mnot’s blog

Design depends largely on constraints.” — Charles Eames

Friday, 6 February 2004

Bay Area

Caltrain Scheduling Changes (and other thoughts on Public Transport policy)

Caltrain has proposed a set of schedules that re-introduce weekend services and tweak a number of trains’ timings and stops, to enable “bullet” service.

These changes are honest attempts to improve service; after all, faster is better, right?

The problem is that Caltrain is confusing the purpose of a public transport system with a regional transport system. The new schedules favour fast trains between San Jose and San Francisco, with few stops. To effect that, as well as improve other trains’ times in general, they’ve had to cut services at a number of stations.

For example, my stop, Burlingame, gets service to San Francisco pretty much every half hour right now. With the new schedules, there are two 45-minute gaps in the morning commute where there’s no service at all. Meanwhile, the next stop up, Broadway, is moving to service only once an hour (or more) throughout the day.

The intended effect — getting from San Jose and a few other places to San Francisco (and vice versa) — is achieved.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a particularly useful goal. Each of these cities has the infrastructure, jobs and housing to be self-supporting. Meanwhile, a number of communities along the Peninsula are being orphaned from those cities; they need easy connectivity to other places to offset the disadvantage of their sizes (less diversity in available jobs, etc.).

What are the outcomes of this? Traffic between San Jose and San Francisco might be reduced marginally at best; because of the inconvenient locations of Caltrain stations in San Francisco and in parts of the South bay, I don’t think it’s going to displace that much inter-city traffic. By accommodating people who are willing to commute long distances, Caltrain is only supporting urban sprawl, just as building more freeways does.

On the other hand, it’s going to be much less practical to get between towns like Burlingame, San Mateo, and Redwood City — each of which has jobs, housing and commercial districts within a short walk of Caltrain. People who previously could take the train will have to get cars, the towns will have to provide parking somewhere, and the freeways will become more crowded. Instead of becoming the backbone of the Peninsula, Caltrain is trying to solidify its place as a way to get by it without noticing.

Reducing transit time is an admirable goal, but not at the cost of frequency of service. Every good public transport system I’ve been on has worked because you don’t have to look at a schedule; you just have to show up at a station, and know that there’ll be service in a reasonable amount of time.