This is a special “Flashback Saturday” as it was originally published in Passenger Transport Magazine, August/September 1992 issue

Public transport patronage into central Auckland continues to plummet, according to a survey of peak hour commuters by the Auckland Regional Council. Darren Davis investigates.

During April. bus, train and ferry commuters to central Auckland were counted at a variety of points. This revealed a 14.5 per cent drop in patronage compared with 1991.

The survey has been carried out annually since 1986, (except 1989 when there was an ARC bus strike).

In 1986, 24,430 people travelled into central Auckland by public transport, this figure remaining stable for the next two years, then plummeting abruptly from 1988. Between 1988 and 1990 patronage dropped by 22 per cent, a further 15.4 per cent between 1990 and 1991 and 14.5 per cent in the last year [to 1992]. The total decline between 1988 and 1992 is 42 per cent.

Between 1988 and 1988 peak public transport commuting into Auckland city centre plummeted by 42 per cent.

This year’s [1992] survey took place in good weather, with normal traffic patterns with the university term well underway and daylight saving having finished. According to the past experience of the ARC, there can be up to a 9 per cent daily variation of patronage counts in any one corridor, mostly due to travel fluctuations, seasonal factors and survey error.

Reasons attributed by regional council staff for the precipitous drop in patronage include the hardy perennials of reduced city centre employment, increased unemployment generally, availability of cheap car parking and second-hand Japanese imports.

Buses carry 89.3 per cent of the passengers entering the Central Business District and bus patronage declined by 14 per cent. The slight slow-down in the rate of decline was treated as a hopeful omen by the eternal optimists at the ARC. Train patronage dropped by just under 10 per cont and carry 2.4 per cent of the passenger load into the Central Business District (at over 10 per cent of the total subsidy cost). Ferries carries 8.3 per cent of city-bound commuters and their patronage has remained stable.

Vehicle occupancy varies between an average of 165 for Seabus sailings from Devonport down to 10 for Ritchies/Greenhalgh buses from Waitakere. Cityrail trains only carry an average of 35 passengers each although their peak load point is outside central Auckland. Overall Cityrail patronage is rising: [Ed: In 1992, trains carried 1.019m passengers in the entire year]. Birkenhead Transport has the highest occupancy of any bus operator with 33 passengers per trip, down from 38 in 1991. Yellow Bus Company flyer buses coming off the Southern Motorway carry an average of 59 passengers and Cityline express buses [from Papakura] carry an average of 39 passengers. Yellow Bus Company services from the North Shore have their highest average occupancy with 37 passengers per bus. This should improve further with the development of the revised North Shore busway proposal.

Whenuapai buses are now only carrying an average of 26 passengers per bus and Whenuapai is now able to use minibuses to run its peak hour services. This is partly due to more Whenuapai passengers working and shopping in New Lynn, where no direct service is available.

Auckland City Council has been sufficiently disturbed by the sharp decline in patronage that it requested the Regional Council to add a goal to its Regional Passenger Transport Plan¬†“to take urgent action to arrest the sharp decline in public transport patronage in recent years, and in the short term to stabilise peak period patronage at the level of April 1992.”

This is the same city council that surveys staff to see what would encourage them to drive to work and park in council car parks, and which demolishes heritage buildings to provide convenient staff parking.

Current Auckland isthmus contracts expire in 1996 and Auckland City is concerned that there mayn’t be many public transport passengers left by them. However, the Auckland Regional Council considers that “it is debatable whether the Council can take immediate action that will be effective in reversing patronage trends.” The Council has taken a stance that a comprehensive review process provides the best opportunity for the long-term survival of passenger transport in the region. This leaves operators scrapping over a declining market and leaves all the initiative for service improvements with the operators.

One bright note in this sorry saga is that the current Auckland City review of Central Business District routes and terminals may alleviate some of the anomalies where the terminals are located nowhere near where passengers want to go and buses take circuitous routes to leave the Central Business District.

However, more needs to be done about the patronage decline. Addressing the decline of downtown Auckland would be a good start.

Share this


  1. That’s both extraordinary, and (in retrospect) hugely encouraging. Amazing that ARC was so complacent (incompetent?) back then that they could just sit by and watch this happen. I’m so glad that AT has turned the situation around, and that AKL now has the (far better) problem of trying to provide enough PT for all the people who want to use PT in Auckland.

    So, the issues of “Reasons attributed by regional council staff for the precipitous drop in patronage include the hardy perennials of reduced city centre employment, increased unemployment generally, availability of cheap car parking and second-hand Japanese imports” have all gone away now, have they?

