The North Bay’s new commuter rail line is proving popular among commuters with bicycles — so popular that SMART officials may eventually adjust the way they run trains to better accommodate passengers who bring their wheels on board.
Throughout September, SMART’s first full month of operations, trains usually carried about 250 to 300 bicycles daily on weekdays, and less than 100 daily on weekends, according to figures recently provided by the transit agency.
Those numbers scrambled expectations of some Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit leaders who thought more bicyclists would ride on the weekends and more commuters would choose to leave their bikes behind before hopping on a train.
“There are way more people riding their bikes than I expected,” said Deb Fudge, Windsor mayor and the chairwoman of SMART’s board of directors. “That’s a good thing. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do in Sonoma County, is get people out of cars. And they’re doing it. And they’re getting to the stations lots of different ways.”
Fudge expected to see more people use the system’s bike lockers, available at all 10 stations. But many of those lockers have sat empty as more commuters instead brought their bikes to use trains.
“I think because of the last mile,” Fudge said. “It’s a ride for them at the other end.”
That’s created a challenge for the system, since each train is designed to hold up to 24 bicycles — 12 per car — and trains can fill up with passengers during the morning and evening commutes, officials say. Still, rail officials aren’t rushing to make any big changes.
“We’re having short-term, medium-term and obviously long-term plans as we gather more data and we see that there is consistency,” said Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager. “You certainly don’t want to go and do something that costs a lot of money if the data is still very young ... We’re keeping an eye on it. We’re pleased that we have such a problem.”
But if the trend holds for another couple months, SMART has several options to make the commuting rush more comfortable for bicyclists and pedestrians. Among them is potentially adding a third car — SMART trains currently travel in pairs — at least during the highest-traffic runs, according to Mansourian.
The system could also encourage more people to use the bike lockers by widely distributing the cards riders need to pay for them, said Alisha O’Loughlin, the executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.
Riders can’t yet pay for lockers with a Clipper Card, which they can use for train fares. They have to get a special card from BikeLink, the company that operates the lockers.
Additionally, trains currently provide bicycle accommodations in three places: hooks at each end of the car to hang them and seats in the middle that can be folded up to make room for bikes. O’Loughlin would like to see that approach consolidated.
“It would be really great if they just had one centralized area,” she said.
“They could even paint something on the platform so cyclists know exactly where you should queue up when the train arrives.”
At the same time, the bike coalition has been working with Sonoma County transit officials to explore whether they could provide some sort of bike-share program, which would allow riders to check out bikes and drop them off again at various popular places along the rail line. That could reduce the need from some riders to bring bikes on board the trains, O’Loughlin said.