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In S.F., Contest Winners Will Straighten Out Caltrain Station Mess

Back in October, the Schmidt Family Foundation announced its “Just Transit SF Challenge,” a contest to come up with good transit improvement ideas that can be implemented quickly. The three winners were announced this month.

Bike lanes as currently configured at Caltrain. Photo: Aaron Bialick
The current street situation at Caltrain. Photo: Aaron Bialick
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The $125,000 first prize went to RideScout and TransForm, which are partnering to improve transit using financial incentives. In many cities, off-peak transit tickets are discounted to encourage people to ride trains and buses when they are less crowded. This project exploits modern technology to take things further, offering discounts for people to ride when loads are light or even encouraging them to use a less direct route if it will reduce crowding.

The grant will pay for the fare discounts the first year, during which the grantees will study to what extent financial incentives can work, using smart phone technology, to change travel patterns. After that, they'll have to get SFMTA and BART to buy in. That may mean charging more at peak times and on heavily-crowded routes to offset the expense. Either way, it should bring in more revenue by making sure trains and buses have fewer empty seats on off-peak routes. In this sense, the project is trying to apply the kind of math airlines use to make sure planes don't fly with empty seats.

Another winner addresses a problem that's all too tangible to anyone who has ever used Caltrain's King Street Station.

“Curbing the Caltrain Cluster,” which won a $50,000 award, is a joint project from Livable City and Lyft. How will it work? Suppose you get off your Caltrain and need a Lyft. The way things work now, you end up wandering past Muni buses, bikes, cars, and through the taxi queue trying to find your ride. “Curbing the Caltrain Cluster” proposes numbered stalls, so that when you call your Lyft, Uber, or whatever service, it also tells you to go to stall number 9, for example.

So when a Lyft driver heads over to Caltrain and looks at his app, “It will say your rider will proceed to 'X' location,” explained Scott Reinstein, development and communications director for Livable City. The plan is also to separate cars, buses, and bikes as much as possible.

“Most of the funding will be spent on outreach, design charrettes, public meetings and building stakeholder support,” said Reinstein. And, of course, "the design itself." That may result mostly in better paint markings and signage.

Ideally, the street design would also separate bicycle traffic from cars and buses discharging passengers. Reinstein noted that a raised or separated bike lane would cost more than the entire grant amount, but he hopes their efforts will get the SFMTA moving toward protected bike lanes on the approaches to the station.

A second $50,000 award went to People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Justice (PODER), which will team up with schools "to provide low-income youth and families in the Mission and Excelsior districts with the knowledge, tools and resources to incorporate bicycling and bike sharing into their daily lives."

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