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Posts from the "Caltrain" Category

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Caltrain Wants Level Boarding — These Are the Hurdles That Remain

Passengers with bicycles wait to board Caltrain. Photo: Bryan Goebel

As Caltrain celebrates 150 years of continuous passenger rail service between San Francisco and San Jose this year, transit planners are finally preparing to modernize the service by converting from diesel to electric trains. This transition, which Caltrain aims to complete by 2019, will reduce travel times for passengers because electric trains can accelerate and decelerate much more quickly. A typical all-stops local train trip from San Francisco would be reduced from about 90 minutes to 80 minutes.

Caltrain has long promoted electrification of the passenger rail line because electric trains are cheaper to operate and maintain — and because faster service will attract more riders and bring in more revenue. But one very important technical detail was missing from the agency’s plans until recently: Level boarding.

Currently, passengers need 55 seconds at each station, on average, to get on and off the newer two-step Bombardier train cars. The electric trains set to be purchased in 2015 will also include two steps unless the platforms at all 25 stations between San Francisco and Tamien in San Jose (the section planned to be electrified) are re-constructed 17 inches higher than they are today.

Level platforms would allow large groups and passengers with bulky items such as bicycles, strollers, suitcases, and wheelchairs to board more quickly. That would save at least 15 seconds per station, shaving an additional five minutes from the all-stops San Francisco-to-San Jose trip.

Gap Filler Steps on German Train

Caltrain could meet ADA requirements for level boarding with "gap filler steps" that deploy automatically at stops, but only if its platforms are constructed about 17 inches higher. Image: Clem Tillier

“Level boarding is just faster,” said Clem Tillier, editor of the Caltrain High Speed Rail Compatibility blog. ”On the basis of trip time, level boarding is at least 50 percent as effective [as electrification] and it will be far cheaper.”

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San Mateo County Supes Vote to Fund Bike/Ped Coordinator, SamTrans

Redwood City - San Carlos Border

Heading north on Old County Road in Redwood City, this bike lane ends abruptly at the San Carlos border. Piecemeal bicycle routes such as this are common in San Mateo County. Image: Google Maps

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to approve $10 million to boost SamTrans service and $156,000 to create a new full-time bicycle and pedestrian coordinator position over the next two years. The funds come from Measure A, a ten-year, half-cent sales tax approved by voters last November, which is expected to generate $64 million this year.

The approval will allow the San Mateo County City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG) to hire a full-time bike/ped coordinator to oversee the implementation of the county’s Comprehensive Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, which was adopted in 2011.

Advocates have long pointed to the lack of coordination among the county’s 20 cities and towns as a major barrier to implementing improvements for walk and bicycling in San Mateo County. Former C/CAG Executive Director Richard Napier, who retired in December after 17 years of leading the agency, had been opposed to hiring a bike/ped coordinator because, he argued, the existing level of staffing was sufficient to support active transportation projects.

“Cyclists want to see bike routes that are contiguous, and designs that are consistent,” said Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition Deputy Director Colin Heyne, adding that the future bike/ped coordinator would provide a “single, accessible resource to explain and move forward funding, design, and coordination priorities” for bicycle and pedestrian projects. In a letter to the Board of Supervisors, the SVBC pointed out that Alameda, Marin, San Francisco, and Santa Clara counties all “employ staff in a similar bicycle/pedestrian coordinator capacity.”

Bob Page, a Woodside resident who has commuted by bicycle in San Mateo County for 40 years, says that cycling has become more difficult over time as traffic has increased and cities have install more traffic signals and wider roads while bicycling conditions go neglected. ”The county, with its 21 jurisdictions, makes it difficult to develop regional bikeways,” he said. “A coordinator at the county level can do a lot to facilitate and promote inter-jurisdictional facilities, which are badly needed.”

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On the Peninsula, Demand Could Overwhelm Limited Bike-Share Launch

A total of 20 Bay Area Bike Share stations will be installed in downtown Redwood City, Palo Alto, and Mountain View. Click for an interactive system-wide map.

All the way down the Peninsula, excitement around the pilot launch of Bay Area Bike Share comes tempered with a dose of concern about the small number of bikes that will be clustered around Caltrain stations in five cities.

Bay Area Bike Share’s meager scale at the time it launches is sure to limit its usefulness. Half of the system’s 70 stations — holding ten bikes each — will be placed in downtown San Francisco, and the other half distributed among participating cities down to San Jose, which will get 15 stations. Redwood City will get just seven stations, Palo Alto six, and Mountain View seven.

