The Astonishing Reimagining of Samtrans
The San Mateo County-based system is setting the standard for resource allocation in transit planning
In mega regions in the U.S., it can be very easy to lose sight of the smaller, more suburbanized bus systems. Indeed, such systems rarely exist around the U.S. as large agencies assume more control of regional areas. The Bay Area’s nearly 30 separate agencies make the region unique, and among those 30 is the largest bus system outside of San Jose’s VTA, Oakland’s AC Transit, and San Francisco’s Muni: Samtrans. Despite serving one of the wealthiest parts of the country, Samtrans has faced many issues and ridership declines, particularly over the last decade. In recent years, even before the start of the pandemic, Samtrans’ ridership was declining, which, if not confronted, pushes the agency into a vicious cycle where they receive less funding thereby affecting the quality of the service they are able to offer. Yet, at this moment, Samtrans stands on the cusp of complete reimagining, and in the coming years, bus service throughout San Mateo County could be a model for small-to-medium sized agencies.
Ridership is at its highest level since the pandemic began, and with more and more transit activists pushing for fare integration among other changes, Samtrans is taking many necessary steps to improve. The Reimagine Samtrans program will completely revamp the system, adding new routes and adjusting others. When the program is complete, Samtrans hopes to effectively utilize their existing resources to serve as many bus-demanding people as possible. Samtrans’ existing system does that to some degree, but many routes could easily be transformed to be used more effectively.
In particular, Samtrans plans to add the EPX, the East Palo Alto Express, connecting East Palo Alto to San Francisco. Prior to 2009, Samtrans operated a large number of express bus routes, aimed at commuters traveling from the Peninsula to San Francisco. While Caltrain only is accessible to people living near the corridor, Samtrans express routes filled the void that Caltrain left in places like Foster City, Woodside, and the western parts of Burlingame and Millbrae. Instead of having to connect to Caltrain, Samtrans commuters were able to commute seamlessly without having to transfer. Unfortunately, many of those routes were cut, and as of early 2022, only two express routes remain: the 398 which runs mostly along Highway 101 from Redwood City to San Francisco, and the FCX — Foster City Express — making rush hour, peak-direction, trips between Foster City and San Francisco.
Samtrans has said on their special website, reimaginesamtrans.com, that they plan to start new service implementation of their in the Summer of 2022, which is not far away! One thing to note is that while Samtrans will be adjusting their mainline network with the Reimagine Samtrans program, Samtrans also has a robust school trip network taking students to and from school each weekday. These routes are a critical background of mobility in San Mateo County, and given their popularity, aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
As part of my goal to ride and analyze the role that each of the 27–28 different Bay Area transit agencies play in the making of a regional transit system, I see Samtrans playing a very important role. Samtrans is the only service provider outside of Caltrain, and to some extent, BART, with intra-county trips, and is the only agency that offers service to places like Half Moon Bay or Pacifica. Though other dense, suburban areas of major cities have better bus service — the San Fernando Valley comes to mind — Samtrans, especially along El Camino Real, has quality service. Samtrans, though, is in need of the aforementioned reimagining. WIth much of its spending going to, and profit coming from, the ECR route along El Camino Real, many other routes suffer from low frequencies and poor infrastructure. A rare few non-ECR stops have any sort of shelter, and only some even have a bench. With regards to frequencies, low ridership creates a vicious cycle where service is cut, to the point that many lines — including the very important route 260 running along Ralston Avenue in Belmont — only have buses running once every hour. With the reimagining, Samtrans has the opportunity to truly hear from riders about where service needs to be improved or expanded, and I reckon Samtrans will be expanding to new markets previously underserved.
Looking through their pages on what future service will look like, I am very impressed. Using rider surveys and outreach efforts as a guide, the new route network proposed on the Reimagine Samtrans will see buses running to Oyster Point, a major hub for biotech companies, for the first time, and a new mid-county route, the 249, creating a short and direct connection from the San Mateo Caltrain station to the College of San Mateo (a major community college in the mid-county). Routes like the 398 and SFO will likely be cut to use those resources more efficiently, and Samtrans is also making an emphasis to ensure more reliable connections to other modes such as Caltrain or BART. Truly, agency interlining is of utmost importance when dealing with over 27 of them in the Bay Area.
“Reimagine Samtrans” is a critical next step in ensuring Samtrans remains a competitive transit option going forward. With record high gas prices offering a window into what a world with fewer cars might look like, it is clear that reliable and frequent bus service is a necessity. Samtrans has the ability to do that, but making sure that buses are running on routes that maximize ridership and coverage at the same time is a tight balance, and something Samtrans is still figuring out. I’m optimistic that when Samtrans initiates route changes in the summer of this year, the system can improve, and I can’t wait to see the results.