#49 – Bicycle Access on Caltrain

San Francisco Bay Area, California

Peter S. Tannen, Bicycle Program Manager City & County of San Francisco





Caltrain bicycle accommodation is the San Francisco Bay Area bicycle success story, making it the least restrictive and most accessible rail system in the United States for bicycles.1 Caltrain runs 124 km (77 mi) southeast from San Francisco through Silicon Valley to San Jose, CA (and Gilroy during peak-hours). It operates 75 bi-level (gallery) car trains each weekday (27,200 riders per day) and provides more limited weekend and holiday service. It is one of the few U.S. rail systems to carry bicycles on all trains.

A September 1997 count showed almost 2,000 bicycles carried (7.5 percent of the total riders), not including cyclists denied boarding due to capacity constraints. Increased ridership because of cyclists repaid the startup costs within six months and is now a revenue source.


In 1977 the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) filed for abandonment of its San Francisco–San Jose commute line. From 1977 to the early ’80s, the campaign for bicycle access (other than encased folding bicycles) and continuance of train service, was led by two bicycle advocates, Ellen Fletcher and Darryl Skrabak (of the Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bicycle Coalitions, respectively). By arguing that bicycle access would increase ridership and by submitting petitions with 2,500 signatures, they helped defeat the abandonment. The state and three counties of the San Francisco-San Jose Metropolitain Area began subsidizing the train service.

In 1980, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) assumed management of the line, renamed Caltrain, and contracted operations to the SP. Bicycle access was still denied, but cyclists continued their campaign, resulting in a four-month demonstration program in 1982. Twelve off-peak trains permitted up to five bicycles at the conductors’ discretion. SP refused to continue bicycle access without payment for additional liability insurance.2 (Later research in 1987 showed that no insurance claims were filed against any U.S. railroad because of bicycle transport.)

Three years after this demonstration’s success (up to 100 bicycles per week), Caltrain began a year to a year-and-a-half review of the 1982 demonstration, contacted the 12 North American rail operators with bicycle access, spoke to local bicycle groups, reviewed literature and took bicycles on board out-of-service trains. Caltrans’ Roger Hooson completed an in-depth report in 1987 supporting bicycle access and recommending another demonstration, providing groundwork for the current program, while acknowledging a key capacity constraint. Bringing bicycles through the narrow vestibules of commuter rail cars increases train dwell times at stations.

A Metropolitan Transportation Commission study also supported bicycle access, stating that “allowing bicycles on trains could increase the utilization of rail for short trips where bicycle access represents a reasonable alternative to the car.”3 To the north and east, bicycle access already was provided by the Bay Area Rapid Transit District and bay ferries. SP access would add two counties to the five with existing bicycle-on-transit access.

By July 1992, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board was formed by San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties to purchase Caltrain and contract operations to Amtrak. Caltrans oversaw operations and planning and the San Mateo County Transit District managed the line. Bicycle access still was not provided. After a 1992 meeting of more than 200 people, a Bicycle Advisory Committee was formed.4 Cyclists attended hearings, wrote letters, and the Caltrain Citizens Advisory Committee approved resolutions.

At the request of Peninsula Rail 2000 (a Caltrain commuter’s advocacy group) and the Citizen Advisory Committee, language was included in Caltrain’s Short Range Transit Plan requiring bicycle access. After more lobbying, a second demonstration project began in September 1992. Four bicycles were permitted in the aisle on all but peak﷓hour trains. Free permits were required.

Through the efforts of the Bicycle Advisory Committee and another dedicated bicycle advocate, Lawrence M. “Cap” Thomas, bicycle access was expanded in 1994. Seats were removed to allow installation of four-bicycle racks with securement cords, based upon Cap’s design. When he first approached the Joint Powers Board with this idea, they rejected it because of the lack of funds. Cap asked if the project could be implemented if he secured funding and was told yes. He obtained $30,000 of San Francisco’s bicycle and pedestrian funds, and the installation of the racks began. Additional racks were subsequently funded by the city of Menlo Park and the Joint Powers Board. Cap was the recipient of a Metropolitan Transportation Commission Transportation Award and a Caltrain Silver Spike Award for his efforts.

Bicycle areas identified by car-exterior graphics were created in 52 cars. Caltrain decreased the peak-hour bicycle restrictions in steps as experience showed no major problems. By May 1995, when the permit requirement was dropped, more than 9,600 permits were issued and twelve bicycles (four in each of three cars) were allowed on specified trains. Some trains (generally reverse-commute expresses) lacked capacity. Increasing numbers of bicyclists were left to wait for the following local train. In July 1996, timetables were adjusted slightly to account for bicycle loading and unloading at popular stations, evidence of further bicycle accommodation.

