Commentary: Adding More Bike Capacity on Caltrain Will Benefit Everyone

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Dr. Shirley Johnson is the chair of the newly formed Caltrain Bicycle Advisory Committee and the head of the Bikes ONboard project sponsored by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Caltrain recently released a Bike Count and Dwell Time Study, conducted over five weeks during April and May. The study results support bicycle advocates’ position that increasing bike capacity will benefit riders, increase ticket revenue, and simplify operations without a negative impact on service.

Caltrain commissioned the study at a cost $93,000 to assess the impact of a 35 percent increase in bike capacity completed in November 2009. The public strongly supported a larger increase in bike capacity, but Caltrain insisted on a modest increase, because staff feared that more bicycles would cause dwell time delays, defined as the time trains wait at stations for passengers to exit and board. In the past, bicyclists have been inaccurately assigned as the cause of dwell time delays, because Caltrain rules require bicyclists to board last.

The study confirmed that higher ridership, not bicyclists, causes increased dwell time. The more people boarding, the longer the train must wait at the station. This finding is consistent with historical data, which shows that on-time performance deteriorates with increasing total ridership, irrespective of the number of bicycle boardings.

Based on the study, Caltrain staff’s recommendation is to add more bike capacity. Caltrain operates two different kinds of passenger cars, the older gallery and the newer Bombardier cars. The estimated cost is only $300,000 to upgrade bike capacity so that all fifteen gallery train sets will have 80 bike spaces, but funding has not been identified and a timeline has not been set. Prioritizing this capital expense is prudent, because past increases in bike capacity have been paid back in less than six months with increased ticket revenue, an excellent financial outcome.

Caltrain’s recommended upgrade is a step in the right direction, but leaving the five Bombardier train sets each with only 48 bike spaces means that only three-fourths of train sets will have 80 bike spaces. Caltrain could improve its service even more by upgrading the remaining five Bombardier train sets to provide consistent bike capacity, simplifying Caltrain operations and eliminating equipment substitutions as one of the main causes of bicycle bumps (service denial due to insufficient bike capacity).

Cyclists are routinely bumped from trains, documented in cyclists’ bump reports made to the Caltrain Board. Essentially all reported bumps occur during commute periods from trains with less than 80 bike spaces (bike capacity currently varies with 40, 48, or 80 bike spaces per train). Caltrain’s study corroborates user reports that bumps occur during commute periods on low-bike-capacity trains. Alarmingly, reported bumps have increased by four-fold since the study was conducted.

The study captured 10 trains that either bumped bikes or were over capacity in the bike car, but limited sampling missed some problem trains. If you count the trains for which cyclists have reported bumps in 2010, there are actually 21 problem trains.

Caltrain bicycle commuters have long said that Caltrain needs more bike capacity, consistent with the study findings. However, a recent news article incorrectly claimed that Caltrain does not have a bike capacity problem, an unfortunate conclusion based on how the data were summarized.

The relevant metric is peak demand, but Corey, Canapary & Galanis Research, the firm conducting the study, analyzed the bike count data simplistically by calculating the average for all trains and all stops. Midday trains run largely empty, and all trains carry far fewer passengers at end stations than during peak load. The average drops significantly when these low ridership counts are included, resulting in misleading statistics that mask the peak-load problem.

To their credit, Caltrain staff looked past the misleading statistics to recommend increasing bike capacity. Once Caltrain improves reliability by adding enough bike capacity to eliminate bumping, cyclists who have abandoned Caltrain will return and new cyclists will come aboard. It will be a positive outcome for all – more fare-box revenue for Caltrain, less congestion on Bay Area roads, and a healthy commute for cyclists.

  • Madeline

    Does anyone know if BART is ever planning on creating a bike car??

  • Maybe if Bert Hill would have been elected.

    Also, I think the reason for the rush hour ban on BART also has to do with station space, not just car space.

  • There would be more room for a bike car with the current 10 car trains at rush hour into the city and out of it at night if bart were to really get serious about removing seats. Probably need to remove even more than their future car designs show now (suburban riders of course resist this as its a long way to stand if you’re riding to BFE from the city; this needn’t be such a huge problem though…the further out you get on in the morning, more likely you are to get a seat…and on the way home at night even if you don’t get a seat at first, you will be orinda or castro valley for the remainder of the ride ((i’m guessing here))) — so remove those seats, can pack in more folks standing than sitting by far, and then you can afford to make a whole car for bikes. then the problem is bumping, and it would likely be a real problem, and require some creative solutions. Shirley Johnson could be hired as a consultant though and I’m sure we could figure it out. :0

  • Evan

    What about when you have crowded, standing room only trains? Who’s benefitting then, when bikes take up seats that riders could be sitting in?

