SamTrans Upgrades El Camino Real Bus Service With More Reliable Route

Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/munidave/8610119144/in/photolist-e7R7s5-e3Aw5Z-e3Awdk-eNJSFH-e7vgw9-dFVR5F-dFVRhe/##munidave/Flickr##

SamTrans hopes to attract more transit riders after combining its popular 390 and 391 bus routes into a single route, called ECR, that now runs the length of San Mateo County along El Camino Real with more frequent and reliable service. The ECR runs every 15 minutes on weekdays and every 20 minutes on weekends between Daly City and Palo Alto, between about 5 a.m. and 1 a.m. the next morning.

The old 391 route used to run between Daly City and downtown San Francisco, a service that SamTrans no longer provides. “By eliminating the lower-performing San Francisco portion from the ECR line, SamTrans is able to invest more heavily in its Peninsula service,” the agency said earlier this month. On an average weekday, about 400 riders used the 391 to access downtown San Francisco, a small portion of the 11,600 passenger total ridership of 390 and 391 combined.

The ECR service replaced the old routes on August 12, and public officials marked the occasion at the Redwood City Transit Center last Friday. “This is for more reliable public transportation, a critical issue for us,” said Redwood City Mayor Alicia Aguirre. “As our community grows, we need better transportation.”

The ECR bus route runs along El Camino Real, the thick black line in this map. Source: SamTrans Service Plan Market Assessment

Since most of San Mateo County’s population and employment centers are concentrated along a narrow strip of land near El Camino Real, bus service along the corridor is exceedingly important. Routes 390 and 391 together accounted for more than 25 percent of SamTrans’ total weekday ridership in 2011, according to the agency’s 2013 service plan.

The new service clarifies what used to be two confusing, overlapping routes. The 390 bus ran between Daly City BART and Palo Alto Caltrain, while route 391 ran between San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal and Redwood City Caltrain during weekday commute hours and between Daly City and Redwood City Caltrain at all other times. Even between Daly City and Redwood City, where the two buses overlapped, the routes didn’t make all the same stops — Route 390 skipped San Bruno BART while Route 391 skipped Daly City BART.

“The bus drivers often had to explain to riders waiting at the stops where they were going,” said SamTrans spokesperson Christine Dunn.

On weekdays, each route ran every 30 minutes, and their departures were staggered so that, theoretically, a bus would arrive at each stop roughly every 15 minutes.

In practice, however, drivers couldn’t maintain the published schedules on such long routes with so many stops, especially on the 391 route, where buses had to contend with frequent traffic congestion on its way into and out of San Francisco. Passengers were left without a reliable option.

“What the 15-minute combined route does is allows operations to manipulate the service if it’s running late to get it back on schedule,” said SamTrans transit analyst Jimmy Famolare. “And in our society in general, we want things on demand. Frequency sells.”

Although the service change seems like an obvious improvement, SamTrans planners were cautious, first demonstrating it would be effective by testing it on weekends beginning last August. They found that weekend ridership increased by 4 percent, and are expecting a similar or greater increase on weekdays.

San Mateo County Transit Ridership 1999 - 2013Ridership on SamTrans buses has steadily declined over the past decade, dropping by one-third since 2000, when more people rode SamTrans buses than Caltrain and BART combined within San Mateo County. Caltrain ridership within the county has since risen by two-thirds, while BART ridership within the county has more than doubled, according to the County’s Level of Service and Performance Measure Monitoring Program reports (20092011). SamTrans’ ridership decline has contributed to the agency’s financial problems, which led directly to its decision to stop contributing funds from its operating budget to Caltrain in 2011, initiating a budget crisis that threatened to eliminate all weekend and mid-day trains on the passenger rail service.

The new ECR bus service is the first change to be implemented from the SamTrans Service Plan, which calls for a major overhaul of the agency’s bus routes and intends to “do more of what works, less of what doesn’t, and try new things” in order to attract more riders and set the agency on a path toward improved financial health. Of SamTrans’ 50 bus routes, 31 will be modified in some way and three routes eliminated, beginning next January. For a few routes located in areas where demand is highest, called “core markets” (Daly City, South San Francisco, Redwood City, and East Palo Alto), frequency will be increased to 15 minutes. Other routes with low ridership will be scaled back or eliminated.

A future study, expected to be completed by Summer 2014, will investigate various options for speeding up the ECR route, which currently travels at an average speed of about 11 mph. Two of the options to be studied include skip-stop service and traffic signal priority, which were both implemented on VTA’s Route 522 in 2005, speeding travel times between Palo Alto and San Jose by about 25 percent compared to Route 22, which plies the same route along El Camino Real in Santa Clara County.