“That’s the big concern,” said Adina Levin, co-founder of Friends of Caltrain. “A lot of current and potential Caltrain riders I talk to are excited about being able to use bike-share in theory, but it’s not serving where they need to go.”

Nonetheless, advocates say the launch of bike-share is overdue.

Image: Bay Area Bike Share

“Bike-share is going to make it easier for everybody to ride a bike more often, whether for work, shopping, or quick trips during lunch break,” said Colin Heyne, deputy director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. “Data from other bike-share systems show not only increased rates of bicycling, but also decreased rates of driving and car ownership, so it can contribute to reducing traffic congestion and improving safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Hundreds have already signed up for Bay Area Bike Share since membership sales opened on Monday. For $88 per year, members can rent sturdy new celeste-colored city bikes for up to 30 minutes at a time for free, with surcharges for trips longer than that.

The system is set to arrive at a time when both transit and bicycle commuting are surging. Caltrain ridership has increased 80 percent over the past decade, and the number of commuters bringing bikes on board has tripled, according to the agency’s stats. With commuters who are able to use the shared bikes instead of hauling their own bikes aboard, bike-share could free up some much-needed bike storage space on the train.

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A Straighter Extension of Caltrain/HSR Into Downtown SF: Is It Worth It?

A simulation of a curve in the planned downtown extension alignment, as rendered in a video from the TJPA.

By 2029, San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center — which has been called the “Grand Central of the West” — will allow people to hop on an electrified Caltrain to San Jose and high-speed rail down to Southern California from the same platform. That’s the vision, at least, of planners working on the extension of Caltrain from the current terminus at 4th and King Streets to the massive transit hub under construction in SF’s downtown core.

But some advocates and planners say the planned rail alignment for the downtown extension of Caltrain and California High-Speed Rail, which will share tracks along the Peninsula, needs to be revisited because it includes too many sharp turns, which they say could slow the trains down and create a bottleneck. Planners at the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, however, say any increase in speeds would be minimal, and that embarking on a planning process for a different alignment could delay construction by at least a decade. Currently, the extension is expected to be built some time before high-speed rail is completed in 2029.

“Are we sure a new alignment will be better? Definitely not, we just think it’s worth asking the question again at this stage,” said Gabriel Metcalf, the executive director of SPUR, who was appointed to the TJPA Board by Mayor Ed Lee. “From my perspective, the DTX (downtown extension) is now the highest priority transportation project in San Francisco, and it should be the focus of a lot of attention until it is underway. We think that at this stage it’s a good idea to take some time to explore alternative alignments and ways of phasing the project.”

Brian Stokle, who writes the blog Urban Life Signs, wrote a post in March about “uncrooking San Francisco’s crookedest tunnel” in which he laid out the conceptual differences between a few different alignment options. Some alignments could alleviate engineering obstacles, while causing other complications to arise. One of them would allow riders to transfer to the Central Subway station under construction at Moscone Center. Altogether, there’s no clear winner.

“Whatever tunnel and stations get built, we should be considering what we’re asking for and what’s most important,” Stokle wrote. “Simply stating this is a tunnel to get to the Transbay Center is missing the point. We’re creating a valuable piece of infrastructure that should work for at least a century into the future and work for not just Caltrain, HSR, and downtown, but benefit the entire region, including other transit operators, residents and commuters.”

But changing the alignment could set the DTX back by decades, according to Scott Boule, the TJPA’s community outreach manager.

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SPUR Urges City to Reap the Benefits of Removing Highway 280

“If the freeway were removed, Mission Creek Park would become an asset to the entire area. The lower drawing shows a future view of Seventh Street to Mission Creek and beyond.” Image: SPUR

Taking down the northern spur of highway 280 is the cover story in the latest issue of the Urbanist, the SF Planning and Urban Research Association’s member magazine. SPUR makes the case that if San Francisco is to reap the full benefits of moving Caltrain and high-speed rail underground and re-developing the Caltrain yard at 4th and King Streets, taking down the freeway is a can’t-miss opportunity:

Currently, the stub end of Interstate 280 creates a barrier between the developing Mission Bay neighborhood and Potrero Hill. At the same time, the Caltrain railyard — 19 acres stretching from Fourth Street to Seventh Street between King and Townsend — forms a barrier between Mission Bay and SOMA. The obstruction will only get worse if current plans for high-speed rail proceed, forcing 16th Street and Mission Bay Boulevard into depressed trenches beneath the tracks and the elevated freeway.