    1. Most of the reasons for the decline have gone but an important factor for the growth in public transport is the growth and dynamism of the city centre which I understand is still responsible for half of all public transport patronage. Jap imports are still very much with us as you can see on any given day on Captain Cook Wharf but employment is rising strongly in the city centre as is retail sales and resident numbers. AT has effectively eliminated early bird parking at its parking buildings by increasing the price from $13 per day about three years ago to $17 and now $24.

      1. Yes and so we can see that Transit ridership is a kind of canary in the mine of how well the city is doing. When Auckland thrives; it needs the spatial efficient movement that only Transit offers, and when it’s failing, contracting, Transit empties out.

        What we build during the booms really really matters, because when it slows down or worse, we have to rely on the results of those choices. We have to live with the city we made. So it is vital we no longer delay building the great city, stop putting off good things for some future time when it may be easier. Now is the time to de-car the city centre, to invest in permanent Transit right of ways, to build great public spaces and make sure access to work, education, and fun, is as open to everyone as possible.

        We mustn’t be forced into pouring billions into one more vastly wasteful motorway, when there are so many other more valuable and lasting investments. A great city can only be made by making a great city. Now.

  2. By late 1991 things were so bad that the Birkenhead bus service like many others in Auckland embraced the lie of market competition from tendering for “efficiencies” reasons. Some area’s had different bus companies (using some really old worn out buses) at different times on routes meaning your concession card was useless.

    All private company buses were high floored, poorly ventilated and non heated and were buses based on truck chassis with bus body’s fitted.

    Birkenhead Transport lost the tender for the evening to late runs and were replaced by taxi buses, that is a van with bus signs. This competition nirvana meant normal services as we once had from Birkenhead Transport ran as much before from 5.50 am in Beachhaven through until between 7.20 pm to the CBD and 7.50 being their last return service for a total daily return of about 42 trips, including peak. On Saturdays there were 18 trips.

    Were you fool enough to use a bus after 7.00 pm because you did over time or worked shifts or went out socialising you quickly found the van that replaced the buses never had enough seats and you got left behind. This abysmal and frankly unreliable service meant taking the air conditioned Japanese import was a far better idea.

    You look back and wonder how the hell it got this bad but this is exactly what blind faith in Neo-liberalism gave us. Today it’s housing, polluted waterways and slashed public spending and services. It just keeps on giving!

    1. Birkenhead Transport did its bit to protect its patch in the deregulation era by registering most weekday and Saturday daytime service as commercial and hence not subject to competitive tendering. Quite possibly not all of these services were strictly speaking commercial but not even the 25% incumbent margin in the 1991 tendering round (designed to protect The Yellow Bus Company from being gutted as they paid much better wages and overall had a higher cost structure) could protect the evening and weekend services. In a number of cases, the same route was operated by three different operators at different times of day or days of the week with different and non-interchangeable ticketing systems. Much of North Shore night and weekend bus service, including Sunday Beach Haven services, were run by 10-seater maxi-taxis run by North Shore Taxis. Paying your fare was like being in a Latin American jitney or Philippine jeepney, passed forward to the driver who passed back change. Customers shouted out when they wanted to be let out and then would have to clamber over other customers. It is worth reflecting that we have come a long way since the dark days of the early deregulation era of the 1990s.

  3. Useful to remember our pathetic history when comparing our city to progressive ones. In 1991, so about the same time, I was living in Helsinki – a city of similar population and density to Auckland. Buses, trains, trams and cycleways – completely separated from traffic – served the entire city. There were no areas economically disadvantaged by not being on PT, as all were served well, thus Helsinki had a very even socioeconomic mix. This infrastructure was created by a country clawing its way out of poverty after being shattered by wars; its wealth came later.

    Useful mainly because although the changes we need to make are both massive and urgent, the article reminds us just how dysfunctional Auckland’s “normality” has been for generations. Of course people think their car dependent fossil fuel party is normal when that’s the way it’s been for so long. That’s why spurious economic and ideological and selfish arguments are used to defend the status quo and the rights of the car driver. Despite the urgency, we need to be gentle with individuals; it’s only human to think that what I’m used to is appropriate and normal.

    And put our energy into getting the CEO at AT that we need.

  4. I remember catching buses from East Coast Rd at Mairangi Bay to Newmarket circa 1994. Paper tickets, no bus lanes, old buses (but were in the process of being updated – I still remember the first kneeling bus I saw).

