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Is the SMART Train Easing Highway 101 Traffic in Marin and Sonoma?

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A woman sitting on a train looks out a window and Highway 101, which is running parallel to the train she is on. There are a few cars on the roadway.
A woman watches the views along the 101 freeway aboard a SMART train as it travels to the Petaluma train station. (Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

View the full episode transcript.

Driving to work every morning on congested roads is no one’s idea of a good time. And the commute on Highway 101 through Sonoma and Marin counties can be an especially laborious journey during mid-week rush hour. In an attempt to relieve congestion, provide greener transportation options and offer more ways for people to travel, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) train opened its first stations in 2017. Since then, it has been building out its system, starting at the southern terminus of Larkspur. Eventually, it will reach all the way to Cloverdale.

Although the train has been in operation for several years now, this train service is still under the radar for a lot of Bay Area residents. Still, on a recent Thursday morning, the Marin and Sonoma residents who rode the train were enthusiastic about the service.

“I take it every single day that I can because it’s just so much quicker,” said Kelly Smith, who lives in Novato and works in San Rafael. “It’s economical. I get to chat with people on the train. It’s much more relaxing. It’s my favorite way to travel.”

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Other riders agreed that riding the train is much more pleasant than slogging through traffic.

“This train corridor, you feel like you’re in Europe,” Scott Warner said. “My health is better, and my mind is better when I get to the office, not having to deal with the jam on the 101.”

The photo is taken inside the train looking out. Inside are seats in siloutte. Outside is a lush marshland with green grass poking out of a shallow body of water. In the distance a yellow hillside with dry grass rises above the marsh.
The views over the marshlands aboard the SMART train as it travels from the Petaluma train station en route to the San Rafael station. (Photo By Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

But do these happy riders mean the SMART train is relieving congestion on Highway 101? That’s what Bay Curious listener Brian Auger, who lives in Fairfax, really wants to know.

It’s a good question, but also a tricky time to answer because in 2024, just a few years after the coronavirus pandemic, traffic and commute patterns have changed a lot.

This story is part three of the Bay Curious transportation episode. Listen to the entire episode below.


The short answer

A Caltrans spokesperson said there is 40% less traffic on US-101 between Larkspur, in Marin, and Sonoma Airport Blvd — an approximate location for where the SMART train line currently ends — than there was in 2019. But those numbers reflect driving at all times of the day and all days of the week, so they are likely more a product of hybrid work environments than anything else.

“Calendar year 2023, SMART carried over 750,000 riders,” SMART General Manager Eddy Cumins said. “The average trip length of those riders is 22.2 miles. So, if you do that math, that equates to 16.6 million passenger miles on the train.”

That sounds like a lot, but to give that number more context, Caltrans said the total annual vehicle miles traveled between Larkspur and Airport Blvd is more than 1.8 billion. In comparison, the miles traveled on SMART represent only the tiniest fraction of all that travel. And for even further context, SMART’s yearly ridership is close to the number of passengers BART carried each week in 2023.

In short, right now, SMART is not making a very big dent in traffic on US-101.

The longer answer

The SMART train has only been around for a few years, most of them during or directly after the COVID-19 pandemic, which upended ridership and decimated budgets for transit agencies around the region. SMART is actually the only local transit agency to see an increase in ridership during 2023 as compared to 2019 (the last full year before the pandemic).

It’s also worth considering that the system isn’t fully built yet. Transit systems tend to become more useful the longer they’re around. A system like BART has been operating since the 1970s, and other infrastructure has been built around it. Employers have offices near BART stations, other transit agencies provide links to BART, and easy train access can even drive home prices. SMART hasn’t been around long enough to see much of this effect yet.

“We are a small system,” Cumins acknowledged. “We’re not BART. We’re not Caltrain. We have to focus on meeting the needs of the communities we serve.”

To do that, Cumins and his colleagues have been holding listening sessions with community members in Marin and Sonoma to learn how SMART can better serve riders. Right now, the most popular station is Downtown Petaluma and many riders get off in San Rafael or Larkspur. And people who travel on the train with their bikes have been consistent riders, even during the pandemic.

