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Bay Area Transit Agencies Build on Parking Lots

202 housing units are now under construction on Caltrain's former San Carlos Station parking lot. Image: City of San Carlos

202 housing units are now under construction on the former San Carlos Caltrain Station parking lot. Image: City of San Carlos

Last Thursday representatives from Caltrain, the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) presented [PDF] current plans for building housing and offices on top of station parking lots, at the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) in downtown San Jose. Rail station parking lots offer the ultimate in “Good TOD” – Transit Oriented Development that guarantees new transit riders while providing housing and commercial space that can be conveniently reached car-free.

“There are many beautiful sites along Caltrain that could be ripe for development and become a revenue generating source for Caltrain,” said Caltrain Principal Planner Jill Gibson. “Often developers goals are in direct conflict with transit needs…so it’s imperative that we identify long-range transportation goals early on.”

Caltrain is working with those cities that have already completed station area redevelopment plans and adopted appropriate TOD zoning near stations to support mixed-use developments. The long-debated San Carlos Transit Village, now under construction, will bring 202 apartments to the former San Carlos Caltrain Station parking lot along with 26,000 square feet of commercial space. The project was scaled down in multiple iterations from a proposed 453 apartments.

A long-term lease agreement is now being negotiated with Sares Regis Group to develop 100 to 150 apartments on the Hayward Park Station parking lot, along with at least 50 parking spaces available to Caltrain passengers, 29 electronic bike lockers, and space for six SamTrans buses.

BART and VTA are developing real estate at their stations on a much larger scale than Caltrain. BART has already built several major developments on its parking lots [PDF] and is “engaged in 18 transit-oriented development projects at its stations, representing over $2.7 billion in private investment” according to the agency’s property development website.
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San Mateo County Still Thinks the Wider the Better

Highway 101 facing north from Ralston Avenue in Belmont, part of a 14-mile segment planned since 2009 by San Mateo County traffic engineers to be widened to ten continuous lanes. Photo: Andrew Boone

Highway 101 facing north from Ralston Avenue in Belmont is part of a 14-mile segment that may be widened to ten lanes. Photo: Andrew Boone

San Mateo County’s City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG) is leaving an expansion of Highway 101 with new carpool lanes on the table, even after the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) concluded they will jam up with traffic the day they open. If constructed–by 2024 at the earliest–a 14-mile section of the highway from San Bruno to Redwood City would be widened from eight to ten lanes at a cost of up to $250 million.

MTC says traffic will move faster in all lanes, and carry more people in fewer vehicles, if the existing left-most lanes are converted to Express Lanes instead. Free for buses and carpools, and available to solo drivers for a toll, express lanes have cut traffic on Highways 680, 880, 580, and 237 by maintaining a congestion-free lane even during rush hours. On Highway 101 such lanes could help pay for express bus and van services. The express lane conversion could be completed in three years and cost $110 million less than the carpool lane expansion favored by C/CAG.

“It would be a huge missed opportunity if we can’t use innovative strategies to cut traffic by moving more people in fewer vehicles along the Bay Area’s most critical transportation corridor,” said TransForm Community Planner Clarrissa Cabansagan. TransForm published a study in 2013 [PDF] making the case for converting existing lanes to express lanes on Highway 101 rather than widening it.
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Riders Feel Railroaded by Caltrain Fare Hikes

Caltrain at Palo Alto Station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Caltrain at Palo Alto Station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Public transportation becomes less accessible for low-income Peninsula residents and workers this year with fare increases for both Caltrain and SamTrans buses. Caltrain tickets go up by fifty cents on February 28 while SamTrans bus tickets were raised by 25 cents on January 10. Unlike Muni, neither agency offers discounted tickets to transfer between buses or between the train and buses, and neither offers a discount for low-income residents or students.

“I’m a longtime Caltrain rider… but with the fare increase I might be considering other transportation alternatives,” said Sunnyvale resident Dora Tello at the December 3 Board meeting where the fare hike proposal was considered. “Please do not raise fares.”

“By raising the prices we will be excluding people,” said San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen, the lone Caltrain Board member who voted against the proposal.