  5. I think the very first bus I ever caught must have been a Yellow Bus Mercedes sometime around this time. Still remember the wrap around ads on the ceiling cornices, the scratchy fabric seats and the yellow starburst vinyl on the walls.

    Even that seemed modern by the time I got to secondary, when we had a private operator bus that was well over 40 years old (in 1996) – a 1953 AEC with red vinyl seats and tan metal interior.

    I remember the first buses we started to get that didn’t suck were the dead square MANs with smoked glass partitions at the front etc. Still among the comfiest buses I’ve ever ridden although they would never meet mobility requirements now with their stairs and super high floors.

    And the train was a noisy thing with dirty carriages and hand-opened doors that we rode from Henderson to Swanson and back as a treat when staying with my grandparents. Nothing more than that.

    1. If I recall correctly, 1992’s train patronage was a smidgen over 1 million for the entire year whereas in March 2017 it was over 2 million for the month. On the Western Line, the last inbound train that went the whole way from Waitakere was around 3.30pm with a ‘late’ short-runner from Henderson at 4.30pm. The last outbound service from Auckland required catching the 5.40pm Papakura train and transferring to the 5.50pm Waitakere train at Newmarket. I remember catching the 10.15am train from Auckland to Sturges Road and having a whole carriage to myself. Sturges Road was until 1993 a ‘wayside halt’ meaning like at Boston Road there was no actual platform at the station and you had to clamber down from a high-floor train on to the ballast and wander off.

  6. The numbers seem to indicate the 1989 bus strike had a big effect, but more likely the dire economic conditions of the early 90s for the ordinary person didnt help

    1. Bus strikes were definitely a factor in the terrible confluence of events but also of note was that the stock market crash of 1987 came as many city centre buildings had been demolished but whatever piece of crap was intended to replace them at the height of the post-modern mirror glass era never got built and were turned into cheap surface carparks at $4 for all-day parking, something eerily reminiscent of the fate of much of Christchurch city centre through natural forces. Of note is that a few of these sites – including the Royal International Hotel on the bungy site on Victoria Street West and the Auckland Star Building on Shortland Street – are still to this day thirty years later surface parking lots. Also of note is that the 1987 stock market crash saved Courtenay Place in Wellington from a similar fate of heritage being demolished for mirror-glass monstrosities.

  7. Great Post, thanks Darren. Really really important to get the current boom in this historical perspective. Because:

    1. it shows how much of a discontinuity our age is with the previous era, an era that unfortunately still informs the opinions of many older and sometimes influential people.

    2. it highlights that what we invest in leads how people use the city to a great degree, and that we do, for better or worse, shape what is misleadingly known as ‘demand’ in urban movement choices, by what we build.

  8. And wasn’t the ongoing response to this long term decline a National Government rule to force councils to privatise their bus services in the late ’90s [Yellow Bus being sold in 1998 to Stagecoach and in turn to Infratil/NZ Bus]?

    But back before that, between ’92 and ’98 the slowdown mentioned here was followed by a even further decline, which lead to ARTA trying to balance its books and so ended up raising bus fares quite a lot [25%?], and also slashing evening and weekend services in a feeble attempt to live within its subsidies.

    So much cutbacks were made that Saturdays had a Sunday-level of service, and on Sundays no buses ran at all as I recall reading.

    Its a wonder we actually had any bus services left at all by the mid 90’s.

    While we’re on the wayback machine, have a laugh at this Herald opinion dressed up as news piece from John Roughan in 2009 about how much fitter for purpose Snapper is over any other bus fare payment system we could use to pay our bus/train fares:

    We all know how right John was about that, just like he was about the Northern Busway and NEX, trains, double decker buses, more motorways everywhere and lots of other things.

    1. It wasn’t quite as dire as that but was pretty dire nonetheless. In 1989, The Yellow Bus Company did a bunch of major service cuts and fare increases which just got the vicious circle moving faster. Sunday buses finished at around 5pm and Sunday evening service was only restored in the mid-1990s as parts of the network came up for retender. The Sunday evening service cuts effectively killed Sunday patronage as customers were afraid of being stranded if they missed their last buses at around 5pm. The only upside, if you can call it that, is that you very rarely had to share your seat with another customer simply because there were so few customers.

      1. Darren you’re no doubt right on the Sunday buses.

        I just recall on Sunday nights not hearing any buses running at all near our house for years and years [6 years?] and I got used to no buses running at all for some of Sunday and probably mentally assumed no Sunday buses. Certainly as you say no one who had any choice bothered with Sunday buses. Too likely to get yourself stuck somewhere at the end of the day.

