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The Future of Peninsula Transportation: Caltrain or Bus?

Advocacy groups argue for increased bus funding while others say to focus on Caltrain.

A recent report released by the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California and Urban Habitat (attached) raises concerns about the lack of transportation and housing options available to lower income residents.

The authors of the report, entitled “Moving Silicon Valley Forward," contend that more funding should be given to bus systems such as VTA and Samtrans over Caltrain and Light Rail due to the fact that the bus systems cater to more lower-income people, particularly of minority backgrounds, while Caltrain and Light Rail tend to serve wealthier people and more Caucasians.

The report also cites the fact that the three most heavily used VTA Bus Lines (Lines 522, 22 and 23) have nearly as many riders as the entire Light Rail network. In addition, the report claims that bus lines are subsidized with around half the amount of funding per rider as Caltrain and Light Rail.

As a result, the authors contend that no more building should be done of future rail projects until bus subsidies are increased and bus service cuts are stopped. In addition, they propose the creation of dedicated bus lanes along main roads such as El Camino Real.

Many of the contentions and proposals discussed in the report are controversial. As the authors note, there can be a ‘zero-sum game’ issue when it comes to subsidies. An increase in bus subsidies may come at the expense of Caltrain subsidies. Creating dedicated bus lanes also can potentially threaten establishments along the road, and can inconvenience motorists.

According to Rod Diridon Sr., Executive Director of the Mineta Transportation Institute and former Chair of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, characterizations of Caltrain as appealing primarily to high income commuters are unfounded.

“People need to ride the transit before they criticize it,” said Diridon.

While 75% of VTA’s riders are from minority communities, 40% of Caltrain riders come from such communities. Thus, Caltrain’s ridership is more representative of the Bay Area demographically, where 52.5% of residents are Caucasian.

Diridon points out that Caltrain also has a high amount of ticket revenue compared to the cost while VTA has lower revenue as compared to the cost. He added, however, that subsidies for VTA and Caltrain are not mutually exclusive.

Interviews with commuters at the Redwood City Station, which contains both bus stops and a train station, cast doubt on the contention in the report that higher bus subsidies have a significant impact on reducing congestion. The interviews were conducted during a weekday rush hour between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Of the people surveyed at the bus station, none of them had access to a car. In addition, none of them were going to or from work, rather, most were attending to personal business.

In contrast, of the people surveyed waiting for Caltrain, all of them were coming from work and all had access to a car. The primary reason for them using Caltrain was to avoid traffic and save money on gasoline.

Thus, it is a reduction in Caltrain subsidies that would have the direct impact on gridlock on the roads.

However, the counter-argument is that it is the since bus riders have no other transportation options, more funding must be allocated to the bus systems because the service is more critical to those users than Caltrain is to commuters who already have access to a car.

When it comes to building dedicated bus lanes, many communities have expressed significant concerns.

There are two options for how to build bus lanes. The first option is to build them using existing lanes, which leaves fewer lanes for automobile traffic. The second option is to expand the road, which can sometimes involve tearing down buildings.

Atherton Mayor Bill Widmer expressed concerns that proposals for bus lanes, particularly along El Camino Real, would hurt surrounding businesses.

“Businesses are already built to the sidewalk,” said Widmer, who added that the cost of compensating business owners for the destruction of their property alone would cost a great deal.

Widmer said that transportation planners should focus on improving Caltrain service, particularly by reinstating regular service to Atherton Station, which has been cut back to weekend service.

Politically, the only way to create bus lanes is by expanding the roads, and then only in areas without existing buildings, according to Diridon.

“Bus lanes will work only in areas where you have the space.”

The issues of affordable housing and public transportation often sound complicated but hit close to home for people impacted either positively or negatively by these programs. Throwing in race to the mix of variables considered only further inflames sentiment on this already sensitive issue.

The issue of whether to concentrate on Caltrain or bus service comes down to the difference between looking at the overall investment, where Caltrain wins as it takes more cars off the streets and provides greater convenience and productivity to commuters; or a humanitarian perspective, where the bus systems serve people who otherwise would have limited ability to get around.

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