Evaluation and Results

Racks have been consolidated to fewer cars. All trains now have at least one special bicycle car. Twenty-four bicycles are stored on racks in the front of the bicycle section (four bicycles on each of six racks). Cyclists sit in the rear on remaining seats on the lower or upper levels, in sight of the bicycles. Signs request non-bicyclists sit in other cars. The window information sheets explain bicycle stowage procedures.

Some cyclists have been turned away in past years when trains regularly reached bicycle capacity, especially reverse-commute trains. In response to high demand, an extra bicycle car is sometimes added to some of these trains (used by San Francisco residents with jobs in Silicon Valley), increasing capacity to 48. Caltrain identifies the usual trains that have two bike cars and strives to offer two bike cars on these trains as consistently as possible. Since the main San Francisco station is about a mile from Market Street (the downtown transit corridor), many San Francisco residents would have to take two buses to reach the station. At the work end of the trip, transit service is less frequent with less coverage, since this area is suburban. Therefore, bicycle access for most reverse-commuters is ideal. Without it, many of these reverse-commuters would probably drive cars.

Major rules include: first come, first serve bicycle space for clean, single-rider bicycles; no conductor loading assistance; cyclist at least 16 years old; bicycles secured by bungee cords (provided) and closely attended by rider; boarding and detraining quickly upon arrival at station after passengers exit; conductor’s authority is final; and use of destination tags is strongly encouraged. Cyclists never have been charged extra for bicycles.

Thirteen percent of responses to a November 1994 Caltrain passenger survey stated they use the bicycle-on-board program and 43 percent of these reported no problems. Commonly cited bicycle-related problems (decreasing response frequency) included: inadequate capacity, interactions with conductors, adequate seating, inadequate information, bicycles in aisles or vestibules, and “bicycle conditions.” Eighteen percent said more bicycle access would enable them to use a bicycle as part of their trip.

Bicycles were counted as part of annual ridership counts since 1994, all conducted during the same period. Although February 1998 shows a drop in bicycles, it was during the height of the area’s second rainiest winter. A September 1997 count showed 1,961 bicycles carried on 65 trains (one train omitted) averaging 17 bicycles per train. Five northbound and five southbound trains exceeded capacity.5 Cyclists unable to board because of bicycle capacity limitations were not counted.

Besides transportation, cyclists are brought together in one car with an opportunity for conversation, creating a sense of community. Arranging bicycles in first-out in-front order creates a reason to talk and interact. When regular bicycle commuters see first-time bicycle car users, they explain the bicycle stowing procedure. Caltrain facilitates this process by providing bicycle destination tags. Many bicycle commuters are also bicycle activists, so their commute gives them a meeting place for discussions and follow-up e-mails.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The major problem with this program is its success and peak demand. Cyclists are sometimes denied access during peak commute times because of lack of bicycle space. Caltrain could try to obtain additional funds to secure more bicycle cars or retrofit more cars with racks so more bicycles can be carried per train. Neither is likely in the near future. Caltrain acquired additional cars in 1999 but replaced older cars in need of overhaul. However, more trains will be operated beginning in 2004, resulting in additional bicycle capacity.

The Caltrain Bicycle-on-Board Program shows what can be accomplished by dedicated bicycle activists and a cooperating transit operator. In 1977, at a Public Utilities Commission SP abandonment hearing, a staff attorney said that these trains could become “a national model.” He did not have bicycle transportation in mind, but in that realm, Caltrain has become a national model.



Peter S. Tannen
Bicycle Program Manager City & County of San Francisco
S.F. Department of Parking and Traffic
25 Van Ness Avenue, #345
San Francisco, CA 94102-6033
(415 )554-2396
415-554-2352 (Fax)

1The State of Caltrain Report, Fall 1996, Caltrain

2Caltrans paid SP an extra $73,200 (or more than $100/bicycle trip) in insurance costs for the four-month bicycle demonstration. At the time, Caltrans was paying SP $400,000 annually for general liability insurance.

3Peninsula Route 101 Study, Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Oakland, CA, September, 1984

4The Caltrain BAC meets at least quarterly and includes cyclists from each county, JPB staff, Amtrak/Caltrain management, and conductors. It provides bicycle access technical guidance.

5Caltrain Bicycle Program Memo, Caltrain, October 1, 2021