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July 16, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, July 16, 2004

Bicyclists can't get on board Bicyclists can't get on board (July 16, 2004)

Baby bullet trains have limited bike space

By Jon Wiener

Tuesday afternoon at the Mountain View Caltrain station, the bicyclists started lining up around 4:40. They waited more or less patiently, the ones who weren't reading the paper occasionally glanced at the crowd forming around them.

Pedaling from as far away as San Jose, they all were hoping to catch a spot on the next northbound baby bullet, leaving Mountain View at 4:58 and getting into San Francisco in 45 minutes. The ones trickling in only minutes ahead of time were resigned to the idea that there wouldn't be room for them to board. Most days, cyclists say at least one person gets "bumped" or refused boarding at Mountain View.

On Tuesday, though, they were lucky. Only two passengers boarded with their bikes in San Jose, leaving 14 spaces for everybody else. All but one of those filled up before the train left Mountain View, meaning there would be quite a few unhappy people the next time the train stopped.

Due to the baby bullet's popularity and its reduced on-board bicycle capacity, conductors regularly have to turn away riders. The older "gallery" bike cars on the local trains have eight racks each holding four bikes, but the baby bullet's "bombardiers" hold only half as many.

Tensions between commuters vying for a spot on board and conductors trying to maintain order have boiled over on occasion. For the most part, the Mountain View stop is a tranquil one, but bicyclists tell tales of trouble further north, at the Palo Alto, Hillsdale or Millbrae stops where bicyclists have even less of a chance of making it on. They say bicyclists shout at each other, conductors get spit on and every once in a while, a fistfight breaks out.

Earlier this week, cyclists presented Caltrain with a petition asking for relief. More than 600 cyclists signed the petition demanding a second bike car on the five baby bullet trains.

Hong Quan, the author of the petition, rides six miles from Saratoga to Mountain View to catch the baby bullet to San Francisco, where he rides another mile and a half to work.

"We're paying full fare, and we're not getting treated the same. We're just asking to get on the train," said Quan.

Caltrain said it is committed to increasing bicycle access but shipping all those bikes up and down the Peninsula might be the wrong way to do it.

According to Caltrain spokesperson Janet McGovern, additional bike cars cost $2 million each. Increasing on-board bike capacity without adding another car would mean ripping out seats and reducing total capacity. With the baby bullets close to capacity, it's unlikely Caltrain will consider doing anything along those lines.

"We do appreciate the bicyclists. They have been terrific loyal riders," said McGovern. "It's important to maintain bike riders as dedicated customers who continue to like Caltrain."

Caltrain's bicycle advisory committee met Wednesday after the Voice press time to examine long-term solutions to the problems outlined in the petition. According to McGovern, these could include better integration of bike lockers and more bike resource centers like the Bikestation at the Palo Alto station.

Short of buying a second bike or getting a folding model they can safely take with them on the train, bicyclists have few options for the time being.

Mountain View resident Connie Lise arrives 15 minutes early every morning to get in front of the line for the northbound baby bullet. She said she changed to an 8 a.m.-4 p.m. schedule when the baby bullet started. If she gets bumped, she can board a local train that leaves only five minutes later, but she'll wind up half an hour late.

Despite living within walking distance of the Mountain View station, she needs her bike to travel the three miles to work in San Francisco.

"I don't want my bike sitting in a locker in SF," said Lise. "I want my bicycle with me to use when I need it. I don't have two bikes to leave on each end."

Some bicyclists, like Paul Grantham, have even gone back to driving.

Grantham said his chances of getting himself and his bike on the train in Millbrae are now worse than the chance of running into traffic on Highways 101 or 280 on his drive to his office in north San Jose.

"The great thing about the bike commute was that it was actually more predictable than driving," said Grantham. "If I scheduled a meeting for 8:30, I was going to make that 8:30. Now I can't do that."

E-mail Jon Wiener at [email protected]

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