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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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Why Townsend Street Needs Protected Bike Lanes at 4th and King Station

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Anyone who uses Townsend Street’s eastbound bike lane to commute to Caltrain is sure to run into a litany of obstacles: Taxis, shuttles, private autos, and Muni buses obliterate the poor bike lane in the fight for curb space. (Much of the curb is reserved as a taxi stand.)

Sam McCandlish sent in this video, filmed by a friend of his, showing the chaotic scrum faced by bike-to-Caltrain commuters. The often-impassable conditions cause some people to resort to riding on the sidewalk. In 2011, the SFPD targeted sidewalk riders at the Fourth and King station while ignoring drivers blocking the bike lane.

In the video, a few Bay Area Bike Share users can be seen walking their bikes in the bike lane in the opposite direction to get through the mess. Fourth and King is the busiest bike-share hub in the city at peak commute hours.

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Better Bike Parking Options Can Alleviate Crowding On-Board Caltrain

Caltrain bike cars frequently fill up on rush hour trains, bumping passengers wishing to board with bikes to the next train.

Facing a continuing surge of nearly 5,000 additional weekday passengers each year, Caltrain is looking into better bike parking to alleviate overcrowding on the trains while improving access to its stations. The agency was awarded a $150,000 state grant in early April to write a bicycle parking management plan that aims to prioritize the next phase of bike improvements at stations.

Current bike parking facilities include standard bike racks at 29 stations, bike lockers that can only be rented out by a single person at 26 stations, shared bike lockers at 10 stations, and indoor bike parking areas at three stations, including attended bike parking at San Francisco’s Fourth and King Station. The addition of more bike parking has lagged behind demand, with the number of passengers with bikes more than doubling from 2010 to 2015. Caltrain now logs over 6,000 bike boardings on an average weekday, accounting for between 11 and 13 percent of the agency’s total weekday ridership, which has grown by 60 percent in the same five-year period.

In a survey Caltrain conducted last year [PDF], 49 percent of passengers who bring a bike on-board said they would consider using “secure bike parking in a self-serve locker,” 39 percent would consider “convenient bike sharing kiosks,” and 47 percent would consider “a shuttle or other means of transit.”

Last December, Caltrain’s Bike Plan Implementation Strategy [PDF] reported “mixed progress” on bike parking improvements since 2008, citing inadequate funds and the ad-hoc nature of the many small city-led projects that are completed only as grant money and staff time become available. The new plan recommends investing $2 million in 500 new electronic bike lockers at Caltrain’s nine busiest stations, and $1 million on various access improvements, including new ramps and stairs at a few stations.

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Atherton Joins HSR Opponents to Sue Caltrain; Menlo Park Drops Its Suit

The Town of Atherton alleges that the review of the Caltrain/High Speed Rail Blended System’s environmental impacts cannot be segmented into two separate environmental impact reports. Image: CAHSR

Last week, the Town of Atherton teamed up with opponents of California High-Speed Rail to file a lawsuit against Caltrain [PDF]. The City of Menlo Park, meanwhile, dropped threats to file a similar lawsuit, one week after listing five issues that the city wants Caltrain to resolve.

Caltrain must complete its electrification project before it starts sharing track, in what’s known as the blended system, with high-speed trains, which are scheduled to start running in 2029The lawsuit from Atherton and two groups opposed to CAHSR asserts that Caltrain violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by conducting environmental impact reports of electrification and the blended system separately, rather than a single project.

“If the project is truly a stand-alone project — independent of serving as a precursor to the blended system – it is hard to understand why providing electrical infrastructure compatible with the blended system should be a major project purpose,” states the lawsuit.

The suit argues that the impacts of several changes for the blended track system weren’t disclosed in the electrification EIR: The reconstruction of curved sections of track for 110 mph trains, the cumulative traffic impacts on at-grade crossings when high-speed trains overtake Caltrain trains, and how high-speed trains sharing the tracks could limit the expansion of Caltrain service in the future.

Caltrain officials said that because the electrification and CAHSR each have “independent utility,” the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) allows them to be analyzed in separate environmental documents.

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Pedestrian Access to South San Francisco Caltrain Station Gets a Boost

Passengers currently have to access the South San Francisco Caltrain station via the Grand Avenue overpass and walk across the tracks to board trains. Photo: Andrew Boone

The South San Francisco Caltrain station is set to get better walking connections to downtown and a more spacious boarding area after the San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SMCTA) Board awarded a grant for station reconstruction last Thursday.

The $59 million project will widen the center platform and build a pedestrian tunnel re-connecting the station directly to the east end of downtown’s Grand Avenue. Passengers will no longer need to climb an overpass to get to the station or walk across train tracks to board. Instead they will be able to get to the station’s center platform via ramps connecting to a tunnel underneath the tracks.

“This is a vast improvement in safety that will also increase connections to businesses nearby,” said SMCTA Board member and Burlingame City Council member Terry Nagel at the meeting.

Currently the only access to the Caltrain station is from the west side of the train tracks, via a Grand Avenue overpass that spans the tracks directly above the station itself. This overpass requires a long and uncomfortable detour for people walking and bicycling, who have to cross the highway-like, six-lane Grand Avenue and descend either a tall metal staircase or a long frontage road on-ramp.

The overpass and its retaining walls also create a gloomy and unwelcoming area for passengers to wait. With the Caltrain station wedged in between the tracks and Highway 101 and access only available from the west side, passengers arriving by bus or car must also follow circuitous routes to reach the platform.

Walking to the South San Francisco Caltrain requires passing under Highway 101 (upper left), up a long sidewalk on the Grand Avenue overpass (upper right), and down a tall metal staircase (bottom). Photos: Andrew Boone

“The current configuration is a major barrier for residents and employees since it hinders those who need to walk or bike from downtown or BART to our major biotech employers on the east side of the city,” wrote the South San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and representatives of several biotech and real estate companies in identical letters of support.

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