Bikes and Transit: Frenemies

Programming note: apologies for the sparse posting over the last few weeks. Things should be back to normal soon.

I’m always a little hesitant to wade into debates on cities that I don’t know very well. That’s why this blog borrows heavily from my time in Boston – it’s the only city that I know well enough to analyze without being there. I recently commented on this Systemic Failure piece about Caltrain bumps on Twitter, and unfortunately the conversation ended up basically being “Quiet, you LA blogger, you don’t know anything about Caltrain”.

I won’t lie to you: that’s true. I don’t know anything about Caltrain in particular. I was trying to make two general points, one about bikes and transit in general, and one about the SF Bike Coalition (SFBC) analysis that was linked in the Systemic Failure piece. Neither of these points require knowing anything about Caltrain: (1) paying customers without bikes should not get bumped while bikes are being hauled for free, and (2) the assumption that Caltrain bike boardings should increase at the same rate as bike riding in San Francisco is questionable.

Bikes Fill Seats, Bikes Take Up Space

When ridership is low, providing accommodation for bikes helps fill seats. Outside of San Francisco itself, the patterns of urbanization in California are very different from east coast cities, in a way that often exacerbates the “last mile problem”. By allowing riders to carry bikes, agencies can attract riders who might need to travel a mile or two at each end of their transit trip. This helps fill seats and raises farebox revenue.

However, as ridership rises, you start to get a couple problems with accommodating bikes. One is that dwell times go up due to the time needed to get the bike on or off the transit vehicle. This isn’t a problem if you’re running hour-long headways and you have plenty of recovery time. But it is if you’re running short headways, because dwell time variability will wreck your headway spacing and service reliability. The other is that the vehicle gets too crowded and passengers get left behind, which is especially unfair if paying customers are left behind while bikes are being carried for free.

These problems are more obvious with smaller transit vehicles. A transit bus bike rack can only hold two bikes, and there’s not enough room to bring a bike on the bus because of the seats. Should some seats be eliminated so that an extra couple bikes can go on the bus during off-peak periods? Bikes can also become a space problem on light-rail vehicles; take a ride on the Blue Line during rush hour for example. (When Regional Connector and Gold Line Foothill Phase 2A are complete, the Blue Line from Long Beach to Azusa will be about the same length as Caltrain.)

In the case of Caltrain, the issue was pitched as providing seats vs. providing space for bikes. But really, if trains are getting crowded, you could remove seats to provide standing room for paying customers too. The MBTA did this with several Red Line trains dubbed “Big Red” and still doesn’t allow bikes on the train during peak periods. The question of providing seats vs. standing room is something every agency must address. Longer trips lend themselves towards more seating, but I would note that even in transit systems with high crowding and relatively short trips, agencies still provide some seats.

I’m not singling out bicycles here. For example, transit vehicles can only accommodate so many wheelchairs, and loading/unloading wheelchairs is detrimental to service reliability. Agencies do not eliminate seats in order to accommodate an unlimited number of wheelchairs. If a passenger in a chair is waiting for the bus and the wheelchair spot on the bus is already occupied, that passenger will be bumped (a “pass-up”). The ability to accommodate things like bikes and wheelchairs is partly a value judgment, but it is also partly a matter of geometry. You don’t have to take my word for it – ask Jarrett Walker.

Fundamentally, allowing bikes on transit is easy if your system is running below capacity. The busy transit systems of the east coast do not allow bikes on at all during peak periods and allow a restricted number at other times. Caltrain has already done much more than most agencies; given current ridership patterns, Caltrain’s current bike accommodations seem to make sense. Metrolink would probably do well to modify some of their vehicles to increase bike capacity (there are currently only some trains with bike cars, and the bike cars have a capacity of 18 bikes). Bumps are a major detriment to ridership, and passengers must be able to expect that they will be able to take any train.

For what it’s worth, if you have high transit ridership and high bike usage, you simply need a different solution: bike storage at stations so that riders can have a bike stored at each end. That’s how these guys do it, and I hear they’re pretty good with bikes.

Bike Boarding Potential

My other complaint about the Systemic Failure piece is that the SFBC analysis of bumps assumes that bike boardings could increase at the same rate as biking in SF, bike to work counts in SF, and SFBC  membership, which range from about 55%-85% increases over the analysis period. It’s not clear to me why Caltrain bike boardings should increase at the same rate. Caltrain trips are different kinds of trips – longer, and with less varied purpose. Now, not knowing Caltrain that well, I’m not sure what that means. Maybe it means Caltrain bike boardings should have increased even faster!

There is one reason to think that the potential to increase bike boardings might eventually be lower: system capacity. SF is a pretty committed to bike infrastructure, but the percentage of street capacity that has been dedicated to moving bikes is still very low. There are many streets with no bike lanes, limited bike parking, etc. On the other hand, Caltrain has already committed a significant portion of its capacity to moving bikes:

CaltrainCoaches

So Caltrain has dedicated about 10% of its theoretical seating capacity to bikes. There is only so much room on the coaches, and it has to be split among seated passengers, standing passengers, and bikes. Again, maybe Caltrain does not have the right configuration, and maybe they should be providing more space for bikes. But objectively, Caltrain faces greater constraints in accommodating bikes than those faced by city streets.

Brief Notes on Bumps

I would be remiss if I did not point out that as of 2013, Caltrain bike boardings exceed the level predicted by the SFBC analysis, which was completed in 2011. That indicates that there was indeed significant latent demand at the time of the analysis. Contrary to the gist of the Systemic Failure piece, Caltrain has paid attention to bike boardings and increased bike capacity in the interim.

Caltrain’s 2013 counts, conducted over five days in February, found that there were 59 bumps, 25 of which were due to a single incident. Interestingly, all of the bumps occurred during peak periods on reverse direction trains (though directional bias in Caltrain demand is low). Peak loading on those trains ranged from 69%-98% of seated capacity.

CaltrainBikeBumps

The SFBC analysis showed a photo comparison of bike storage areas and seating on southbound trains at 22nd St. Since San Francisco station itself accounts for almost 25% of all bike boardings (and everyone there is obviously going south), 22nd St southbound is by far the most likely place to be bumped. The author was bumped from Train 324, and the photos seem to suggest that there are far too many seats. However, Train 324 has peak load of 91% leaving Hillsdale.

Considering that overall Caltrain ridership is up about 10% per year for the last three years, these points suggest that removing more seats to accommodate additional bikes will result in forcing some passengers to stand. And remember, this is partly a value judgment! Maybe that’s the right thing to do. Or maybe Caltrain should be given the funding needed to run additional trains. I can’t tell Bay Area stakeholders what the right answer is for them. But it seems to me that the discussion needs to start from an understanding that, like a city street, this a case where not everyone is going to get everything they want. There doesn’t seem to be unused capacity available for the taking.

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2 thoughts on “Bikes and Transit: Frenemies

  1. Kenny Easwaran

    One question is how the Bay Area Bike Share will improve things. I was in SF last week and tried out the bikes in the city, but they’ve apparently got stations in Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose. So far there are very few stations in these Silicon Valley cities, but if they get some along Page Mill Road, Shoreline Blvd, and a few other major suburban commute destinations, then it could be that a lot fewer people will feel a need to take their own private bike on the train with them.

    Reply
    1. letsgola Post author

      According to Caltrain’s bike counts, almost 60% of bike boardings are at just five stations: SF, Palo Alto, Redwood City, Mountain View, and San Jose Diridon. So having bike storage or bike share at those stations should go a long way.

      Reply

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