  • GuestCommenter

    That should be a cycle track going all the way to Tijuana.

  • Anonymous

    They are going to STUDY implementing signal prioritization? No major bus line on a major street should ever sit at a red light (except perhaps crossing another major street).

  • ECR was the first paved highway in California, when San Mateo County paved it from South City to San Mateo in 1912.

  • mikesonn

    The car is king on The King’s Road. #fauxgreenBayArea

  • Brad

    2 hrs and 16 minutes to travel 28 miles, and it’s being touted as a great advance in transit. We should not invest in transit lines that are slower than cycling.

  • Anonymous

    Cue someone (hint – Andy Chow) with the equity issue – “we need affordable transit options for lower income people who can’t afford Caltrain”. No. What we need is to lower the fares for Caltrain, increase Caltrain service, and reduce the bus service to be primarily feeder.

    The SamTrans ridership decline and Caltrain ridership increase directly correlate to the improvement in Caltrain service – read: Bullets. People will pay more for better service, but people with more time than money will still suffer with the slower service. Their time should be valued as well.

    North of Millbrae where the bus line diverges from Caltrain, the line parallels BART, the same argument applies here. Run shorter feeder lines which can be more reliably scheduled and serve for local service.

    If someone is taking the ECR from Daly City to San Mateo – that is a failure.

  • Sprague

    You make a very good point. Part of Samtrans’ appeal is its low price ($2 or less in SM County). To take BART and Caltrain from Daly City to San Mateo would be two to three times more expensive. Ideally, it should not cost the rider more to travel via rail than bus. Perhaps the Samtrans monthly pass should include all BART and Caltrain rides within the county – like the Muni fast pass used to do.

  • Andy Chow

    There are many folks that don’t want to bike (weather, terrain, time, distance, etc) or physically unable to bike. If you tell them that they don’t need transit because they should bike then it would be no different than that they don’t need transit because they should drive.

    For those who like to bash SamTrans, should Muni discontinue the 14 Mission north of 24th Street? It completely duplicates BART! Should lines like 5, 6, 9, and 71 discontinue at Civic Center since the rest of the segment on Market completely duplicates BART and Muni Metro?

    Some of you want BRT to have passing lanes so that there would be local service while the stops for the limited service would be about 1/3 mile apart.

    On the Peninsula, BART and Caltrain stations are more than a mile apart, so local service along El Camino is no less useful than local service along Mission or Geary (the ridership may be lower because of lower density, but the growth potential along El Camino is large). The ECR line itself is a feeder route (a lot of people getting off at the nearest BART or Caltrain station rather than the farthest) except that it is long distance, rather than a bunch of short routes cutting off at some BART or Caltrain station to force people to transfer. That was the problem with the old 390/391 routes. The 391 did not go south of Redwood City and 390 did not go into Colma BART station or connect with Muni on Mission. The 390/391 arrangement was that people ought to take a certain bus if they want to transfer somewhere, but the end result is or lesser quality.

    If you think running shorter lines on El Camino make sense, then give us some brief ideas of what those routes should be and how they would measure up to the ECR. With the ECR, riders have the option to ride on one bus rather than a double transfer (bus to rail to bus) if their stops are away from the rail stations.

  • mikesonn

    “If you tell them that they don’t need transit because they should bike then it would be no different than that they don’t need transit because they should drive.”

    Someone has poor reading comprehension.

  • Anonymous

    LOL.

    The whole world says “Cycling is too slow”. I say “Transit that is even slower than cycling is completely useless”. Andy says “Not everyone can bike”. I didn’t say they need to bike – I said they DESERVE BETTER TRANSIT OPTIONS.

    Par for the course.

    Dealing with your strawmen….

    No, we don’t remove the 14 north of Mission. It’s similar to the FEEDER buses referred to in my post. And unlike Caltrain which is ON EL CAMINO for most of San Mateo County, the 14 is on the opposite side of a giant canyon known as 280 from BART.

    The various MUNI lines going down Market Street are packed, with dozens of buses. There is not enough capacity underground, and we can’t add more capacity down there. We don’t exactly have capacity problems on the ECR – the bus runs every 15 minutes and it’s running well under capacity. It’s a joke.

  • Anonymous

    If you think running shorter lines on El Camino make sense, then give us
    some brief ideas of what those routes should be and how they would
    measure up to the ECR. With the ECR, riders have the option to ride on
    one bus rather than a double transfer (bus to rail to bus) if their
    stops are away from the rail stations.

