Town Square

Missed connections

Original post made on Jul 15, 2008

With concerns about gas prices, dependence on foreign oil and climate change rising rapidly, how easy it to get around on public transit? Rory Brown, a staff writer for The Almanac, decided to find out by using Caltrain and Samtrans instead of his care for five days. Here is what he discovered.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, July 15, 2008, 11:06 AM


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Posted by Resident
a resident of another community
on Jul 15, 2008 at 11:22 am

You mean my guess was right?

Congratulations on trying to use public transport. I have been saying for a long time that the system is ludicrous. We have had foreign guests arrive at SFO and told us that they would be happy to use public transport to our home in Palo Alto, and we tell them to forget it.They also try to get to San Francisco, San Jose and even Stanford Shopping Center (where they can't find a bus to get home from) and can't believe how bad it is.

It is about time that local transit authorities tried attracting more customers, as passengers they would get if they were on the new passengers wavelength, with better service rather than cutting back on what is poorly utilized due to bad planning. They should visit European capital cities to see how good systems work as well as places like Frankfurt, Germany.

Thank you for this article and please pass it on to the relevant authorities (although in my opinion there should only be one overall transit authority for the whole Bay area).

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 15, 2008 at 11:50 am

Good Job, Rory.

Some people want to push housing to fit existing transit, even with all its shortcomings. Don't let them. TOD and "smart" growth is on all the transit operators' agendas. Build housing where we now stop to give us more riders. Well, it doesn't have to be that way. Regional urban planning can drive both housing and transit in harmony. We're not doing that. Apparently, most people prefer to see the trees and ignore the forest. How's that as a topic for a follow-up article since housing is a big contested issue in this town?

Now, "Resident", let's briefly discuss Europe and their superior transit system. For better or worse, we are not like Europe. They tax heavily and provide extensive social services, including transit. They have integrated transit into their lives and culture. Until after WW II, cars were rare and only for the wealthy. Europeans have a train gene we lack.

We, on the other hand, are tax haters, individualists and self-actualizers. We have a car gene. Saying "ought to" and "should" and "must" won't cut it. Improving transit enough to get us out of our cars will be a culture change that will take generations. It's worth doing but don't hold your breath.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of another community
on Jul 15, 2008 at 12:02 pm


I do get your point about here not being Europe and the transit gene is missing.

But, and here is a reality that most planners don't account for, we are a community of immigrants from overseas. Many of us have lived in other countries and depended on transportation and have had to readjust when moving here. I have lived in or near two capital cities in Europe and depended on public transport for daily commuting and evening/weekend trips to the City for entertainment. I know that many of my friends have done the same. I also have had many foreign guests to my home arrive at the airport and expect a simple system to get to my home and found it impossible as a visitor to navigate.

Most tourists to the SF Bay Area are not on package tours or come and rent cars. Many are friends and family of residents who don't want to burden their hosts needing to be given rides everywhere, but find it really difficult to get about.

Additionally, we have many students and young professionals in the area to whom owning a car although ideal, is just too expensive. Get these young people using transit now and you will have them for life.

Martin, I do like what you are saying. But America may still be the same as you picture everywhere else, but Silicon Valley and the Bay Area is beginning to change.

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Posted by Andrea Gemmet
Almanac staff writer
on Jul 15, 2008 at 3:15 pm

Andrea Gemmet is a registered user.

Atherton officials, led by Mayor Jim Janz, have been lobbying hard to restore weekday train service to the town's station. The weekend train service is the result of their persistence, as is the train station repair.

Atherton's argument is that Caltrain steadily reduced the number of stops at their station over the years, effectively reducing ridership numbers. Those low ridership numbers then justified ending weekday train service.

If transit is infrequent and difficult to use, people won't use it. If people don't use transit, there's no money to increase frequency and make it more convenient. It raises the question: Is there a way out of this vicious circle that doesn't require a massive investment of public money?

