Exchanging toilets for bike space?

Caltrain – the commuter rail service between San Jose and San Francisco – continues to grapple with the crowding issues as ridership continues to grow, some bike advocates are talking about removing toilets from the train to make room for additional bikes.

Bikes On Board

The Caltrain board are seeking public input on what we would like to see in new electric train sets that they expect to use beginning in 2019. Because Caltrain is the national leader in bikes on transit, bikes on board are naturally part of the design process.

In the Caltain presentation to the Bicycle Advisory Commitee last week, staffers noted the tradeoffs between seat capacity, bike capacity and bathrooms. Obviously, adding bathrooms and bike capacity removes some seating capacity. Each bathroom, for example, removes eight seats. The options under consideration are two to five bathrooms per train.

In a local bicycle discussion list, several people suggest removing bathrooms entirely from the train to make room for at least 16 addition bikes or seats.

I’m not a fan of this proposal. Along the Caltrain line, currently only three stations have restrooms. I’ve never used the bathroom in San Francisco. In Palo Alto University Avenue, bikes are not allowed inside the station building. At Diridon, the bathroom is generally too jam packed to roll a bike in during the evening rush hour.

The onboard facilities often stink and are nobody’s first choice, but anybody who has ever been trapped on the train for an hour because of an “unexpected service delay” (i.e. somebody died) knows the value of bathrooms on board. The 7% of Caltrain passengers who link their trip with another transit mode will sometimes need the bathroom facilities. Those with bikes can appreciate the practicality of not pulling a bike inside the stall at a train station.

Caltrain 329 San Jose Diridon Station

More Caltrain and bikes

In this op ed, Michael Oberg — a lifelong resident of San Mateo County — writes about the “millions of dollars” spent to convert Caltrain cars to bike cars. He believes the “non-paying bicycles” taking up significant room on every Caltrain trip results in “a lot of lost revenue, just to keep the commuters with bicycles happy so they can continue to enjoy their lifestyle.” Oberg then suggests cyclists pay our own way by buying two bikes — one for each end of the train trip — and storing them in the ample and free bike storage space available at every station on the Caltrain line.

The project in 2010 to convert every train set so that they have two bike cars cost the agency $300,000. Since that time, ridership has boomed, with the lion’s share of that growth coming from passengers who bike to the train station. With full parking lots (which in themselves cost millions of dollars to obtain, build and maintain), and a limited share of those who walk or ride transit to stations, those freeloading bike riders have contributed $24M in fare revenue that Caltrain otherwise may not have.

In a sense, Oberg is correct that bike riders have reduced seat space for him and other passengers, but not in the way he thinks. Bikes on board results in more passengers for the entire system overall. Eliminating bikes on board will result in more leg room for Oberg and others, because fewer passengers will ride. I don’t believe Caltrain is on board with reducing ridership in order to increase comfort for those who continue to ride Caltrain.

Instead of complaining about the space used by bikes on board, Oberg should join cyclists in demanding more capacity on trains and increased service levels to serve all Caltrain passengers. The infighting among transit users he’s trying to stir up benefits nobody, least of all himself.

Caltrain bikes

Notes from the BAC

I’m cribbing notes from Steve Vanderlip, who represent Bikes San Mateo County at the Caltrain Bicycle Advisory Committee and attended the September 18 meeting. Electric train configuration and bathroom space was the big topic of discussion, but they also talked about bump reports and how to improve bike capacity.

When people with bikes are denied boarding on Caltrain because there’s no more room on the train, we call that a “bump,” as in “Joe was bumped from the train.” Currently, these are informally reported to Caltrain by pestering agency staff with emails. Vanderlip reports that Caltrain are working up a more formal reporting mechanism to create a real database so they can better track these bumps. There was also discussion of using the electronic signs at stations to report on bike capacity of approaching trains.

The BAC also discussed ways to improve bike capacity. Among the discussed ideas:

  • Review the 4 bike capacity per rack and amend the policy to allow more bikes as long as they fit behind the aisle stripe.
  • Add a third bike car to the existing 5 car sets. Caltrain doesn’t consider this idea realistic.
  • With the purchase of those new Metrolink cars from Los Angeles, make that sixth car a bike car. Staff at first rejected this idea but are apparently warming to the idea.
  • Encourage the use of folding bikes by ensuring better folding bike storage. The BAC members and Caltrain staff are unsure of the demand for folding bikes on board and seek your input on this.


  1. I think of the bathrooms on Caltrain as something that should only be used in emergencies. The average person on the average 30-minute commute can hold it for the ride. After all, Bart doesn’t have bathrooms on any trains and many people commute to/from SF and East Bay are on the train that long.

    In light of this, there are only 2 bathrooms per train on the Gallery cars and I think this is appropriate. These bathrooms are grungy enough that people will only use them if they absolutely must.

    Compare that to the Bombardier cars which have bathrooms in every car. The bathrooms on these cars are much bigger and usually nicer and, as a result, people use them more. This is a classic case of induced demand. However, I really don’t think every car needs a bathroom, so I think the Bombardier cars should have the bathroom in each bike car removed and more bike space added. This works on well since the Bombardier cars have less bike space.

    Finally, it would be nice if Caltrain put a little more effort into making sure the bathrooms didn’t reek so bad that, especially on the Bombardier cars, sometimes the stench stinks up the whole car.

  2. One toilet per train sounds about right to me. We definitely need more bike parking room on the current trains — anecdotally, bumps are increasing. However, I completely sympathize with people who have a sudden *need to go*. That’s happened to me and the toilet on the train was indispensable.

    Perhaps the bigger point is that the new, electric train cars need to be designed for flexibility. They need to provide interior options. A train with 5 or 6 cars likely will not have all of the same type of car. Though I haven’t confirmed this, my guess is that the current Bombardier cars are all the same and, consequently, there’s not enough room for the bike demand and too much bathroom space. The new cars shouldn’t attempt to be one-size-fits-everyone.

  3. A better-designed bathroom (and toilet) wouldn’t be as stinky. Almost every train bathroom & toilet in any European train is less spill/splash and stink prone than the design used in Caltrain cars. Even porta-potties have a urinal — which helps keep the toilet seat and surrounding area/floor from getting as pissified as they do on Caltrain. Most men stand to pee, and having them try to do so on a herky-jerky train is an instant recipe for stinky disgusting bathroom syndrome.

  4. Reporting bike capacity at the stations is likely to be a problem. On a recent trip from Santa Clara to San Jose (getting from the airport to Diridon station to catch the Hiway 17 express), I noticed that they were reporting the train as having no bike capacity left. Needless to say, the bike cars were less than 20% full by the time they got to Santa Clara.

    Incidentally, the connections from SJC to public transit are terrible. It’s nice that bus 10 is free, but it doesn’t go to any transit hubs, just the Santa Clara train station and a minor light-rail stop, guaranteeing that almost every one will have to do yet another transfer. It would be nice to have a bus (even one that isn’t free) that connected the airport directly with the transit hubs at Diridon and downtown San Jose.

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