View all episodes: http://www.buzzsprout.com/591640 — ALEX EISENHART: Welcome to Wheel Talk, a show where we dive into the inner workings of Caltrain, SamTrans, and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. […]
View all episodes: http://www.buzzsprout.com/591640
ALEX EISENHART: Welcome to Wheel Talk, a show where we dive into the inner workings of Caltrain, SamTrans, and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. We’re your friendly neighborhood public servants and hosts, Alex Eisenhart —
DAN LIEBERMAN: — and Dan Lieberman.
Join us as we take a wonky ride through the world of transportation and the work we do to keep you moving.
EISENHART: Hey, everybody. Welcome to episode three of Wheel Talk. We are in the middle of November. Holiday season is approaching very quickly, and there’s a lot to celebrate, including the fact that we made it to episode three.
LIEBERMAN: Absolutely. I started brining a turkey.
EISENHART: It’s not even Thanksgiving yet. You’re already brining? It’s a little early.
LIEBERMAN: I brine like three turkeys a month. That’s just my standard go-to.
EISENHART: So is that where the smell comes from?
LIEBERMAN: It’s a, you know, that and other things.
EISENHART: That natural, briny man musk. So we’re going to start today off with the social media tidbits of the month.
LIEBERMAN: @teragr_am – “Two middle-aged ladies are about to fight on this Caltrain because one doesn’t want to move over so the other can sit. Why are people so weird here?”
EISENHART: And they made sure to put a lot of O’s in that description.
LIEBERMAN: Nine of them by my count.
EISENHART: Not that that makes it any less credible, but I think that it makes it less credible.
LIEBERMAN: I think it makes it more credible. The more O’s the better. As long as – at 15 you’ve gone too far.
EISENHART: Something is emphasized. I don’t know if it’s the situation, but something is definitely emphasized in there. Now, when I think of the two middle-aged ladies, I, first of all, I want to know what their relationship is. Do they actually know each other? Cause I just assume they’re siblings. Like that’s the image I have. Like, “Martha, move over!” “No, Greta, I don’t want to move over.” “Come on, move over.”
LIEBERMAN: This could be a friendly fight. This doesn’t have to be between the people who hate each other. So, you know, @teragr_am, if you’re listening, we would love more details to figure out the truth behind little old lady fight over seats.
EISENHART: Also, you know, everyone, play nice. Let’s share.
EISENHART: @… I’m just going say, I think it’s @cetyal who says, “to the person that just farted on Caltrain, I called the police. They’re coming for you.”
LIEBERMAN: I think that’s reasonable. I think that’s a reasonable response. It’s, we should let our listeners know it’s not yet a felony to fart onboard Caltrain, but I think we have a few legislators that listen to this show. And if you’re thinking about a bill idea for the next session, I think this is worth considering.
EISENHART: Well, for one thing, we do not speak on behalf of the San Mateo County Transit Police.
EISENHART: If they were actually to call them for the situation, I don’t think that they would be very happy to receive that call.
LIEBERMAN: Probably not. It doesn’t mean it’s any more acceptable. If you’ve got to fart, please save that for the platform. It’s a shared space. Have some courtesy.
EISENHART: Yeah, but I feel for their intestines and their digestive health, like if it’s got to get out, I don’t, I mean, I don’t know. I know that probably sounds a little bit gross, but maybe like if it’s got to happen, like try to put a jacket over your lap or you know, contain it in some way.
LIEBERMAN: All I’m saying, if your neighbors are tweeting about it, then it’s probably something you need to get checked.
EISENHART: That — yes, yes, yes. That’s true.
LIEBERMAN: It’s become public in a way that you didn’t intend.
EISENHART: It’s worth waiting for the local rather than hopping on the express if you can, you know, release what no longer serves you, so.
LIEBERMAN: The classiest way I’ve heard that described.
EISENHART: And the last one of today comes from @ManderCharles, who says, “when Caltrain is standing room only, there’s always that one psycho that squeezes and pushes through the entire length of the train trying to find a seat.”
LIEBERMAN: I don’t understand this. If it’s standing room, what makes you think that behind 30 standing people is a seat that’s waiting just for you?
EISENHART: Well, I can’t get mad at the person for hoping that there’s a seat open. I mean, I’ve been on those standing room only trains. It’s, it’s like if continuing to search for it makes you at least feel better that there’s some light at the end of the tunnel.
LIEBERMAN: This is America. I can be mad at anybody for any reason, and I choose this as my reason today.
EISENHART: I think he’s sweet, but a psycho, personally. So, anyway, thanks so much everyone for your contributions. Please feel free to continue to share them with us using the hashtag #WheelTalk on Twitter.
LIEBERMAN: These people don’t know they shared it with us, but we thank you too.
EISENHART: Yes, that is true. That is true. We have had to sort of troll and, and, and, and, and scour through the bowels of the internet to find something funny about Caltrain.
LIEBERMAN: We’re always watching.
EISENHART: And with that, let’s jump into this month’s topic.
LIEBERMAN: A decade ago, SamTrans had multiple intercounty express buses, but when the recession came along and belts had to be tightened, those routes were cut.
EISENHART: Since then, SamTrans financial situation has improved dramatically, but in that same time, traffic and congestion in the County have gotten a lot worse. So in 2017, SamTrans started the US 101 express bus feasibility study to explore whether such service could help to alleviate this congestion. Since then, we have launched the first express bus route that was recommended from the study, route FCX, to great success.
LIEBERMAN: We’re discussing the FCX and more with SamTrans Director of Planning, Christy Wegener. Christy, thanks so much for being here.
CHRISTY WEGENER: Thank you for having me.