“We noticed a significant increase in bicycle boardings,” Cumins said. “We had some flip seats on the side of the train. We removed those seats in order to create additional bicycle parking.”

They’ve also increased service in the middle of the day, held fare prices low and created a new type of monthly commuter pass that reflects the reality of hybrid work schedules.

“And immediately, we saw a 28% increase in monthly passes,” Cumins said.

Then there were more specific needs, like local teachers expressing the need for transportation when taking school kids on field trips. Cumins said they looked at train capacity and saw they might be able to accommodate this request.

“Off-peak hours, when these kids want to travel, we have capacity there,” he said. “And so between nine and two, they can ride. So we’re now offering free field trips, too, for K-12 students. There was a field trip last week and the kids all wrote us letters thanking the SMART train. And so that’s beautiful.”

A green SMART train car sits at a station platform. The train is on the right side, and the platform is on the left. The platform has a few passengers on it in the distance.
The SMART train began operations in 2017 and continues to expand. (Paul Lancour/KQED)

Interestingly, the ridership of SMART doesn’t follow normal commute pattern expectations. While 60% of rides are in the southern direction in the morning — what you might expect — a full 40% are northbound. Students might explain some of those anomalies. Cumins said about 15% of riders on SMART trains are students heading to school.

“It’s nice, there’s no problems,” said high school student Louie. “When we come home, it doesn’t feel that crowded. It’s mostly in the morning.”

SMART is currently building the Windsor station and has several bike lanes under construction or in the planning phase as well. Part of the agency’s mission is to build out the bike path infrastructure in the region at the same time as it builds the rails, so when the system is complete, it should be a bonanza of rails and trails for residents and visitors alike.

“The one thing [riders] always say is, ‘I cannot believe how clean the train is,’” Cumins said. “The other thing that I hear from people who ride is that the area between Petaluma and Novato may be the most beautiful place on Earth, and it’s a place that you can’t get to unless you’re on the train.”

Episode Transcript

Olivia Allen-Price: Every weekday morning, millions of us Bay Area residents get out of our cozy beds … and embark on mystifying migration unlike any other on planet Earth.

Music reminiscent of a nature documentary begins

Paul Lancour (in scene): All right heading out the door. It is 7:00 on the nose. The sun will not rise for another 20 minutes or so.

Olivia Allen-Price: This is Paul Lancour, one of my colleagues at KQED.

Paul Lancour (in scene): Leaving my home in Novato. I’m going to make the short drive to the downtown Novato SMART train. 

Olivia Allen-Price: He’s setting off on a daily ritual so many of us humans make. Not for food or water exactly, like you might expect from the rest of the animal kingdom, but … for work. 

Music shift to hurried 1950s-era productivity music

Olivia Allen-Price: I’m talking about our daily commute, of course. Today, we’ve asked Paul to trade in his daily commute by car into KQED’s offices in San Francisco for a public transit bonanza. Along the way, he’ll be riding the somewhat-new SMART train through Marin County. SMART stands for Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, by the way. 

Olivia Allen-Price: Why are we sending him on this mission? To answer this question from a listener…

Brian Auger: My name is Brian Auger. My question is has the North Bay SMART train had any actual impact on relieving traffic on Highway 101?

Olivia Allen-Price: We’ll be checking in with Paul throughout the episode as he makes his way to the KQED offices to deliver the answer for Brian … but along the way, we’ll answer two other commuter questions. Listener Laurel Hetchinova thinks drivers have gotten a little out of control recently.

Music ends

Laurel Hetchinova: Are drivers around here maybe more aggressive lately, or is it maybe just me?

Olivia Allen-Price: Her question won a recent Bay Curious public voting round. And then finally, is there an antidote to all this commuting misery floating on the Bay? 

Lee: Hi, This is Lee from Berkeley. Does San Francisco finally have a water taxi service? 

Olivia Allen-Price: We’ve got a full episode of good stuff just ahead on Bay Curious. I’m Olivia Allen-Price. And oh, it looks like Paul has made it to the Novato Downtown SMART train station…

Train bell and ambi of the train station fades in

Paul Lancour (in scene): (Beep!) That’s me tapping into the fare station here. Train departing at 7:33.

Voice over speaker on train says: Next station, Larkspur. 

