Caltrain riders fight for their commute
It’s been said that transportation planning in San Francisco is a contact sport. People around here have very, very strong opinions about their transit, and they’re not shy about sharing them. A lot of the time, things can get nasty.
HERBERT WEINER: My name is Herbert Weiner and I’m a Muni victim.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm standing down at Civic Center, getting off of BART, coming from the airport. It's 10:30 at night, hoping that I'm not going to be the victim of crime, but I have to stand outside and watch the bus driver do his exercises.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We're all so packed in like sardines through the West Portal tunnel, so i don't know how you're going to get more of us on there.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Don't know why you want to make money off of the backs of seniors and disabled people.
But there’s one place where things are a little different. Call it a throwback. Caltrain started in the 19th century, and in some ways the railroad still has an old kind of feel. The locomotive cars run on diesel, and you can still hear that satisfying rumble of the wheels on the tracks when you ride.
For all of its historic charm, Caltrain has very modern budget problems. Facing a $2.3 million deficit, the agency is considering raising fares, cutting service, or both. There’s a worst case scenario where everything but weekday peak trains could disappear. That won’t happen for a while though: not if the passengers have anything to say about it. KALW’s Casey Miner has more.
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CASEY MINER: John Murphy is a city guy. He lives in San Francisco, works in Mountain View. But when he goes to work, his commute has a small town feel.
JOHN MURPHY: Anytime I get on the train, and I don’t always take the same train, I’ll see a couple people that I know. As soon as you walk on, you see their bike, you know that person’s on the train. I look around and say, "Oh, hey Dan, how’s it going?" We spend a lot of time talking about various issues of the day. It’s kind of like my version of the bar.
Murphy has been riding Caltrain for years, and he loves it. He doesn’t have to drive on 101, he can take his bike on the train, and he has some time in the morning to read the paper and chat with friends. Lately, they’ve been chatting a lot about Caltrain’s budget crisis.
MURPHY: I spend 45 minutes a day each way on the train. In that community we talk about this topic because it’s something that kind of allows us to have our lifestyle.
They talk about things like Caltrain’s plan to eliminate weekend service.
MURPHY: On the weekend it’s just utterly painful to ride the train. If you get on the ground and you talk to the riders they say, "Yeah, I would use this service more on the weekends if I could get from Palo Alto to San Francisco in 35 minutes."
Murphy thought they could do better. So he started a petition asking Caltrain to consider running only express service on the weekends. He got a huge response.
MURPHY: It’s a very connected community, everyone is twittering what’s going on when Caltrain is having a problem, a lot of high-tech people, a lot of highly educated people. Riders are kind of banding together to defend our precious little train.
It’s not like Murphy is just some transit wonk who loves to devote his life to this stuff.
MURPHY: I’m very busy right now with a lot of things, we’ve got a young baby and everything.
Yeah, everyone has reasons not to get involved. Yet hundreds of riders like Murphy have weighed in on what Caltrain should do to fix its budget. The agency held three public meetings that close to 300 people attended, and more than 1500 people have sent in comments and suggestions. For the sake of comparison, BART and AC Transit don’t get nearly as many, despite having more riders, and to be clear, these aren’t just any suggestions.
SHIRLEY JOHNSON: We did an analysis of bike ridership in San Francisco from 2006 to 2009.
People like Shirley Johnson have come with reports, charts, maps and scheduling tables.
JOHNSON: There was only an 18% increase in bicycle ridership on Caltrain, but a 56% increase in bicycle ridership in San Francisco.
They’ve analyzed things like passenger counts, and how train cars are distributed.
JOHNSON: Every train has empty seats at peak load.
And they think they have the solution to Caltrain’s budget problem.
JOHNSON: Caltrain’s on-board bike service is extremely popular. So popular, in fact, that bike commuters are denied boarding because there’s not enough space.
MINER: How often does that happen?
JOHNSON: It happens daily.
It happens to Jennifer Kim.
JENNIFER KIM: I get angry! And sometimes I’ll throw my bike, not really, it's not a big deal but...
It happens to Michael Vestel.
MICHAEL VESTEL: I mean, the feeling is, it’s an option to go to work, we should have that option. But it’s not an option, it’s a job, right? You got to go to work. So, it’s a violating feeling. You’re like, I can’t get on this train? It’s right here!
And it happens to Dan Murray.
DAN MURRAY: One time I just started riding the line, I just went north, I went to San Carlos and I got bumped there too. So it was a really bad day.
Shirley Johnson, who chairs Caltrain’s newly-formed Bicycle Advisory Committee, thinks that with more bike space, Caltrain would get enough new riders to completely close its budget deficit. They’ve got reams of documentation. Johnson says the bikers aren’t trying to be gadflies. She and other riders like her just want to help.
JOHNSON: I just hope that Caltrain does understand how much cyclists really support this service. We want Caltrain to survive, we want to bring in ticket revenue, we want to save Caltrain for everybody.
Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn says she serves a fairly unique clientele.
CHRISTINE DUNN: Caltrain riders are choice riders. They’re choosing to ride the train rather than take their car.
That’s because Caltrain riders have plenty of money. The average rider earns at least $75,000 a year. In other words, these are people who don’t have to take public transportation to go to work.
DUNN: Some of them choose it because it’s more relaxing, some choose because it’s more convenient for them, they don’t have to worry about parking, and a significant number choose to ride Caltrain because of the impact on the environment.
Without the train, though, they’ll just drive.
Riders bring these things up in their comments all the time. Again, here’s petition organizer John Murphy.
MURPHY: Anecdotally, I talk to people and they say, "If this happens, I have to change everything." It’s kind of like, people have given up their iPhones because they don’t have AT&T service at their child’s preschool. They love the phone, and it’s great, fantastic everywhere, but because the service provider is missing in one spot they really need, they leave that phone completely. So there will be a population where if they need it on the weekend, or need it on a weekday, they’ll just say, "I can’t take the train at all."
So far, all the advocacy seems to be working. Earlier this month Caltrain decided to keep weekend service.
MURPHY: It’s basically opened the door to say, "We’re going to have a conversation about what this train is going to do in the future."
They’ll make a final decision about raising fares next week. Meanwhile, the Bicycle Advisory Committee is in full swing, so the bikers might get to test their theory after all.
JOHNSON: If Caltrain had more bike space and fewer empty seats, more cyclists could ride the train, more cyclists would buy tickets and we would be able to help Caltrain with its financial problems.
Things could still get worse next year – Caltrain’s director recently said that the agency could still face a “day of reckoning.” But they’ll have to reckon with their riders first.
For Crosscurrents, I’m Casey Miner.