    Same routes, shorter runs. Does not require more drivers or more equipment, you just turn them at shorter distances. This increases reliability because you don’t get a long haul bus stuck in traffic way up the peninsula. That allows you to run shorter headways with fewer time wasting timepoints.

    The option to ride on one bus rather than a double transfer? Slam dunk if transferring to the train saves you an hour, unless it costs you $4.50 to do so.

    This bus sucks for long distances but there are riders who do so because of cost. That should not be.

  • Caltrain can’t keep up with its existing ridership! Lowering the price to that of SamTrans would make the system unusable without some massive, and expensive, upgrades.

  • Anonymous

    Hmm. So what you are saying is this – if we lower the price of Caltrain, then riders would switch from SamTrans to Caltrain.

    First, how dare you say that Andy is wrong.

    Second – if the preferred method for all riders would be a train, why are we investing money into a bus system instead of the train?

  • Andy Chow

    Caltrain isn’t exactly adjacent to El Camino through the county. Some parts are further away. Even so, the fact that the stops are more than a mile apart warrants local transit service, especially if you think that a bus that have stops 1/3 to 1/4 apart is considered limited stops and should have a local line with more stops than that.

    Also Caltrain runs local service once an hour all day. So for those whose schedule don’t match with the trains, the bus could be a better option even when traveling strictly between two Caltrain stations.

  • Eventually (by 2025), unless the whole economy tanks so as to render even the Bay Area incredibly poor, BART will extend down El Camino all the way to San Jose and be the local service. I’m guessing it will be above ground in place of a couple of current car lanes with a few connections to Caltrain (in addition to Millbrae) where the two run close together. Caltrain will be the express service between SF and SJ with only 4 or 5 stops. Energetically rail is the way to go. Even though it costs more upfront, it can run on electricity and has much less friction, requiring much less energy per person per mile. Rail tracks are also cheaper to maintain than asphalt roads. SamTrans will end up providing very short electric bus runs to feed both Caltrain and BART. Biking will also be a popular way to get to the BART and Caltrain stations since most of the population in San Mateo lives within 2 miles of BART/El Camino/Caltrain.

    All other plans for transportation in San Mateo are just stop gaps until BART/San Mateo bites the bullet and builds south.

  • Andy Chow

    You are still not giving ideas where that forced transfers should take place.

    As an example, a few years ago AC Transit split up line 51 to 51A and 51B at Rockridge BART station. This is still an interim measure until other upgrades take place to improve reliability and reconnect these routes. ECR is not like line 51 and there are many things SamTrans can do to maintain and enhance reliability overtime.

  • Mary

    Why would we need CalTrain if we ran BART from Milbrae down to San Jose? They would largely duplicate each other.

    In fact, why not use the CalTrain right-of-way to build BART which would surely be far cheaper than building an entirely new route, which may not even be possible?

    BART could then run north to Milbrae and then split into two legs – east to the airport and the financial district, and west as at present.

    CalTrain is over-engineered for a commuter railroad and, at 80mph max, BART is plenty fast enough to produce Bullet variants.

    Of course, if HSR gets built, all bets are off, but that is looking less and less likely.

  • Andy Chow

    The only possibility for BART to go south via El Camino is underground. As attested by the original high speed rail proposal, aerial structure is off the table.

    To justify an underground line, there would be a great increase in population and employment density. El Camino is still too far and very unlikely to be the next Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles where a subway line is being proposed.

    What is feasible is a light rail line with stops about 1/3 to 1/2 mile apart (about the same distance as other urban subway systems outside the Bay Area). It fits well with the density that the Peninsula can accept and can be built on the surface.

  • Andy Chow

    There’s no need to replace one line with another (nor we have the money to do it). The issue is that if and when the transit demand is much more than what the Caltrain corridor can accommodate even with electrification, should tracks be added on the same corridor (like adding 2 tracks for HSR) or a separate alignment be considered.

    If the demand for local transit is much higher, something like light rail could be considered along El Camino. This will give 4 track equivalent capacity along the Peninsula, just not next to each other. Many large cities have two rail lines blocks apart. If the demand is high for HSR, a separate line up the East Bay could be an option to expand market reach and since it would be much harder to find a separate route for HSR along the Peninsula.

  • Andy Chow

    The fact is that the average speed of cycling and most local bus is very close. It is not unusual for a bus and a bike to leap frog back and forth. A bike would pass the bus at a bus stop and the bus would pass the bike in between the bus stops.

    The average speed of this route is not bad compared to some others including Muni.