    Look, I take my bike on Caltrain and want there to be room, but it annoys me that bike advocates seem to think there are absolutely zero downsides to adding bike capacity. It costs money, it takes away seats and heavy bike use can seriously increase dwell times. Obviously more cars with fewer bikes is less of a problem than 1-2 cars that are packed with bikes, but being a daily Caltrain rider I’ve seen many times where a bike car gets packed and it takes forever to unload/load. When I board trains, bikes are almost always still unloading/loading while passengers have already done so.

  • @Evan: The reason for the increased load/unload times is because non-bike passengers have priority boarding. We all have to wait until the last non-bike passenger has gone, and you’ve probably noticed the north car is also the most popular for non-bike passengers because that’s where the station entrances and shuttle buses are at. Eliminate that priority boarding, and you’ve mostly solved the “bikes add dwell” problem.

    Seat removal is *not* an issue: Only rarely does Caltrain deny boarding to non-bike passengers because of space issues.

  • @mikesonn You didn’t get Bert Hill, but the East Bay threw out Ward Allen and selected Robert Raburn for their board representation. Robert is the former director of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition.

    Something to add to Shirley’ post: All of the Caltrain parking lots are at capacity. More bikes = more parking for those who continue to drive to Caltrain.

  • @Richard, very true. Raburn will a nice addition.

    And I don’t think losing non-bike passenger loading priority is ever going to happen. However, I’d like to see Caltrain put up signs that bike cars are for cyclists. This would not only free up seats so we could sit near our bike, but then passengers wouldn’t wonder onto the train, stand at the entrance to the bike half of the car, and hold up the whole line of people trying to get on with a bike. I see it EVERY DAY.

    I also agree that seat removal isn’t an issue. People just like to have their bags rest comfortably on the seat next to them.

  • @Evan – “it costs money”, so does turning away customers, especially when they are turned off and become non-customers.

  • “The study confirmed that higher ridership, not bicyclists, causes increased dwell time.”

    Not true. The cause of the increased dwell time is entirely Caltrain incompetence.

    The proper way to reduce dwell time is: level-platform boarding, single-level rail cars. Having lots of doors with wide vestibule areas is critical too.

    Caltrain has blown literally hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding stations — without level platform boarding! Caltrain has blown tens of millions on new rolling stock, which were antiquated and guaranteed to cause boarding delays.

    But that’s all in the past you say, right?


    Look at what is being planned for the new 21st-century HSR/Caltrain project. The same stupid bi-level cars. The same stupid bike racks. And still no level-platform boarding. This is a $10 billion(!!) rebuild and they are making the same stupid mistakes all over again.

    And to think they blew $93k studying this “problem”.

  • Evans

    Dear Drunk Engineer

    Caltrain does not have level boarding because of California Utility Commisson regulation, which requires certain clearance for fright operation. I think, another commuter rail in US already have level boarding even using same Bombardia Car – like Utah rail runner.

    This is Caltrain’s problem, They can submit waiver for this regulation.

  • JD

    Totally agree with this article: making sure all galley cars have 2 bike cars will solve most of the bumping problems (though often the Bombardier cars with two bike cars are insufficient … they need to rip out the remaining seats on those). It’s a no-brainer, and I’m glad to see it looks like Caltrain will be implementing it.

    Also, one thing that isn’t captured by all the statistics are those bicyclists who alter their schedule to avoid the rush-hour trains and hence avoid the risk of getting bumped. I fall into this category, and though obviously Caltrain still gets my money since I still ride, it definitely takes a notch off of the “customer satisfaction” scale because I can’t rely on rush-hour trains to get me where I need to be. It’s a pain to always have to travel out of rush-hour or risk being bumped, and just because that still doesn’t turn me towards driving, those like me are completely overlooked in all their statistics.

