Caltrain Bike Car Easy Pickins for Thieves

Is Caltrain's bike car policy ringing the dinner bell for crooks?

A Caltrain bike-car. Photo: Shirley Johnson
A Caltrain bike-car. Photo: Shirley Johnson

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Wei Liu bikes two miles from his home to Caltrain’s Lawrence Station. He puts his bike in the bike car and then sits down for a 15-minute train ride to Palo Alto. He rides his bike another two miles to his job as a solar astrophysicist at the Stanford-Lockheed Institute for Space Research. In June last year, when he went to retrieve his Trek Verve 1 from the bike car, it wasn’t there. In retrospect, Liu is pretty sure he saw the man who stole his bike–because he happened to notice a man get on right behind him carrying a very junky-looking bike.

Liu is convinced the man who got on behind him left the junker and got off at the next stop with his Trek. He believes the man was using a common ploy of grabbing whatever junk bike he can find and following someone with an expensive bike onto the train. Then they leave the junk bike on the train and get off with the high-priced bike of the person they followed. This avoids suspicion, since nobody is likely to notice if someone gets on the bike car with one bike and leaves with another. Wei says Caltrain’s ‘bike car’ arrangement, where cyclist are routinely forced to sit far and out of sight from their steeds, encourages this kind of theft. “The thieves are very smart–they watch you go to the other car.”

Liu’s experience is not isolated.

Having a dedicated bike car--with little or no nearby seating, invites on-board theft, say advocates
Having a dedicated bike car–with so little seating relative to the number of bikes, such as on this old-school ‘galley’ car–invites on-board theft, say advocates

“We’ve heard concerns about theft … and have moved to update a lot of our practices to better address the issue,” wrote Dan Lieberman, a spokesman for Caltrain, in an email to Streetsblog. “In the coming months, we’re looking to partner with 529 Garage, which makes it easier to both prevent theft and to recover stolen bikes after the fact. We’re also working with our conductors and the Transit Police to improve our response to thefts, and are looking into providing additional cameras at stations in addition to the cameras that will come equipped on our electric trains.”

529 Garage is a bike registration service, to help police–and bike owners–track down a bike once it’s stolen. But Liu, and other bike riders who use Caltrain, say they’d rather not have their bikes stolen in the first place either by better organizing the cars so they can lock their bikes in place, or by organizing the seating arrangements so all cyclists can sit with their bikes in sight. That’s because if thieves really are carrying junker bikes on and getting off with a more expensive bike, there’s little conductors and Transit Police are going to be able to do to catch them in the act, considering they’d have to monitor every one of the 6,000 bikes brought on board every day to make sure it leaves the train with the proper owner.

Either way, Caltrain and bike advocates are at odds about how common on-board bike thefts have become. Cliff Bargar, who represents San Francisco on Caltrain’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, thinks it’s a much larger problem than Caltrain currently acknowledges. He told Streetsblog that Caltrain police estimated only one bike was stolen from onboard the trains last year. But “I decided to do a deeper dive on Twitter and found that in 2017 there were at least 10 thefts reported.” Further investigations by Caltrain and Bargar pushed that figure even higher. “The estimate of one stolen bike from on board in 2017 was adjusted upwards to 27,” said Bargar of the latest figure. “I’m grateful that Caltrain staff made the effort to investigate this and are still pursuing this issue.”

Pursuing it perhaps, but not seriously enough for Bargar, Liu or other Caltrain riders who reached out to Streetsblog. Drew Winget wrote that he has had two bikes stolen off of Caltrain. “I use my bike every day,” he wrote, and “Caltrain makes it worse because you’re not allowed to secure your own property with a lock” because of the arrangement of Caltrain’s bike cars, which forces cyclists to stack bikes on top of one another.

Bargar added that he was disappointed at a recent meeting with Caltrain’s Director of Rail Operations, Joe Navarro, to hear him downplay the significance of the thefts. “Mr. Navarro responded that 27 bikes were reported stolen and [that] is minimal” as Caltrain handles thousands of bikes every day.

Advocates are afraid designs for the new Electric Multiple Unit trains–due to begin operations in 2022–will make this situation even worse.

A rendering of the bike car design for the new EMUs. Image: CalMod
An idealistic rendering of the bike car design for the new EMUs, with basically no seating nearby. Image: CalMod

Caltrain’s electric fleet will have bike cars with basically no seats with a view of the bike storage area. Caltrain spokesman Lieberman wrote that the new cars will all have security cameras.

But advocates don’t consider that a viable solution. “We know that security cameras are not a deterrent and even Caltrain’s transit police acknowledges that having seats within view of bikes would help deter and prevent some thefts,” Bargar wrote.

Advocates are offering two solutions. On the existing bike cars, they want seats in the bike car held available for cyclists and not random customers.

