An Auckland Council report on various aspects of our transport system makes a number of comparisons of Auckland’s public transport system with various cities in Australia, Canada and the USA – as well as Wellington. The cities used to compare Auckland against, including their population and what different technologies their PT system includes, is shown in the table below: These are a good range of cities to compare Auckland’s performance against, in my opinion. We have a number of cities with fairly similar population densities to Auckland (Sydney, Vancouver) cities with a similar population (Portland, Calgary, Adelaide) and cities with a variety of PT systems. On the key statistic of boardings per capita, it’s clear to see that Auckland is the very bottom city on this list. The per capita boardings of the Canadian cities are pretty amazingly high.

If we just compare with the Australian cities (and with Wellington) we can also see that while Auckland’s patronage has grown over the past decade, it hasn’t increased as much as many other Australian cities, particularly Melbourne and Perth: It’s interesting to remind ourselves that Melbourne has a railway link tunnel fairly similar to what’s being proposed in Auckland, and the ability to get heaps of people into Melbourne’s CBD by train has played a major role in the revitalisation of downtown Melbourne over the past decade, obviously contributing significantly to its rising patronage.

If we look at modeshare comparisons, once again Auckland lags behind the other cities – although it must be remembered that this is 2006 data and undoubtedly things will have changed in Auckland since then. It’s a shame that the Canadian data wasn’t able to be broken down by PT type, but for many Australian cities it’s notable that generally rail has a similar, or greater, modeshare than buses for peak time travel. Auckland is very much the exception to that rule, which probably highlights a PT system that is a bit too dependent on buses (due to our historic neglect of the rail network).

So why are things so bad for Auckland? Setting aside the obvious historical reasons, it’s clear by comparing Auckland with these various overseas cities that we provide a lower quality and quantity of services than elsewhere, but we charge the highest price on a per kilometre basis. Firstly, the quality & quantity: In short, we’re providing a pretty rubbish service compared to all the other cities used in the comparison. But what are we charging compared to all these other cities: So despite having the lowest quality PT service out of all these comparative cities, we then go and charge passengers the highest fares out of any of the cities. Not content with that, we are also then one of the few cities not to have a properly integrated ticketing/fares system. The reasons for our low patronage levels are starting to become pretty obvious I think.

Another element to consider is the cost-effectiveness of our service delivery. Obviously the cost of providing our rail system is pretty high, because we’re running incredibly old trains and use an incredibly outdated, overly labour-intensive, ticketing system. Our bus service seems relatively normal to provide on a per kilometre basis: While our services don’t seem particularly expensive to provide on a per kilometre basis, because we have the lowest average loadings of our PT vehicles, Auckland then stands out as close to the most expensive city to provide public transport on a per-person basis: Looking at the graph above it seems fairly obvious that the key way for Auckland to improve the cost-effectiveness of its public transport network is by increasing passenger loads and thereby reducing working expenses per passenger kilometre. Nevertheless, because our fares are so incredibly high on a comparative basis, Auckland’s farebox recovery level actually isn’t bad when compared to many of the other cities: There are quite a few pages of pretty good analysis and suggestions about how we can improve Auckland’s situation towards the end of the document, but for me the information above is extremely helpful in outlining quite a few things:

  • Despite an improvement to Auckland’s PT system over the past decade, we’re still doing very poorly compared to comparative cities in Australia, Canada and the USA. Furthermore, most of those cities have been increasing their patronage at even faster rates to Auckland.
  • Compared to other cities, Auckland’s PT service quality is considered to be extremely low, while quantity of service provided is also fairly low (although somewhat understandably given our low use). Improving service quality (better reliability, faster speeds, value for money etc.) is likely to be the most effective way of increasing use.
  • Compared to the other cities, Auckland’s fares are incredibly high – particularly as we don’t have integrated ticketing. Making fares for unlimited daily, weekly or monthly travel quite a bit cheaper is likely to be quite effective at boosting patronage and making PT seen as better value for money. Peak/off-peak pricing splits are also likely to be a good idea.
  • Compared to Wellington in particular, we are paying too much for the provision of services on a per kilometre basis. Compared to all cities we’re paying too much on a per passenger basis. This suggests that we’re running too many empty/underloaded buses or trains around, particularly during peak times when it’s most expensive to get a vehicle on the road. I also wonder whether this makes a good case for a publicly owned bus company to do what Kiwibank has done to the banking industry and keep prices a bit sharper.
  • Our farebox recovery levels are actually quite high compared to many overseas cities, suggesting that efforts to improve cost-effectiveness should come from boosting patronage through service quality improvements, rather than by hiking fares.

This pretty much matches up with what I’ve thought for a long time (although I am surprised how comparatively high Auckland’s fares are). One hopes that now Auckland Transport and Auckland Council have all this information, it will become more obvious what interventions will be most useful. Things like better bus priority measures, a more efficient bus network, a more intensively used rail network and and improved ticketing system.

I hope that eventually we can get off the bottom of all these public transport statistics.

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  1. “It’s a shame that the Canadian data wasn’t able to be broken down by PT type…”

    For Edmonton: A mix of bus and tram
    For Ottawa: Bus
    For Calgary: Bus
    For Vancouver: A mix of bus, ferry, rail and light rail.

