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

In an article posted by KQED and written by Katarina Schwartz, ”

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.

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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.”

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.

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.”