        I also thought they cut back on the weekday evening services after 9:00? or 10pm? because again I recall not hearing buses running nearby as I used to be able to when I was tucked up in bed at nights.

  9. Reads like the present Hamilton Central City Transformation Plan to remove Bus stops from Victoria St to provide a free on street parking option, fund with new Access Hamilton Targeted rate increase.
    This is after the council and government have spent TENS OF MILLION on parking buildings in the CBD over the last decade which are being under used.

    Page 47
    Short Term Projects
    Victoria St including parking options
    Reroute the buses from Victoria St

  10. It really was the foresight and aspirations of the ARC in 1992 who agreed to subsidise the Perth diesel railcars if NZ Rail Ltd purchased them (which they duly did). At that point Cityrail patronage started to inch higher.

    The ARC was the driver for change for public transport from the late 1990’s once they could see that Britomart would be built. But prior to that ARA and ARC had had many years of pro- private motor vehicle led decision makers.

    Hats off to Cr Mike Lee (last Chairman of the ARC) who put pedal to the metal for public transport investment and the upgrading of the Auckland rail network.

    1. Agree, Mike Lee certainly played a big role in getting rail going. I also recall a post a few years ago that there was someone in NZ Rail at the time that was given the job of closing down passenger rail in Auckland. Instead he purchased the Perth rail cars and the ball got rolling. Also the Auckland City Council from 1998 – 2001, who managed to get Britomart locked in to a point where Banks couldn’t reverse it.

      1. Indeed, that person is Raymond Siddalls who in effect became the saviour of Auckland rail through the Perth railcar deal. Big hat tip to Christine Fletcher and the Auckland City Council of the time who got Britomart to the point of no return. The legacy Auckland City Council in fact funded the bulk of the $200 million to bring rail back to Auckland City Centre and deserves kudos for doing so.

    2. Yes, indeed. While the introduction of the ex-Perth railcars in late 1993 helped, making better use of them through the mid-1994 timetable was key. This timetable introduced half-hourly peak services on the three lines with the Onehunga or Manukau lines still being a long way in the future, and hourly interpeak and Saturday services – except on Eastern Line which still had no weekend service. This more than doubled the previous Western Line interpeak frequency and introduced interpeak trains on to the Eastern Line for the first time in many, many moons. Patronage doubled in the following year but plateaued until just before Britomart opened in 2003 due to this timetable fully using the 19 railcars with the only improvement being extending Western Line station platforms to accommodate four-car trains in 1998 – while Eastern Line platforms were still two-car at the turn of the century. The opening of Britomart, the interim train fleet of SA push-pull trains and the core rail network upgrade from 2006 – including double-tracking the Western Line, Manukau Line, reopening the Onehunga Line, New Lynn rail trench and Newmarket Junction and station upgrade – were all key moves in the renaissance of rail in Auckland.

  11. Yes, interesting reading all these comments and have vague memories of catching (& missing!) yellow buses, 10 ticket concession tickets, Howick & Eastern buses, the odd train trip from Penrose when car broke down etc. Earliest is out west going on trains a couple of times with my grandmother as a young kid for the sake of it, probably from Henderson out to Waitakere I’m guessing.

  12. Hello, Darren

    Nice talk on radio NZ. Auckland central could do with a park, though. There’s Albert Park, of course, but you have to climb up to it and it’s not so accessible for many people. It’s kind of deliberately discouraging. How about a series of outdoor lifts from Victoria St or Lorne St, which would be a version of the Wellington tram up to the Botanical gardens?

    The grassed areas outside the Aotea Centre are not what people would normally call a park.

    London (Hyde Park), Paris (Jardin des Tuileries), New York ( Central Park), Milan, etc, and any city you would want to visit, has a park placed at its very centre. And by park, I mean a park, with trees, etc.

    There’s no breathing space in the city – apart from the waterfront, of course, which is marvelous. I’m really thinking of Queen St and surrounds after, say, you walk up Queen St past Victoria St – it’s just walk and work stuff, and no messing around.

    Right now, apart from the art gallery, the 3 theatres (good, I grant you), cinemas (plenty of them in the suburbs anyway) – there’s nothing much apart from busy-busy office spaces and high-end shopping. The average age of people you see there has to be under 35yrs-40yrs, and no one under 8yrs. Anyone who can’t walk at 50 km an hour doesn’t stand a chance. I am in my fifties and pretty healthy, thanks.

    It’s all too many straight lines for my liking. I like to go for a wander.


    Adrian Hart

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *