Commuters find joys, pains of using new SMART rail system
Five days a week, Wally Walston rides his bike less than 2 miles to the Cotati SMART station and rolls his two-wheeler aboard the train for a 32-minute trip to southern Novato.
In the past month Shaun Ralston has cycled to and from SMART stations in Sonoma and Marin counties. He also has combined his train trips with bus and ferry rides and been shuttled by Lyft, a ride-sharing service paid for by his employer, Sutter Health.
And Sharon Bringel last week said she was going to take her first SMART trip to her job in San Rafael. The decision came after watching a northbound train with a coworker on board zip by her car as it sat stuck in afternoon freeway traffic.
“When she passed us, I said, ‘Okay, we need to at least try this,’” said Bringel, who stopped by the Petaluma station on Thursday with her husband Don to purchase a Clipper Card, the payment method accepted by SMART and other regional transit services.
The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency attracted nearly 53,000 riders in its first three weeks of service, surpassing projections for the period of 46,800 passengers.
The biggest surprise has been the 15,000 weekend patrons, which is more than seven times greater than first anticipated.
Even so, the majority of passengers still ride during the week, and interviews with a half-dozen commuters offered overwhelmingly positive reviews.
“I am beyond stoked about it,” said Leif Swensen, who on Thursday evening rolled his bike down the ramp at the Petaluma station. The “emotional stress of driving in gridlocked traffic was getting to me,” he said of the former commute on Highway 101 to his web designing job in Novato.
After watching the nine-year effort to build a new train system, the public at last is getting some early answers to a key question: How will commuters get to and from the stations?
As expected, many are driving and using the limited number of parking spaces around the stations. But 3,800 trips were made with bicycles brought aboard the trains, enough that system officials acknowledged they may need to make changes to accommodate so many two-wheeling commuters.
As well, the county of Marin last week began providing shuttles to help its workers get from the stations to their work sites. And the city of Santa Rosa next month is expected to start a free shuttle for riders between the Railroad Square station and downtown, including city parking garages. The Santa Rosa shuttle is projected to cost $141,000 for service through next June.
The most interesting development on the trips to and from stations may be the partnerships of businesses and government agencies with ride-sharing companies. Among the arrangements:
Keysight Technologies is offering to pay the cost of Uber trips for employees between SMART stations and the company’s Santa Rosa headquarters in Fountaingrove.
Sutter Health will pay for Lyft rides for both workers and patients between the SMART Airport station and the regional hospital campus on Mark West Springs Road.
The Transportation Authority of Marin is offering up to a $5 subsidy with Lyft for any rider needing to get to or from a SMART station in Marin County from Monday to Friday. The subsidy is part of a six-month pilot program.
A handful of major Santa Rosa employees, including Keysight and Sutter, spent more than a year looking at a shared shuttle system to help their workers use SMART. They ultimately decided not to create such a system, but from that effort some employers “pushed through to a more innovative approach” with the ride-sharing companies, said Sutter spokeswoman Lisa Amador.
Similar fledgling efforts between transit agencies and ride-sharing companies are happening in the western and southern U.S. in an attempt to help riders get to and from rail stations, said Robert Puentes, president/CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, an independent think tank based in Washington, D.C. The new possibilities are causing transit operators to take different approaches to this longstanding problem.
BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, boasts roughly 46,000 parking spaces near its stations. But Puentes suggested that transit systems today are less likely to see parking as the solution.
“The trend is probably the other way,” he said, adding there are “a lot of examples where the parking is going away” in favor of dense housing developments near stations.
In 2008, Sonoma and Marin voters approved the SMART system and agreed to help pay for its operation with a quarter-cent sales tax. Officials forecast the system initially would carry about 3,000 riders each weekday from near Windsor to San Rafael. The eventual plan calls for trains to run from Cloverdale to Larkspur, a system built on reconstructed tracks first used more than a century ago.