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Posted by Lee Crowley
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 15, 2008 at 7:56 pm

Thank you, Rory! Both my husband and daughter have spent hundreds of hours during the last ten years trying to use mass transit for their work commute. Neither has had much success. My husband has to get to Mountain View; the bus schedule doesn't synch w/ the train schedule there, either. Plus, if he needs to work late, which is two or three times a week, he is in grave danger of missing the last connection [connection being defined by the bus arriving at the train station at least half an hour before the next train]. My daughter (a very idealistic woman) spends an extra hour or two whenever neccessary to be one of the "counted" ones on Caltrain, or the bus, or BART. She has frittered many hours of her life waiting 45 minutes or more for a train or BART!
All of the Bay Area mass transit would be more efficient if the deliverers of passengers could actually "deliver" before the next step of mass transit departed from the station. Caltrain, Samtrans, BART, etc., should be required to have a mass meeting to set up schedules that actually mesh.
It is no wonder that your bus from the MP train station was nearly empty. The other potential train riders had already experienced (or divined) that no bus would be there to transport them to the Alameda!
My husband finally had to give up taking the train to Mountain View: he was stranded in MV once or twice every week because the bus schedule tapered out before he was finished work and he would have had to walk/run several miles to catch a train. So I drove from MP to MV to give him a ride home. No savings there!
My daughter (with a Masters in Public Policy and Environmental Issues) would be happy to give you her views and support regarding the lack of an overall plan for mass transit in the greater Bay Area. If you want to ratchet this up a notch, give me an email response!

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Posted by John Wilson
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jul 16, 2008 at 10:53 am

Good job, Rory

Your experience illustrates a couple of points not accepted by local governments in this region.

First, although every large city, such as San Francisco, acknowledges the importance of public transit to its daily operations, smaller cities treat things differently, and you get a patchwork quilt of services. This buttresses Martin Engel's observation in other places that the transit problems of this area are regional. Until the regional transportation entities accept more responsibility and show more leadership, very little of this will change. I have attended MTC's local workshops. Typical bureaucratic approaches, fussing around the edges of the problems, no solutions.

Second, it has yet to be accepted by local governments that one of the chief ways we can affect both the carbon and petroleum issues is to consciously try to devise transit mechanisms that focus on getting people to and from work without cars. Both Google and Stanford have their own approaches to this. Why can't city and regional governments get together to address this single issue? Instead of pointless planning workshops, why not try to define the rush hour work flows and try to specifically address them with transit, with the specific goal of automotive traffic reduction instead of vague, wide area service goals?

And, a final comment

If you think things are bad now, add the proposed HSR system through the Peninsula into this mix.

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Posted by frustrated too
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 16, 2008 at 7:55 pm

Rory, once you're calmed down and can handle the stress, you should just try to get back and forth from Menlo Park to SFO, with luggage! The return south involves the airport train, two separate BART trains - one to go north to San Bruno and one to go back south to Milbrae where Caltrain is, Caltrain (you'll be lucky if the escalator is working). The signage is terrible (what does Platform 5 mean when one wants to know how to go south). One must wait in BART stations but can't buy Caltrain ticket, then miss the Caltrain because there's not enough time to buy the ticket and get over and across the tracks. No luggage rack on Caltrain's Luggage car (they took them out to allow space for disabled who can't use that space because of the luggage on the floor and baby carriages).
Don't get me going about high speed rail's impact. Menlo Park will NEVER EVER get served by HSR, and we'd probably lose Caltrain service, too, in favor of mega stops like Palo Alto and Hillsdale.

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 17, 2008 at 12:36 pm

John Wilson points out that MTC, bureaucracy that it is, only nibbles around the edges. OK, then let’s take some serious bites into this problem:

1. MTC must become the umbrella organization that brings all the other transit operators in the Bay Area under its management. Think Regionally.

2. Caltrans is to permit bus-only lanes on El Camino. These should evolve into BRT routes.

3. VTA and SamTrans should become a single Peninsula bus agency.

4. This new bus agency affiliates with Caltrain to change all the train stations into transit stations where buses, trains and shuttles interact in a highly coordinated way.

5. All employers (of a certain size and over) will be mandated/required to: a. provide shuttle service to and from the transit stations, and/or b. provide Translink cards to employees, on the condition that they don’t drive their cars to work.

6. That coordinated interfaces are created between BART and Caltrain.

7. The bus system is to develop a far more extensive network of East-West services, using smaller buses and even shuttles with more frequent runs.

8. There needs to be a reliable system of financing and accountability for all the operators so that they don’t compete in a zero sum game.