LIEBERMAN: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
WEGENER: I most certainly can. My name is Christy Wegener. I am the Director of Planning here at SamTrans. I have been in love with buses for about 16 years now. I’ve been managing planning and operations for, I’ve managed planning and operations for two different transit agencies before coming to SamTrans.
I started my career in Sacramento as an intern working for the Regional Transit District, which was amazing, and a great opportunity to learn how to put bus schedules together. And spent some time on the East Coast and came back home to California in 2014 where I landed in Livermore managing the operations and planning for the Wheels Bus system. And just felt the tug to the Peninsula a few years ago and have made my home as Director of Planning for SamTrans. I’m really, really excited to be here.
EISENHART: Well, awesome. I’m really excited to have you on the show.
We worked together a lot, and so I think this is going to be really, really great discussion. Let’s jump right in. Route FCX, this came about as the result of the US 101 express bus feasibility study.
EISENHART: Can you talk about this study?
WEGENER: For sure. So I believe our study was launched in 2017, and this was to look at how to reintroduce express service along the US 101 Corridor and really looking towards the future managed lanes facility that would really greatly improve the speed and reliability of transit service. So the study launched, and really this was a very data-driven and stakeholder driven effort. The study looked at cell phone data to identify clusters of trip origins and destinations. And through about a 12- to 18-month long process, the study identified originally about 15 route concepts and whittled those down to six. And we did ridership projections for each of those routes, and what has resulted is our board approved US 101 express bus feasibility study, which identifies six routes to be implemented over three different phases. The first route was launched a few weeks ago. I know we’re here to talk about that. But we are very, very excited, and, yeah, we think that the market is really ripe to reintroduce some of the service.
EISENHART: Yeah. I was going to ask, so what, what did you learn about demand for transportation services from the study?
WEGENER: Sure. So, um, I think the challenge that we had when we first started was how do you identify a transit or a bus competitive trip? Right. So how do you, you don’t want to find a trip where a Caltrain route or Caltrain trips already exist or a private shuttle service already exists. So it was trying to find areas where we felt SamTrans could compete well, where we saw the density, the clusters of trip origins and trip destinations. Even better would be finding routes that had bi-directional potentials, so routes where we could carry people into a business district or San Francisco in the morning, and also carry that reverse commute back out to an employment center on the Peninsula in the morning. So, effectively making a better use of our resources. And the feasibility study identified, I believe, four routes that have that bi-directional potential which is definitely new for SamTrans. When we launched, when we operated express bus service years and years ago, it was only one direction. And we know commuting patterns have changed. We know employment centers are developing, and we’re seeing different commuting patterns. So it was, it’s, it was a great effort, a great study to really kind of start fresh to look at what opportunities exist for SamTrans to be competitive in that long haul express bus trip market.
LIEBERMAN: Right? And what did, what came out of this study pertaining to transfers or the value of a one-seat ride?
WEGENER: Yeah. So that one-seat ride matters, right? That’s, I think, what we learned. Transferring is a challenge out here. You have different fares, different ways to pay your fares. You don’t always have great schedule coordination between different providers. It can get tricky when you’re going from a bus to a train, whether that’s BART or Caltrain. So that one-seat ride matters.
We also have learned that people like options. It’s fascinating. I love psychology. My background is in psychology. I never thought I would be a bus planner, but it really it is about, it’s the psychology of modal choice. How do I design something that is appealing to people who otherwise would be very content to stay in their car? Or even how do I appeal to people who might be very happy in a train, but not wanting to take that step to try a bus? So the one-seat ride matters. Finding, you know, making sure that you can minimize that first and last mile. Ask if you will from people —
WEGENER: — so that you’re finding locate like hubs where people can easily transfer if that transferring is necessary or where you have good first, last mile walking opportunities or even other local transferring opportunities.
LIEBERMAN: All right. What did we learn in the study and how did that inform the design of the FCX route?
WEGENER: Well, we definitely learned that there were a lot of people in Foster City that go to San Francisco in the morning. And we also learned there are a lot of people from San Francisco that go to Foster City in the morning, and so that was where we started.
You start with this sort of macro-level, here’s where the trip clusters are, and then you take it down another layer and you look at the land use information. You look at Census data. You look at where the clusters of residential centers are in Foster City, and you look at where your bus stops are. You try to work within, you know, we can’t plan five-minute bus service throughout the whole county. I mean, that would be very costly. So we have to kind of contain what you’re planning for. And then I think that kind of the easy thing is San Francisco in, right? We know we want to go right down to, you know, to Transbay to make those very important connections.
EISENHART: The Salesforce Transit Center.
WEGENER: Yeah, the Salesforce Transit Center, yep. And also I think while our intent was certainly not to pull people off of other modes, other transit, you know, Caltrain or BART, the truth of the matter is, you know, Caltrain is at capacity. We’ve got a Hillsdale Station closure here that’s happening where train service will be shifted to a different station.
EISENHART: Belmont right.
WEGENER: Back to Belmont. Right. And so this is an opportunity for folks who might have otherwise taken a shuttle to a Caltrain station to have a one-seat ride and actually minimize that last mile in San Francisco. Because right now, that Caltrain station is at Fourth and King and it’s not as conveniently located, if you will, as to where the FCX lands in San Francisco. So it was a great opportunity to find a ripe environment where we knew trips were happening, where we knew the transit connection currently wasn’t perfectly seamless, where we also had a really good opportunity given, you know, some of the Caltrain activities to highlight this as an option for folks looking to plan for the Hillsdale closure.
WEGENER: Then I think to give people choices, right? So take one mode in and take another mode out. That, you know, we all have different demands of our day. Depending on the weather, we may do different things.
WEGENER: And so I think that’s also what we’re learning is people like choices, and we should be good at giving them choices.