    Next, somebody mentioned the whole idea that adding extra bike capacity will reduce that for non-bicyclists. As someone who has been riding Caltrain 5 days a week for years, rarely do I ever see no open seats on a train. In fact, it’s an unwritten rule on Caltrain (except on the very busiest trains), that all those double seats are ideally for once person and their bags. It makes no sense to bump bicyclists so people can have a two-seater for themselves. The trains where there are problems are mostly the ones to Giants games, and those are SRO anyways, even in the bike cars (which are packed full of non-bicyclists) … so on those trains, it’s a problem anyways regardless of whether there are two bike cars are not. [On that note, Caltrain really needs to add more trains before Giants games … such a great opportunity to make more money.]

    And yep, poor platform design is the real problem that causes long dwell time. Look at Mountain View: that platform is utterly packed during rush hour and their is no room for anybody, let alone bicyclists, to move around. Plus, the ticket machines are poorly placed. The whole thing is an absolute mess. Caltrain needs to make their platforms a good 10′ deeper and spread the ticket machines out better. They also need to label where exactly bicyclists should wait and the signs should also indicate that non-bicyclist should board on other cars.

    I also agree that part of the dwell time issue is a result of all the non-bicyclists trying to get in where there is a line of 20 bicyclists. Sure, if you’re a first-time rider, I get how you may not understand the system. But all those people who ride regularly, what the hell are they doing?! Just go to the next car and stop clusterf*&king the bike car! I went to one of the Caltrain Board meetings and, during public comments, told them that they ought to make bike cars have signs that say non-bicyclist need to board on other cars, and they seemed to agree it was a good idea, but it looks like nothing happened from it ….

    Finally, I don’t like how Caltrain treats bicyclists like second-class passengers, like telling them to wait until all the non-bicyclists have exited before they are allowed to exit. What’s up with that? Just alternate: a couple non-bicyclists, a bicyclist, a couple non-bicyclists, a bicyclist, etc. If non-bicyclists really can’t wait, go to the next car. But it makes absolutely no sense that bicyclists are treated as second-class passengers. The conductors also love to bark at bicyclists (especially those who don’t ride regularly to know all the unofficial rules), and that really is off-putting.

  • JD, agreed.

    -Clipper and ticket machine placement is horrendous (even at 4th and King).

    -The poles (hand-rails) in the stair wells on the bike cars need to be adjusted to the center (or, better yet, far side) of the stairs. This would allow bikes and regular passengers to board and deboard at the same time. However, currently the smaller side is usually towards the bikes so you are forced to wait while non-cyclist passengers have a wide berth. [I hope that makes sense]

    -What the hell is up with the ramps put on every platform? I’ve NEVER seen them used and most of the time they are in direct conflict with the bike car. You are dropped off with less then 2 ft of platform space and are squeezed between the train and a railing. They appear to be some sort of PNA ramp, but they are just in the way and the chair lift is still being used.

    -Signs NEED to be installed indicating that bike car seating is for cyclists. Also, that announcement needs to be reiterated at every stop. There is one conductor that still makes this announcement, ONE. A huge back up is when people get on, stand at the entrance to the bike car, and spend several seconds scanning for a seat that they shouldn’t even be looking for.

    -I don’t think the Bombardier cars can’t have all the seats ripped up for bike racks because of the low windows. The seats provide an open route to the emergency exits.

  • Evans wrote: Caltrain does not have level boarding because of California Utility Commisson regulation, which requires certain clearance for fright operation.

    Dear Evans:

    I can guarantee several things:

    1. Drunk Engineer is very well aware of this non-issue, based on his/her informed and extensive comments elsewhere.

    2. Freight DOES NOT NEED the CPUC mandated clearance. There will NEVER be out-of-gauge (aircraft fuselages, hydrocarbon cracking towers, power station primary transformers, etc) freight movements on the Caltrain line.

    3. Freight has no part on the Caltrain line.

    4. Caltrain’s grossly unprofessional, grotesquely incompetent staffers and consultants have been aware of this issue for at least two decades but have deliberately chosen never to expend the trivial amount of technical and political capital (one single call from Feinstein’s office would be all it would have taken) to rectify this utter nonsense.

    5. Caltrain has, as Drunk Engineer accurately states, completely wasted nearly half a billion of your tax dollars by choosing building and buying obsolete and inefficient stations and trains that they knew were obsolete. The criminals who staff transit agencies care solely about spending money, never about providing service to the public. Poor-mouth bitching about “stable funding sources” always trumps applying 3 minutes of brain power towards operating more efficiently.

