By Will Reisman, @WillReisman
Stanford University, the original pioneer of Caltrain’s Go Pass Program, has opened up the option to purchase the pass to graduate students and post-doctoral scholars in pilot programs announced for those users this year. The university also continues to roll out an extensive outreach and distribution effort to encourage participation by making it more convenient to pick up passes around campus and off campus. At the same time, crowded Caltrain is receiving inquiries from more and more Peninsula-based companies about the program. It’s an enviable problem: skyrocketing ridership is generating additional demand for space for more riders.
Caltrain is working on addressing those capacity demands through long-term electrification and short-term purchases of additional rail equipment. The system’s capacity crunch has its roots in the synergistic early 2000’s launch of both the Baby Bullet express service and the future-looking Go Pass Program. Back in the early 2000s, Stanford University entered into an agreement with the County of Santa Clara saying it would not increase peak trips during the life of the General Use Permit for its campus in Palo Alto. As a way to improve the commute for its workers and embrace more environmentally responsible travel habits, Stanford began talks with Caltrain around the concept of a large-scale, employee-based public transportation program. Initially dubbed the U Pass (University Pass) and based on the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority’s Eco Pass, the transportation initiative was eventually rebranded the Go Pass and allowed Stanford and other organizations to purchase unlimited travel for its employees as a way to encourage them to stop driving alone to work.
“The Go Pass Program definitely came around at the right time for Stanford,” said Brian Shaw, the university’s Director of Parking & Transportation Services. “As the campus was projected to grow, the number of employees who were driving alone to work needed to be reduced. Adding more cars, traffic and emissions would not be sustainable.” Since participating in the Go Pass program (which currently costs about $180 per passenger per year), the rate of university employees driving alone to work has dropped from 72 percent in 2002 to 49 percent today, Shaw said. Stanford has seen the program take off over the years. In 2007, the university had about 1,342 university employees who said they primarily used Caltrain for their commute. By 2014, that number had grown to 2,099 employees, a 56 percent increase, according to Stanford’s annual transportation surveys. The Go Pass growth hasn’t just been limited to Stanford either. The university was the first institution to use Caltrain’s Go Pass and its success helped pave the way for others.
Over the last several years, the number of eligible employees enrolled in Caltrain’s Go Pass program—available mostly to large companies, learning institutions and residential complexes—has skyrocketed. Currently, 52,524 employees are involved in the program—a 142 percent increase from the 21,641 workers enrolled in 2010. Some institutions purchase the fare for its employees, some require that their employees pay the individual annual cost of the pass. Shaw says the Go Pass is a nice incentive for workers at the Stanford campus, not only because it provides them with a free, reliable commute option, but also because it allows them to travel on the Caltrain system for other events along the Peninsula. He added that the Go Pass wouldn’t be as effective of a tool if it weren’t for the advent of Caltrain’s Baby Bullet service—express trains that were introduced to the system in 2004. The Palo Alto Caltrain Station is one of the busiest stops along the Baby Bullet route. In fact, only the San Francisco Caltrain Station has a higher average weekday ridership than Palo Alto. “I think Caltrain has really done a good job of recognizing how much the university relies on the train and how important the university’s ridership is to Caltrain. As a result, they’ve included the Palo Alto station in the Baby Bullet service,” said Shaw. “The express trains are obviously a huge convenience for our employees. For the most part, everyone has great things to say about Caltrain service; although, the trains are starting to become more crowded, which is just an indication of the service’s success.”
The capacity issues brought on by Caltrain’s continued growth—there have been 48 months of consecutive ridership increases—points to the agency need to receive the resources necessary to adjust its service to meet demand. Shaw says Stanford would do what it can to support increased capacity and improvements in the rail system’s performance. While Shaw said the Go Pass and Baby Bullet have been essential in helping lure university employees away from their cars, the programs are aided by the complimentary shuttle service provided by Stanford. The free Marguerite Shuttle Service, operated by the university, is timed to pick up employees at Palo Alto and carry them to various stops along the sprawling Stanford campus. Since the onset of the Go Pass program and the Baby Bullet service, Stanford has greatly expanded the operations of its Marguerite shuttle to account for the increased ridership. “We think the Go Pass is a great program, particularly if it’s supported by other initiatives, like express service and shuttles,” said Shaw. “We’ve had a great partnership with Caltrain, and we hope we are a model for other institutions to follow.” Stanford University was a visionary in its early adoption of Caltrain’s Go Pass. University staff saw the potential in the program when looking to a future where tools to address growing congestion would be increasingly critical. As Caltrain looks towards its future, Stanford is again standing by, ready to help, as the rail agency determines its next incarnation.