Advocates Envision a Transit-Rich Caltrain Highway 101 Corridor

Caltrain carries 60,000 people on an average weekday, far below its potential. Photo: Sergio Ruiz
Caltrain carries 60,000 people on an average weekday, far below its potential. Photo: Sergio Ruiz

How can we make it easier to get around between San Francisco and San Jose? That was the topic discussed by a group of transit advocates and professionals last Wednesday in Palo Alto at a Caltrain / 101 Corridor Vision Forum. The corridor is today plagued by crowded trains, a congested Highway 101, and ineffective public bus services.

“There’s an opportunity for Caltrain to leapfrog and innovate beyond most of the rail systems in the United States,” said San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) Transportation Policy Director Ratna Amin. “Let’s imagine a railroad that has so much capacity and utility that people are using it for all kinds of trips.”

SPUR published a report [PDF] in February that laid out how Caltrain could triple peak-hour capacity over the next decade if major investments are made. The most aggressive scenario would run up to twelve eight-car trains per hour by constructing a separate set of tracks for California High Speed Rail and rebuilding at least seven stations, for a total cost of up to $20 billion. Less ambitious options could still double peak-hour capacity within the confines of the planned blended system in which the two rail systems will share tracks.

Boosting Caltrain's capacity and ridership beyond electrification will require a series of visionary modernizations that include longer platforms, level boarding, rebuilt stations, and longer sections of passing tracks for High Speed Rail. Image: SPUR
Boosting Caltrain’s ridership beyond electrification will require a series of modernizations including longer platforms, level boarding, rebuilt stations, and more passing tracks for High Speed Rail. Image: SPUR

These scenarios are further reaching than those envisioned by Caltrain itself, which is only beginning to plan for service improvements beyond electrification in 2021. The electric trains the agency is purchasing will allow for level boarding on the platforms shared with High Speed Rail by including two sets of doors per car, one high and one low. Level boarding at all stations will require them to rebuild platforms at the higher level.

Caltrain’s success also depends partly on other transit systems being more extensively utilized, including the region’s highways. Lacking even a carpool lane through San Francisco and San Mateo counties, Highway 101 penalizes those travelling the most efficiently.

“Highways are an untapped resource for transit,” said TransForm Senior Community Planner Chris Lepe. “On Highway 101, three percent of vehicles – carpools with at least three people, shuttles, and buses – carry 20 percent of the people. Solo drivers make up 75 percent of the vehicles and carry about half of the people.”

Caltrans and transportation officials in San Mateo County favor widening Highway 101 to ten lanes there to create new express lanes, which are free for carpools and buses but admit solo drivers for a fee that is set at a price that maintains them in a congestion-free condition. Transit advocacy groups are lobbying for existing travel lanes to be converted to express lanes instead, which will save an estimated $200 million that could be invested in better transit services.

“Caltrans is about to make this major investment that depends on high-occupancy vehicles, but doesn’t know how to promote the use of high-occupancy vehicles,” commented Friends of Caltrain Director Adina Levin.

Less than half of Stanford University employees drive alone to work, and the school's transit offerings such as the Marguerite shuttle augment local public transportation services. Photo: Stanford University
Fewer than half of Stanford University employees drive alone to work, and the school’s transit offerings augment local public transportation services. Photo: Stanford University

There’s certainly no shortage of local expertise on ways to reduce demand for driving, with many of the region’s major employers getting nearly half of their commuters to work without driving alone using various incentives including free public transit passes and free shuttle vans and buses.

Stanford University, subject to a fixed cap on vehicle trips in and out of its main campus near Palo Alto since 2000, has achieved the most impressive results, with 19 percent of employees using Caltrain, 11 percent bicycling, nine percent in carpools, and another 11 percent walking or riding buses. The university funds its transportation programs by charging to park motor vehicles on campus on weekdays. Employees receive free train and bus passes if they decide to forgo purchasing a parking permit.

“We are one of the few large employers in Silicon Valley that charges for parking,” said Stanford University Senior Transportation Planner Carolyn Helmke.

But using parking revenues to pay for transit passes is still rare in the region. Palo Alto’s City Council approved a budget on Tuesday that will do exactly that, using $480,000 in revenues from newly increased public garage parking pass prices to fund its downtown Transportation Management Association.

The Caltrain / Highway 101 Vision Plan Forum will repeat on July 19 at 6:30 pm at Redwood City City Hall, 1017 Middlefield Road, with the same speakers representing SPUR, TransForm, Friends of Caltrain, and Stanford University.

  • Ethan

    SPUR’s plans for Caltrain cost $20 billion, but spending 1% of that to widen 101 and add a lane that buses will use is a bad thing? It’s actually a good thing. Around 2040 here’s what’s going to happen. Self-driving cars will be freeway-if-maybe-not-street-capable. An ever-growing number of those owners will call for a dedicated freeway lane. Eventually the demands will be unavoidable.

