Caltrain covets cyclists’ cash

If you think congestion pricing only applies to cars, think again. While still in its infancy, an idea is afoot in which cyclists would pay for the privilege of pedaling onto Caltrain during peak commute times.

As Caltrain continues to break ridership records — nearly 40,000 people board trains each weekday — one of the groups most affected by overcrowding has been bicyclists, who must board cars equipped with bike racks at the end of trains.

Six percent of weekday Caltrain riders lug their bikes onboard, many of whom say they are regularly “bumped” from trains during peak commute hours.

From July 1, 2007, through June 30, 2008, Caltrain carried 11.96 million riders, up 8.6 percent from fiscal year 2007, and the highest annual ridership in the railroad’s 145-year history. At the same time, it faces a $5 million deficit.

Marisa Espinosa, the commuter-train system’s manager of planning and research, said Caltrain staff will explore managing future demand through a pricing program in which cyclists would pay an extra fee to bring bikes on board during crowded commute times.

However, it remains to be seen whether congestion pricing for nonmotorists would gain enough support to move forward.

“I’m not crazy about that idea,” Caltrain boardmember Jerry Hill said. “We want to encourage people to use their bicycle, and during peak commute is when people need transit,” he said. “Many people who ride bicycles don’t have the luxury of having other forms of transportation and I don’t think we should penalize them for doing the right thing.”

Cyclist Shirley Johnson, who commutes on Caltrain from San Francisco to Foster City, called the pricing program “a really bad idea.”

“In their minds, the idea would be to charge enough money so the customers go away. The customers are not the problem,” Johnson said.

On Monday, Caltrain will release its draft bicycle plan to little fanfare from cyclists. Bikers complain that the new plan doesn’t add any additional bike cars and doesn’t transform any seats into bike space.

Caltrain officials says the plan will add plenty of new bike parking at its stations but concede that with ridership at an all-time high, boarding with a bike can be an exercise in frustration.

“I think they’ve got very legitimate complaints, and I sympathize with them. We’re doing more than any other transit agency and, sadly, it’s not enough,” Hill said.

Caltrain planners also will study the feasibility of an Amsterdam-style bike-share program, though that is also not without challenges.

“The only problem here is we have more people who would rip off the bikes from the station,” said Sue Lempert, Caltrain’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission liaison.

Another Caltrain recommendation to accommodate cyclists is a subsidy to encourage foldable bikes.

tbarak@sfexaminer.com

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