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Coming to Caltrain: Longer Trains With More Room for Bikes

Caltrain Bombarier Bike Car With Folding Bikes

Caltrain’s Bombardier trains currently only carry 48 bikes each. With trains receiving a third bike car, 72 bikes can fit on board. Photo: John Woodell/Twitter

Caltrain will add a third bike car to all six of its Bombardier trains, Executive Director Michael Scanlon announced at the transit agency’s monthly board of directors meeting last week. With the new cars, bike capacity will increase from 48 to 72 on each of the Bombardier trains. But it could take up to one year to place the six-car trains into service.

The new bike cars are part of a larger $15 million project to acquire and refurbish 16 used rail cars from Los Angeles Metrolink, adding about 2,000 seats across Caltrain’s fleet. The agency’s 15 older gallery-style trains already carry 80 bikes each, since seats are not placed in the center of the two bike cars on those trains, and will not receive more bike capacity.

Crowding on Caltrain is becoming increasingly severe during the morning and evening rush. A record 61,670 passengers packed into the agency’s five-car trains on an average weekday in October 2014, and “standing room only” is now the norm during peak hours. With ridership growing more than 10 percent each year since 2009, the trend shows no sign of stopping. New office space and housing construction in San Francisco, along El Camino Real in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, and within walking distance of Caltrain stations are also quickly filling up any remaining passenger capacity even on trains running outside the traditional commute times.

The number of passengers bringing bicycles on Caltrain has grown four times faster than overall ridership since 2008. Strong growth in the Bay Area’s tech and finance economies continues to bring thousands more workers every year to suburban office developments located far from any practical rail or bus services — making train-plus-bike the only feasible alternative to commuting by car.

Caltrain officials were initially leaning toward adding refurbished rail cars to the Bombardier fleet with total seating for about 650 passengers but no spaces for bikes. That would have actually cut the share of passengers who can bring a bike on board compared to the status quo, even as bike-plus-train trips continue to outpace overall Caltrain ridership growth.

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How Can Muni Stop Car Drivers From Jamming Its Tunnels?

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N-Judah riders walk the tracks of the Sunset Tunnel past a jammed car. Does this have to keep happening? Video screen capture via Sean Rea/Youtube

Another brilliant driver got his car stuck in the Sunset Tunnel Saturday night at about 8 p.m., bringing Muni’s busiest line to a dead stop. A train full of N-Judah riders had to walk along the tracks out of the eastern portal. One of them was Streetsblog reader Sean Rea, who captured the walk in a video posted on YouTube (see below).

The last time this was reported, last February, I happened to be on the train. My fellow riders were able to lift the car out of the way and get trains moving again. Muni riders on Saturday weren’t so lucky — the car was wedged on the tracks deep in the tunnel, forcing them to walk the rest of the way or wait for substitute Muni buses to take them around the tunnel.

It’s incredible how one errant driver can disrupt the trips of thousands of Muni riders, whether due to simple arrogance or failure to comprehend the situation. There must be more effective measures available to fully prevent autos from entering rail tunnels.

Muni has already added signage, including a blindingly bright sign at the Duboce and Church portal, and raised bumps. But drivers — especially drunk drivers — still enter them surprisingly often. It might only happen once or twice each year, but it’s remarkable that it happens at all.

It’s unclear if drivers ever face any legal penalties for doing this. In Rea’s video, he can be heard asking an officer, “Can we take this guy to court?,” only to be directed to stay away from the car. The officers appear to be posted around the car to protect it, standing next to an elderly man who may have been the driver.

Streetsblog commenter murphstahoe suggested taking a page from the parking garage industry:

How is it that we put tire destroying spikes to stop people from exiting parking garages via the entrance, but not at the entrance to the N-Judah tunnel? Would stop the car dead so much faster, making the car easier to remove — yet more expensive for the scofflaw to fix.

Good question, though this might bring some drivers to a halt who might otherwise be able to recognize their mistake extricate their vehicles from the tunnel before causing a massive problem. Mechanical retractable bollards are another possibility, but they could break down and block trains more often if they have to retract every time a train approaches.

We’ll be looking into best practices from around the world. If you’re already aware of any, feel free to share in the comments.

