Advocates Protest Rollback in Caltrain Bike Capacity

Despite promises, it looks as if Caltrain plans to decrease space for bikes on its future electric trains.
Despite promises, it looks as if Caltrain plans to decrease space for bikes on its future electric trains.

The organization “BIKES ONBoard” is trying to put the brakes on Caltrain’s plans to reduce the number of bike spaces on its trains.

From an open letter, written by Shirley Johnson, one of BIKES ONBoard’s founders, to Caltrain:

Average bike capacity today is 77 bike spaces per train. For electrified trains, Caltrain staff is proposing only 72 bike spaces per train, 36 in each of two bike cars.

The letter also points out that Caltrain is claiming it will have higher bike carry numbers, in accordance with a directive from the Caltrain board: “Caltrain plans to run one more train per hour during peak commute once the line is electrified, claiming this is 12.5 percent (or 48) more bike spaces per peak hour in each direction. But the board approved an increase in bike capacity in train design, [emphasis added] with full knowledge that there will be one more train per peak hour.”

For some background, in August Caltrain surveyed riders on the type of bike racks they preferred in the bike car–angled, stacked, hanging, or some kind of hybrid. At the time, Caltrain was claiming that, depending which system they went with, there would be between 68 and 72 bikes per train, or (claimed Caltrain) about an 8 to 12 percent increase over bike space for current trains.

A look at the electric train that will eventually run on Caltrain. But will it have enough bike space? Photo: Stadler
A look at the electric train that will eventually run on Caltrain. But will it have enough bike space? Photo: Stadler

Advocates and Streetsblog readers (thanks everyone…sorry again for missing this!) pointed out the sleight of hand there, since the current diesel fleet consists carry a max of 80 bikes per train. Streetsblog reached out to Caltrain again, and it turned out they were giving straight-forward bike counts per train when they said 68 and 72 bikes, but then using overall carry capacity numbers to claim an overall increase–in other words, because electrification will allow them to run more trains, they’ll carry more bikes per hour, even if there are fewer bikes per train.

But Johnson points out the fallacy in this.

As rider demand increases along the Caltrain corridor, it’s almost certain to outstrip Caltrains ability to keep up relative to the growth, even as it acquires electric trains. That will leave cyclists in the lurch. “An extra train per hour will be needed to accommodate increased ridership for both walk-ons and bikes. Walk-ons can still get on and stand if seats aren’t available,” she wrote to Streetsblog. “But bike riders will get bumped if there isn’t bike space. Therefore it’s critical to increase bike capacity in train design, which is precisely what the Caltrain Board unanimously approved in July 2015.”

A graph showing future capacity. Johnson says graphics such as this obfuscate the fact that there will be fewer bike spaces per train--and that will mean more bike bumps in the future. Image: Caltrain
A graph showing future capacity. Johnson says graphics such as this obfuscate the fact that there will be fewer bike spaces per train–and that fact, given ridership growth projects, will mean more bike bumps in the future. Image: Caltrain

This looks to be the result of a tug-of-war between the Caltrain Board and staff, which still wants to maximize seats, instead of overall carry capacity that includes standees. “That’s what they’re always talking about at the board meeting–seats, seats, seats. In July 2015, when the Board approved a ‘Request for Proposals’ to go to vendors for the new trains, staff said they wanted a nine-to-one seat-to-bike-space ratio, which is the same as today,” said Johnson in a phone interview with Streetsblog. She said the board pushed back and demanded more bike space built into the design of the trains themselves over the current fleet.

Johnson, as many are no doubt aware, has been fighting for bike space on Caltrain for a very long time. Nearly ten years ago, Johnson and BIKES ONBoard pointed out that Caltrain was actually denying itself around $1 million in annual revenue by bumping cyclists–and their fares–at a time when it had both extra room and a budget deficit. Yes, bike space is space that can’t be used for a seat, but Johnson, with the help of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, was able to convince Caltrain over time that counting success by the number of seats available on its trains, instead of the number of paying customers it serves, is a foolish approach. Bumping potential riders who need a bike to get the last mile or so between a Caltrain station and home and office just reduces revenue–and puts more motorists on the freeways.

Shirley Johnson (in yellow) during an SFBC panel on bike advocacy last June. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Shirley Johnson (in yellow) during an SFBC panel on bike advocacy last June. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Johnson now finds herself fighting that same seats versus revenues fight again. “BART is doing it–they took out seats to raise standing space and Caltrain is going to have to do the same thing.”

And while standing on a train during a commute is not ideal, it beats standing on the platform as your train pulls away without you because there’s no more space.

Johnson, meanwhile, is asking people to:

Email Caltrain now, then come and speak up at the Caltrain Board meeting at 10 a.m., Thursday, October 5 at 1250 San Carlos Avenue in San Carlos to get Caltrain to hold to its promise of adding more bike space on its trains.