    6. As Drunk Engineer accurately states, you have seen absolutely nothing yet. The level of incompetence, unprofessionalism, consultant rent-seeking, juiced consultant sole-source specification writing, and outright defrauding of the public that the Peninsula Rail Program (the “professional” staff and consultants who are screwing up the Caltrain corridor forever, in order to aid and abet the profits of the consultants who control the California HSR Authority is beyond anything you’ve ever seen: MTC, BART, SFCTA and Muni included. They’re going to completely screw over the public transportation network on the SF Peninsula — and in fact through much of northern California, as they’ve actively killed Dumbarton rail, San Jose-Fremont high quality rail, Fremont-Dublin-Livermore-Tracy rail, San Jose to Sacramento high quality rail and San Francisco to Sacramento high quality rail — forever. All this at the low, low, low cost of only $20 billion or so of your tax dollars.

    7. Die, Caltrain.

  • relentlesscactus

    Allowing bikes on trains free is a mistake transit agencies have allowed to take hold now to everyone’s detriment. Bicycles take space of other paying passengers, and are therefore subsidized — rail vehicles are many millions of dollars and nationally in short supply.

    Bicycles are a great way to get to work and to the station, but bicyclists must pay their way. But the entire paradigm must change so there is ecomnomic incentive, or this “more more more” illogical drumbeat from the bike coalitions will continue. Get some balls Caltrain. If you commute daily, you must invest in your commute and buy a second bicycle. Caltrain must invest in MASSIVE bike lockers as per demand. Charge a nominal fee of $1 or so for bikes to discourage daily bike carrying, but allow it to transport bikes for day use.

    Then equipment will be used economically and the daily commuters can park theier bikes on each end instead of the INSANE policy of hauling bikes onto trains and off everyday.


  • I wonder how much money Caltrain has wasted/invested in parking around/near stations. I can guarantee that the parking fees nowhere near cover the cost. My ticket is subsidizing parking at a MUCH higher rate then my ticket is subsidizing bicycle space on the train. Also, capacity (as stated) is only an issue on Giants (or event) days when it is already SRO.

  • Mr. Masoner, there is a lot of unused parking at some Caltrain parking lots; Belmont, for example.

  • If anyone actually used Belmont, then we’d be in good shape Scott. Belmont voted with their feet for years – being deselected from every express run in the fleet due to low ridership.

    Mountain View is full day and night. There are people who drive there in the day to park while they go to work, and there are people who store their cars overnight in the lot and drive from MV to work. Top that off with a ridiculously congested parking lot with pickup/dropoff traffic.

    Spare spaces in Belmont don’t do a lick of good in Palo Alto.

  • “Get some balls Caltrain. If you commute daily, you must invest in your commute and buy a second bicycle.”

    At that point, I’d just buy a car. And Caltrain knows it. Caltrain has balls and the cyclists have them by the balls because Caltrain knows that without the cyclists, they’d be bankrupt and shut down.

    Even if the cyclists are only 10% of the ridership, if Caltrain took away the bike program, they would not be able to replace the revenue. That would mean 5% of Caltrain’s budget just disappeared – more than the 3 Million that they almost cut weekend/Gilroy/late+early service over.

    The cyclists represent a very high percentage of Caltrain’s discretionary ridership.

  • Fair enough Murphstahoe, but it rankles me to hear blanket statements stating Caltrain has no parking. Let’s focus on the stations where parking fills up fast. Hmmm…how about market-rate parking fees for starters? Let supply and demand dictate parking prices. Then see if a few folks don’t head for Belmont.

  • Scott – Belmont is not on any express runs. There would need to be a big incentive to use that station based on parking, given you would be taking a local train and very likely need to transfer.

    There was actually a shuttle taking people from Belmont to Hillsdale – where they could pick up an express train yet take advantage of the parking at Belmont. I’m not sure if it’s still running, but it certainly didn’t fill the lot.

    By the time you drive to the next town over to get a less convenient train – you’ll drive the whole way.

  • Scott –

    6 minutes to Hillsdale – free shuttle scheduled to meet a bullet train at Hillsdale. That’s not enough incentive to fill that lot, apparently.

    The point of driving to the station that you will use and meets the train you want to take is that it is 100% simple. That is the same point of taking your bike on board vs having two bikes. The more friction in the system, the less people will use it.