Caltrain officials estimate the fare increases will bring in $8 million more per year, which they say is needed to keep up with rising costs. While Caltrain has long maintained that electrification of the passenger rail service would reduce costs by switching from diesel fuel, its operating budget is projected to rise from $128 million today to $182 million by 2021, when the new electric trains begin running. However, there will be a concurrent increase in service, capacity, speed and, presumably, riders–so the increased costs should be offset by more revenue from ticket sales. In the railroad industry this is known as the “sparks effect.”

Either way, “Everybody isn’t going to get everything they want,” stated San Mateo County Supervisor and then Caltrain Board Chair Adrienne Tissier in response to complaints that ticket prices are already too expensive. “We all have to do our fair share to keep the train alive.”

“I’m going to support the increase,” said Board member and San Francisco Treasurer Jose Cisneros at the meeting. “I’ve seen us come way too often to the budget discussion where we’ve had to look at cutting service.”

But transit advocates have long noted that the agency’s Go Pass program, which sells all-zone, unlimited-ride tickets to large employers, provides far too steep of a discount, ignoring a major revenue source. Go Passes are sold for $190 per year per eligible participant, usually employees who work at least 20 hours per week. To participate, companies must purchase passes for all eligible employees, whether or not they ride Caltrain to work.

Stanford University, for example, receives a discount of over 50 percent for the Caltrain passes it provides its employees as part of their compensation packages. About 25 percent of the university’s workers use Caltrain, which means Stanford purchases four passes for every one that actually gets used, or $760 per year per Caltrain commuter. Without the Go Pass program, the university would be paying either $1,512 per year (two zones) or $2,148 (three zones) for most of their workers. Over 100 organizations (mostly private companies) participate in the Go Passes program.

A comprehensive fare study later this year will “review the fare structure and pricing system-wide, including the cost of a monthly pass and GoPass, as well as the potential for income-based fare discounts,” according to the agency’s December staff report [PDF]. Demand for riding Caltrain is at an all-time high, and free transit passes are an increasingly coveted perk for tech workers.

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Bigger Intersections and More Traffic Planned for Millbrae BART/Caltrain Station

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El Camino Real and Millbrae Avenue

Millbrae Avenue at El Camino Real in Millbrae, slated for expansion with even more traffic lanes despite its location at San Mateo County’s busiest transit hub. Photo: Google Maps

As the City of Millbrae inches closer to final approval of plans for new construction at the Millbrae BART/Caltrain Station, officials have quietly proposed adding new traffic lanes and traffic signals to intersections near the station. The traffic expansions aim to cram even more auto traffic through the area, worsening already hazardous conditions for people walking or bicycling to and from the station.

The draft Millbrae Station Area Specific Plan to construct two major mixed-use developments on the Millbrae Station’s surface parking lots and along El Camino Real west of the station was released last June. The draft proposed only two new traffic signals and no lane additions be considered to support additional auto traffic, and envisioned a redeveloped station area that would boost both transit use and retail sales by making major safety improvements for pedestrians.

“Streets and intersections in the Plan Area will be reconfigured to provide a safer and more pleasant walking and biking environment that can be enjoyed by children, the elderly, and people with disabilities,” states the station area plan.

But last Tuesday Millbrae’s City Council approved a set of General Plan amendments allowing city engineers to add new traffic lanes to El Camino Real and Millbrae Avenue – already eight lanes across, including turn lanes – as well as lane additions or new traffic signals to three other intersections. This despite the fact that the project’s Environmental Impact Report, adopted by the city on January 12, recommended against these traffic lane additions, calling them “legally infeasible.”

“The plan as laid out in text and drawings prioritizes the convenience of auto traffic and parking at the expense of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit,” wrote Sierra Club representatives in a January 22 letter to the City Council. They also wrote that it contradicts “the concept of a Transit Oriented Development.”

Intersection Expansions

Traffic lane additions planned for two El Camino Real intersections adjacent to the Millbrae BART/Caltrain Station. Image: City of Millbrae


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Will the Bay Area Continue to Reduce Driving With Improved Transit?

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Commuters in SF and the East Bay are ditching cars faster than anyone in the nation, as evidenced by regular crowds packing on to BART at 19th Street in Oakland. Photo: Sergio Ruiz/Flickr

Commuters in the Bay Area ditched cars faster than in any other major metropolitan area between 2006 and 2013, according to a new U.S. Census report. With studies showing that car traffic in San Francisco is declining, the report is one more sign that efforts in SF and the region to attract commuters to transit, walking, and biking may be working.