  • Sean

    I am guessing many of the lower capacity votes came from non-cyclists. You know the ones who stand in the way on headphones in the bike car and seem annoyed you need to get through.

  • shamelessly

    I’ve taken my bike on Caltrain and loved being able to cycle on both ends of the trip. But I wonder as bike share continues to roll out if it will reduce the need for bike space on trains? If more riders can take bike share to the train, and then bike share from the train to their destinations, there’s less need for bike space on the train itself. Is this factored into CalTrains projections? Is bike share actually rolling out to all CalTrain stations?

  • Andy Chow

    The newer trains will have fewer seats because of all the extra equipment and the placement of high platform doors. The number of bike spots is reduced at a lesser rate than the loss of seats.

    Caltrain’s design has certain limit where you can trade seats for bike spots. You are not going to put the bikes in the middle level nor the high level. You still need seats in the lower level for people with disabilities.

  • Andy Chow

    With the rate of growth for bike sharing and implementation of dockless technology it is possible to have bike sharing at almost every stop.

  • saimin

    Bike share has been removed from Redwood City, Palo Alto, and Mountain View. Bike share is really only reliable in a large part of San Francisco and a small part of San Jose.

  • Patrick Devine

    I think one of the problems is that there just isn’t adequate secured bike parking at most stations. Yes, plenty of people need to take their bikes on the train, but there are also plenty of people, like myself, who only need to ride a bike on one side of their commute. There just aren’t enough lockers, and getting one is an extremely difficult and cumbersome process.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    I absolutely agree. 90% of the time I ride with my bike on Caltrain it’s only because there’s no place to lock it at the Caltrain Depot. Limited hours for secure bike storage? Bike lockers that are incompatible with Bikelink? No bike racks at Caltrain Depot? Now they’re reducing bike capacity on their new trains? WTF are they thinking?

  • wave9x

    Very glad about this, we need to prioritize humans over bikes on Caltrain.

  • I’ve read about all sorts of fresh! new! innovative! alternatives to bike carriage for about two decades now, they’ve all failed to deliver. Part of the problem is that they’re cobbled together from 3-year grants and hype, which is very distinctly a lack of vision.

    The bike-share hype is nearly a decade old, and still fails to deliver in the Bay Area. Bike carriage works today, at less cost. At bare minimum we should continue it as promised, and not make excuses for failing to fulfill those promises by flitting to another shiny new object.

  • Missing the point. There was an agreed commitment to bike carriage that is being reduced with a sleight-of-hand, and this is not the first time they’ve pulled something like this. You’re also missing the point with your “they want” imaginings; don’t presume to speak on behalf of those doing the real advocacy here, we can speak for ourselves.

  • So many of the various off-train solutions have been driven by pilot projects with 3-year grant-funding cycles. That’s why so many are inconsistent. Meanwhile, bike carriage just chugs along, working better and cheaper than everything else. Nothing exciting about that.

  • It helps to read the article. Bike carriage builds ridership, always has.

  • John Murphy

    I have wailed about this to Caltrain for years to no avail.

    Meanwhile, when we yelled at SMART that their bike parking was inadequate, they managed to get BikeLink lockers installed at every station in the system in under 3 months, at a time they were going through PTC testing and trying to start up the system.

    http://www.bikesonoma.org/how-to-use-the-smart-bike-lockers/

  • Sean

    One of the reasons the bike car is so popular is that connecting transit on the middle and south end of Caltrain is lacking. Caltrain changed schedules in the middle of the summer, and SamTrans did not. This broke a lot of connections in theory, but zero complaints came in. This shows that there isn’t really much overlap in bus/train ridership even though a monthly Caltrain pass comes with free SamTrans.

  • Overall, adding a sixth train during peak hours increases capacity from 385 to 432 bikes-per-hour.

    If Caltrain adds a third bike car when they lengthen trains to eight-cars capacity increases to 648 bikes-per-hour. That’s a 59% increase in bike capacity.

  • Andy Chow

    They still fulfilled the ratio that the board approved, and that’s what they did.

    They said in the open letter that they want more seats in the bike area, and that they want the racks to spread out to all cars. It is not my imagining. They don’t mind other people to stand (that’s why they ALWAYS demand to take more seats away for bikes, and keep suggesting that riders can always stand while bikes get bumped), but want to sit next to their bikes.

    There are operational and safety implications if we were to spread the racks to all the cars.

  • Andy Chow

    Just one vendor choosing to withdraw from cities. In the meantime, San Mateo has its own bike share and so is South San Francisco.