EISENHART: Yeah. And another thing that people are really concerned about is roadway and highway congestion. I mean, Foster City is one of the most congested areas in our county. It’s landlocked, it’s at the, it’s like the eye of the storm with two major highways, including 92 that go right through it and just really slow things down. So I know that that has been a really big priority.
LIEBERMAN: Not to mention spilling over onto those local streets and really causing havoc for the community.
WEGENER: Yeah, definitely. And you know, the next layer of this for us is really to look at how do we move those buses faster in these really congested arterials and roadways? And the managed lanes will really provide us that opportunity on US 101, but we need to continue to be bold and work with our city partners at getting transit signal priority wherever we can throughout our service area.
EISENHART: Right. Getting back to the specific route, what are some of the new features or what’s different about this? Right? You already mentioned that this is bi-directional. What are some of the other amenities or aspects of the route that are unique?
WEGENER: Yeah. So this is the first SamTrans service to run with Wi-Fi, which I think is pretty darn cool. So the buses that we have assigned to the service have, have Wi-Fi service available, which is great. We, when we first launched the service, we used an existing fleet of buses that we retrofit with the Wi-Fi. And we had a very good, challenging situation happen early on where we needed to increase the bus size. So we were able to deploy some of our newest articulated buses out on the service, and those buses also have, I believe they have chargers, USB chargers. So you’re guaranteed to get Wi-Fi if you’re riding the FCX. And if you are on one of the more heavily used runs, then you will also get a big 60-foot articulated bus that has really nice charging facilities.
LIEBERMAN: For any of our riders that are getting jealous, those same buses are also on the ECR. So feel free to take a ride up and down El Camino in style.
EISENHART: Yeah. And they’re gradually being worked into the rest of the fleet, as I understand it, in terms of that Wi-Fi capability.
LIEBERMAN: Yeah. That’s becoming just more standard with new generations of buses. So we expect to keep rolling that out throughout the system.
WEGENER: And it’s really nice for the FCX in particular. So we know this is a long route. Something that we’ve learned, that we’ve learned from just our regular riders is people take short trips on SamTrans, and this is a different market. These are people that are on the bus for an hour or more. So it’s really important that we give them opportunities to make more productive use of their time.
WEGENER: Maybe we should also pass out pillows for people who want to catch up on their sleep during their long ride.
EISENHART: Well, Dan has been talking about eye masks.
LIEBERMAN: Yeah. I wanted to give away, you know, branded eye masks.
WEGENER: I love it.
LIEBERMAN: Everyone told me that was not the — we wanted to give the workaholic vibe instead of taking that play.
WEGENER: I love that.
LIEBERMAN: It’s not how I live my life, but…
WEGENER: Sleep, baby, all the time.
EISENHART: So speaking of this unique service, let’s talk about fares, ’cause what’s happening with the fare on this route is unique to our other services.
EISENHART: What informed this?
WEGENER: So, you know, my group here is responsible for a lot of the policy and planning that goes on. And while we were working on this really great express bus study, we also were working on a somewhat of an unsexier project, a fare study, but nonetheless quite important. So we really wanted to understand how our ridership reacted to fare changes. Our fare structure was pretty complicated, and we wanted to simplify that. And so the board adopted their very first SamTrans fare policy in early 2019, which had, you know, there’s like five or six tenets of our fare policy, and then in accordance with our fare policy, we went through a public process to adopt new fares. And the board approved those in August.
There is a new category for express bus. Really SamTrans was almost unique in not having one, having worked for a few transit agencies, I think every single one I’ve worked for has had an express bus service and an associated fare. So it’s appropriate that SamTrans has initiated a new express bus fare because things take some time and there’s lots of really detailed work that has to go in behind the scenes to make a fair change happen.
WEGENER: We won’t go live with our fare change until January. So currently our FCX riders are riding for a round trip cost of, I believe —
EISENHART: Cash, yeah.
WEGENER: So, you know, local fare in, and our soon to be eliminated out of San Francisco fare out.
EISENHART: Right. Yeah, $2.25 in, $4 coming out of the city for Foster City residents. San Francisco, it’s the other way around, but yeah.
WEGENER: Yeah, and so in January, if you’re paying on Clipper, you will get a round trip on FCX for $8. So that’s $4 each way. If you’re cash or a mobile app, then you are at $9, which is $4.50 each way.
EISENHART: Got it.
WEGENER: Which is still a great deal, I would say.
EISENHART: Yeah. I mean, even when you compare the new fares starting January 1st on the FCX to local rail service, it’s still cheaper by the time you get to the station in terms of fares.
LIEBERMAN: Yeah. And driving is only cheaper if you feel your time is absolutely without value.
WEGENER: Yeah, for sure. No. And the FCX gives you an opportunity to be more productive with your time. I would be sleeping.
LIEBERMAN: I took a nap.
WEGENER: Dan and I would be snoozing with our FCX branded eye covers.
LIEBERMAN: Right. So we’ve taken that sort of high-level view. Let’s zoom down. We were out there for the onboard launch event on day one, bright and early in Foster City. What happened? What happened since then?
WEGENER: Oh, that was such a fun morning. That was so exciting. I was so proud to be part of that.
LIEBERMAN: If you can’t have fun at Foster City at 6:00 AM you’re just not trying very hard.
WEGENER: You really aren’t. So that was really super cool. We had two weeks of free rides, so we were really excited to see what the response would be. We had standing room only loads. We had to scramble and get some bigger buses out there. We, tooting SamTrans’ horn, that’s an, we did an amazing job getting those buses deployed. So kudos to our ops folks. And so now we’re, you know, in full swing, we are seeing steady ridership, like 400 to 500 trips a day, which is quite frankly what we expected six months after the route launched. You never know what you’re going to get, kind of like a box of chocolates. I really like Forrest Gump. But no, honestly, you never do know what you get. I have been at the helm leading several different service changes of many different levels over the past 15 years, and I’ve never, ever seen a route have such high ridership day one. It was such an amazing experience. And that ridership has sustained itself.
