SMART confronts crush of bike-toting commuters

Some SMART leaders thought there would be higher bicycle use on the weekends and more commuters would choose to leave their bikes behind before hopping on board.|

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.

“But there are always going to be those people who, for whatever reason, need to take their bike on the train with them,” she aid. “And for those people, predictability is key. And consistency.”

Following the train’s debut, Rohnert Park resident Gabriele Albrecht began using her bicycle and SMART to get to and from work. She rides from her home to the Rohnert Park station, where she catches the train down to the Marin Civic Center stop, from which she rides to her job at Kaiser Permanente.

Albrecht said her bicycle, made in Germany, is too large to hang on the train’s hooks, so she tries to tie it up in one of the folding seat areas, which works well in her early-morning commute. It’s more difficult on the way home.

“In the afternoon, when I get back on the train, the train is pretty much full, so people sit there and then I can’t secure my bike with a bungee cord,” Albrecht said. “There was one time where at each station, when it stopped, I had to get off the train with my bike so I could let people on the train and off the train.”

Albrecht said she would appreciate the addition of another car, or at least a designated bike-parking area. Regardless, she plans to continue riding the train while SMART officials evaluate the situation.

“This is definitely a great start, and I was beyond thrilled when that train started running,” she said. “I’ll be on it Monday through Friday.”

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