Public transport patronage is falling in North America, and it’s worrying people.
As a February 2017 CityLab article shows, almost every city in the United States is experiencing falling public transport patronage. While transport experts aren’t sure exactly why it’s happening, everyone is concerned:
New York City’s subway system has posted its first dip in ridership since 2009, according to data from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The news follows a news week full of reported transit passenger declines in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And, for years, nearly every city in the U.S. (with a few notable exceptions) has posted negative percent changes, too.
Which raises two questions as old as public transit itself: Where do the riders go, when they go? And how can cities bring them back?
Some of the factors behind these declines are national, as the transportation scholar David Levinson points out via email. The economy is expanding, and oil prices are plunging. People are buying more cars and driving them more often, both to work and to weekend activities that are better served by vehicles. American cities continue to suburbanize, and as they do, taking transit often becomes a less attractive option. Immigrants, long a strong base of ridership for agencies, are increasingly moving out of urban centers… and buying and driving their own vehicles.
The public transport results for March are always the most anticipated of the year because we’re eager to see just how much March Madness lived up to its reputation.
While we still need to wait for the full set of results to come out at the next board meeting however, I asked Auckland Transport if we could have March’s results. They kindly provided me with the high-level numbers, and they’re spectacular.
Overall there were 9.41 million trips taken in March. That’s almost 1.3 million or 15.5% more than March last year, a huge result. Even taking into account the factors above, AT say the growth was a decent 7.6%. The result also means that for the 12-months to the end of March we had 86.99 million trips, up over 5 million on the same time last year.
Auckland is experiencing significant increases on all PT sub-modes – rail patronage is up massively following electrification, but bus patronage is also rising significantly, and ferry patronage is rising a bit.
Importantly, this is happening at a time when petrol prices are relatively low, incomes are rising, and vehicle kilometres travelled are rising rapidly. (In fact, more rapidly than I expected.) That suggests that Auckland’s current public transport successes are the result of structural improvements to the transport system, rather than people shifting to an inferior alternative due to high petrol prices. If our performance has deviated from the North American cities that we traditionally compare ourselves to, it’s because we’re doing it right.
The reason why we are getting better outcomes is that we have made some fundamental changes that will make our public transport system work better, on an ongoing basis. This includes:
- Reforming public transport contracting and planning in the early 2000s to bring network planning back under public control
- Governance reform to create a single regional entity responsible for planning the city’s transport network – first the Auckland Regional Transport Authority, then Auckland Transport
- Reinvestment in the legacy rail network, with each stage building on the success of previous ones – first the purchase of ex-Perth railcars in the early 1990s, then Britomart in 2003, then the Western Line double-tracking, then rail electrification in 2014-16, and finally the start of the City Rail Link (due for completion in 2023ish)
- Development of entirely new rapid transit corridors – first the Northern Busway in 2008, then commitment to the Eastern (AMETI) Busway and the Northwest Busway (both due in the early 2020s?)
- A ground-up rethink of the city’s public transport network to enable many more frequent connected services, which is now being implemented with positive results for patronage
- Extension of bus lanes – slow at first, but hopefully picking up steam
- Successful rollout of an integrated ticketing product (HOP) and integrated fares to enable cheaper transfers – I’ve heard that HOP is now used for over 90% of PT journeys, which is high by international standards and a testament to the usefulness of the product
- Reform to on-street parking management to ensure that parking management techniques (from time limits to hourly parking prices) are used to ensure the availability of parking for people who care most about getting it (and provide others with a price incentive to get on the bus!)
If we keep up the momentum on these changes, we can expect public transport patronage to continue increasing at a steady clip for the foreseeable future.
But wait, there’s more!
Auckland has also been moving forward in virtually all other areas of transport and urban policy. In transport, we’ve also:
- Completed the city’s motorway network with the $4bn Western Ring Route and Waterview Connection. Love it or hate it, we’ve finally finished building the plan laid out by De Leuw Cather in the 1950s. And while this has undoubtedly had an opportunity cost – the resources spent widening roads could have been used to build busways – it hasn’t prevented us from moving forward in public transport.
- Started to build up our network of safe, separated cycleways. We’ve built on the success of the Northwestern Cycleway with Grafton Gully, the pink Lightpath, and Quay St, all of which are getting a rising number of riders, and the impending Glen Innes to Tamaki Cycleway and Skypath. Cycling is on the rise in Auckland as a result.
- Agreed in principle with central government to implement variable, demand-responsive congestion pricing, which will have a fundamental effect on the efficiency of the city’s overall transport system and let us get the best use out of all of our networks.
The missing link, unfortunately, is a commitment to safe streets for all, a la Vision Zero. As I’ll discuss more in upcoming posts, poor road safety outcomes are a blight on our communities that we need to focus more on. But in the mean time, here’s some great cycle demand statistics from BikeAKL:
In housing policy, we’ve undoubtedly got some problems. As the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s new Housing Affordability Measure shows, housing affordability in Auckland has generally worsened since 2013:
However, it’s not like we’ve just been sitting on our hands watching this happen. In 2016 we completed the Auckland Unitary Plan, a ground-up redesign of the city’s planning rulebook that triples the number of homes that can be built in the city. That’s a big deal – while it’s not perfect, and isn’t necessarily the ‘silver bullet’ for housing affordability, the first step towards having enough homes for everyone in the city is allowing them to built.
As I wrote back in December 2015, I’m optimistic that we can solve our housing affordability problems. It may not be easy, but we have started the process. We can succeed if we let reform build on reform and improvement follow improvement, as we have done while reforming and rebuilding our public transport network.
The great Auckland turnaround story
If Auckland continues to get it right – not just in public transport, but in cycling and transport pricing and housing policy and urban planning – it will have accomplished something that few other cities have.
The problems that Auckland is facing, or has previously faced – falling public transport patronage, rising congestion, poor walking and cycling, and unaffordable housing – are common in many places. Some cities have fixed some of these problems, at the cost of worsening others. We have the opportunity to do better in all areas.
Forget about Auckland being the world’s most liveable city. How about Auckland being the world’s best turnaround city?