So we’re really, really focused now on how do we build that reverse commute ridership out or up? So these are the folks that are commuting to Foster City who currently reside in San Francisco. The commute direction was a little, it was easy for us, I think. It was a ripe market. We did some really great marketing. We mailed a postcard to every resident in Foster City, and so many people learned about the service from the postcard. I think that was like super, pleasantly surprising.
EISENHART: Yeah, especially in 2019.
WEGENER: Yeah, 2019. Right. Who would’ve thought printed stuff actually works? So that was cool. But we can’t mail a postcard to all of San Francisco, like that’s just not going to work. So we have to be a bit more strategic and really work with our employer partners within the city. We have to work with the city of Foster City and the Chamber as well, and maybe get creative. I keep telling the marketing people, we need taco trucks. Just because I’m very food motivated. But I think taco trucks would be an excellent offering and some kind of fun lunchtime event where you can actually bring a bus out and get people out there to talk about it and to see how this could work for them.
So, yeah, so I think we’re really, really pleased with the ridership, and we’re going to do our formal evaluation about six months in. My team will, we’ll go out and we’ll actually do a survey of the ridership to understand what people like, what they don’t like, what they were doing before, and then we’ll take that back through our board for approval sometime in the spring.
EISENHART: So, speaking of surveys, you did an onboard survey starting week two of the service.
WEGENER: We did. We did a little pulse survey. We threw it together. It was very, very cool, cool effort.
EISENHART: And so, I should also mention for some context with the marketing effort around this, the first two weeks of the service were free, as a way to try to encourage people to give the route a try given that it wasn’t there before. So with this survey, what kind of questions did we ask? And really what did we learn, I think is the big piece?
WEGENER: Yeah. So we wanted to know how people learned about the service. We wanted to know if this was someone’s first time riding SamTrans or if they were switching from a different mode. Were they taking a train? Were they taking a different bus? Were they taking a shuttle? We wanted to know how satisfied were they with very different components of the service, with the travel time, with the stop placement, with the schedule, with the availability of seats, with the onboard amenities. And I think we really wanted to understand how people would ride once the free service, once the free rides went away. We were trying to test that sensitivity.
EISENHART: Would they stay on?
WEGENER: So what we learned was that 45% of riders have never been on a SamTrans bus, which blew my mind as a Director of Planning because what you often hear is there’s a stigma associated with the bus riders. Folks don’t identify with, higher-income earning folks don’t identify.
LIEBERMAN: “I am not a bus person.”
WEGENER: Exactly. That’s for them. Right? So this really kind of shattered that mentality that I sort of carried that I think that maybe we, maybe folks are more open to trying different modes, if we can find the right fit, and we can provide the right service. So that really surprised me how many people are brand new to SamTrans and of those people, most, if not all of them, said they plan to continue to ride. So it was a good experience for them, which is very important. We get one bite at the apple. There’s a lot of choices out there, right? And the bus needs, we need to do bus service as well as we can.
And the second someone tries something, even if it’s free, and they have a bad experience, they probably won’t try you again. So that’s really important for SamTrans. That’s a lesson that we need to learn and apply as we roll out the five other express routes. We also wanted to know, well, how did people commute before this route?
EISENHART: Right, right. There’s a lot of mode shift.
WEGENER: Yeah, yeah. We learned that there were a number of riders that were making that commute in a car on their own. We also learned that there are a number of riders that were making that commute in their car to a Caltrain station or a BART station. So the combination of folks who were in their car for some or all of their trip before the FCX was about 30, 36% to 37%. So that’s, that’s a, that’s a big chunk.
EISENHART: That’s a lot of cars off of local roadways and Highway 101 because you have to get on 101 in order to get to Millbrae BART or Daly City BART.
WEGENER: Yep, you do. And then it frees up some capacity for those other two train modes, Caltrain and BART. So we had some folks who said they carpooled, and quite frankly, if you’re out of your car, I’m modal, modally agnostic. You can scooter yourself there, if you share a Lyft to a train station, if you take a train, if you take BART.
LIEBERMAN: I take a dog sled to work every morning.
WEGENER: Dog stands on a dog sled and that’s great, just get out of your car. We, SamTrans, should be at the table ready to provide the right — to add to the network
WEGENER: Of transportation in the Peninsula because people do different things on different days, and that’s actually what we’re learning. You’ll often see, hey, we have more riders in the morning than in the afternoon, and no, people aren’t just staying in Foster City forever. They’re coming home, but they do something different.
WEGENER: So, yeah, it’s important that SamTrans not just look at ourselves in a silo. We have to look beyond us, like at the other complementing transportation modes that are on the Peninsula.
ALEX EISENHART: So as part of the survey, we also got a lot of feedback in addition to rider data. What’s some of the initial feedback we’ve been getting on the route and some potential changes that might be coming in the future as a result of the initial survey, as well as the one you’re doing six months in?
WEGENER: Yep, sure. So we got a lot of very, very positive feedback. Folks saying this has changed their commute. It’s their first time using the bus. They love it. Definitely got a lot of feedback about making sure we had enough seats, you know, for express bus service, that’s on a corridor like 101 where the bus can be traveling 55 miles an hour. You want to make sure everyone’s in a seat. You’ll see, you can tolerate standees on your local routes because they’re not going very fast, but for a bus on the freeway, you need a seat. So definitely heard comments about that. One comment we got really early on which I loved hearing was that one of the stops that we had in San Francisco was not in the safest location. And SamTrans heard that comment. I think it was on day one or day two and made an adjustment to move that stop. And I actually spoke with one of the riders who had complained about that stop, and she was so very grateful that we were able to make that adjustment within the first three or four days of service launching.
