already cheaper and more convenient than driving now and people still b*tch and moan that it isn’t. So who has to give in or change first? the drivers or transit providers? always this question.

  • @Justin. The “average” car may cost 8,121 per year but even if those average costs were factored into the psychological process of buying a car, they’re not compelling for people who buy used cars and don’t spend lavishly. There are ways to significantly and creatively mitigate those costs. There are no ways to mitigate the costs of public transit.

    The AAA ‘average’ cost for a small car is $6,320/yr.

    That figure include sums of money that very few people I know actually spend on their cars. $2,332 in depreciation per year? My car cost about that much much money when I purchased it 8 years ago (2,500 off craigslist). $949 for insurance? I pay slightly over 1/3 of that.

    Just adjusting those factors for my own car and removing the finance charge, keeping in place the overinflated mileage, maintenance, and tax charges, and assuming that I won’t be able to sell my car when I finally find work within walking distance of my house puts me at $2,616/year. That’s a lot of money but it’s similar to the $2,748 that a yearly Caltrain and MUNI pass would cost me. And then I wouldn’t have a car, it would take me twice as long to get to work, I would be at the mercy of broken trains and conductors, I would have to walk more than mile to work at the end of the train ride, and it would becomes a huge production to visit my family and friends in Salinas and Monterey.

    All this also fails to take psychology into account. I can assure you that I didn’t make this calculation when I purchased my car.

    There are *massive* costs that are externalized in this process, and we should find some way to deal with those costs, but raising the gas taxes without also finding a way to deal with our housing and transit issues is not a productive solution and will dramatically increase asset and income inequality.

    The key in passing any sort of gas tax will be to build an effective coalition that realizes that our future depends on it. That’s not going to happen by backing poor and working people into a corner and being indifferent to the serious financial stress that folk are under – stress that is largely caused by unsustainable development, systemic underfunding of transit, and an overall reliance on care culture. The best way to get people out of their cars is to build attractive and affordable housing within walking distance of workplaces. Adding more bicycle cars on Caltrain isn’t going to do that (but it’s probably a good idea anyway).

  • Um. That should be car culture. I wish we relied on “care culture.” It would make the world a better place.

  • @SFResident here’s hoping that “Average” doesn’t catch up to you. That cost factors in exceptional events… there goes your deductable, your rates, and who knows what else…

  • That’s a lot of money but it’s similar to the $2,748 that a yearly Caltrain and MUNI pass would cost me.

    This assumes you have an employer who does not set up pre-tax commuter benefits, which would take 30+ percent off this cost.

  • Brad

    I happen to live less than 1 block from the SF Caltrain station. My place of work is 28.6 miles away by google maps, taking the 101. I have a consistent commute time of 43-45 minutes by train and bike. 31 minutes to RWC station, 12-14 minutes of cycling depending on traffic lights. Even better, I can do whatever I want during those 31 minutes of train time (catch up with friends, work, read the paper, etc.) Then I get close to 15 min of exercise. This type of multitasking is what makes the train/bike commute so efficient. It’s a model transportation system.
    I leave the sports car in the garage for longer and/or unexpected trips. I find it unlikely that I could get to work much faster in the car, and I can’t multitask.
    I think the most important effect of Dr. Johnson’s efforts is that more people will actually be aware of the train/bike option as these stories become more frequent in the media. Not sure more bike capacity will save Caltrain, but it can’t hurt. I hate getting bumped. It occasionally encourages me to drive.
    I also think local trains should be abolished and weekend and nighttime service should be nothing but bullet trains. Most people drive or bike to their local caltrain station anyway. If it’s a few extra miles, but the trains are speedy and reliable, who cares?

  • @Brad word. Somehow Caltrain decided that adding Atherton and Broadway to already slow weekend service would be better. Clearly this isn’t working of they are willing to cut weekend service. At the least they could run every other train as a bullet – guarantee this would increase ridership and one could expect a bullet is less expensive to run.

  • BTW, how much does it cost CalTrain to modify cars to accommodate more bikes? And couldn’t they get some federal funding for this? Or is that all earmarked for high-speed rail?

    I started taking my bike on CalTrain in 1994 when it was a pilot program and I lived in SF and commuted to Hillsdale. Back then you had to send away for a “pass” which was a slip of paper with your start/end point.

    So off and on for 16 years I’ve been a CalTrain bicyclist. While the program has come a long way since then, it has a long way to go: I was nearly bumped last night from Mt. View making my way back to San Carlos.

    Any white knights rushing in to help fill that budget gap? Not likely.

    I applaud Shirley and Jeffrey and others for leading this charge, I just wonder if CalTrain will listen.

  • It cost them something like 200k to install capacity to 3 bombardier cars, add capacity to 7 Bombardier cars, and add 2 racks (8 more bikes) to several (12?) Gallery sets. Shirley ran an analysis with respect to increased ridership that concluded they made the money back in quick order.

    My numbers aren’t accurate but the conclusion is.

  • Gotcha–thanks John, makes sense to me.

    I wrote an email to changes@caltrain.com as per the BikesOnBoard campaign.

    This morning at the Oracle Bicycle Friday http://greencognito.blogspot.com/2010/04/fun-fast-fit-oracle-bicycle-friday.html quarterly coffee klatch, a group of us were talking about this CalTrain issue and about how ridership (seem to) spike in the summer of ’08 when gas shot above $4.

    Our hope is that CalTrain, through suggestions like the one atop this thread, will hang on long enough to remain in service for the inevitable point in the future when gas again spikes. There’s probably a certain $/gallon metric where people have to switch to the train–and we hope there’s still a train for them to switch to!

  • Scott Thompson

    what is the rpercentage of bicycle riders??   10 percent or so???  that will save caltrain ( if the articvle isnt a lie anyway) ???

    wouldnt gettign more seated riders mean more fares per car??

  • Scott – what number is greater…

    1) Number of cyclists on Caltrain
    2) Number of non-cyclists not riding Caltrain as a result of the bike cars.

    Hint: #2 is zero.

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