Check out the rest of SPUR’s analysis here.

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Maker Faire: A Model for Encouraging Car-Free Transportation to Big Events

Bike Valet Parking at Maker Faire.

Space for parking up to 2,000 bicycles was provided at Maker Faire this year. Photos: Andrew Boone

The runaway success of Maker Faire, the annual San Mateo festival that celebrates do-it-yourself technology and crafts, has led organizers to get creative in encouraging attendees to come without a car and avert a traffic mess.

Fire Sculpture at Maker Faire

One of the ever-popular fire sculptures on display at Maker Faire.

Since Maker Faire’s debuted in 2006, organizers have developed a model program for managing traffic demand for the growing number of attendees — estimated at more than 120,000 this year — who flock to the two-day event to see the eccentric and occasionally practical inventions of 1,000 “makers.”

At this year’s event, held last weekend at the San Mateo County Event Center, the valet bicycle parking lot “had 735 bikes at 1 p.m., and about 1,000 bikes at 3:30 p.m., which was about the peak,” said bike parking organizer Gladwyn de Souza.

“It’s also part of the attendee experience. We want people to have a good time, so we want to provide them with choices that don’t involve driving,” said Katie Kunde, Maker Faire’s senior sales manager.

Maker Faire’s website provides comprehensive details on how to get to and from the event by transit, bicycle, walking, car-share, driving, paratransit, and even combinations of those modes.

Maker Faire also coordinates with local bicycle clubs to organize group bike rides to the event on Saturday from San Francisco and San Jose, and gives riders free copies of Momentum, an urban cycling magazine along with a free “I Rode My Bike to Maker Faire 2013″ patch. Read more…

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City Hall Pushes Caltrain to Move the 4th/King Railyard

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The various public agencies shaping the plan to bring high-speed rail into downtown San Francisco disagree on what should be done with the Caltrain railyard at the 4th and King Street station. Officials from San Francisco’s Planning Department and Mayor’s Office say it’s time for the railyard — along with the northern spur of the 280 freeway – to be opened up for development, reconnecting the South of Market District and Mission Bay while making it more feasible to build a more direct HSR alignment to connect to the Transbay Transit Center.

Caltrain, however, is not on board. The agency has its sights set on electrifying the rail line by 2019, including the 4th and King Station, and it is wary of possibly delaying the project by setting out to relocate the yard. “There is an urgency for Caltrain to get electrification in place with expediency,” Caltrain spokesperson Jayme Ackemann told the SF Chronicle in January. “With electrification we significantly reduce our operating costs.”

There’s no dispute that Caltrain needs to reap the benefits of electrification, particularly since it will be necessary to share tracks with CAHSR, which is providing the funds to make it happen. But SF officials warn that moving ahead with $250 million in spending to electrify the railyard when a re-think of the site is in order will be a huge waste. With the land value of the 19-acre SoMa site estimated to be upwards of $225 million, opening it up for development could pay for a significant chunk of high-speed rail infrastructure in San Francisco.

“The opportunity is to both knit the neighborhoods back together by redeveloping the yards, while at the same time producing value that could we could use to fund transportation improvements,” said Gillian Gillett, Mayor Ed Lee’s transportation policy director.

“We totally support electrification, and we want to make sure it happens as quickly as possible, but we don’t want to allow it to happen in such a way that it precludes future benefits for the city,” Planning Director John Rahaim told the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee earlier this week.

The idea of developing the Caltrain yard, which sits between 4th and 7th Streets, has been well-studied. The Planning Department published a study in December exploring some of the possibilities, including building an underground train station. In 2007, the SF Planning and Urban Research Association published its own study of a similar scope called A New Transit First Neighborhood. In a blog post last month, SPUR’s Tomiquia Moss and Sarah Karlinsky noted that “putting the right type of development here could knit together the surrounding neighborhoods [and] capitalize on the extensive transit access.”

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Mayor’s Transpo Chief: “Let’s Be San Francisco and Take Down the Freeway”

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The 280 freeway looking from Potrero Hill, where it divides the neighborhood from Mission Bay. Photo: Michael Patrick/Flickr

The idea of removing the northern section of Highway 280 near Mission Bay is gaining more traction as planners look for ideal ways to usher in high-speed rail and transit-oriented development in downtown San Francisco.

