Bikes on Caltrain

[Note: this page was written sometime in 2008, when I lived on the San Francisco Peninsula.]

Taking my bike on Caltrain is both good and bad. On the one hand, it saves me about 45 minutes a day and flexes my schedule by making more trains accessible to me. I ride to and from the Mountain View station, which is a little farther, but has many more trains stopping at it. (My route is recorded on, if that sort of thing interests you.) I get more heart-rate raising exercise, although it’s shorter in duration. And it’s a nice ride mostly.

On the other hand, the trains are really crowded with bikes. Loading can be a huge hassle and your bike will get scratched. And I’ve a few times seen people not allowed on because of a full car. This is not that frequent except on certain trains at certain stations, but it does happen and can be a pain. I wish they had another bike car per train, but I understand that they have to deal with capacity issues for normal passengers too. I was on the Technical Advisory Group for the Caltrain Bike Master Plan that should be publicly presented fairly soon and there was lots of discussion about the challenges and ways to handle them. Some of it is about choices, too — secure ways to leave bikes at stations, or alternate onward transit arrangements. I have a choice about whether to bring my bike on board, and I have to decide if the occasional hassle is worth it.

Physically, manhandling a bike up onto the train can be a challenge. Then I have to muck around with finding a place to attach it. Caltrain uses a fairly space-efficient but annoying system of stacking four bikes together, attached to a frame by bungee cord, with eight of these attachments per old-style gallery car (only four per new Bombardier car — one reason I’m not a fan of those, even though they’re much easier to board). This necessitates having the last-off bikes on the outside, which is impossible to achieve since people are always getting on and off at different points. So a lot of shuffling has to occur, which eats into my sitting time. And the train ride home is really short since it’s the bullet that goes direct to Menlo Park, no stops at San Antonio, Cal Ave, or Palo Alto. So I never get much done on the train anymore.

Sometimes I do a pure riding commute instead. It’s taken me a while to compass routinely riding my 9.5-mile route, but it’s fundamentally a pleasant route (half of it down the Palo Alto Bryant Bike Boulevard, a paradise for cyclists) and is a great way to get a proper workout.