    The same docked technology was withdrawn from Seattle last year, but it has been replaced by multiple vendors with more bikes in more areas this year.

  • Andy Chow

    Bikes on trains is more expensive per spot than building a electronic bike locker. The bikes onboard advocacy is very careful not to suggest any off-board solution. Basically the staff is doing what the onboard advocates want, not to improve or expand off-board solution.

  • saimin

    The problem with multiple vendors is you can’t buy an annual pass that is good for the whole Bay Area. You have to buy a pass for each vendor, which is too expensive for many people. Is there any chance that Caltrain will offer free transfers to bike share?

  • KJ

    Many people don’t know about the free SamTrans and VTA w/ Caltrain deal. I rode Caltrain for a year before realizing it. Caltrain/Samtrans/VTA don’t really emphasize it. It’s a great deal but the buses do need better connections with Caltrain.

  • voltairesmistress

    Roger: a minor correction: it is “sleight of hand” and not “slight.” Thank you for the informative story.

  • Sean

    They don’t want to advertise this because then there will be a fight over who gets the revenue allocated. Caltrain is far more political and they want to have a high farebox recovery ratio. Currently, I know none of the Caltrain monthly pass dollars are allocated to SamTrans, and I would guess that VTA doesn’t allocate any either but that is just a guess.

    As for bike share, most of the peninsula has terrible bike infrastructure to ride, especially near 101 freeway ramps. ECR/California Ave/Linden/Airport/Middlefield are terrible bike routes that can be very dangerous.

  • rantman

    From my experience at San Carlos, the Caltrain-SamTrans connection has been broken for the last 2 years, those green boxes in the Caltrain-schedule notwithstanding. Samtrans bus drivers are quite happy to pull out of the station even as a train is arriving. Perhaps zero complaints came in because they didn’t break anything that wasn’t already broken?

  • saimin

    Is Samtrans/VTA free to all Caltrain riders or only people with monthly passes? A lot of people only ride Caltrain a couple of times a week (part-time workers, telecommuters, etc) and can’t afford monthly passes (or monthly bicycle lockers).

  • Sean

    There is a transfer credit with clipper only for single use, but only coming from Caltrain. Once again, Caltrain does not want to discount on SamTrans behalf in order to pad it’s farebox.

  • Sean

    San Carlos is seen as a minor station. Scheduling math makes low frequency connections to more than one station nearly impossible. San Mateo or Hillsdale has more service so the buses are timed to there. In theory. Unfortunately, many high income Caltrain riders think they are too good to take a local bus. Much of the bus ridership is actually just transerring to another bus at a train station, you can find that all over the Bay Area.

  • KJ

    It’s only free if you have a monthly Caltrain pass with 2 or more zones. However, there are other ‘freebies’: for instance, if you transfer from SamTrans to VTA within 30 minutes (using Clipper), the VTA fare is free. Check the websites/brochures for other free transfers.

  • Clem Tillier

    Cheaper? For bikers, maybe, but not for Caltrain. When trains are SRO there is an opportunity cost associated with setting aside large on-board spaces that don’t produce revenue. The argument that on-board bikes attract ridership was only valid when trains had spare capacity, and is probably no longer valid today with SRO peak ridership.

  • Clem Tillier

    Not when trains are SRO and additional non-bike ridership is dissuaded by crowding. For every bike on board space removed and every lost bike on board rider, two other non-bike riders can board. That’s why the Paris RER doesn’t have a bike car.

  • You posit a scenario that is the opposite of what actually occurs in reality. At peak ridership, people with bikes get bumped, not the other way around. The agreement was to handle demand, not make excuses for bumping.

  • What is the source for your claim? BIKES ONBoard did an economic comparison that showed the opposite, presented it to the JPB, who came to agree. I know you were somehow involved in Caltrain advocacy at the time, how is that you’ve forgotten this?

  • You seem to be just typing in opinions. BIKES ONBoard actually did an economic comparison that showed the opposite, presented it to the JPB, who came to agree. That’s why they wanted the new car design to do better.

  • Clem Tillier

    Non-bike passengers don’t quit riding because they got bumped, which as you point out very rarely occurs. They decide to quit riding because it’s too crowded and uncomfortable. Simple supply & demand, acting well before a crowd assembles on a platform.

  • Yet more conjecture.

    Caltrain has actually surveyed riders and the stronger issue is getting door-to-door. Passengers with bikes have solved the last mile issue, that’s why bike carriage builds ridership. A few other approaches work: public transit, employer shuttles, etc. Various off-board bike solutions have limited success, largely because they barely work on one side of the journey and usually don’t work on the other.