    If biking is faster than Muni then Muni is running far slower than what it ought to be. So are you suggesting that Muni is completely useless?

  • Anonymous

    Also Caltrain runs local service once an hour all day. So for those
    whose schedule don’t match with the trains, the bus could be a better
    option even when traveling strictly between two Caltrain stations.

    If I were going from say, Redwood City to Millbrae, and I got to RWC just after the Caltrain left, and just before the bus left, I would be better served to sit on my butt in RWC for an hour waiting for the next Caltrain than to get on an El Camino bus.

    I am pretty much getting the feeling that you simply think poor people do not deserve to ride the train.

  • Anonymous

    The average speed of this route is not bad compared to some others including Muni.

    This problem is a non issue when you are going 10 blocks. When you are going 10 miles, it’s intolerable.

  • Anonymous

    If the demand for local transit is much higher, something like light rail could be considered along El Camino.

    But Andy – that would require eliminating a lane of traffic 🙂

  • Anonymous

    CalTrain is over-engineered for a commuter railroad and, at 80mph max, BART is plenty fast enough to produce Bullet variants.

    Only if you either
    1) Reduce the headways or
    2) Build it out with 4 tracks.

    The only reason BART is seen favorably to Caltrain amongst the “masses” is that BART is show and go due to high frequency of service. If you reduce the headways in order to produce bullet service, you lose that advantage.

    Regardless, this is moot. Using the Caltrain ROW to build a BART train would mean no train service down the peninsula for multiple years, unacceptable. Caltrain is fine. I consider it preferable to BART. And I don’t see how you call it “over-engineered” compared to any other commuter railroad.

  • Andy Chow

    I don’t know where you get this idea. I prefer the train fares be expensive too but Caltrain is not in the financial position to do so. Part of the reason that ECR charges less compared to rail is that it follows the flat fare system like all other routes regardless of distance. If you make people transfer somewhere then you are basically raising their fares too by making them take two buses rather than one. Distance based fares on buses are more difficult to implement, especially on local routes.

    When I had a Caltrain monthly pass, I also used a lot of buses on El Camino (VTA and SamTrans ). I sometimes took a train that didn’t stop at my station but had to transfer to an El Camino bus so I could get there sooner. At one time a BART delay made me miss my Caltrain connection but I got there sooner on a bus rather than waiting an hour.

  • Anonymous

    “I don’t know where you get this idea. I prefer the train fares be expensive too but Caltrain is not in the financial position to do so”

    I get the idea from you saying you think the train fares should be expensive, which makes it harder for poor people. Direct quote.

    “If you make people transfer somewhere then you are basically raising their fares too by making them take two buses rather than one.’

    What is wrong with you. This whole thread started with me saying we should CONSOLIDATE Caltrain/SamTrans (and MUNI and VTA) such that a transfer from one to the other should not have an increase in cost. I also said this is “utopia” because even though it’s a fairly simple technical problem, SamTrans and Caltrain are not capable. Distance based fares are not difficult to implement, Clipper and GPS. Don’t have Clipper? Tough luck. All it takes to get a Clipper card is cash and a pair of shoes to walk into a Walgreens.

    “a BART delay made me miss my Caltrain connection but I got there sooner on a bus rather than waiting an hour.”

    If we weren’t dumping all this money into underutilized buses we could run more frequent trains. QED.

  • Andy Chow

    I was typing this on my phone. What I meant is that the train fare should not be expensive.

    Also, it is important to note that even the fare for the bus is much lower as is the farebox recovery, the per rider subsidy for the bus and rail is actually comparable (rail would be receive way more subsidy if you count in the capital investment for both modes). That why several years ago MTC got sued because its favoritism of rail over bus has harmed low income folks who rely on the bus.

    Even if the fare is the same, local bus at the current level of frequency is necessary. Many people prefer the convenience of the bus and the proximity to the stops, even with longer travel time on the bus. Not everyone wants multiple transfers. A transfer that is easy for us can be a huge hassle for someone with a disability.

    I find the idea that if SamTrans isn’t spending so much on the bus then rail would have more funding to be quite condescending. I could argue just the opposite given the level of funding that SamTrans had and continues to support BART. The $10 million/year SamTrans pays for debt service on the SFO extension surely could be better used whether it is for the bus or Caltrain. Over the decades there were many planning mistakes for the BART extension and to some extent Caltrain, but ignoring the past errors and blaming it on the bus system is just wrong. SamTrans is running less bus service and carrying fewer riders than in 1999.

