Monday, November 23, 2009

SF study finds employee shuttles good for the city

San Francisco County Transportation Authority has released a study last week which identified key benefits with employee shuttles from San Francisco to work sites in Silicon Valley.

For the past few years, companies like Google and Yahoo have provided dedicated shuttles for their employees. The shuttles, like other fringe benefits (including free lunches), help recruit workers and keep them more productive as they can work during their commutes.

Besides the benefits for the employers and employees, SFCTA's study confirms that employee shuttles provide benefits to the rest of the city as well:

  • - 20 million VMT reduced as employees forego driving
  • - Reduction in CO2 emissions by approximately 8,000 to 9,500 tons per year
  • - reduction in non-CO2 emissions ranging from 1 to17 tons per year
  • - $1.8 million per year in local spending as employees patronize local businesses in the city and by the bus stops.
  • - 62% of the shuttle riders surveyed said the shuttle influenced their decision to live in the city. Landlords and realtors agree that proximity to shuttles make their location more attractive.
  • - 28% of those surveyed do not own a car. Many of them join car-sharing services so they can drive once in a while to go to Costco or Ikea. Fewer people owning cars help free up parking spots for everyone else in the neighborhood.
The largest benefit of all, which is not mentioned in the report, is that the shuttles do not require public funding. Given the current financial crisis faced by transit agencies, commuter routes are generally considered first to be eliminated so agencies can preserve core services used more by the transit dependent. As reported earlier, SamTrans is already planning to eliminate nearly all commuter express bus service to San Francisco, and VTA is also planning to cut some express bus service. Both agencies however are keeping their overnight service on El Camino.

The shuttles fill the gap current exist on the transit network. Although Caltrain itself competes well with driving, a trip from the Marina in SF to Moffett Park in Sunnyvale would require a trip on Muni and VTA light rail. The connections on VTA and especially Muni add significantly to the travel time and would erase the speed advantage with Caltrain. Many of the shuttles are coming from the Mission, the Castro, the Marina, and Van Ness Avenue, none of which Caltrain directly serves.

However, the shuttles also attracted complaints from others in the community, which prompted the SFCTA to conduct this study. Most of the complaints are about large buses driving on narrow streets, shuttle buses occupying Muni bus stops to pick up passengers, safety issues with large vehicles, and noise/emissions generated with buses idling.

Current laws do not leave much for the city to regulate the shuttles except for issuing citations when large buses are driving on weight-restricted streets or stopping at Muni bus stops (which SF says no one else can use unless one have express permission from Muni). SFCTA instead proposes a volunteer program where shuttle bus operators would pay Muni to hire a full time planner. That planner would coordinate shuttle activities to address community concerns and be the main contact by the public.

While more coordination is essential, it would be a mistake for the San Francisco to try to squeeze money from the employers. The shuttles have proven themselves to be beneficial to the employers and employees, and cannot be easily substituted by transit agencies. Sharing bus stops with Muni is a small price to pay for not having to provide more service on the public's dime, or encourage more automobile use in a community that's short on parking. What San Francisco should do is to pursue grant funding to support the coordinator position. In San Mateo County, Congestion Relief Alliance manages shuttles to Caltrain and BART stations with funding from employers, transit agencies, and grants. The DASH in Downtown San Jose is also funded the same way and totally operated by VTA.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

VTA plans for the first bike sharing program in the Bay Area

Recently, VTA has earned a lot of attention not because of its transit program, but its planning effort to implement the first bicycle sharing program in the Bay Area.

The concept of bike sharing is a result of Caltrain's bicycle planning process. When Caltrain released its bicycle plan last year, which outlined various options to provide bicycle parking to provide alternatives to bring bicycles onboard, the bicycle community got outraged that Caltrain didn't plan to increase onboard capacity. After months of pressure, Caltrain relented by increasing capacity from 32 to 40 per bike car. While an increase of capacity help cut the number of "bumps" (denied boarding) faced by bicyclists, there's not that much space that Caltrain could dedicate to store bicycles without taking seats from paying passengers, and the fact that more passengers taking their bikes slow trains down for everyone by having longer dwell times.

VTA's proposed bike sharing program is being planned for Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose Diridon stations. These stations are well used and have a large number of employers located within bicycle distance. Bike sharing has an advantage of allowing train commuters to bike from the train station to their workplace without having to bring their bikes onboard, to leave their bikes at the station overnight, or owning two bicycles if they also bike from their home to the train station.

VTA is currently reviewing different bicycle sharing programs already implemented in other cities. Paris currently operates the most extensive bicycle sharing network. In North America, Montreal developed its own version of bicycle sharing system. In those systems, anyone can sign up for membership and pay a fixed monthly membership fee. After that, the user would have a electronic key and could pick up a bike at a bike sharing station, which would be located at various locations throughout the city. For free or a small fee, the user could ride the bike from one station to another station, or for a larger fee, the user could keep the bike longer and make errands.