“Legally, we can’t prevent people without bikes from sitting in the bike section,” said Lieberman. But Liu thinks much can be accomplished just with some better signage, reminding passengers who don’t have bikes to sit in a different car.

“Caltrain actually has a tiny sign on the bike car hidden in the stair-well leading to the upper deck that reads something like ‘As a courtesy, please allow passengers with bikes to sit in this area of the car,'” wrote Liu in an email to Streetsblog. “This is so hidden that nobody can see it.” He wants to see larger signs, and signs on the back of seats in the bike car.

Astrophysicist Wei Liu argues that this yellow sign, asking non-bikers to sit in a different car, is just too small. Photo: Wei Liu
Astrophysicist Wei Liu argues that this yellow sign, asking non-bikers to sit in a different car, is just too small. Photo: Wei Liu

On the new cars, advocates are hoping bike storage can be more distributed, with seats nearby, so cyclists can maintain eyes on their bikes–something more akin to the layout of the current Bombardier fleet, shown in the lead image. “This layout would be preferred for EMU cars over Caltrain’s current proposal, which has no fixed seats within view of bikes and stacked bikes blocking emergency exit windows,” wrote Shirley Johnson, who formed the group BIKES ONBoard to help advocate for bike space on BART and Caltrain.

Johnson has launched a petition for more bike space and a more secure layout on the new electric trains.

Lieberman said Caltrain is also trying to improve first/last-mile connection options at stations, with better bike parking and with bike- and scooter-share areas, so that fewer riders will need to carry bikes on board in the first place. “We’ve hired a project manager to execute the Bike Parking Management Plan that our Board adopted last year,” he said.

But Liu told Streetsblog that locking a bike at the station and using bike- and scooter-share may never be a practical option for cyclists who need their bikes on both ends of a commute. During the six weeks it took him to replace his Trek, he ended up borrowing his wife’s bike sometimes–and driving directly to work others. When he got his new bike, he covered it with duct tape to try and make it look less attractive to thieves.

Lieberman, meanwhile, is encouraging riders to fill out Caltrain’s Bike Access Survey, which will remain open until this Sunday, November 11.

  • saimin

    I always sit or stand where I can watch my bicycle, even if I have to stand in the aisle.

  • Bruce

    6,000 bikes per day = 2,190,000 per year. 27 thefts out of 2,190,000 per year = .00123% of bikes that get stolen. This is hardly an epidemic.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    The Bombardier cars and the new EMUs are ridiculously easy to steal bikes from. This will get much much worse as the frequency of service increases. Locking bike racks are the only viable solution, and this could be done by angling the bike racks so people can lock their bikes without blocking other bikes. This will reduce the bike capacity, but it’s really the only way to prevent thefts. There can’t ever be enough seating near alll the bike racks because of the extra doors and stairs on the new EMUs, and all those extra doors make it much easier for thieves to make quick escapes. The gallery cars were great for cyclists, but not for anyone else.

    I almost always use a cafe combo lock when I put my bike on Caltrain or Bart. It only takes a couple seconds to put on, and it gives me peace of mind.

  • thielges

    That’s 0.00123% theft rate per bike per day. If you ride twice every weekday then your chance of having your bike stolen is about a half of a percent per year. Still rare, but 0.5% is significant.

  • Bruce

    No, that’s per year. I divided the thefts per year by the total number of bike trips per year.

  • thielges

    Some tips to deter theft: Ride a bike that looks like a clunker. It might still be fitted with excellent components, but it it looks beat up then it will be less attractive to thieves. This protection also extends to when you’re off of Caltrain. Also you can lock a wheel to the frame which also drastically lowers the value in a thieve’s eyes, but also makes it hard for a thief to take it off the train unnoticed. If you’re traveling with a buddy, lock the frames together.

  • thielges

    Sorry, I was not clear. What I mean is that you’re using “bike trips per year” divided by “thefts per year”. That results in the chance of losing your bike per trip (“years” factors out). There are not 2,190,000 different riders/bikes in each of those journeys. Regular commuters ride every day, ~500 rides per year. Because a regular commuter rides so often, their chance of being exposed to theft is multiplied by the number of rides per year.

    In other words if you have a 0.00123% of losing your bike on each ride and then you ride 500 times per year, you’re cumulative chance of losing a bike is 500 * 0.00123% == ~ half a percent.

  • Bruce

    Fair enough. But your last calculation was not quite correct: if you have a 0.00123% chance of losing your bike on any given trip, then you have a 99.99877% chance of not losing it on a trip. Your chance of not losing it in 500 trips would then be 0.9999877^500 = 0.99386, or 99.386%, so your chance of losing it at least once in 500 trips is 0.614%.

  • thielges

    We came to the same conclusion. 0.614% is “about a half of a percent”. I just rounded because the input data is not precise.

  • Bruce

    I know. I’m just a stickler for math 🙂

  • KJ

    The gallery cars are great for keeping an eye on your bike… like sitting in an eagle’s nest.

