Bicyclists and Caltrain have a complex relationship. On the one hand, Caltrain is one of the most bike-friendly transit agencies in the country. Each train carries two bike cars with a capacity for either 48 or 80 bikes, depending on the train. Given the decentralized employment centers on the Peninsula and the relatively isolated location of the San Francisco station, carrying bikes onto trains has proven popular for riders to address first/last mile gaps in their trips.
On the other hand, Caltrain has become a victim of its own success: so many riders want to bring bikes onboard that there simply isn’t enough space. Largely fueled by the region’s tech boom that has increased travel demands between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, ridership on Caltrain has increased by 54 percent over the past four years. Incredibly, bike ridership has grown even faster, at nearly double the rate of overall ridership growth over the past year. While bumping has occurred on Caltrain since 2006, it appears to be spreading to more trains over a wider time period as ridership grows.
Bumping is bad for everyone: it delays and inconveniences passengers, limits ridership growth, and penalizes an environmentally-friendly mode of transportation that should be encouraged. Caltrain’s official data suggest bumping isn’t that common: it is estimated to affect 0.2% of passengers with bikes (PDF). However, the bigger questions are how bumping affects ridership growth: how many potential passengers don’t attempt to ride due to lack of bike capacity, and how will future ridership growth be affected? The growing demand for bike capacity is clearly not sustainable; is there any capacity relief in sight?
Unfortunately, the answer appears to be no. A quick fix for Caltrain’s bicycle capacity crunch and crowded trains is hard to come by given the constraints built into the system: Caltrain is presently limited to running a fixed number of trains during peak hours, and only has so many train cars that it may use. Some relief may come in 2015: Caltrain plans to purchase 11 to 16 used cars from Metrolink (Los Angeles) to lengthen some of its trains from five to six cars (increasing seat capacity from 650 seats to 780). But given the pace of ridership growth, these cars could quickly fill up. It’s also unlikely that these cars will feature space for bikes.
In theory, Bay Area Bike Share could provide relief by allowing riders in San Francisco and the Peninsula to use bike share at either end of their destination as opposed to taking their own bike. A more robust system on the scale of New York City’s Citi Bike or Chicago’s Divvy Bikes could lessen the demand for taking bikes onboard in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose, among others. However, the small size of the program and slow pace of expansion has limited its usefulness. While Bay Area Bike Share is examining expansion opportunities, the bankruptcy of bicycle manufacturer Bixi has delayed any expansions until at least 2015.
A tricker measure could be adding a bike surcharge for riders to manage demand. Bike surcharges are not uncommon; bike-friendly cities like Berlin impose a minor fee for bringing bikes on trains. An idea for a $1 surcharge was floated in 2009 to raise more revenue, but it was met with significant backlash. It may be time to revisit the idea as a means of congestion pricing, but such a surcharge still runs contrary to regional goals for sustainable transportation that includes incentivizing (rather than discouraging) bike use.
The long-term outlook is better. The electrification of Caltrain in 2019 will reinvent the system as a more BART-like service, allowing for faster trains and more frequent service (increasing the number of weekday trains by 24%). The 1.3 mile extension of Caltrain to the Transbay Transit Center in Downtown San Francisco (DTX) will be similarly transformative, connecting Caltrain with San Francisco’s employment and transportation hubs. It can be assumed that other transit improvements and the expansion of Bay Area Bike Share will also help improve access to Caltrain. Therefore, the future is bright, and these current capacity constraints should not last in perpetuity.
That being said, the challenge facing Caltrain is how to bridge the gap over the next five years before it reaches the “promised land” of electrification and DTX. Caltrain has a tremendous opportunity to continue growing its ridership, but it risks losing potential riders due to capacity constraints, crowded conditions, and bumping. It will be interesting to see how Caltrain deals with these issues in the near future.