Olivia Allen-Price: And he’s off! Stay with us.

SPONSOR MESSAGE

Olivia Allen-Price: We’re tackling some of your transit questions today as Paul makes his journey from his Novato home to KQED’s offices in San Francisco. Looks like his ride on the SMART train is complete, and he’s onto the next leg of his journey an hour and a half after it began.

Paul Lancour (in scene): On the Larkspur ferry getting ready to depart at 8:29. What a lovely morning. Certainly beats sitting in traffic.

Sound of ferry boat pulling away from dock

Olivia Allen-Price: We’ll learn soon if the SMART train is making a dent in traffic on Highway 101. But one thing we know Paul won’t be contending with today is aggressive drivers.

Curious music begins

Olivia Allen-Price: Our listener, Laurel, feels like the roadways here have gotten spicier than they once were…

Laurel Hetchinova: It feels kind of like every time we go out, there are, I don’t know, maybe like half a dozen going 90 to 100 and just weaving in between everybody else. And I remember that it was kind of like that during the initial weeks of shelter-in-place when fewer cars were out on the road but it feels like it’s still happening even though traffic’s back to normal. 

Olivia Allen-Price: To help us figure out what’s what, we’ve got Dan Brekke in the studio today. He’s the reporter and editor of In-transit KQED’s daily blog about how we get around. Welcome, Dan. 

Dan Brekke: Hi, Olivia.

Olivia Allen-Price: First off, Dan, can you tell us why the pandemic was such a watershed moment on our streets and highways?

Dan Brekke: Well, our reality changed overnight from having very crowded roads to much less crowded roads. And so that invited a different kind of behavior. Especially a lot more speeding than we’d ever seen before. 

Olivia Allen-Price: I’m with Laurel. It seems like a lot of dangerous behaviors that picked up during the pandemic and then just have never went away. 

Dan Brekke: And it turns out there’s a little survey data out there that backs up our impressions. There’s a place at UC Berkeley called the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center, or SafeTREC, and they participate in a yearly survey on what drivers feel they’re seeing on the road. And one of the questions that the survey asks is, “Since the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic, what is the biggest change in behaviors you have noticed from drivers?” And statewide the most common answer was aggressive driving and road rage, with speeding coming in a close second. So for a lot of folks, at the very least, we’re perceiving that these things are getting worse. 

Olivia Allen-Price: Okay. But let’s look at reality. Does the California Highway Patrol have any kind of data to support or refute what so many of us are seeing?

Dan Brekke: The officer I talked to at the Golden Gate division of the CHP, Andrew Barkley, said that anecdotally, and this is where the CHP comes down, it’s anecdotal evidence. people are seeing it more.

Andrew Barkley: I don’t have any true scientifically backed answer to say, this is exactly what’s happening.

Dan Brekke: I think the most dramatic piece of evidence that is out there is from the first year of the pandemic. I think most of us would agree driving over 100 miles an hour is a pretty serious breach of driving etiquette and probably unsafe. When the pandemic happened, the number of citations doubled from 2019, the full year before the pandemic, to 2020, the year that shelter-at-home orders were in force. So, you know, that number has gone down since 2020, but it hasn’t gone back to where it was before the pandemic started. So that’s, you know, one indicator, objective indicator, of wilder behavior on the road.

Olivia Allen-Price: Got it. So speed is up. But what about reckless driving? Is California Highway Patrol handing out more tickets for that? 

Andrew Barkley: You hear us referring to reckless driving. Typically, we are referring to three specific violations, and it’s normally a combination of speed, following too close and unsafe lane change.

Dan Brekke: It’s interesting that the number of those citations is lower for the most part, than it was the last year before the pandemic. So what do we make of that? It isn’t necessarily that people are driving more carefully. It could be that there’s less enforcement. We really don’t know.

Olivia Allen-Price: Driving, we are perceiving it’s getting worse, that’s definitely universal. There are a couple of indicators we are at least speeding a lot more than before the pandemic. But everything kind of looks flat, but we cannot put too much weight into any of this because the big question, of course, is enforcement, which is a moving variable.