The report looked at work trips in the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward Metropolitan Statistical Area. The Sacramento Bee summed up the findings:

Commuting by private car in the densely populated region, including carpooling, dropped from 73.6 percent of workers in 2006 to 69.8 percent seven years later, giving it the nation’s third highest level of alternative commuting.

Commuters in the New York City-centered metropolitan area were least likely to use private cars to get to their jobs in 2013, but even so, a majority – 56.9 percent – still did. Ithaca, NY, had the second lowest use of cars, 68.7 percent, followed by the San Francisco Bay Area.

It’s not clear which modes of transport the 3.8 of commuters who ditched cars switched to, as the local breakdown wasn’t immediately available. Record-breaking transit ridership on BART and Caltrain have continued to make headlines over recent years (though, per capita, ridership has declined over the last 20 years).

“The Bay Area continues to be a leader in shifting away from driving and toward alternative transportation modes, particularly public transit, but we need to do much more,” Supervisor Scott Wiener, who sits on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, wrote in a Facebook post today.

Wiener emphasized the urgency of some of the major expansions envisioned for regional transit: “A second transbay tube, train service to the Transbay Transit Center, electrified Caltrain, more subway lines, and a lot more bus service everywhere.”

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Should Caltrain Add Bathrooms On-Board or at Its Stations?

The great controversy roils on. Photo: Yelp/Michael W.

On-board restrooms could be cut from Caltrain’s electric trains after the agency’s Board of Directors rejected a proposal to include one bathroom on every six-car train last month. The agency is exploring the costs of adding bathrooms, and while some riders say they’re crucial, there’s little support from board members or disability advocates.

The Americans with Disabilities Act “is a very important part of this,” said Tom Nolan, a Caltrain board member and chair of the SFMTA Board, at the July meeting. “If somebody’s in a wheelchair in the back of the train and they have to go through five cars, that’s not really equal access.”

Malia Cohen, also a Caltrain board member and San Francisco supervisor, agreed with Nolan, noting that Carla Johnson, director of the SF Mayor’s Office on Disability, favors adding bathrooms at stations — which are currently scarce — rather than on trains.

“If there are bathrooms on the train, then we want the passengers with mobility issues to have the convenience of using those bathrooms just like everybody else,” Johnson told Streetsblog. “If some passengers can only travel between train cars with a lift, then it actually makes more sense to have the bathrooms at the stations so that everyone has equal access.”

“I think that it’s not uncommon for trains of this kind that are doing relatively short regional trips to not have bathrooms, because it is a rather dramatic loss of seats,” said Ash Karla, a Caltrain board member who sits on the San Jose City Council.

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Millbrae’s Transit Hub Plans: Lots of Parking, Same Car-Dominated Streets

Housing for about 850 new residents and offices for 868 workers are slated to rise where these Millbrae Station parking lots currently stand — but so are more than 2,000 new parking spaces. Photo: City of Millbrae

BART and the City of Millbrae are moving ahead with plans for two major mixed-use developments on the Millbrae BART/Caltrain Station’s surface parking lots and along El Camino Real just west of the station.

The projects are expected to bring over 2,000 new residents and 2,000 jobs within walking distance of San Mateo County’s busiest transit hub. The developer in the running for one of the sites promises it would become an urban center friendly for walking and biking.

But without a bolder vision from Millbrae officials, the plan has fundamental flaws that could undermine the purpose of transit-oriented development: to make it easier for people to get around without cars. The development, as proposed, would add about 2,200 car parking spots and make no substantial changes to the surrounding car-dominated streets to allow people to safely get around the area by foot and bike.

New residents and workers are expected to drive for 69 percent of trips, according to the environmental review for a proposed update to the Millbrae Station Area Precise Plan, which must be approved by the City Council.

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Caltrain Board Ups Bike Capacity, Dumps Bathrooms on Electric Trains

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Image: Caltrain

Image: Caltrain

Note: An earlier version of this article’s headline indicated that the increase in bike capacity came at the expense of bathrooms. The two were features were essentially unrelated.

The Caltrain Board of Directors voted today to increase the share of space on its future electric trains devoted to bike capacity, though the trains may lack bathrooms.

More room for bikes on Caltrain’s electric train cars will let more commuters board with bikes, but they may not have a bathroom on the ride.