Bicycle sharing program is not without risks. Would there be enough bike sharing stations to allow bikes to be shared conveniently? Would users feel safe to ride their bikes given the current bike paths and lanes as well as street traffic? What about theft and vandalism? Who will pay for the ongoing operating and maintenance cost?

VTA is currently trying to secure a $500,000 MTC grant to start a pilot program. If it goes well, it would improve access between transit and nearby employers. It could encourage further transit use by cutting the access time to and from transit and without placing more burden on the limited bike capacity on trains and buses. It could also make the transit trip easier by not having to transfer to a bus or shuttle (which they often don't sync, and worse if one of the modes gets delayed). It could also be more cost effective than providing feeder shuttle service.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Light rail, Altamont Pass, etc

Light Rail COA

BayRail Alliance will be hosting a meeting next week on the COA for the VTA light rail system. VTA's Kevin Connolly will be presenting. As reported here earlier, VTA is conducting a COA for the light rail to outline future system improvements and proposed operation scenarios to boost light rail ridership. Ridership on the VTA's light rail is lagging behind other similar systems in Portland, Sacramento, and San Diego.

November 19, 2009
City of Mountain View, Council Chambers
500 Castro Street, Mountain View (by Mercy Street)

Meal option will not be provided for this meeting.

Altamont Pass

ACE, FRA, and CHSRA are hosting a series of meeting today and next week to start the environmental planning process for the Altamont Corridor. Although Altamont did not make the cut to be the high speed corridor between Central Valley and the Bay Area, Sacramento nonetheless included Altamont as a complementary corridor in Proposition 1A.

The good part is that the corridor could be transformed into a near-HSR route with high quality passenger service. The bad part is that there's no funding available to build it, since it is secondary to the main HSR route, which is more likely to receive whatever HSR money that will be made available.

Even if there's no money associated with it for now, a parallel planning effort would make the Altamont a strong back up option if the Pacheco Pass option proves to be infeasible. As we already know, CHSRA does not have an agreement with UP, and not until the passage of Prop 1A, that the Pacheco Pass has generated local opposition in San Jose because of its alignment south of the Diridon station (and some of the proposed solutions proved to be sillier and more expensive). A well designed Altamont corridor could avoid impacts local neighborhoods and provide service in area with high TOD potential (North 1st Street).

All meeting will be held from 3:00–8:00pm in drop-in open house format:

* Tuesday: Robert Livermore Community Center, 4444 East Ave., Livermore.

* Thursday: San Joaquin Council of Governments, 555 E. Weber Ave., Stockton.

* Nov. 17: Fremont Teen Center, 39770 Paseo Padre Parkway, Fremont.

* Nov. 18: Le Petit Trianon Theatre, 72 N. Fifth St., San Jose.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Throwing more good money after bad

VTA has recently announced that it is spending $61 million to build an additional track and other improvements between San Jose and Morgan Hill for Caltrain.

While spending VTA money to improve Caltrain is wise in general, is it worth it to spend that money south of San Jose?

Today, Caltrain ridership on the Gilroy segment has been significantly reduced from its high back in 2000. The economy, widening on 101, fare increase, and VTA operated express buses have cut much of Caltrain's ridership base. While VTA had projected an increase in train service back in 2000, Caltrain actually cut one of the four round trips so that the equipment can be better utilized for the popular Baby Bullet service.

Based on earlier double tracking south of San Jose completed in 2002/2003, Caltrain has the ability to run 5 round trips. However it is running 3 round trips today. That $61 million might allow Caltrain to run one or two more round trips. However unless VTA has the operating funds and equipment to provide additional service, riders won't see much of the benefits from that expenditure.

One of the reasons Caltrain provides limited service south of San Jose is that the corridor is owned by Union Pacific. The company historically is hostile to passenger rail. UP sees passenger rail, may it be Caltrain, ACE, or Amtrak, as pirates somehow trying to freeload from the company. On the other hand, BNSF, a competing rail company that owns tracks elsewhere in California, sees public agencies as partners.

The other issue that make this expenditure unwise is high speed rail. Although HSRA has chosen Pacheco Pass as its preferred alignment, it still hasn't secured any specific corridor between San Jose and Gilroy. Its earlier assumption of using the UP corridor in the program-level EIR is opposed by UP (as expected) and has been rejected by a judge in a lawsuit brought on by Altamont Pass supporters.

If high speed rail is constructed on any corridor, Caltrain or other high speed rail trains would likely provide commuter service between Gilroy and San Jose on electrified high speed tracks (since Caltrain north of San Jose would've been electrified anyway). If somehow HSRA could secure any rights to use the UP right of way, the operating scenarios (separate HSR/freight tracks) proposed by HSRA would not take advantage of the new track funded by VTA.

As if we don't already know, VTA spends capital money based on the desires from its politically driven staff and consultants. VTA could've spend the money elsewhere along Caltrain and have a greater impact. For example, the Santa Clara Caltrain station is currently a safety hazard (by making people board SF bound trains between the tracks). If the station is rebuilt, ACE could once again serve the station after Caltrain kicked ACE out of that station in 2005.