Dan Brekke: Look, there are some other things you can point to. Traffic deaths went up a lot in 2020 and 2021, and continued going up in 2022. They seem to have eased off, declined slightly in California last year, 2023. But the higher number of traffic fatalities, especially in 2020 and 2021, with lower amounts of traffic, points frankly, to speeding. The number of people killed in crashes where speeding was the primary crash factor, as the CHP puts it, was up 16% in California from 2020 to 2021. So, I mean, that’s objective evidence that there’s actual behavior happening that’s leading to some of these things that we’re seeing and that we perceive. 

Olivia Allen-Price: All right. Well, Dan Brekke, editor, reporter, traffic whiz for In Transit, KQED’s relatively new transit blog. Thank you for joining us. 

Dan Brekke: You’re welcome. 

Synthy piano music

Olivia Allen-Price: Let’s check in on Paul, who, last we heard, was on the ferry from Larkspur…

Sound of downtown San Francisco street

Paul Lancour (in scene): Well I’ve arrived. I’m in San Francisco. 10 minutes after 9. So 2 hours and 10 minutes after leaving my house. I’m here! The problem is my office is over in the Mission/Potrero Area, miles away from where I am now. So, the journey continues I’m on my way to BART…

Sound of BART train whirring into the station

Olivia Allen-Price: Oh boy, well at least he got to enjoy that scenic ferry ride. I think that ferry riders are probably the happiest bunch of commuters in the region. There’s even a bar on board! 

Olivia Allen-Price: But the ferries aren’t the only boats offering transportation on the water.

Lee: Last fall I noticed tiny yellow boats along the San Francisco shoreline a couple of times.

Olivia Allen-Price: Most of the time there’s just one of these bright yellow speed boats roaming along the Embarcadero. They’re easy to spot because they have a cute little black and white checkerboard trim, just like you’d see on a retro car taxi. We sent Bay Curious producer Katrina Schwartz out to learn more about this boutique transit option.

Captain Tom shouting to passersby: $10 Water Taxi Ride! Save yourself a long boring walk! 

Katrina Schwartz: I meet Captain Tom of the San Francisco Water Taxi Company along the Embarcadero at Pier 15. The little yellow boat is pulled up at the Exploratorium…near a small sign that says “Water Taxi.”

Captain Tom: Best 10 bucks you’ll spend all day! 

Katrina Schwartz: The water taxis come when you call…or you can make an appointment. There’s no set schedule.

Captain Tom: Big step, watch your head

Katrina Schwartz: One step down, and I’m on the small boat with three bench seats and two captain’s chairs up front. There’s a top to help protect passengers from sun and spray.

Captain Tom: The water taxi operates out of Pier 39. 

Katrina Schwartz: They make six different stops at popular places along the San Francisco bay front.

Captain Tom: Starting from Hyde Street Pier. 

Katrina Schwartz: Near Ghirardelli Square. 

Captain Tom: To Pier 39.   

Katrina Schwartz: A popular tourist destination. As well as Pier 15 at the Exploratorium museum.

Captain Tom: Pier 1.5, next to the Ferry Building, which is temporarily closed for repairs. 

Katrina Schwartz: And they go south of the Bay Bridge for a few extra bucks.

Captain Tom: Pier 40 and Oracle Baseball Park and Pier 52 at Chase Basketball Center.

Katrina Schwartz: Rides north of the bridge cost 10 dollars each … or you can pay fifteen to get a hop-on, hop-off fare to ride all day.

Captain Tom: Quick safety chat. Life vests are under the white seats…

Katrina Schwartz: After the safety chat we set off north in the 29-foot yellow boat to pick up some passengers at Pier 39. I’m sitting in the co-pilot seat, which swivels, so I’ve got great views…and there are three bench seats behind me. 

Ambi of boat speeding up

Captain Tom: I saw an ad on Craigslist. And I went from part-time to full-time, to managing the business in three months.

Katrina Schwartz: Captain Tom says the water taxi business took a hit during COVID, but it’s gradually picking back up.

Captain Tom: So you’ve got Angel Island over there, which is an old immigration island. Alcatraz straight ahead.

Katrina Schwartz: We slow down as we pull into the harbor at Pier 39, a massive liberty ship from WWII, the Jeremiah O’Brien, towering above us.