9. All the operators must change their culture from a pre-occupation with their own technology (trains, buses, light rail, etc.) to being part of a transit system. That is a primary function of MTC. They all must be made to understand what business they are in, which is public service mass transit. They all must acknowledge that they function within a multi-modal system.

10. At the state level, Caltrans has to stop being the highway department and start being the transit department. It’s not about cars; it’s about human mobility.

These are not in order of priority and they are only the first 10, not the complete list.

Let me say also this: Our government and our public institutions are bureaucracies that are self-protective organisms dedicated to their own survival. They are not profit motivated and therefore they will be behind our needs, not ahead of them. We, the people, taxpayers and commuters, need to take the lead and make clear what it is we want, and then demand it.

Bottom line? It's our money.

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Posted by Ian
a resident of another community
on Jul 17, 2008 at 4:34 pm

Although my hometown of Sacramento isn¡¦t by any means a transit paradise, SacRt seems to follow a more logical schedule where buses arrive at the light rail station a few minutes prior to arriving trains, and then depart after picking up transferring riders.

After trying to make the transit trip from the peninsula to Sacramento, I found this kind of connection is lacking almost anywhere in the bay area. I¡¦ve tried multiple combinations of Caltrain, Bart, Muni, AC Transit, and Amtrak to try and make this trip as seamless as possible, but every time the trip has involved varying amounts of waiting and running. I tried that for about a year. Now I drive and save about 1.5 hours one way.

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Posted by Jeremy
a resident of another community
on Jul 18, 2008 at 12:33 pm

The wonderful timing seems to be a problem thoroughout the bay. There is bus close to my house in Sunnyvale that goes to the caltrain station. It was conveniently scheduled to arrive a few minutes after the train departed. In the evening, it left the station a few minutes before the train arrived. Recently they redid the schedule and now it arrives about 15 minutes before the train. I guess that's improvement.

As for getting to Peninsula from SFO, we are lucky that the KX bus still exists. It goes straight from the SFO terminals to El Camino between San Mateo and Palo Alto. This can get you to Menlo Park in one bus, instead of 4 trains. And this bus had already existed (with even more frequent service!) before the billions were spent for the BART to SFO. And even before BART, the free caltrain shuttle from the terminals to Millbrae was much more reliable than trying to deal with the airtrain to BART fiasco.

The airport illustrates the disconnect in the mind of transit planners. They often make plans assuming riders will connect from one form of transit to another. (Much hoopla was mad of the 'Millbrae intermodal station') Yet, they make the connections so inconvenient that they are almost unusable. (On my last try from SFO, I walked from the terminal to Millbrae, and didn't get home any later than if I would have taken all the requisite train connections.)

The Millbrae station also shows illustrates the wrong direction that transit is going here. They've added a huge parking garage and BART station to what used to be an ordinary caltrain station. They have also subtracted a convenient shuttle bus. Pedestrian access is inconvenient. The priority was not on making the station easy to access for pedestrians, but for drivers, who can park for free at the station. Samtrans and BART have built thousand of parking spaces, when just a little time improving bus/train coordination could have produced a similar increase in ridership - with a much lower carbon footprint.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of another community
on Jul 18, 2008 at 3:06 pm

On a similar but different note, I recently had cause to visit a neighboring high school and called the office to ask what bus routes served the school and they couldn't tell me. Likewise, calling a business and asking the same question, they couldn't tell me. Park of the problem is that schools (public and private) large office complexes and others do not have useful transport information at hand. They can all tell me the cross street references, or which highway exit to use, but no idea about public transport. This is part of the culture which needs to change.

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Posted by Transit Rider
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jul 20, 2008 at 8:15 pm

In spite of all the problems with taking transit, there are quite a few people who live on the Peninsula, even Menlo Park, who do not own cars. Somehow they manage to get around.

Our transit system has a long way to go but there are some things it does well. Taking Caltrain on weekends, the trains are almost full, whether people are going to Giants games, SF in general or points south. The trains are popular, even though they only run once an hour.

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Posted by PA resident
a resident of another community
on Jul 22, 2008 at 4:17 pm

Web Link

This article from The Palo Alto Weekly may be of interest here.