    Once Caltrain gets the added capacity for bikes, it will fill. It is so convenient to be able to use your bike on both ends, have one bike, have it be secure, that it’s a successful program – just like Highway 101 is a successful program. Adding capacity is like adding lanes to 101 – you can’t satisfy demand. However – you can optimize your available resources. We won’t put 3 more lanes each direction on 101 because it would cost ridiculous amounts of money and protests and eminent domain. We can however add some bike capacity because Caltrain is not filling those seats and hasn’t a clue how to fill them in some other way. It’s a financially prudent decision.

  • Greg


    Answer: CalTrain! By allowing non-bike passengers to board above capacity, they allow them to arrive at their destination on time. The fact that there is more bike capacity than seats on the bike car virtually guarantees that some bikers will have to stand on every train. I personally stand half the time in the morning on the bullet train. The other half I ride knee-to-knee with a fellow biker – something non-biker passengers never have to deal with!

    Yes, it costs money to retrofit trains and cars that were designed with flawed thinking, but that money could be earned back by the hundreds (thousands?) of bikers who have reduced or given up their Caltrain ridership. The payback would come in a matter of months. If you take away a seat that would normally go unfilled, does it matter? There are so few times that non-bike passengers have to stand, particularly if you rule out Giants games and other big events. As the author mentions, dwell times increase with general ridership, not biking ridership. The reason you see bikers boarding last is because the conductors make them board last. Virtually every day I board Caltrain on a bike, I am forced to board more slowly than I’d like because I AM WAITING for non-bike passengers that stand in the lobby trying to figure out which way to go, some of them heading towards the bike car, then reversing themselves and the rest of them heading the right way, but then stopping by the stairs to see if there are seats available. (Most) bikers know to move into the car and keep walking to the end so other bikers can get on – if only non-biker passengers followed this same rule!

  • Greg


    Have you ever seen a non-biker bumped on any train without an extenuating circumstance (i.e., Giants game, huge concert/event, massive train delays)? I seriously doubt it. So, how can bikes take space of other paying passengers? That is flawed logic.

  • Judy

    Excuse me for asking this.. but how exactly do people put bikes on the rack. I have to go to SF this weekend from SJ and I don’t want to seem like an idiot when I get in the car and am clueless. Thank you =]

  • Judy, you’ll do just fine. It’s pretty simple. The hardest part is lifting your bike up the stairs (old style cars) if it is heavy. Once you get in, just line your bike up with others already there or center it on a rack. There are bungee cords that you wrap around your top tube and then hook back onto the rack so your bike doesn’t move around. And bring a small piece of paper that you can attach to your bike to show where you are going, since you are going all the way, just put “SF” on it. Enjoy the ride.

    Plus, everyone is really nice, just ask someone if you have a question.

  • Judy

    Wow thank you ^..^
    I hope it goes smoothly and that there’s space for my bike. I’m going super early in the morning Saturday. I’m going to be staring at my bike like a hawk the whole ride back to sf. Do you think there is a lot of bikers sat? Is there certain hours that you know are packed 0..0 thank you

  • Judy, it’ll probably be pretty empty – weekends usually aren’t to busy if there isn’t a Giants game. Also, you should be able to find a seat that has a direct view of your bike so you can keep an eye on it as you ride up.

  • Judy

    😀 thank you kind sir

  • thielges

    Just a few other items to add to Mike’s suggestions : Since each rack holds up to four bikes, put your bike on an empty rack or on top of another bike getting off at your stop or after. By doing so you’ll avoid the awkward shuffle of temporarily removing your bike to let someone else’s bike out before your stop.

    That should be no problem given that you’re going end-to-end SJ-SF. You’re likely to find empty racks when you board but you never know some days.

    Also there’s a little protocol when leaving the train : usually cyclists yield to foot passengers. And try not to block the narrow bottleneck by the stairs while waiting in the old style galley cars so that other cyclists can enter and retrieve their bikes. Again not much of a problem since you’re traveling all the way to the end though at the mid-line stops you sometimes have to execute a precision ready-set-go on busy trains to avoid interfering with other passengers trying to get off while still exiting quick enough before the onslaught of boarding passengers begins.

    Have a great journey !

  • Shirley Johnson

    For more tips on bringing a bike onboard Caltrain, please see

  • Judy

    and… IT WAS A SUCCESS! =D Thanks everyone


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