We have also, we’re going to monitor the trip times. So currently the last bus leaves San Francisco, I think at 6:00 PM, and what we’ve heard is that folks might want a later departure. So we just have to keep our eyes open to that. Folks also do want frequency. So right now, the bus is every 30 minutes. To get to every 20 minutes, that’s actually what our study recommends, so our ultimate goal is to provide that 20 minute service. But right now I think we’re pretty solid with the 30 minute service with the larger buses, and that’ll just be something we have to monitor.
So, yeah. And then the survey we do in a few months, we’ll just — it will be a repeat of many of the questions that we included in our survey a few weeks ago. A little bit more detail. And our goal will be to try to survey every customer who’s riding the service at that time.
EISENHART: And so one thing that you brought up a little earlier, I’m curious more about your thoughts. The relatively low ridership in San Francisco or among San Francisco residents on this route? My observation is that I think a huge piece of it is a brand recognition issue. That in San Francisco, it’s Muni, Caltrain and BART, and quite possibly AC Transit, especially with their high service at Salesforce, that people recognize much more than they do SamTrans, even though we’ve been operating in and out of the city for a very long time historically. What are your thoughts on why ridership is low? And the reason why I’m so stuck on it is because the study projected that, what was it, 53, more than half of the demand for this route was among San Francisco residents, yet we’re seeing that they account for right now a small fraction of the ridership. So I’m curious as to your thoughts on that.
WEGENER: Yeah. I think the study projected 60% going from Foster City to SF and 40% the reverse.
EISENHART: Roughly, right.
WEGENER: And right now we’re seeing about 90/10 so to your point, yeah, we definitely have room to grow. So I have a couple of thoughts on why that’s a challenge. I think that, you know, again, psychology and modal choice. It is a reverse commute direction. So if you have a car and you’re commuting to Foster City, the pain of doing so, and I’m doing air quotes here for everyone who can’t see me, it’s less painful. You’re not paying for parking in Foster City. There’s likely to be parking available for you at your employer. The traffic coming on 101 isn’t as bad. So, you know, it’s a different. you know, we’re, we’re truly, truly trying to get people out of their cars who are, who are making that journey today.
Also, it’s just how to cast that net to inform those employees that this is available. It was easy, relatively easy, to draw a circle around Foster City and blanket the city with advertising and postcard mailers and this and that. San Francisco’s a much larger area, and so we couldn’t deploy the same marketing tactics. So right now, and one other thing I think that’s a challenge is there are some private shuttles that take people from parts, you know, on the Peninsula and beyond the Peninsula to Foster City employers. And again, I’m modally agnostic. That doesn’t bother me, but we’re not really, one of the thoughts I think we had in the study early on was could we come up with a really great robust service so that these private employers might not need to run some of their shuttles? So I think those discussions still need to be had. That’s relationship building. That’s us continuing to try to get our foot in the door with the employers, try to do a good job understanding where employees are coming from, and being open and willing to make adjustments based on what we’re hearing. So right now, it’s just getting our foot in the door.
We’ve got some great partnerships blooming out in Foster City. So it’s just a matter of, I think, really getting good information out there, tailoring information as best we can to the different employers, being open to doing different things. I think also not targeting the big employers because we think, ah, that’s the biggest bang for our buck, but maybe there’s the smaller employers that don’t have access to some of these bigger resources, like these shuttles, that might benefit from the service. So, and then it’s also making sure we have good, strong transportation demand management programs out there, that employers are offering transit benefits to their employees, whether it’s pre-tax transit fare or buying monthly passes or buying way-to-go passes for their employees. I mean, there’s other things that we can push that we can help the employers help us sell this. Elevator graphics. It’s, you know, putting schedules in lobbies. I like the grassroots. I want taco trucks everywhere. That’s just, again, you know, food thing for me.
LIEBERMAN: I think you just haven’t had lunch.
WEGENER: I know. I’m a little hungry, but yeah, I think, and word of mouth is also important. Some organic stuff on social media might be fun to do.
LIEBERMAN: Yeah, definitely more marketing and collaboration to be had.
EISENHART: We’re going to take a brief break. We’ll see if we can get Christy a granola bar or maybe even a taco if we’re lucky, and we’ll be back shortly.
LIEBERMAN: Today I’d like to talk with you about the comprehensive operational analysis being conducted by the San Mateo County Transit District.Phase one of the study begins.
EISENHART: I feel like you’re underselling this a little bit.
EISENHART: Yeah. I mean, this product is a pretty big deal.
LIEBERMAN: Oh, fine. Then you sell it.
EISENHART: Hmm, okay. Introducing Reimagine SamTrans. An opportunity for San Mateo County residents to tell SamTrans what you like about the service and how we can do better. We’re diving deep into our bus network to reinvent the service from the ground up. This project will create a stronger, more reliable transportation system to better meet the public transit and mobility needs of those who live and work on the Peninsula.
LIEBERMAN: So run, don’t walk, to the project website, ReimagineSanTrans.com to find out more.
EISENHART: Why are you still listening? Go to the website now.
LIEBERMAN: And we’re back with Christy Wegener talking about the new FCX route. So we’ve talked a lot about where we are at the moment. What about what the future holds? Particularly with the express bus study, what other routes are coming down the pipe?
WEGENER: Okay. So that’s exciting. We’ve got, as I’ve said before, the express bus study identified six routes. So we’ve got FCX up and running, and we have five more. The first phase of express buses is FCX in a route we’re calling the PAX, P-A-X, which is our Palo Alto Express. So this one is actually is a little unique. This one does not run on the 101 Corridor. So when we were doing our express bus data collection, we noticed a clustering of trips from what we’ve dubbed Western San Francisco to Palo Alto and the Stanford area. So while we aren’t necessarily facilitating a lot of people from San Mateo County going to either of those locations, Western San Francisco or Palo Alto, it is an opportunity to remove cars off of 280, which will improve congestion for the San Mateo County residents. So this route is slated to launch sometime in late 2020. So we are working internally to do the scheduling and service planning and doing all the really nitty gritty turn by turn planning that is required for the second express route.