    That’s when we’ll be glad we widened 101 now for less money. The leftmost lane will be self-driving only and free for carpools and buses, while solo drivers will pay to use it. The second leftmost lane will be the human-driven carpool and pay-to-use lane. Having two carpool and bus lanes will strongly encourage commuters to use a convenient driverless Lyft Shuttle or other non-solo way of commuting.

  • murphstahoe

    The theory goes that self driving cars REDUCE the need for extra lanes. Now you are telling me that we need to WIDEN the freeway because of self-drving cars?

    Aside from the efficiency of the self driving car and the ability for a fleet of them to really optimize carpooling, the model really needs to be using the SDC’s for first mile to rail that can really push through massive amounts of people, then last mile from rail – again with very efficient carpooling given that sets of passengers will be disembarking simultaneously.

    The not quite seen reason to build this model is that these cars will almost certainly be electric, and we can either put people on trains that run off electric overhead wires or rails to do the longer distance part of the trip, or put them in an increasing amount of cars that will demand longer battery life. The former choice puts us into a scalability problem with the acquisition of the minerals needed for batteries, and the building of added charging stations.

  • jonobate

    The argument is not that a HOV/HOT lane isn’t worth $200mm. The argument is, why spend $200mm building a new HOV/HOT lane when you could instead add one for essentially zero cost by repainting an existing lane?

  • Ethan

    To keep housing prices where they are, California need to add 180,000 units of housing every, single, year. Thousands of them are going to be in SF and the peninsula. In an unchanging population, yes self-driving cars reduce the need for extra lanes. But the population is going up.

    We have beautiful right-of-ways available for mass transit – the freeways. A mile of lane can let 900 buses breeze through per hour. At 50 riders per bus, that’s 45,000 people in an hour. That’s more than the BART transbay tube. I’m fine with adding capacity to Caltrain as long as it’s money well spent. Widening 101 so it can move tens of thousands of people in buses per hour for $200 million is money very well spent compared to BART and Caltrain.

  • Ethan

    Since half the article is about improving Caltrain, it seems to me very important to weigh the benefits of spending $200 million on an HOV/HOT lane vs Caltrain, because that money is definitely going to spent somehow. People aren’t going to just leave it alone so it can be put into a rainy day fund.

  • jonobate

    The point is we can (and should) get a HOV/HOT lane without spending $200mm to widen the freeway. It’s a waste of money to spend $200mm when you don’t have to, regardless of the benefits of what you’re spending it on.

  • Ethan

    “regardless of the benefits”? When the time comes to repave the leftmost lane of 101, we don’t “have to” spend money on it. We could paint it as closed and turn it into extra shoulder. However the benefit of repaving it is high enough to be worth doing.

    There’s a distinct benefit in making another lane that can be used for HOV/HOT without upsetting today’s commuters. In a few decades, there can be two HOV/HOT lanes without messing up traffic on the rest of 101 so much. Though I’m sure some folks are just fine with making solo drivers’ commutes miserable so they’ll carpool or take other transit.

  • jonobate

    Just so long as we’re clear that the reason for spending $200mm is so as not to upset drivers of single-occupancy vehicles who don’t want to pay a small toll. If we decided not to pay so much attention to the road users who are taking up the most capacity without paying for it, we could add HOV/HOT capacity for the cost of a few cans of paint and some signs.

    Repaving an existing lane is probably a hundredth of the cost of adding a new lane, which is why the cost/benefit pencils out in one case but not the other. The two things are not even remotely comparable.

  • Ethan

    Well as I recall, the lanes are designed (possibly required by law) to not allow more drivers to pay to use them once lane speed drops below 45 mph. Basically going south it’ll fill up by South San Francisco and everyone else won’t get to use it. Also to be fair, the toll is cheap for most of those commuters because it’s capped. If it were allowed to float freely with demand, it could easily cost $30 or $50. Instead it’s cheap, but plenty of the commuters are paying quite a lot of money to the state in various taxes. It’s not like they aren’t paying for their roads.

    For the record, depending on how degraded the road surface has gotten, repaving is about $400,000 to $1.25 million for a mile of road in both directions. (Years of underfunded maintenance has caused so much road in the state to degrade and will now cost much more to fix.) Depending on how many miles we’re talking about repaving, if it’s 30 miles, that’s $12 million, or six hundredths of $200 million, not one hundredth.

    I never answered an important part of your question several replies ago. The downside of using paint to make an existing lane HOV/HOT and taking away a lane from solo drivers is for many people in many places, public transit is still very time consuming, inconvenient, even unsafe, and will remain so until driverless vehicles revolutionize “first mile / last mile” travel to public transit. Once we have that revolution, it will be much less difficult to justify to very wary and concerned commuters about taking away one of their lanes.

  • sebra leaves

    Soon we will have trains and buses speeding up and down the corridors without passengers. Loading and unloading is a major slowdown when it comes to speeding the trains along their tracks. You can probably save a lot of money and wear and tear on the trains by keeping the humans away. By the year 2040, the jobs will all be done by robots anyway and they can “reside” at work. People can just wave as the trains rush by.