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Muni Pushes “Double Berthing” Launch Back One More Week

We’ve now lost count of how many times Muni has delayed the launch of “double berthing” in its Metro stations. Last we heard, it was promised to launch tomorrow, but the agency now says it needs one more week of testing before two trains can simultaneously board on the same platform.

“We are adding an additional test for double boarding — to ensure that our live test plan is as thorough as possible, and our signal mechanics have more time with the program and infrastructure,” said SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose. The live test that was planned for early morning last Saturday, a demonstration which will allow CA Public Utilities Commission officials to sign off on the launch, will instead happen early tomorrow morning.

“We are hopeful that we will receive certification from CPUC soon after that, to implement this feature into regular service,” said Rose. If all goes as planned (and it will, right?), the change would go into effect on Saturday, December 20.

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Geary Bus Riders Set to Get Some “Early” Upgrades Before BRT Lanes Arrive

A rendering of a bus bulb and transit lane at Geary and Fillmore. Minor upgrades like these are set to be installed years before Geary BRT is finished in 2019. Image: SFCTA

Muni’s 38-Geary riders may get some relief even before bus rapid transit lanes come to the line’s Richmond segment in 2019. The SFMTA and SF County Transportation Authority are developing plans to install “early” improvements over the next few years, like bus bulbs, extended transit-only lanes, and transit signal priority.

Those upgrades would be made east of Stanyan Street, on the segment of the Geary corridor that is not poised to get center-running BRT lanes, said SFCTA planner Chester Fung. Center BRT lanes, originally expected to open in 2012, were dropped from the agency’s “preferred alternative” plan this year because of engineering obstacles presented by the Masonic and Presidio tunnels. The larger BRT project is still going through a lengthy environmental review and design process.

But on the eastern segments outside of the Richmond, where buses will continue to run on curbside lanes just as they do today, planners are looking to make “phased” upgrades that don’t have to wait. These will consist of “things that are more easily done, and less involved from an infrastructure and engineering standpoint,” and therefore don’t have to wait for the larger project, said Fung.

The SFMTA has already added red paint to the existing transit-only lanes on inner Geary and O’Farrell streets this year. Transit-priority bus detection is being installed on traffic signals at 86 intersections along the corridor.

According to SFCTA presentation materials [PDF], the route could see these upgrades between next year and 2017:

  • Bus-only lanes extended by one to two miles, between Gough and Stanyan streets
  • Transit and pedestrian bulb-outs at up to 15 spots
  • Bus zone extensions to fit more buses at up to 15 busy stops
  • Up to five stops removed, and “up to two local-only stops created,” at Spruce and Laguna Streets
  • Up to 15 right-turn “pocket” lanes to keep queuing cars out of the way
  • Some stops moved from the near side of the intersection to the far side, to take advantage of transit signal priority
  • Countdown pedestrian signals installed at six intersections

Fung said SFMTA planners are still working on details, like locations, for many of those improvements, and they would represent less than half of the upgrades planned for the segment east of Stanyan. Altogether, the “early” improvements are expected to save riders four to six minutes in each direction — and would result in bus reliability improving by 20 percent as buses arrive closer to their scheduled arrival times. The total cost would be $15 to $20 million, which is expected to be included in the existing Geary BRT budget estimates.

Additionally, the SFCTA presentation pointed out, the SFMTA has also purchased 61 new articulated, low-floor Muni buses, which should speed up boardings on the lines they’re used.

Fung said that any changes to bus stops or car parking would have to be approved at the SFMTA’s public engineering hearings.

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Union Square’s “Winter Walk” Plaza on Stockton a Hit – Why Bring Cars Back?

Stockton Street, between Ellis and Geary Streets, has temporarily been transformed into well-loved “Winter Walk” plaza. Photo: Sergio Ruiz/Flickr

Families are loving “Winter Walk SF,” the temporary holiday plaza filling two blocks of Stockton Street in Union Square. As CBS reporter John Ramos put it, the on-street downtown play space “represents the San Francisco everyone wants it to be.”

“I didn’t expect to see this,” one smiling girl told Ramos, standing on the green astroturf. “I thought it would be cars.”

Even former Mayor Willie Brown — not exactly known as a livable streets visionary — called it “spectacular” in his latest SF Chronicle column. “While you’re walking, think about what it would be like if the change were made permanent when the subway construction is complete.”