Honk horn

Katrina Schwartz: The folks we’re picking up, Jill and her son Reed from Maryland, scheduled their ride. They’re waiting by the water taxi sign at Pier 39.

Jill: I didn’t really know what I was signing up for, but I’m game.

Katrina Schwartz: They’re visiting to get away from frigid East Coast temperatures. And today, San Francisco is showing off with a beautiful, warm, sunny day.

Katrina Schwartz to Reed and Jill (in scene): So what did you guys think, worth ten bucks?

Reed: Yeah, definitely like the view.

Jill: It’s a nice way to ride and see without the traffic. I’m not complaining about the traffic, it’s a city. But you’re not familiar with the streets, so to see and drive is extra!

Katrina Schwartz: They’re headed to the Exploratorium for some science fun and then eating and shopping at the Ferry Building before they head back north in the water taxi.

Captain Tom to Jill and Reed (in scene): So we’ll plan on something around 3? So just call me when you get a better idea of your plans. I should be back in the area.

Katrina Schwartz: Since most of the water taxi stops are along the Embarcadero, I thought most of the passengers would be tourists, like Jill. But Captain Tom says it’s actually a 50-50 split with locals.

Captain Tom: People will go for walks and they’ll walk out the Embarcadero and then and, especially with their dogs, and they’ll get to up Hyde Street Pier and they’ll just get tired and they don’t want to walk home, you know, another hour, especially if it’s late on a Sunday.

Katrina Schwartz: The taxi will also pick you up if you miss the last ferry off Angel Island or want to head over to Tiburon. 

Captain Tom: If you haven’t gotten out on San Francisco Bay, you’re missing one of the best things about San Francisco. 

Katrina Schwartz: Captain Tom says there’s a lot of interest in water taxis for commuting, and they’re exploring more cross-bay and southern routes, but gas is expensive and their boats only seat six passengers. It’s hard to find a price point that works for everyone.

Captain Tom: So we could definitely do it if we could just find a, you know, the right, cost-effective way to do it. And I think electric boats will advance that.

Katrina Schwartz: He says they’re exploring some options. 

Captain Tom: I think it’ll be a really exciting time period for water travel in the next couple of years. 

Katrina Schwartz: Captain Tom lets me off at Pier 52 near the Chase Center and sets off to pick up his next fare. But not before reminding me about Mutt Mondays…

Captain Tom: On Mondays, if you bring your dog, you ride for free.

Horn toot + water lapping sounds

Bass guitar music begins

Olivia Allen-Price: That was Bay Curious producer Katrina Schwartz. Paul’s journey to the KQED offices continues as he rides up the BART escalator.

Paul Lancour (in scene): 9:33 and I have arrived 16th and Mission. Completing the latest leg in my journey. And I see a Muni bus coming, so I think that’s how I’m going to complete my transit adventure today. Take the 22 Fillmore and take it over to Bryant Street.

Sound of bus hydraulic system engaging as it lowers to the curb

Olivia Allen-Price: A short bus ride later. A quick walk to the station. Into the studio. Paul, welcome! You made it. What the epic journey! What’s the final count on how many modes of transit you took today?

Paul Lancour (in studio): Well let’s see, I drove my car to the station, took the train, to the ferry, to BART, to the bus.

Olivia Allen-Price: And you walked to the ferry…

Paul Lancour: There was some walking in there as well. So I guess that would be six modes of transportation.

Olivia Allen-Price: Wow. Quite the feat. Well, this is all in service of answering listener Brian’s question about whether the SMART Train, which connects Sonoma and Marin counties, has improved traffic along the 101 corridor through that section. Many of the drivers on that stretch of road, like you, are trying to get to San Francisco for work. 

Paul Lancour: That’s right, it’s a commute I make just about every day. And I find anecdotally it’s just about as bad as it’s ever been. Driving usually takes me an hour and fifteen minutes to get to work. Today, taking public transit most of the way, took two hours and 40-some minutes. So I think this really illustrates one of the challenges of the SMART train, and it’s true for all of public transit, for that matter, that if you need to transfer and use a few different agencies, it gets less time efficient.

Olivia Allen-Price: The SMART train is pretty new, so for folks who aren’t familiar – where does the train go?