Then we have four other routes, all of which will be operating on the 101 Corridor. We have one route that we also find with bi-directional purpose. So that meaning it goes northbound and southbound in the morning, and that would be coming from East Palo Alto, going to the San Bruno BART, but also making stops along 101. One at Redwood Shores and one in SFO at the SFO airport.
LIEBERMAN: And that route got some particular attention, didn’t it?
WEGENER: It did. I am so excited to talk about this route. So we partnered with Eden Housing and the City of East Palo Alto to pursue an AHSC grant, which is Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities. It’s California State money, and basically it brings quite a chunk of change to advance the affordable housing development. And so we have received a grant award of $2.25 million to purchase three electric buses to support this route that will operate probably in the next three years.
So it’s a really beautiful marriage of affordable housing and high quality transit. And the program also brings transit passes for residents for three years, which is great. So not only are we getting capital money to supply buses for the service, for the electric buses, and this is in a community with, you know, it’s a disadvantaged community. So we need to make sure, you know, we’re deploying the right resources and the folks in this housing development will have transit passes and will be able to have a high quality connection to BART, to the airport, to other major employers along 101 in the very near future. So that’s very exciting.
LIEBERMAN: Now of course, we’re talking about express buses. There’s always going to be someone who says, well, what about the tech buses? Aren’t they doing that same thing? So, it’s did we steal their idea or did they steal ours?
WEGENER: Oh, chicken and the egg, egg and the chicken. You know, I don’t know. I don’t think — I’m going to just not answer that question directly because I don’t know what the answer is. But what I’ll say is, I think tech buses are — they have a very unique advantage in the Bay Area in that they serve a regional market where the local transit agencies are really not well equipped or well designed to serve. And they also serve a very niche market. So they are able to pick people up and drop them at their employers’ front door, you know, in some cases on a mega campus.
So you know, I would love to learn more about the private shuttle network. We’ve learned some of it. We’ve learned some things about where these buses are coming from, where they’re going. I think there’s room for all of us to help solve the transportation crisis in the Bay Area. The tech buses are lovely in that they help us solve the housing and jobs imbalance. They are able to cross jurisdictional lines and that can be a very costly service for SamTrans to provide. If we took a bus into Marin County, that would be very, very expensive for us. But the shuttle companies are able to do that, and I think that’s great. I would love to, again, learn more about the service they offer, so we can complement them, because it’s not a competition from my perspective. Again, it’s getting people out of their cars and improving congestion for everyone.
LIEBERMAN: Back to that modal agnosticism.
LIEBERMAN: Really, as long as you’re not driving alone, you’re part of the solution.
EISENHART: So as we roll out these future express bus routes, what are some lessons learned that we know now from the FCX that will inform future express routes?
WEGENER: So we are learning, we’re learning. I mean, how do I say this? We’re learning about the amenities people like, right?
WEGENER: We’re learning what people want a seat. We are learning people like WiFi, and they want to be able to charge their phone. That’s great. What I think is something we have to be willing to learn as we are service planning every route is what is the right schedule for this trip, for these trips, because for the PAX route, which is the second route, we’re looking at serving Stanford Research Park, Stanford University, and Stanford Hospital. And each of those places has different hours. The hospital workers want to get there at 6:00 AM. So that means I need to get a bus out of San Francisco at 4:30 in the morning or 4:00 in the morning. That may not be the case for all of these routes. So I think what we learned from FCX is that we need to pay attention to the commuting patterns, to really the trip purpose we are trying to serve for each of these routes. We can’t be standardized with it.
WEGENER: Okay. 7:00, 7:30, 8:00 8:30. People do different things. They do different things at different times of the day, different days of the week. We’re also learning that for some employers, they let their employees have a, you know, folks can check their email for an hour, and then really stay in the office for only six hours. And then the hour of their commute is part of their workday.
LIEBERMAN: Sure, sure.
WEGENER: So your traditional scheduling doesn’t apply. So that’s what I would say we learned, is that we have to be willing to continue to learn for all of these services.
LIEBERMAN: Right, right. So how do we collaborate with companies that are seeking mass transit solutions for their employees?
WEGENER: We always are having our ears open to listen to employers that want service. We have a process in which we receive service requests, and we evaluate them, and three times a year we modify our service. Can we do a better job? Yes. Should we do a better job? Yes. I think we’re limited with our resources. We only have so many buses, so many drivers. And you know, in many cases, employers have stepped up to fill the need that they see. I mean, we have a very robust private, not only the big, private shuttle buses, but small, first/last mile shuttles through Commute.org or through Caltrain that exists throughout the San Mateo County.
So we need to continue to collaborate, to work together. We need to just build those relationships and be at the table. We need to make sure we’re going to outreach to the Chambers of Commerce. We need to make sure we’re going to the right board meetings. And that we’re listening, and that they get that feedback from us. If there’s an idea that we can’t meet, there’s a reason why, and that’s communicated, so that people don’t think they’re just talking and no one’s listening to them.
EISENHART: So you had mentioned earlier the importance of taking a regional approach in addressing the transportation problems of the Bay Area, and that a lot of that has to do with the distance, the growing distance between job centers and housing. Can you talk a little bit about how express routes can play a role in improving transportation when looked at regionally?