    In 2009, SamTrans essentially eliminated its express buses except for KX. Even routes that perform reasonably well and do not have good rail alternative still got the axe (e.g. Foster City). Staff did so because long distance commuters can more easily transition to rail than folks that rely on local service.

  • Anonymous

    its favoritism of rail over bus has harmed low income folks who rely on the bus.

    Again – poor people should ride the bus. Trains are for rich people

  • Andy Chow

    Low income folks ride the bus because they don’t have access to a car. Rich people prefer trains over buses because they can drive faster than the buses. They ride trains when it is actually competitive with driving or when driving and parking is much of a hassle (special events).

    It is not that poor folks don’t ride the trains, they very much do. Who got impacted the most during the BART strike? it is the low income folks that need to get to work at non-traditional commute times but don’t have a car. They complained that AC Transit fares are in fact higher than BART when crossing the bay. BART runs way more service across the Bay than AC during off-peak hours.

    Even on Caltrain you should’ve seen some beater/K-Mart bikes onboard. You should also need to take off-peak local trains more often to see the difference in the type of people taking those milk runs versus the Baby Bullets.

    The low income folks want a steady balance of rail and bus. The rich folks only cares about rail and forget the bus.

  • Sprague

    Andy, you make good points regarding the necessity of El Camino Real bus service and I commend you for consistently keeping your tone civil despite derision. ECR seems to be an improvement for most transit riders (and potential riders) in the El Camino Real corridor and the bus certainly has advantages over rail, as you mentioned (like getting people closer to their destinations and the convenience of not having to transfer). Murphstahoe’s suggestion of greater fare equity between bus and rail also has merit. I know that in many European cities, transit fares allow access to all modes (ie. bus, subway, commuter rail) within each fare zone. Muni’s A monthly pass comes close to providing this function (without including Caltrain and Samtrans and other regional bus lines within the SF city limits). To encourage greater transit usage, a similar such pass could be instituted in San Mateo County (ie. a premium monthly pass good on Samtrans, BART, and Caltrain lines within the County). I think we all want to see improved transit but we disagree on the details.

  • Andy Chow

    I am not against more integrated fares. I very much support them. It is just that agencies don’t have much motivation and it is not a priority.

    Such premium pass does exist with the fact that a Caltrain monthly pass with 2 zones or more is accepted on SamTrans and VTA local routes. The 2 zone Caltrain pass cost just twice of the SamTrans local pass and costs less than the SamTrans express pass (which is now good for one hourly route in addition to local service). Unfortunately a product that was available then for SamTrans (BART Plus) is no longer valid. The BART Plus is helpful even for those who use two systems but don’t use BART that often (like SamTrans and Muni) but that was discontinued for revenue reason. There used to be a discount “Muni sticker” for those buying SamTrans monthly pass. Now is no longer available.

    A universal scheme I think the Bay Area could follow is the Seattle. They have the Puget Pass where people can buy a pass good for a specific one way fare value and would be good for any ride at or below that fare value for any participating agency. For rides that cost more than the value on the pass, the difference will be deducted from the cash value on the card. Seattle has the ORCA card very similar to Clipper.

    http://www.orcacard.com/ERG-Seattle//common/images/ORCA%20Product%20List.pdf

  • 1) Basically. But I didn’t say all riders, just more than Caltrain could handle.

    2) Because the bus system functions serves a different purpose than the train. Ideally, each would be pushed to maximize their strengths. ECR should not be a way to go long distances but rather should function as a more local tier of the transit system. Eventually, it should go:
    HSR > Bullet > Caltrain skip-stop > Caltrain local > ECR. And ECR plus all that rail infrastructure should promote a robust and dense corridor.

    3) But investing in Caltrain should happen simultaneously. Four-tracking and metro-style service levels, paid for in part by pricing 101 on both the SF and SM lines, are vital to the growth of Caltrain.

  • Anonymous

    How do you figure? BART’s expansion plans are to Antioch and Livermore, to serve areas of the BART district that have been paying for BART for years without service. BART also plans to extend the Fremont line to San Jose. There are no plans to extend BART to San Jose by 2025 via El Camino to my knowledge. Where did you get that information?

  • Sprague

    As you pointed out, there are various tools to encourage those riders that are using multiple modes (ie. bus and rail) to be able to do affordably – even for those riders who do not have a monthly pass. Especially with the widespread application of the Clipper card, a (greater) discount should be available to those riders transferring between agencies (ie. from Caltrain to Muni/Samtrans or from Golden Gate Transit to Muni or BART). As has been reported by streetsblog, the prevalence of transit agencies and the currently limited scope of fare integration is a disincentive to transit use in the Bay Area.

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