Plan Your Pandemic Recovery Like Caltrain

Published in The Architect’s Newspaper – December 3, 2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, transit ridership everywhere fell fast as regions locked down, and people who could work from home stopped commuting. Caltrain, the transit line connecting San Francisco and San Jose, experienced a 95% drop in ridership. For a service that derives 70% of its funding from fares, the drop threatened its ability to keep operating at all. But Caltrain took a different track. Instead of cutting service, it put equity for underrepresented communities at the core of its recovery plan, proposed running more service for its core customers, postponed fare increases, and even cut fares for low-income riders.

Caltrain’s forward thinking focused attention on the looming possibility that without new funding, it could be forced to do the opposite: shut down service. Because Caltrain has operated without dedicated funding since its establishment in 1985, it relies on passenger fares to generate 70% of operating revenue, far higher than the 30-40% for agencies that combine fares with other funding.

On November 3, voters gave Caltrain’s strategy a vote of confidence, overwhelmingly approving Measure RR, a 1/8¢ sales tax in the three counties served by the transit line. For the first time in its 35-year history, Caltrain can count on dedicated funding, estimated at $108 million annually for the next 30 years. Three critical factors explain Caltrain’s success.

Concentrate on Core Customers

Despite the dramatic drop in ridership, more than 3,500 weekday riders continued to use Caltrain. “Essential workers,” as they have come to be called during the pandemic, are the core customers who have long relied on transit for a wide variety of trips: to purchase food and medicine, visit doctors, and reach location-essential jobs at all hours.

The pandemic didn’t significantly alter core customers’ use of transit. The disappearance of other riders simply made the case clear: future service improvements should be focused on core customers who most regularly ride transit, even throughout a pandemic. To support its core customers, Caltrain:

  1. Postponed fare increases initially planned for 2020 until after June 2021
  2. Discounted fares by 50% for low-income customers
  3. Adopted its first equity framework to guide pandemic recovery that “expands access to low-income individuals and communities of color that have historically been underrepresented in the system’s ridership.”

Focus on Frequency

After adopting the equity framework, Caltrain released a proposal for more midday and weekend service designed to “respond to the needs of low-income riders and essential workers by increasing service frequency and better enabling coordinated transfers with other transit providers.” Under the proposal:

  • Weekday midday service increases to two trains per hour in each direction, with 30-minute service frequency at stations with the highest ridership demand.
  • Weekend service increases by 50%, from every 90 minutes to every hour, to reflect the 300% growth in weekend ridership since the pandemic took hold.
  • Weekend express service is eliminated to enable the significant increase in frequency—a recognition that ridership on weekend local trains is about 20% higher than on express trains.

More frequent trains and coordinated transfers improve quality of life and convenience for Caltrain’s core customers. Increasing service to support demand and enable safe distancing is especially important to address concerns about COVID-19 and reassure customers that transit is safe.

Give People Something to Support

The COVID-19 crisis created an urgent opportunity for transit agencies to embrace a changed world. Caltrain did this by committing to equity for its core customers, focusing on more frequent trains, better transfers, and reduced fares to induce ridership. Instead of doomsaying during this crisis, it put forth a positive vision, and showed how a transit provider can adapt to changing conditions.

It paid off.

Voters rewarded Caltrain’s focus by fixing the long-standing structural funding gap, giving it the resources to better serve its core customers. Once Measure RR was overwhelmingly approved by voters on November 3, Caltrain Board Chair Dave Pine celebrated the dedicated funding, saying, ”Caltrain will be able to realize its full potential as the backbone of public transit on the Peninsula.” That’s a silver lining in a challenging time.

Photo Credits: Dllu/Wikimedia Commons, accessed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Stewart Mader works with agencies and policy makers to build better transit, from advocacy to operations, apps to maps, and wayfinding to payment. He previously served as the first Chief Customer Experience Officer for NJ Transit‘s 270 million annual passenger trips, and guided customer experience for the Port Authority of NY & NJ‘s 80 million annual transit riders as Chair of PATH Riders Council. His insights appear in Mass Transit, Mobility Lab, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other leading publications.

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