At a SPUR forum yesterday, Mayor Ed Lee’s transportation policy director, Gillian Gillett, sketched out a proposal to follow in the footsteps of the removals of the Embarcadero Freeway and a section of the Central Freeway, which revitalized the neighborhoods the roads used to divide. As Adina Levin at Green Caltrain reported, Gillett argued that replacing the elevated portion of I-280 with a street-level boulevard, from its current terminus at 4th and King Streets south to 16th Street, would improve the livability of the area, open up land to develop new neighborhoods, provide funding through real estate revenue, and open up engineering solutions to facilitate the extension of Caltrain and CA High-Speed Rail to the planned Transbay Transit Center.

If the freeway is left to stand, its pillars would present an engineering obstacle to running the train tracks undergound, meaning the only other feasible way to allow rail tracks to safely and expediently cross 16th Street would be to dip 16th underneath the tracks. And that would make the intersection — a gateway to Mission Bay — even more hostile for people walking and biking than it already is.

As past cases have shown, creating a surface street where that part of I-280 now stands and integrating it into the neighborhood would actually reduce overall car traffic. In a moment that would make the city’s mid-20th Century freeway protesters proud, Gillett told the crowd, “Let’s be San Francisco and take down the freeway.”

Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe called the proposal “an exciting opportunity to re-orient our city around sustainable public transportation and create a more walkable city.”

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Remembering Ellen Fletcher, Palo Alto’s Pioneer Bicycle Advocate

Cross-posted from Cyclelicious.

Ellen Fletcher. Photo: Richard Masoner

Holocaust survivor, PTA mom, city council member, and bike advocate Ellen Fletcher succumbed yesterday at age 83 to lung cancer at her Palo Alto home.

Ellen escaped Berlin as a Jewish child on the Kindertransport trains and spent her teen years as a refugee in World War II London, where she biked to her factory job.

She eventually ended up in Palo Alto, California, where she got her start in cycling advocacy as safety chair of the local PTA when she saw that the best way to protect school children from their greatest danger was by reducing auto traffic around schools. She revived the Santa Clara Valley Bicycle Association (which exists today as the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition) in the early 1970s. Ellen pioneered the first bike boulevard in the United States on Bryant Avenue (now named in her honor) while serving on the Palo Alto city council from 1977 to 1989.

Caltrain Bikes on Board Pioneer

If you like bikes on Caltrain, you can thank Ellen Fletcher. Beginning in 1977, she and Daryl Skrabac of San Francisco pushed Southern Pacific to try bikes on board. They finally agreed to a four month demonstration in 1982, when four bikes were allowed in the aisle of the cab car. Southern Pacific refused to continue the experiment. When the Peninsula Joint Powers Board took over the line in 1992, they agreed to make room for bikes, but needed money to make it happen. Cap Thomas of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition persuaded the city of San Francisco to contribute $40,000 to making space for 8 bikes in each cab car.

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SamTrans Poll Shows Strong Support for Tax Measures to Support Caltrain

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The Green Caltrain blog has some promising news today for moving Caltrain toward a stable funding solution. Adina Levin from Friends of Caltrain reports:

At its board meeting on Thursday, SamTrans announced the results of polling that it conducted in June. According to the poll, a ballot measure to support Caltrain and SamTrans would pass, barely, at the 66% threshold required in California. The transit agency is considering a ballot measure on the 2014 ballot to address the underlying financial problems.

The poll found stronger support for a 1/4 cent sales tax to support Caltrain and SamTrans than for a 1/8 cent sales tax to fund Caltrain alone. High priorities for voters include reducing traffic, providing stable funding for Caltrain, supporting transit for the elderly and disabled, and supporting infrastructure.

The poll also showed that Caltrain electrification is massively popular, with 79% of voters in favor.  The controversy over High Speed Rail in recent years has not blunted the overwhelming support for cleaner, faster, more frequent service.

Voters expressed greater support for the tax after the poll asked voters questions about their priorities and values transit service. This strongly suggests that a ballot measure would get better results if there was a campaign to encourage voters to consider the benefits of transit service. Transit supporters have between now and 2014 to raise awareness.

Caltrain relies on unstable funding from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and local transit agencies along the Peninsula. As we’ve reported, the Caltrain Board has declared numerous fiscal emergencies while taking little action to solve the problem in the long run. Although the agency managed to avert devastating service cuts in the last budget cycle, transit advocates have come together to push for long-term measures to ensure riders’ access to quality transit isn’t threatened every time the partner agencies reduce their share of the pot.

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