Paul Lancour: Yeah, so SMART opened its first stations back in 2017 and has been gradually expanding its service since then. The plan is to build it out so it connects Cloverdale in the north to Larkspur in the South where the current terminus is. 

Olivia Allen-Price: Well, let’s get to Brian’s question. Just how many people are opting for the train over driving?

Paul Lancour: Well it’s kinda hard to say precisely because commute patterns have changed so much since the pandemic. CalTrans says there is 40% less traffic on 101 between Larkspur and Sonoma Airport Blvd than there was in 2019. But that’s all times of the day, all days of the week, most likely a result of hybrid work environment as well. Eddy Cumins is the SMART General Manager and he did some of his own calculations.

Eddy Cumins: So calendar year 2023. SMART carried over 750,000 riders. The average trip length of those riders is 22.2 miles. So if you do that math, that equates to 16.6 million passenger miles on the train.

Olivia Allen-Price: That sounds like a lot!

Paul Lancour: It does, but you have to put that in perspective. Caltrans says the total vehicle miles traveled between Larkspur and Airport Blvd in a year is more than 1.8 billion. So SMART represents only the tiniest fraction of that. 

Olivia Allen-Price: So, is the answer here that SMART is not making a very big dent in traffic.

Paul Lancour: That is the answer, yes. Not yet. But, SMART has only been around for a few years, and they’re still building it out. By contrast, BART has been around since the 70s, and its route has impacted all sorts of things – development around the trains, where offices get built, where other busses or trains link up. These systems tend to get more useful with time. And I should add, SMART is the only Bay Area transit system that saw an increase in riders after the pandemic. That’s in part because they’ve been working hard to change how they offer service to meet the community’s needs better, as Eddy Cummins told us…

Eddy Cumins: We noticed a significant increase in bicycle boardings. And so one of the things we did is, we had some flip seats on the side of the train. We removed those seats in order to create additional bicycle parking.

Paul Lancour: Yes, and on my commute, I did meet passengers like Jason who brought their bike on the train.

Paul Lancour to Jason (in scene): Jason, where you coming from?

Jason to Paul (in scene): Cotati.

Paul Lancour to Jason (in scene): And it looks like you took your bike.

Jason to Paul (in scene): Yes, about a 10-minute ride from my house to a SMART station. This morning I’m going to ride from the end of the train into San Francisco. So a little over an hour. I drove in last Thursday, and it took me like 2.5 hours in traffic. And this is going to take me two hours. So, yeah, it’s definitely less stressful than driving to sit around just, you know, read your phone, get some work done or something. You get to be productive.

Paul Lancour: When I met him, Jason was actually going to ride from Larkspur into the city, so he was getting his workout for the day as well. And another thing SMART has done to cater to community needs is make it free for school children taking field trips.

Eddy Cumins: There was a field trip last week and the kids all wrote us letters thanking the smart train. And so that’s beautiful.

Paul Lancour: They also kept reduced-price fares. It’s just a dollar fifty per zone. And they’ve altered the schedule to meet community needs. 

Olivia Allen-Price: So who is the SMART train working for, like, right now?

Paul Lancour: Well, on the car I was on today, I met all kinds of folks. I was able to get a seat, but it was pretty busy. I met kids who are going to school, people commuting within Marin County. And it’s really pretty nice. People generally seem to find it to be a pleasant ride.

Groovy music begins

Olivia Allen-Price: Paul, you’ve been a very intrepid reporter to take on this long commute. Thank you for bringing us those answers.

laughing

Paul Lancour: Yeah, absolutely my pleasure. I think I’d better start heading home soon if I want to make it before dusk.

Olivia Allen-Price: Good luck.

Sponsored

Olivia Allen-Price: Bay Curious is made in San Francisco at member-supported KQED. Our show is produced by Katrina Schwartz, Christopher Beale and me, Olivia Allen-Price. Thanks as always to our support crew: Jen Chien, Katie Sprenger, Cesar Saldana, Maha Sanad, Xorje Oliveras, Dan Brekke, Paul Lancour, Holly Kernan and the whole KQED Family. Drive safe! Try a boat or a train! And uh … have a great week!

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