Brown was referring to the fact that the plaza will only be in place during a holiday construction hiatus for the Central Subway. After the new year, Stockton between Geary and Ellis Streets will once again fill with machinery, its use from 2012 until at least 2016.

Afterwards, cars, buses, and bikes are scheduled to once more clog Stockton — but even Brown suggests it shouldn’t go back to the way it was:

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Caltrans Grants $550 Million to Transit Projects Statewide

Caltrans announced over the holiday weekend that it has allocated one of the remaining chunks of money from Prop 1B, the massive transportation bond act approved by California voters in 2006.

Over $550 million was awarded to transit capital projects throughout the state. The projects include building transit centers and bus stop facilities, replacing buses and rail cars, and building repair facilities. Large and small agencies received the funds; a complete list is available here [PDF].

Among the largest receipients is Los Angeles' Metro Expo Rail Phase 2. Photo via Metro's The Source.

Among the largest Prop 1B transit capital funding recipients is $106 million for Los Angeles’ Metro Expo light rail. Photo of Expo Phase 2 construction via Metro’s The Source.

The largest allocations include:

  • $106 million to L.A. Metro for Exposition light rail, phase 2
  • $81 million to San Francisco Muni to complete the Central Subway project
  • $58 million to L.A. Metro for the Regional Connector light rail subway
  • $43 million to Orange County for the Raymond Avenue grade separation
  • $41 million to L.A. Metro for bus procurement
  • $36 million to San Diego for light rail vehicles
  • $30 million to Santa Clara for the Alum Rock Bus Rapid Transit
  • $20 million to AC Transit to complete the Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco

Many smaller projects were also awarded funds, a total of $559,368,166 for 77 projects. Kern and Fresno counties received money to buy natural gas buses and a new fleetwide computer system, Santa Monica got money to replace buses, and the city of Chowchilla got enough to purchase one new transit bus. The smallest award went to California City, in the Mojave desert: $11,715 for a park-and-ride lot.

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All-Door Muni Boarding Still Means Quicker Buses, Less Fare Evasion

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Muni bus boardings are quicker across the board since 2009, despite increasing ridership. Image: SFMTA [PDF]

Two years after Muni launched all-door boarding, the agency continues to report [PDF] quicker boardings and lower rates of fare evasion.

As SFBay reported, SFMTA Performance Manager Jason Lee told the agency’s board yesterday that “dwell times,” the amount of time buses spend waiting at stops, have decreased by an average of 38 percent systemwide. Dwell times are also more consistent across the city, since the longest bus stops have seen the most improvement. Since 2011, average bus travel speeds have increased from 8.41 mph to 8.56 mph.

Photo: SFMTA

“That may not seem like a lot, but it adds up,” said Lee.

Fare evasion, meanwhile, dropped from 9.5 percent in 2009 to an estimated 7.9 percent in 2014, translating to an estimated $2.1 million in annual savings.

The results contradict predictions from critics who said all-door boarding would encourage fare evasion. Previously, bus operators had to verify and enforce payment at the front door. Now, buses use a “proof of payment” system, as had been the policy on light-rail lines for decades, where fare inspectors randomly check whether passengers have paid their fares. Inspection staff levels were boosted from 41 to 54 when all-door boarding launched.

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Muni “Double Berthing” Set to Test This Saturday, Launch a Week Later

Muni could launch “double berthing,” or boarding two trains simultaneously in its Metro stations, as early as next weekend — if all goes well in a live test this Saturday, SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin told an agency board meeting today.

Reiskin said Muni officials will demonstrate the feature on Saturday morning for officials at the CA Public Utilities Commission, who must sign off before Muni finally allows two trains at once to board passengers within its underground stations.

“We’re hoping — if we get their approval — to start this in revenue service a week later, on December 13,” Reiskin said, adding that SFMTA will launch a campaign to inform riders of the change using “ambassadors,” flyers, signs, and social media.

The launch date seems more firm than ever, after more than two years of delays from SFMTA officials. Delays were attributed to difficulties in upgrading the software for train controls and platform announcements, and most recently construction on the Sunset tunnel. The original launch date was in October 2012.