  • Affen_Theater

    Have a look at figure E-3 of the recently-release public Review Draft of Caltrain’s Bike Parking Management Plan

  • Clem Tillier

    The “study” is apparently this: https://www.sfbike.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Presentation_Bikes_on_Electrified_Trains_SFBC_v1.pdf

    (Jym feel free to correct me if I have the wrong link)

    The study claims $500k is lost annually due to unserved bicycle demand. The study also claims that “limited seating capacity did not limit walk-on boardings” because walk-on passengers are assumed to be willing to stand regardless of how crowded the train might be. In other words, crowding (SRO conditions) do not dampen walk-on ridership, and $0 annual fare revenue is lost.

    That’s not just conjecture, it’s simple Econ 101 failure.

  • tommy t

    Come on, it’s obviously absurd to claim that it’s cheaper to have bikes on board. And did their supposed “study” attempt to figure out how much lost ridership there has been in the last several years due to all the overcrowding and inability to ever find a seat for many people?

  • tommy t

    I’ll agree that Caltrain is frequently misleading or dishonest with their statements (e.g. major weekend service reduction or frequent fare increases are always referred to as simply “changes”).

    Nevertheless, I don’t understand Streetsblog’s bias for bike storage on board at the expense of having more people ride Caltrain. I’m not sure you guys realize that for many many people, they can’t find a seat either in the morning or in the afternoon, every day. It’s obvious to those who have been on these trains for several years that one of the main reasons why ridership finally stopped growing in the last two years is because of all the space being reserved for bikes, at the expense of people.

    We all know that Caltrian needs to run more trains, longer trains, and trains with more doors and wider aisles. But even so, it will never be sustainable to increase the amount of space reserved exclusively (and for no charge) for bicycles and their owners. Just look at how few additional trains they project to be able to run after electrification is done. By that point, the latent demand will be even greater than it is today.

    For the sake of encouraging public transit usage, we need to make significant improvements to assigned and daily bike lockers, secure bike parking, bus connections, and shuttles–not free bike storage on trains.

  • crazyvag

    I find that it’s usually Caltrain staff that gets itself into these unnecessary debates. Caltrain was actually really good when it only had Gallery cars and trains had space for 40 bikes. Then the new Bombardier sets showed up and Caltrain could only fit 16 bikes per car. Then Caltrain found a way to get that up to 24 bikes per car. That’s as far as things went.

    Months went by and hours were wasted arguing – for what seemed obvious – that new 6-car sets should have 3 bike cars 24 * 3 = 72 – which is close enough to the 80 for Gallery sets.

    Things turned worse when we started talking about EMU. Rather than just go from the onset that as baseline, we’ll try to get 3 bike cars of 24 bikes each like on the Bombardier sets, Caltrain muddied the waters and started talking about ratio of whether to have 1 bike per 8 seats or 1 bike per 9 seats. No one really knew the outcome, and Caltrain further confused people with bikes/per hour.

    Bike storage comes in multiples of 8… 4 seats -> 4 bikes, so with left and right sides, bike capacity in a car can really be 8, 16, 24, 32 or 40 per car, but somehow got stuck – and still are stuck – talking about bike to seat ratios.

    Imagine how much further along we’d be if Caltrain simply started with this statement:
    “Each 6-car EMU will have 3 bike cars of 24 bikes each. In the future, once we move to 8-car EMUs, we’ll have 4 bike cars of 24 bikes each. Also, once all stations are upgraded to high platforms, we’ll replace the 4 lower floor doors with 4 seats per door, or 4 bikes per door on bike cars”..

  • tommy t

    Realize that online “surveys” are always linked to by certain groups that have their own interests. Not even close to being a scientific survey of all Caltrain riders, or all local residents.

  • Talking about grasping at straws.

    I made no mention of online sneer-quotes surveys close-sneer-quotes. In fact Caltrain surveys riders in person, and for years they conducted these surveys in February, when weather is worse for bicyclists and our numbers are presumably lower.

  • Spencer G

    honestly the train is already too crowded. make room for people over bikes.

  • Spencer G

    totally agree. people lumped bikes on when theres not enough room for people. its terrible

  • Andy Chow

    When has Caltrain committed to rebuild all platforms? The only reason to have the high doors is because of Transbay and the platform constraints sharing with HSR. Transbay isn’t going to happen any time soon. It might even be wrapped up with a 2nd tube which could make the issue of constraints moot.

    I am never a fan of a dual height door, and now Caltrain was told by the FRA that the train must not be moving when the interior wheelchair lift is deployed. Would having cyclists boarding at one height and storing bikes at another height be operationally feasible? Would it be OK to have cyclists moving up and down the stairs with their bikes while the train is moving? I don’t think so in either case.

    If Caltrain were to go all high platform, they should’ve order gallery EMUs like the Metra Electric in Chicago. That way they can have the same capacity for bikes as it is today.

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