  • murphstahoe

    and this deals with the battery problem how?

    And if people are going to move from single occupancy cars to self driven BUSES with 50 per bus, thats a 98% reduction in number of vehicles. If true, one lane is plenty

  • murphstahoe

    If we started working on an added lane in earnest right now, it would not be finished before self driving cars are rolling.

    Reference the amount of time invested so far in the Novato Narrows widening and there is no end in sight to that.

  • Ethan

    If market forces don’t find acceptable solutions for producing enough Cobalt, there’s another option. Just like Caltrain is electrifying, and MUNI already is, Siemens now has a test highway in Sweden with electrified wires for trucks, which would also work for buses. Electrifying a lane of Bay Area freeways will allow buses and local delivery trucks to use fewer batteries and weigh less. Off of the freeways, the bus overhead contacts would simply lie flat on the roof.

    I hope many people will switch to self driving buses, but not all will. Some will use Chariot, paid for by their employer, in vans, which cuts two transfers down to one. Others will carpool with Lyft. As the car heads in roughly a straight line towards the freeway, it picks up four people all headed in the same direction. It gets on the freeway, then drops the four people off.

    There’s also still the need for many thousands of more housing units to be built from SF to San Jose and statewide. More population means more transportation capacity. So as self driving vehicles take off, first one freeway lane becomes exclusively for them, but eventually that becomes two and then three or more. So no one lane isn’t plenty.

  • Ethan

    If you look at Caltrans’ project page, it’s divided into phases and chunks. More than half of the 17-mile, $709 million widening has been completed since starting in 2011,
    but there’s no promise when the roughly $250 million needed to finish
    it off will be allocated. If and when that remaining funding is found, it’s estimated to take four years. If Caltrans estimates the peninsula section would cost $200 million, maybe it’ll also take about four years. Even if it’s five or six, that’s sometime in the 2020s as self driving vehicles are reaching the masses, but before there’s so many they should get their own lane.

  • Ethan

    If market forces don’t find acceptable solutions for producing enough Cobalt, there’s another option. Just like Caltrain is electrifying, and MUNI’s already, Siemens has a test highway in Sweden with wires for trucks, which would also work for buses. Electrifying a lane of Bay Area freeways will allow buses and local delivery trucks to use fewer batteries, weigh less, and be better for the environment. On other roads, the overhead contacts can lie flat on the roof.

    I hope many people will switch to self driving buses, but not all will. As I said, the leftmost lane becomes a self-driving carpool and bus lane. If eventually there are 900 full buses per hour on the freeway, that’s 45,000 riders. But some folks will use Chariot, paid for by their employer, in vans, which cuts two transfers down to one. Others will carpool. As a driverless car heads through a city towards the freeway, it picks up four people all headed in the same direction. It gets on the freeway, then drops them off.

    There’s also still the need for many thousands of more housing units to be built from SF to San Jose and statewide. Meaning more transportation capacity needed. So as self driving vehicles take off, first one freeway lane becomes exclusively for them, but eventually that becomes two and then three or more. On open roads, cars are more likely to do self-driving before most buses. Early adopters will lead the way, while transit agencies will be cautious and slow to switch. So public self-driving buses will be among the last vehicles switching. I won’t be surprised if their increase in demand for lane space is what pushes the expansion from one self-driving-only lane to two lanes. So no one lane isn’t plenty.

  • jonobate

    You clearly don’t understand how HOV/HOT lanes work in practice. You can’t physically stop drivers from using the HOV/HOT lanes; the only way to prevent additional drivers entering the lanes is raise the price high to discourage them. However the prices are planned in anticipation of expected demand, so very high prices are rare unless there is in unforeseen event such as an accident. In LA, the HOV/HOT lane cost usually varies from $0.20 to $1.00 per mile, and will only usually spike higher during unforeseen events.

    Regardless of whether repaving costs 1/100th or 6/100ths of the cost of building a new lane, it’s still two orders of magnitude less than building a new lane, and it still doesn’t change the cost/benefit analysis. Existing lane maintenance is cheap compared to new lane construction.

    As for your last point – any solo driver can team up with someone doing a similar commute to get access to the HOV/HOT lanes, and they can do that today, without waiting for your driverless car revolution. There isn’t much excuse for driving solo on 101 and anyone who does should be paying extra for the privilege.

  • Ethan

    You can use tolls to pay for plate readers and mail fines to vehicles that use the lanes but avoid toll points. I don’t have a link, but I read somewhere that’s the plan for converting the carpool lanes around the Bay – paying for stronger enforcement.

    It’s 30 miles from SF to Silicon Valley. It’s perfectly feasible and in line with $0.20 to $1.00 per mile to charge $30 for the trip when the other lanes are crawling, and so many drivers have so much money they can spare.

    Your suggestion that anyone can team up to carpool utterly ignores the complications that happen whenever one of the parties’ schedule changes for any number of reasons.

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