The Caltrain board rejected a proposal from its staff to include one bathroom on every six-car train while maintaining the same seat-to-bike ratio that exists today of ten-to-one. After a push from board member Tom Nolan, who is also the chair of the SFMTA Board, that ratio was increased to eight-to-one in the request for proposals from train manufacturers

The board also requested a report on the costs of adding more bathrooms and bike parking at stations.

“The board’s refusal to go along with the status quo” for on-board bike capacity “is a real victory for improving regional transit,” said SF Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Noah Budnick in a statement.

“We hear from folks all the time about how Caltrain’s current car design causes people to be late for work or to pick up their kids because there isn’t enough space for them on the train they needed to catch,” he said. “When transit options don’t meet the needs of a community, you see more people turn to private autos for their commutes.”

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Redwood City’s Plan for Wider Roads Will Confound Its Bid to Cut Traffic

Redwood City’s vision for a dense, walkable downtown would be undermined by its plans to induce more driving. Image: Redwood City

As Redwood City plans to develop a more compact, walkable downtown, the city is ramping up efforts to encourage transit, bicycling, walking, and carpooling to avert the surge in car traffic that many residents fear would come as a result. At the same time, the city plans to spend tens of millions of dollars on infrastructure that will pump more car traffic into downtown.

Redwood’s new Transportation Demand Management (TDM) Ordinance, expected to be approved by the City Council this summer, would place stricter requirements on large companies to reduce driving by their employees. But Redwood City also plans to spend big on widening roads, which would induce more car traffic.

In December, the City Council considered increasing allowable office space downtown from 500,000 square feet to 670,000 square feet while reducing space for housing and retail development, but hasn’t gone through with the proposal.

Aaron Aknin, Redwood City’s director of community development, said the city can accommodate this growth without increasing traffic. “In the long run there is a way to maintain or even reduce vehicle trips,” he told Streetsblog. “We can minimize traffic resulting from new office projects, and we can draw on our existing employee base to reduce vehicle trips.”

Under Redwood City’s TDM ordinance, businesses with 50 or more employees would have to figure out a way to reduce solo driving.

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Design of High-Speed Trains Threatens to Diminish Caltrain Capacity

When High Speed Rail begins operating in 2029, passengers will access Caltrain via the upper set of doors (blue) at stations shared with high speed trains, and via the lower set of doors (yellow) at all other stations. Image: Clem Tillier

When High Speed Rail begins operating in 2029, passengers will access Caltrain via the upper set of doors (yellow) at stations shared with high speed trains, and via the lower set of doors (blue) at all other stations. Image: Clem Tillier

The insistence of California High Speed Rail officials on running trains with floors 50 inches above the tracks threatens to reduce the capacity of Caltrain and hamper the benefits of level boarding for the commuter rail agency.

Last Tuesday, Caltrain officials gave an update on the electric trains the agency plans to purchase next year, which will begin operating in 2021 [PDF]. To enable level boarding for Caltrain passengers before and after CAHSR raises platforms to be compatible with its 50-inch floor trains, the new design has two sets of doors at different heights. This way, both Caltrain and high-speed trains will have level boarding at every station.

High Speed Rail Authority officials insist on the high-speed train industry standard floor height of 50 inches above the tracks. Building trains compatible with this specification, however, will diminish both the speed of Caltrain service and its capacity, though the scale of these effects has yet to be determined.

In order to achieve level boarding fully compatible with High Speed Rail, Caltrain will need to allow passengers to board at the 50-inch height. But a lower 25-inch floor height above the tracks is needed for the main section of each car in order for the trains to have both a lower and upper level, like today’s newer Bombardier models, without being too tall to operate.

This will require passengers to navigate sets of internal stairs on the lower level. This will increase the length of time people spend boarding and alighting, especially people carrying bicycles or luggage. Mechanical lifts will also be needed for passengers in wheelchairs to get between the 25-inch and 50-inch levels. The overall effect will be to lengthen the amount of time trains spend at each station (the “dwell time”) compared to trains with a single lower-level floor height.

That delay hasn’t yet been estimated by either agency, but it will affect Caltrain’s schedules. “The reason to go to level boarding for Caltrain is dwell time,” said Friends of Caltrain Director Adina Levin. “So the question of how much the internal stairs extend dwell time is a very important question about the benefits of level boarding.”

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