The new practice will be “a small but significant change for those who are sometimes frustratingly looking at the platform, but we don’t let them disembark on to it,” said Reiskin.

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BART Will Study Second Transbay Tube, West Side Extension

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BART plans to study a new Transbay tube, leading into SoMa and SF’s western neighborhoods. Image: BART [PDF]

Updated 11:06 p.m. with comments from BART Board-elect Nick Josefowitz.

BART says it will formally study the decades-old ideas of building a second Transbay tube and extending service to SF’s western neighborhoods.

Ellen Smith, BART’s acting manager for strategic and policy planning, recently told a SF County Transportation Authority Board committee (comprised of SF supervisors) that regional transportation agencies plan to fund a study of a subway connecting the South of Market area to Alameda, with a possible extension west underneath the Market Street subway, towards the Richmond and Sunset Districts.

BART has only sketched out the ideas as conceptual routes, and has yet to provide even a ballpark estimate of a timeline or costs.

Don’t expect to take a ride anytime soon, though: “We could be talking decades,” Smith said. Building a new underwater tube is “clearly a massive investment and undertaking, technically, operationally, financially, and politically.”

The tube would be a key piece of the infrastructure needed to accommodate the growing number of riders squeezing into the existing Transbay tube, BART’s busiest section of track.

A second tube would “greatly increase our capacity, but probably not double it,” said Smith. It would make the system more resilient, keeping service running even if minor mechanical problems occur within the existing two-track tube. It would also make 24-hour service possible, since BART maintenance crews currently need to clear the tube for nightly work.

The current single tube “was planned in the 1960s, when there were only 3.6 million people in the Bay Area,” a small fraction of the 9 million expected by 2040, said Smith.

The ideas for BART expansions in SF are hardly new, but it’s the first time BART said it will study them.

SPUR has long pushed the idea of a second Transbay tube, and explained its vision in a video in 2011. In the meantime, the organization says bus service should be given higher priority on the Bay Bridge with the creation of a contra-flow transit lane. Smith said BART is considering launching a new Transbay bus service, but the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has only just begun preliminary consideration of a transit lane on the bridge.

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Muni’s Sluggish 30-Stockton Finally Set to Get Greater Priority on the Streets

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Muni’s 30 buses should get some relief on Stockton Street. Photo: geekstinkbreath/Flickr

Muni’s notoriously sluggish 30-Stockton line is finally set to get some upgrades that will give buses higher priority on streets through the dense neighborhoods of Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach, and near Fisherman’s Wharf.

The plans, part of the SFMTA’s “Muni Forward” program, include transit-only lanes, bus bulb-outs and boarding islands, transit signal priority, and stop consolidation on Stockton, Kearny, and North Point Streets, as well as Columbus Avenue. On two street segments where traffic lanes are too narrow to fit buses, car parking and traffic lanes would be removed to provide more maneuvering space.

The 30, one of Muni’s slowest lines, averages a mere 3.6 mph between Market and Sutter Streets, according to a 2007 SF Chronicle article. Before leaving his position as a transportation reporter at the SF Examiner, Will Reisman raced the 30 at walking pace from Chinatown to Market — and won.

The 30-Stockton takes 11 minutes to travel the mile-and-a-half segment north of Market, according to Muni Forward manager Sean Kennedy. The SFMTA estimates that upgrades could speed up the ride through that segment by about 27 percent, and result in a more reliable ride for roughly 70,000 daily riders that use the 30, 45-Union, and 8x-Bayshore Express through there.

A smoother, faster ride would especially benefit transit-dependent residents of Chinatown, which has the city’s lowest rate of car ownership.

“It’s such an oversubscribed route,” said Cindy Wu, a community planner at the Chinatown Community Development Center. (Wu is rumored to be a top candidate for the mayoral appointment for the District 3 Supervisor seat vacated by David Chiu.) “Seniors and residents depend on it for everyday errands, whether it’s grocery shopping or going to the doctor.”

CCDC is “encouraged” by Muni’s proposals to improve surface transit, said Wu, and those are still necessary “even though the Central subway is coming in” to connect Chinatown, Union Square, and SoMa. The 30 and 45 lines have been on a one-block detour near Union Square for four years to accommodate subway construction.

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