WEGENER: Sure. So, yeah, we’ve got a kind of a housing crisis. It feels really painful out here in San Mateo County and the housing that’s available is very expensive, and you are seeing those most vulnerable populations kind of being kind of resegregated throughout the Bay Area and San Mateo County. You are seeing folks really gravitate towards that one-seat ride, people willing to drive a distance to get on a train so that they don’t have to transfer. Something that express bus can do, again, this is atypical for SamTrans. These are longer trips that currently our riders are — the trip length is less than five miles. So these are, you know, 10, 15, 20 mile long trips. They have a regional purpose. In some cases, for the express bus study in particular, when we started it, one of the routes originated in Santa Clara County because we saw that potential. And it really speaks to, you know, how can buses, especially if there are, if the infrastructure is there to move buses faster and more reliably, how can regional buses come into play to better assist the Bay Area with addressing the jobs and housing imbalance?
There’s a lot of talk about regional express buses. People don’t care what jurisdiction they’re in. I don’t, some people don’t even know what jurisdiction they’re in. So travel patterns don’t lock, line up with jurisdictions. Unfortunately, transit funding does. And so we, transit agencies, sometimes have our blinders on, and we kind of really just think about our tax base and where we’re getting our funding from, but that doesn’t really necessarily move the needle where it needs to be moved because there’s regional travel issues.
WEGENER: And we don’t — like in Toronto or Vancouver or even LA, you’ll see these mega transit agencies that have their lines going, and Washington DC they’re going everywhere, so you have this kind of regional layer of transit. And we have regional transit here, but it’s different, different operators. So I think the regional express bus conversation is just going to grow, especially as the housing continues to get pinched. SamTrans has a role in that. Do people care if a SamTrans bus takes them one direction and a VTA bus takes them the other? I don’t know. If the fares are integrated, if there’s some cohesive branding, and the scheduling is solid, then I don’t know if it matters to passengers who’s actually driving that bus. So this is my opinion. It may not be a popular one, but our express bus study is giving us kind of, we’re dipping our toe back into the pool of this, kind of looking at regional, how to can SamTrans help serve that regional market.
LIEBERMAN: So let’s look at the argument though around money. So I mean, if someone does argue, well, you know, this is San Mateo County’s tax dollars going to move people from Santa Clara County to San Francisco County or whatever, how does that benefit me? There is a very logical answer to that question, right?
WEGENER: Yeah. Oh, definitely. The more people that we can get on buses, and the more cars we can get off of 101 or 280, then the better traffic congestion will be for everyone. So even if as a San Mateo County resident, you are never going to ride a bus, or there’s not a bus that takes you where you need to go, being supportive of good bus service, being supportive of getting more people onto buses will only improve your quality of life from a traffic perspective. So I definitely think everybody, everywhere should support more bus service, for sure.
LIEBERMAN: Said with no bit of bias whatsoever. I think it’s also worth pointing out the SamTrans’ mission statement, while certainly it says that it’s supposed to help people get around without the use of a car, it also states it’s supposed to reduce congestion and get cars off the road. This is really fundamental to the SamTrans mission.
WEGENER: Yeah. You know, in particular to the one route in the express bus study that really is seemingly, if you look at the line on the map, it looks like it doesn’t serve San Mateo County, which is the PAX route going from Western San Francisco to San Mateo, or to Stanford. We do actually have a stop in San Mateo County, and we’re really going through the fine tuning of the service planning process right now. We think there might be some opportunity for folks from Pacifica to drive to a park and ride and take this route to Stanford. So it’s just about finding the right market, but also making sure that the route integrity remains intact. We’ve done this sort of data-driven exercise with coming up with route concepts. We had great success with the Foster City route deployment. And so the planning team here, we’re a bit, we’re perfectionists. We really believe in our work, but we also understand that the reality is that there will be adjustments that need to be made once we’re actually getting into the real, getting into the weeds of the service planning. So I think all of the express bus routes, all six of them, have strong potential to move people from San Mateo County. They have strong potential to remove cars from both 280 and 101 to improve congestion through San Mateo County.
EISENHART: So let’s continue to play devil’s advocate for a minute. What do you say to someone who argues that something like route FCX is cannibalizing from other transit agencies? Is that, would that be the right way to characterize it or is that even a bad thing?
WEGENER: From my perspective, I mean to cannibalize means to take a bunch of stuff from, and I don’t think that’s happening. I haven’t heard that Caltrain is empty or BART is empty. So I think if we are seeing people make a shift, then that just means that something, there’s something about the service we’re offering that works better for them.
LIEBERMAN: I was on Caltrain this morning. I can say definitively, it is not empty.
WEGENER: Okay. So you know, again, we’re learning what people want and people don’t always want the same thing twice a day, every day. Right? So it’s about a network. It’s about a complement of services. It’s about choices. It’s about integration and coordination. So, no, I don’t, I really don’t like to use the word cannibalize. There is so much traffic that there’s room for all of us to have a hand in solving and providing us solutions.
LIEBERMAN: And furthermore, if someone’s driving a half an hour from Foster City to Millbrae, that’s not like, yes, they’re using transit once they get to BART. But that’s not an ideal transit solution by any means. Not for them or for our larger environment.
WEGENER: Not at all. Not at all. Pleasantly, we saw that there were quite a few people making that, the first five or seven miles with their car and then getting onto transit. So that one-seat ride matters. People are willing to try new things if it works for them. So I think that’s really the lesson that we learned.
LIEBERMAN: And of course, we’ve got US 101 express lanes coming up in 2022. how does that affect the future of these express bus routes?
WEGENER: Well, that is really, that was the impetus behind the whole study is how do we take advantage of these lanes? So what that’s going to do is improve the travel time, and the speed, and the reliability for all the express routes that are running on that corridor.
EISENHART: Just —
LIEBERMAN: I’m sorry. What?
