We know that there are some major ongoing trends in transport use not only in New Zealand but also in many of the countries we like to compare ourselves to, especially those closest to NZ in culture and history i.e. Australia, Canada and the US. We’re continuing to see the numbers of people driving (or the distance they are travelling) fall or at least flat line – something traffic projections are mostly still ignoring. We’re seeing more and more people choosing to live in areas closer to cities that enables them to walk or cycle which is also being aided in many places by vastly improved walking cycling facilities. And of course we’re seeing a lot more people choosing to use public transport.

On the issue of PT use, news came out a few days ago that in the US ridership across the entire county reached its highest point in 57 years.

In 2013 Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation, which is the highest annual public transit ridership number in 57 years, according to a report released today by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). This was the eighth year in a row that more than 10 billion trips were taken on public transportation systems nationwide. While vehicle miles traveled on roads (VMT) went up 0.3 percent, public transportation use in 2013 increased by 1.1 percent.

“Last year people took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation. As the highest annual ridership number since 1956, Americans in growing numbers want to have more public transit services in their communities,” said Peter Varga, APTA Chair and CEO of The Rapid in Grand Rapids, MI. “Public transportation systems nationwide – in small, medium, and large communities – saw ridership increases. Some reported all-time high ridership numbers.”

Some of the public transit agencies reporting record ridership system-wide or on specific lines were located in the following cities: Ann Arbor, MI; Cleveland, OH; Denver, CO; Espanola, NM; Flagstaff, AZ; Fort Myers, FL; Indianapolis, IN; Los Angeles, CA; New Orleans, LA; Oakland, CA; Pompano Beach, FL; Riverside, CA; Salt Lake City, UT; San Carlos, CA; Tampa, FL; Yuma, AZ; and New York, NY.

Since 1995 public transit ridership is up 37.2 percent, outpacing population growth, which is up 20.3 percent, and vehicle miles traveled (VMT), which is up 22.7 percent.

“There is a fundamental shift going on in the way we move about our communities. People in record numbers are demanding more public transit services and communities are benefiting with strong economic growth,” said APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy.

Before the drop of in patronage last year, we also saw similar news from Auckland with patronage reaching highs not seen since the 1950’s so it  got me thinking as to how relative history’s in patronage compare. Now I’m comparing the patronage history of a single city with the aggregated patronage of an entire nation so it’s a little bit of an apples and oranges type comparison however as the graph below shows the trends have been remarkably similar. Both lines peak at or just after WW2, before declining to a low point in 1972. the downward fall was ended by the 1973 oil crisis. Recovery in patronage then jumped around for a period of time until the early 90’s. Then since the mid 90’s there has been a general upward trend in patronage, albeit with a few bumps along the way.

US Patronage trend vs Auckland 1

I was also then interested in how other the other countries I mentioned have changed over time. The data I could find doesn’t go back as far as the US or Auckland data but does show some similar trends. Of note the Canadian data is total trips not boarding’s so is slightly different from Auckland, Australian and US data. I also don’t have the most recent data for these two countries.

Long Term Patronage Aus vs Can

Of all of these, Canada is perhaps the most interesting. Its post WW2 patronage drop had obviously mostly happened prior to 1955 and it is the only one of the four examples that has higher total patronage now than the mid 1950’s. This is not surprising, when looking at the cities similar to Auckland that tend to perform the best the Canadian cities almost always tend to come out on top regardless of the measure used for example they tend to have higher number of trips per capita and better farebox recoveries than cities from NZ, Australia or the US.

The next question is often why the Canadian cities do so much better, after all the people who live in those cities aren’t all that different from us. There’s probably a whole number of posts that could be written about why the Canadian cities do so well but in short there’s a couple of key things I’ve noticed when looking at them.

  • Investment in proper high quality rapid transit systems like the Skytrain in Vancouver, light rail in Calgary and Edmonton, Busways in Ottawa or the Subways of Toronto and Montreal. This is something that Auckland is only now starting to really do with the Northern Busway and the rail upgrades. The Congestion Free Network we’ve proposed would put us on par or even ahead of many of those Canadian cities when thinking about Rapid Transit (but of course they aren’t standing still either).
  • A focus on connected bus networks. When looking at the bus networks of the Canadian cities you don’t see the spaghetti mess of routes like we do currently in Auckland. Instead their networks tend to consist of frequent routes that create a grid across the city. This is of course the same style bus network that Auckland Transport is going to be rolling out here starting with South Auckland next year.

I guess the good news from that is we’re at least heading in the right direction.

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  1. Noting that the 1970s oil crises saw a rebound in PT usage, I would argue that the cost of driving is still too low, but unlikely to remain as cheap as it has been historically.

  2. What happened in 1959/1960 ? The drop is greater than the increase from the first and second oils shocks combined (1973 and 1979).

    1. The late 1950s saw the total removal of the tram system and the closure of most of the harbour ferries, combined with the opening of the harbour bridge, the first significant sections of motorway and ‘slum clearances’ in the inner city to widen roads.

      That was the point where we decided to shut down public transport and shift to auto mobility instead.

