Caltrain’s Warm Planet Bike Station in Jeopardy

Warm Planet Bikes has provided more and more Caltrain commuters a secure place to park their bikes at the Fourth and King Street Station in downtown San Francisco in recent years. But the shop could soon shut down without continued support from the public transportation agencies it relies on. Though Caltrain is developing an agreement to support the shop, it may not come until it’s too late.

SF Bike Coalition Executive Director Leah Shahum (left) stands with transportation officials at Warm Planet's grand opening in January 2008. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/sfbike/2298381899/sizes/z/in/photostream/##SFBC/Flickr##

“Caltrain needs to provide interim funding for uninterrupted service of bike parking at Fourth and King,” said Shirley Johnson, vice chair of the Caltrain Bicycle Advisory Committee and head of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Bikes ONBoard Project. “To expect Warm Planet to stay open without paying for it, that’s just not possible.”

When the bike shop opened in January 2008, it had room to provide attended parking for up to 100 bikes. But over the years, demand has grown, and managers have sacrificed more and more retail space to accommodate parking and avoid “bumping” bike commuters the way Caltrain often does.

Today, Warm Planet parks up to 170 bikes per day, all for free. But the grant the shop had originally relied on ended a year and a half ago, and without a lift from agencies like Caltrain — the transit system whose customers it serves — the shop can’t sustain itself much longer.

“It’s been difficult, but I’ve been making a go of it,” said Warm Planet’s owner and president, who goes by the single name Kash. “This facility doesn’t exist so I can run a bike shop. This facility exists so that people who want to get on Caltrain can park their bikes.”

Kash has sought out other sponsors but says it’s difficult to attract support, since Warm Planet is a for-profit business despite the bike parking services it provides for a public transit agency. Advocates have been pushing Caltrain to find interim funds to keep the shop going, and though staff is negotiating one, a proposal has yet to be put on the table.

“We are very pleased to have a bike parking facility there,” said Caltrain spokesperson Christine Dunn. “We know how important it is, and we have no intention of closing it.”

The original three-year grant included $36,000 from the SFMTA, the SF County Transportation Authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, as a well as $300,000 in federal funding. However, there are no plans to renew it.

In September 2009, Caltrain issued a request for proposals (RFP) to give other prospective competitors a shot at the space, but it was canceled in October 2010, because “during the process, the companies that applied all seemed to think that there would need to be a subsidy,” said Dunn. “The RFP didn’t include that, so we are taking that into consideration right now.”

Although Caltrain is developing a new RFP that would include funding support, it could take 12 to 18 months before Warm Planet gets it, assuming it is selected to continue. Kash doesn’t expect the shop to last that long.

Johnson said issuing the RFP in the first place was unnecessary “when they already have a very successful operator,” especially with Caltrain’s ongoing financial problems. “It seems strange to take that expense and the risk of a new operator there. Why not just extend the contract with Warm Planet?”

Since the shop opened, “it has changed people’s commute,” she said. “It’s a win-win-win for everybody. Caltrain gets more customers, we get cars off the road, there’s not as much congestion, there’s not as much pollution, and people are happier on their commute.”

While Caltrain has long subsidized car parking at its stations at below-market rates, Johnson pointed out that bike parking provides a sustainable solution particularly well-suited for a linear transit system like Caltrain. Walking or taking other transit to and from the stations along the Peninsula can be too difficult and time-consuming for many.

“The bicycle solves that problem on both ends,” she said. “There are some people who can walk on the other end, so great — let them park at Warm Planet.”

Rose Garrett, a Peninsula commuter who lives in the lower Haight, started biking to Caltrain and parking at Warm Planet after two frustrating years riding the N-Judah.

“The situation became so out of hand, (crowded trains, unreliable service) that I missed my train to my Redwood City office on many occasions, causing me to miss hours of work,” she wrote in an email to Caltrain, along with dozens of others urging the agency to provide support for the shop [PDF]. “Warm Planet’s service has allowed me to to park my bike every day and continue my commute without aggravation. My good mood lasts me all morning, whereas in my Muni-riding days, my bad mood often persisted all week.”

In addition to meeting the current need, Caltrain will need to plan for a much larger facility if it is to accommodate the growing demand for bike parking in the coming years, said Kash.

“There’s no plausible future in San Francisco that doesn’t include more bicycles,” he said, “so we should get ahead of the curve.”

The next meeting of the Caltrain Board of Directors is on Thursday, February 2 at 10 a.m., in the Edward J. Bacciocco Auditorium, located on the second floor at SamTrans Administrative Offices, 1250 San Carlos Ave. in San Carlos. Supporters can voice public comment there or send an email to board@caltrain.com.

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