    1. Ottawa has a single diesel light rail line, and Calgary and Edmonton both have extensive light rail systems. For Vancouver, the Skytrain is more of a metro system than light rail.

  2. It’s interesting that Portland’s internationally admired light rail system carries proportionally fewer people than Auckland’s clapped out network. The relative mode shares for the Canadian cities would be interesting to see too. It seems that Vancouver has barely more PT mode-share than Calgary, despite investing far more in a metro-style system rather than light rail, and Ottawa, which mostly has a busway network, beats them both in mode-share.

  3. Melbournes four track city loop was built in the early 80s to improve access and convenience, not for capacity. The upside is that Melbourne has been able to sustain almost a decade of record Pt growth and a totally revitalized CBD with only minimal further investment. I forget the exact figures but I think it was a doubling of peak trips to the CBD in ten years all on the back of rail.

  4. Someone who has recently visited Vancouver told me that all tertiary students there are forced to pay a set fee which then entitles them to unlimited public transport for 12 months.

    1. Having lived (and studied) in Vancouver it’s true (at least when I was there 10 years ago) that students pay a compulsory fee that covers PT use for a 12 month period. This scheme was first trialled by UBC, and simply gave every student a Metropass for all modes of transport for 12 months. The idea was to lower the numbers of students driving to UBC and parking there. I think the University figured it was cheaper to bulk buy Metropasses and hand them out to every student than build another parking building.

      I can only assume that the idea was successful if indeed the idea was widened to include other tertiary institutes.

      1. Such schemes already exist for several years now in NZ. In Palmerston North Massey university and also the other tertiary institutions have an agreement with horizons so students can travel for free and tag with their student id on buses. Since this scheme is introduced students need to pay for car parks instead. So Auckland just needs to have a look at the country side.

    2. Yes, there’s a component of study costs that entitles the student to an unlimited-use public transport pass valid for 12 months. It’s a great idea, and one that I think Auckland should investigate for, at the least, the universities and Unitec/MIT.

      1. I’d like to see that investigated here. I also wonder how if it could work on a wider scale – I think we could eventually have unlimited travel for everyone – if we wanted it (right now we don’t).

  5. That’s quite depressing. But a good point to start, too. Auckland PT is like the bar where to make money they charge more and more for the wine, losing customers.
    If they charged less they would have more customers, sell more wine and in the long run make more money. Being that you have to pay the waiter 40 hours a week, better make him run than stand at the counter reading the newspaper.

  6. I think it is good to know where we are and that there are things that will improve the results but I would like to see what difference the improvements are expected to make i.e. what difference will electrification make to these result, what impact will integrated ticketing make etc.

    At the end of the day every major PT project is aimed at improving patronage and/or reducing costs. As part of the justification, AT would have surely estimated the impact that these will make so should be able to at least give an indication of what these may look like i.e. will we see AK’s costs reduce to be more in line with other cities or these projects make little change

  7. Not sure that Sydney is a good model to follow:

    THEY must have done an exemplary job. In the 6½ years since the state government signed off on $5.6 billion of contracts with Sydney bus operators, it has never once penalised any for underperformance – not for late running, not for overcrowding, not for a lack of route information, not for inadequate bus shelters…

    Inquiries by the Herald under the Government Information (Public Access) Act reveal that Transport NSW has never issued a performance penalty to any bus operator, despite having the power to do so under the 2005 contracts. It has also failed to act on the recommendations of the state’s Auditor-General, who has been highly critical of the department’s monitoring of bus performance.

    Read more:

  8. Interesting that Toronto is not one of the Canadian cities considered in your excellent study.

    If I may be so bold, may I ask the author why Toronto didn’t make the cut? Paul Mees has ensured that Toronto (and Vancouver and Zurich) is the international benchmark for Melbourne’s (and to a lesser extent Sydney’s) PT performance. Is it because data was hard to find or that Toronto is not a good comparator to Auckland?

    Again, just interested because those of us in the industry in Melbourne can’t escape being forced to compare our practices with Toronto.

  9. “Improving service quality (better reliability, faster speeds, value for money etc.) is likely to be the most effective way of increasing use.”

    I visited the Art Gallery in the weekend via bus and observed a family up the road doing the same. Clearly from the amount of time taken to purchase tickets they were not frequent users of the bus but clearly though it was worth a try. Coincidentally the waited for the same bus home, which despite showing as 2 mins away and then due never arrived, nor did the next one. They got a taxi home, and 10 mins later a bus finally arrived. So fair to say their collective impression of public transport as a reliable option is gone.

    This is what most needs to be fixed in the short term.

    1. Yes. Absolutely. Other things you can forgive (and if it’s 8:20am on a weekday, you might forgive a little more), but outside peak unreliability is a huge factor. We only get so many hours in a day, so to spend a large number of minutes waiting does take from us – it’s just in the form of precious time.

      I’ve always said that public transport trip times should be measured from door to destination – frequently the actual “trip” is less than half the total time. (To be fair, car travel times should be measured in the same way, including parking.

  10. Re: fare levels, I have done regular research into ferry fares around the world and the main conclusion is that the Auckland fares (the one to Waiheke in particular) is the most expensive in the world in absolute terms – not even taking PPP into account, the recent rise in the NZ$ will have made it even worse.

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