EISENHART: Yeah, no, I was just going to say, and just for some background, for folks who may not know, the US 101 express lanes project currently under construction is going to add express lanes, or FasTrak lanes, I should say, between the Santa Clara, San Mateo County border and go all the way up about 20 some odd miles to I380 in San Bruno and 101.
LIEBERMAN: Yeah. And those lanes are going to be key to keep people going at about 45 miles an hour, which is going to be, I imagine, quite a bit faster.
WEGENER: Yeah. So you know, having the bus that is making its journey, the majority of its journey on 101 to have a guarantee of 45 miles an hour, I mean, that’s a bus planner’s dream right there. So that what I think is interesting in learning from the FCX, it’s not necessarily so much about the travel time. People are willing to take a trip that might be as long as what they’re currently doing, or even a little longer. But if it’s a reliable service, meaning it’s on time consistently.
EISENHART: You don’t have to transfer.
WEGENER: Right. You don’t have to transfer, and you can predictably, you know, you’re getting into work when you think you will rather than what we have today is a lot of variability on 101. One incident will shut down that whole roadway. So now there’s still the incidents when we have the express lanes for sure, but we’re not subject, you know, that lane will be somewhat protected, if you will, and that travel time will be maintained. So that’s just, you know, we’re talking about how people make decisions. Having a bus that is flying by or driving very quickly by a line of cars can also have a very, it can have a psychological impact on the ridership. And we should definitely be looking to the express lanes for our marketing of our express buses in the next few years. I mean, that reliability will be huge for the service and for the customers.
EISENHART: So express lanes are definitely happening. They’re very exciting. What are other potential infrastructure improvements that would continue to make buses more reliable or attractive to riders?
WEGENER: So, thank you for asking that question. I definitely have an opinion about that. I will first say that the US 101 express bus study identified some infrastructure improvements, so park and ride expansion opportunities. So giving people a place to drive to where that bus can pick up, so really minimizing the time the bus is sort of meandering in the neighborhood and giving people a nice collection point to get on that bus. Making sure we have good bus stop amenities, that we have the shelters in the right place, that we have good first/last mile opportunities, whether those are bike share or something else. So those infrastructure improvements were identified as a part of the study. A thing that I’m particularly passionate about is transit signal priority. So anything we can do to get buses just moving a little bit faster than cars is very important. So looking for opportunities for Q-Jump lanes, which is where a bus would get a little, its own signal to jump ahead of a queue of cars at a traffic intersection. That would be awesome. Looking at how are the ramps onto 101? Are there any opportunities for bus on shoulder movements? These are bold. These are scary. People don’t always like these ideas, but I think if we’re going to move the needle and deliver what we need to deliver to San Mateo County, we have to be bold, and we have to think outside of just bus service.
LIEBERMAN: And really like a lot of people talk about the bus like it’s old fashioned, but ultimately it doesn’t have to be, provided we embrace the innovation that’s happened in the field and make the bus as successful as it could be. But if you stick it on the same road that existed in the ’50s it’s just going to be limited in terms of how much we can achieve.
WEGENER: Yeah, definitely. And buses, to your point, are getting smarter. We need to make sure we have quality, real-time information for our customers. This is something that SamTrans is stepping into with our mobile app. We do have some real-time information on our app. I think it could be better, for sure. And this is what riders, commuting riders are expecting. If we’re asking people to spend an hour of their day with us on our bus and actually be productive with that time, we need to give them the tools to do so. So, yeah, I think infrastructure matters. I think better bus service matters. And I think that as we continue to listen to our riders, that’s what we’ll be learning.
EISENHART: So just to wrap up here, we’ve talked about some of the next steps. The PAX is launching, currently slated for sometime in 2020. We’re going to be launching the remainder of those routes within the next five years. What else is coming in the future that will have an impact on SamTrans service or regional transportation in and around San Mateo County?
WEGENER: Well, we have a very, very exciting project called Reimagine SamTrans that is an 18-month long study, and it’s really taking a look holistically at the network of routes. It’s getting as deep into the weeds as one could possibly get with a study. And the end result will be a new SamTrans network that will be approved by our board and implemented in 2021.
So what is that going to look like? I don’t know. All I know is I’m really excited to be leading that project because we are taking a data-driven, customer-centered approach to decision making. We’re also looking regionally, we’re connecting with our regional advocates and partners to understand what opportunities SamTrans will have for growth and expansion over the next few years. We’re looking at what Caltrain’s doing in their business plan. As that corridor transforms, and as the railroad transforms, there will be opportunities for SamTrans to provide new service. So there is so much on the table right now. It’s very, very, it’s a very exciting time to be here.
We are also completing our evaluation of our very first microtransit service. So that is something we launched a few months ago. And I think that has a home in SamTrans’ family of services as well. So we’ll be taking our on-demand pilot for an evaluation this fall, and that’s great. So yeah, a lot coming and a lot of regional stuff coming as well. So a lot of talk about regional express bus, looking at regional fare integration and coordination opportunities. So I think our riders have a lot to look forward to. And I think if anyone has an opinion about what could be different at SamTrans, now is the time to talk because we are listening.
EISENHART: And where can people go to have their voice heard on this subject?
WEGENER: At reimagineSamTrans.com is the project website. You can also just go to SamTrans.com and contact us through customer service.
LIEBERMAN: Christy, thanks so much for being here with us today.
WEGENER: Thank you for having me. I adore working with the two of you.
EISENHART: We like working with you too.
LIEBERMAN: That’s it for this month. Special thanks to Christy Wegener for talking to us today.
EISENHART: And if you’d like to learn more about ride FCX, vishit SamTrans – “vishit?” Listen to me. Visit SamTrans.com/FCX.
LIEBERMAN: We’ll see you next month here at Wheel Talk.