I was reading this SFGate article on BART to SFO ridership being well below estimates this morning. Having used both BART and Caltrain to get to SFO, I have to admit that it’s no surprise that ridership is so low. I have ridden train to airport links in a number of other cities and there is a clear distinction between planners who “get it” and those who just want to spend a bunch of money (and probably get kick-backs) and check off another campaign promise on their list.
Issues I have with taking public transit to SFO:
- The link between Caltrain and the airport, a BART train, only seemingly runs every 30 minutes and it NEVER aligns with the caltrain schedule. In fact, the train often just sits there in the station with its doors closed, taunting you with the view of the airport in the distance.
- The BART train uses BART fare cards (a separate and overpriced transaction) just after you got done paying caltrain with your caltrain pass/fare. There is no “get me to the airport” single payment mechanism.
- When going from San Francisco to SFO on caltrain, you have to go through a maze of escalators and elevators to go over the caltrain track and into BART. Didn’t anyone get the memo that we have luggage when going to/from the airport?
- There are no clearly posted BART or Caltrain schedules ANYWHERE in the airport. The odds that I take BART to Caltrain or BART to the city would go up sharply if I knew when the next train was and the rough estimate of when I would arrive.
- Most people have to take the AirTrain (little airport shuttle on rails between terminals) to get to the BART train to get to CalTrain to go home. Not only are the schedules for BART and Caltrain not posted but they are not aligned, as mentioned earlier.
- Taxi to SF: 15 minutes; Public transit to SF: 45 minutes to an hour depending on time of day. Don’t plan on using caltrain link after 9pm due to Caltrain schedule.
- The AirTrain station has a bunch of STAIRS you have to use to get connected to the terminal. Again, did somebody not know I would have luggage?
- To address low ridership, they decreased the frequency of the BART airport link. Brilliant.
So here are the rules for a successfull rail / airport link – almost all of which do not apply to SFO:
- Minimize stairs and escalators between train and airport
- Have trains actually arrive AT the airport, not one or two stations / transfers away from it. Extra credit if there are multiple airport stops that the train makes (such as the R1 in Philly)
- Have trains to the airport run frequently or at least at highly reliable and predictable intervals (like on the hour and half hour)
- Make it easy and inexpensive to use the payment mechanism and have only one mechanism.
- Have the total trip time be competitive with driving/taxi – not just for the people in the boonies when compared to rush hour but for those who want to get to/from the major cities (SF, Oakland, San Jose in the case of SFO versus Walnut Creek).
- If the airport link does require transfers from other lines/modes of transportation, synchronize them.
Having said all this there may still be 1 or 2 times per year when taking Caltrain/BART to SFO will make sense for me, but there are so many boneheaded design decisions that got made with the Caltrain/BART/SFO link that I think they should probably scrap it, take the money they are losing daily and just run a shuttle bus from the caltrain and bart stations in the city (SF) to the airport at a lower cost.
For those wondering, my favorite rail/airport links are Washington, DC and Philadelphia.