  • Melanie Curry

    One quick fix Caltrain could make right now: Add cables secured to the train car that people can lock their bikes to. Cables are generally not the best security device, but on a train anyone attempting to cut a cable would look pretty suspicious. They could hang from above or be attached high up so every bike, even in a crowded bike area, has some access to them.

  • thielges

    That would work so long as riders are careful to never stack on top of a bike departing at an earlier station. It is hard enough to untangle that situation today, but if the offending bike were locked to the train it might be impossible to get off at your planned stop.

    Alternatively lock a wheel to the frame. A thief could still carry the bike off, but that is a lot more obvious (“Why isn’t he rolling the bike?”) as well as the thief now needs to cut a lock off to make the bike usable.

  • Andy Chow

    Their agenda is to make every car (or almost every car) a bike car. I see several problems with that.

    * As Caltrain would still have to enforce a capacity limit, additional bike cars would be more difficult and may require a larger train crew.
    * If Caltrain were not to enforce the limit, there’s a strong likelihood that some bikers will try to cram a full car, blocking aisle, or use disabled space to store bikes.
    * Bikes and disabled passengers are not a good mix.
    * Some bikers would have to run with their bikes, or even riding their bikes, up and down the platform in search for a car with open bike spots, and that is a safety issue and would have a negative impact on dwell time.
    * The onboard bike folks have been trying to get more space and having more bike spots in other cars they give them the opening to eventually have only bike spots on all levels on most cars. If Caltrain is giving in to them now, in the next few years they will come back and asking for more bike spots again, because Caltrain would still have enough seats to remove in the bike accessible areas for more bike spots. This has been their ongoing pattern for the last 20 years. They have gotten as many spots they can get, but now the trains are so full that it would be unfair towards other riders if Caltrain were to give the cyclists more than what they have now. They’ve been saying that they saved Caltrain because they just convert the excess seating capacity into productive use, but this is no longer the case.

    In this Silicon Valley, people who value their expensive bikes and want to take them on the train should and can come up with technological solutions to deter thefts. Caltrain should also invest in off-board solutions and use their off-board bike storage more effectively. They have been under-invested for years on that front. Bike lockers reservations are mostly full, completely done by hand, but not always occupied. The shared bike storage in selected stations are disorganized. Other agencies like BART has been doing a better job in comparison.

  • Honestly, it’s obviously way past time for Caltrain to invest in some good bike parking at stations and stop trying to accommodate bikes on the trains, especially during rush hour. If people feel that they MUST bring their bikes during rush hour, then add a bike surcharge and use that revenue to fund the quicker rollout of bike parking at the stations. They could even partner with the relevant municipalities and surrounding venues to make it useful for multiple destinations in the station areas.

  • Courtney

    I agree to an extent. There are also folks who truly do need their bikes on both ends of their commute and to penalize them monetarily for a flaw on Caltrain’s end doesn’t seem fair.

  • Courtney

    I think the issue is that there’s not enough space for everyone to do that. Great that you do this and there’s room on your train but it isn’t possible for everyone to do this.

  • There’s no reason that they cannot have two bikes, one parked overnight at their destination station, one at home. This is essentially how like 50% of Dutch train riders get to/from the stations.

    Owning two bikes is certainly somewhat of a challenge, but given the theft problem, it might already be typical.

  • arkhamescapee

    There literally *are* reasons people might not have two bikes…

  • User_1

    If I was using these crowded trains I’d bring my less than quality bike for my short commutes and leave the quality steed for my big rides. Also wouldn’t be a bad idea to lock it some way.

  • Is it an idea to look at how Metrolink and ACE configure their bike cars with adjacent seating? Obviously CalTrain needs more capacity, but do you solve that with having more bike cars?

  • thielges

    One commute mode that doesn’t work with the “two bikes, one at each end” system is commuters who bike one way and take Caltrain the other way. I know four bikers from Caltrain who do this asymmetrical commute.

    A variant of that is handling random errands on the way to or from work. If the site of the errand is located between your Caltrain stations then it often makes sense to bike the whole way.

    People seek transportation modes that can handle close to 100% of their daily travel needs. In this sense bikes work great for short journeys. Caltrain’s bikes-on-board program allows people to extend their range without needing a car. On the other hand a car can handle 100% of journeys which is one of the big reasons that driving is so popular.

  • Buy two bikes, park one at either station. Caltrain could also institute a service similar to the Dutch OV-Fiets to provide seamlessly integrated bike share.

  • Courtney

    I thought about bike share as well yet it still feels like people have to “pay” for Caltrain’s inability to accommodation bikers well.

  • Yea I mean ultimately, the goal of Caltrain is to transport people, not bikes. When the latter grows to the current point, it really is time for frank discussions about how to facilitate bikes and whether that means allowing them onboard, especially given the topic at hand.

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