Friday, April 25, 2014

letter to Caltrain on bike capacity with electrification

electrified Caltrain rendering

With the Caltrain electrification process slowly, oh so slowly, moving forward, the organization is making important decisions about infrastructure investment which will affect capacity for decades. It's much easier and cheaper to do things right the first time rather than try to remedy poor decisions later. For example, when the Gallery sets were purchased in the 1980's, the cars were provided with only a single boarding site per train car, creating a choke point for boardings and deboardings which slows the train at every one of the many stops along the line. And when the Bombardier sets were introduced in the 2000's, on board bike capacity available with that car design was substantially restricted, which given the strong demand for bikes on board has made these newer, nicer cars unsuited for the express trains which handle the peak load during commute hours.

Now Caltrain is moving ahead with electrification, and it's important lessons be learned from the past. Caltrain presently and for the foreseeable future will have a large fraction of its customers need to ride a bicycle at both ends of their commute. These riders tend to be Caltrain's most loyal, because many don't own cars and thus rely on the bicycle to provide the transportion flexibility they provide at both ends of the Caltrain leg. Any hope that the fraction of passengers bringing bikes on board can be ramped down as total train capacity is increased is delusional. Caltrain needs to provide infrastructure to meet the demand patterns of the region.

With this in mind, I wrote the following letter to electrification@caltrain.org.


As Caltrain seeks to increase capacity to meet growing demand, it is critical that the bikes on board capacity be sustained at least to the present fraction of total capacity. It is not enough to simply continue with the present total bike capacity.

The reason is simple: Caltrain is not going to continue to grow if passengers feel the need to drive to the station. At-station parking is capacity-limited already, including corporate shuttle parking. MUNI and VTA buses are unreliable, at the mercy of local road congestion in addition to driver availability, deterring a large fraction of potential customers from using that, also limited-capacity option. Even "kiss and ride" creates a curbside congestion which cannot be scaled (as is evident at any suburban elementary school twice per day). And Caltrain simply is not going to meet demand relying on pedestrian access.

Indeed, cyclists have been responsible for a disproportionate fraction of Caltrain's growth. To continue that growth sustainably and robustly it is thus key that the demand for bikes on board be recognized, and that the infrastructure be put in place so on a per-total-capacity basis, not simply per-day, the recognition that, given the poor surrounding public transit grid, bicycles on board is the only way to meet the needs of a broad range of commuters and other transit users.

Of course, bikes on board needs to be supported with additional support for biking to and from stations. Secure parking, not simply racks, is necessary to allow riders with confidence to leave bikes at stations without fear of them being stripped of components during the day. Dedicated lockers, requiring cumbersome reservation processes, are inefficient as they restrict riders to the choice of a single station (I often board from MtView, California, or Palo Alto on the peninsula, 22nd or 4th in San Francisco, depending on my needs), and additionally are unused far too much of the time. The best approach is the bike station model which works so well in San Francisco and which previously worked in Palo Alto.

Additionally bike share needs to be expanded to provide a useful density of nodes so riders can get to diverse locations at both ends of their ride. Unfortunately, given the sprawling nature of industrial and domestic development on the peninsula, bike share will never meet the needs of a majority of potential cycling commuters there. This is especially true given the present pattern of not installing bike share stations at major corporate-specific sites.

So bikes on board will remain a critical component of Caltrain's continued health and growth. Cyclists going to and from trains are not congestion or traffic limited. They take no ultra-valuable parking spaces. And they tend to be loyal and committed to Caltrain for their transportation. Thus Caltrain should continue to invest in what has proven to be such a beneficial investment these past decades: continued and healthy on-board capacity. Relying on people driving to the station, walking to the station, or being delivered to stations is simply not going to work.

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