      1. And that spike from 1953(?) to 1955 suggests the trams were getting a good work out before they were torn out.

        Yes Aucklanders must have been thrilled whne that decisions was made. I read a thing the other day with a new immigrant worker to NZ in the 1950s saying it was good work to rip up the tram lines, because no locals would do it. I can only assume because it was so unpopular.

        Also they were ripped up to make sure they couldn’t be reinstated. In Chch they were at least just covered over. Many of them came back up again during the earthquakes.

  3. Well it looks like exactly 1960 where it dropped from 75 million to around 39million. That is around 98,000 per day in proper numbers (or 36million if you are a transport marketing type). Surely there couldn’t have been that many ferrys replaced with car trips across the bridge.

  4. The point is, now, we can pretty well have as much transit mode share as we want. In other words the demand direction is up just as it was down at the beginning of the auto-age. Then if we had upgraded the trams instead of pulling them out, like in Melbourne, then the drop wouldn’t have been as extreme, but it still would have dropped. The car was the flash new thing. Now there is the opposite, the corollary to that period; PT demand has, is, and will grow, but we can frustrate and slow that by failing to lift service quality sufficiently.

    The great news is that at least at the very top of AT there is a will to feed that appetite in both small and large ways. This is new, and very exciting. If AT can quickly do things like the Fanshaw bus lanes, and others elsewhere throughout the network, integrated fares, roll out the new network, build those interchange stations, then ridership is going to boom….

    1. Yep, I can confirm the Economist’s assessment of the situation for Britain. Outside London, it is simply far less crowded, so you have room to park a car (which I don’t have, where I live in Edinburgh). As incomes outside London have grown, over time, that has translated into higher car ownership and therefore higher car use. Bus use, though, is still higher than New Zealand. Most smaller British cities will manage around a hundred trips/per/year for their bus networks, or about the same as Wellington City proper. For the larger conurbations, which have rail services, you might get up to 150 trips/person/year. For Edinburgh it is close to 240 trips/person/year, but that reflects a compact quite walkable city with not much central city parking and a middle class that is prepared, unlike Glasgow’s, to use the bus.

      To come back to the situation of Canadian cities, which provide probably the best good-practice benchmark for New Zealand. Their rates of bus use (that is, without any big investment) are easily two to three times as strong as comparable American cities. For example, and here looking at all public transport: Vancouver has about 140 trips/person/year, compared with Portland, which has about 70 trips/person/year – and Portland is the poster boy for American light rail and their new urbanism. More of a challenge is that the two cities have a great deal in common, including rail or light rail, so why the differences?

      After long reflection, I suspect it is also “culturally OK” to use the bus in Canada, in a way that it still isn’t really in New Zealand, and in a way in which it certainly isn’t in most of the USA. How do we capture that magic stuff and sprinkle it onto our own systems and markets? 🙂

      Also, to illustrate (in this case, the use of public transport for work commuting):

      1. Ross isn’t it much more likely that it is the level and quality of service difference between Canada and US than some ethereal cultural difference explains ridership levels. Especially as the poor quality of US bus services [on every level] clearly contributes to or at the very least reinforces any perception of it being a poor option. So it might be more productive to ask why does the ‘loser cruiser’ tag persist more south of the border? Shrug our shoulder and say it always will no matter how good that service is? Yet PT ridership is now growing the US where ever service quality improves- especially on rails.

        You ask: “How do we capture that magic stuff and sprinkle it onto our own systems and markets?” Well we have seen in Auckland that as soon as service levels increase in quality, frequency, and speed [road priority] those services are rewarded with significantly increased ridership. Northern Busway, Britomart. Here’s what the 2011 PT Benchmark study by Ian Wallis Associates says about North American differences:

        “The quantity of service appears to be a significant factor in explaining why Canadian cities do better than US cities. Canadian cities have roughly 20-30% more service per capita, so this on its own should be likely to increase patronage, although perhaps not to a proportional extent.
        Auckland, it should be noted, is in the same low range as the US cities in service quantity per capita and considerably below all the other Australian/NZ cities. This probably reflects decades in which public transport has been given a relatively low priority.”

        In particular this report concluded that like many US cities AKL has very little true ‘Rapid Transit’ services [High frequency, own RoW, bus or rail]. :

        “Relative to most of the comparator cities, a smaller proportion of AKL’s PT travel is undertaken on ‘rapid transit’ services (ie services, whether rail-based or bus-based, that are largely segregated from general road traffic, and consequently have higher operating speeds and generally greater reliability): A smaller proportion of AKL’s PT travel is on rail-based services then is the case in any of the other Aust/NZ cities. Additionally, AKL has only one true rapid transit bus corridor (Northern Busway), which is less than most of the other cities with a heavy bus emphasis (eg OTT, BNE).”


        This is not to discount other factors such as parking availability and urban form, but in the absence of high quality services we should not leap to other theories to explain low ridership without first considering this big one.

    1. could be a combination of demographics and migration. Outside London people are getting older and travelling less overall.

      London on the other hand seems to be reasonably successful at attracting young people, often from places like NZ.

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