Advocates say Bicycle Riders Could Save Caltrain from Service Cuts

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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.

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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."

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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.