Some of the opposition to the Regional Fuel Tax has come from those concerned about the ability of low income households to afford the extra costs
Due to low household incomes, my community doesn’t have the luxury of paying additional tax now, to benefit future generations. For those who are struggling to provide basic necessities for their whānau, further tax, no matter how well-intentioned in principle, can seem impossible. In Māngere-Ōtāhuhu and Ōtara-Papatoetoe local board areas the median household incomes combined average $59,950, one of the lowest figures across Tāmaki Makaurau.
This got us thinking about how the public transport system can better serve the needs of low income earners. Much of what we advocate for we do so because it benefits all Aucklanders, from across the city, and from different backgrounds and income levels.
I think we have made some progress in recent years, but we also have a long way to go. On the positive side:
- Major rapid transit investments like Light Rail to Mangere and the Northwest will transform how people move around Auckland, and help connect people to jobs and opportunities across the city, without having to rely on a car.
- The new network does a much better job at providing for cross-town trips, particularly across south Auckland. The old bus network basically focused on ferrying people into the city centre, which doesn’t make much sense when a pretty small proportion of residents living in the south work in the city centre.
- The zone-based fare system has made cross-town trips much cheaper than they used to be by generally placing these trips within a single zone – even if they’re quite long. For example, a trip from Mangere to East Tamaki, or Otara to the Airport are all within a single zone – under $2 a trip with a Hop Card.
On the flip-side, there is still much to do to make public transport services better cater for complex trip patterns, including shifts. Some of the recent cuts to some bus services in South Auckland are a step in the wrong direction.
Furthermore, for some people and some trips, public transport fares remain a high burden and either discourage people from using these services, or use up precious money needed for other things like rent and food. In general we are not in favour of across the board fare cuts, for the simple reason summarised by Jarrett Walker:
If you want transit to be mainly for low-income people who have a low value of time, cut fares, as this is an improvement targeted to benefit only the cost-sensitive. By not improving service, this choice may also lead to an increased “stigma” around transit as it is perceived, with increasing accuracy, as a low-quality experience that is of no relevance to people who have choices.
If you want transit to be useful to a broad spectrum of the population, increase service.
However, what could be a good idea is ensuring that our approach to concessionary fares are, well, fair. Currently the following groups are given concessions on full fares:
- Child and Secondary Students – 40-50%
- Tertiary Students – approximately 25%
- Over 65 years – Free Travel after 9am weekdays & all day weekends with the SuperGold Card
- Accessible Fares – 40-50% for those with a Blind Foundation ID or if deemed eligible for the Total Mobility Scheme
What is missing in this list is support for those on low incomes or benefits (unless they are over 65!)
These types of concessions are common overseas. Note in Australia concession usually means a flat 50% discount of full fares.
- In Victoria holders of a local ‘Healthcare Card’ are eligible for concession fares.
- In Canberra holders of the ‘HealthCare Card’ or ‘ACT services access card’ are eligible for concession fares, including free off-peak travel.
- In New South Wales and Perth those receiving Centrelink cardholders are eligible for concession fares
- Toronto has recently introduced a ‘Fair Fare Pass’ that gives eligible residents about 1/3 of usual public transport fares
- Australian states generally offer free travel for those with disabilities, rather than concession fares.
One complexity of fare concessions is they generally require an existing government card to prove eligibility both when the concession is loaded onto the electronic card, as well as when fare inspections are undertaken. However I’m sure there are ways of getting around this issue and linking it with people who are eligible for a ‘Community Services Card’.
Eligibility for a community services card is somewhat complex, but includes:
- Those on a benefit get automatic access
- Student Allowance
- Single people earning under $26,000
- Family of 2 earning under about $50,000, with the threshold rising by about $8,000 per child.
If there’s a concern about how this might be funded, I think the first place to look would be getting rid of the Waiheke Island Super Gold Card rort that was exposed by The Spinoff recently:
It revealed just how concentrated the benefits of this scheme are: the data showed that the top 1000 users of the scheme used almost $1.9m in the 22 months to May 2018 – an average total of over $1,800 per pensioner, and over half of total payments to ferry operators.
The top 100 users have an even more shocking slice – they have claimed over $400,000 in free rides in less than two years: an average of $4,087 each.
The cost of an adult return fare to Waiheke is $38, and there is no discount for HOP card users or seniors who don’t hold a Supergold card. The upshot is that the 100 most frequent users of the service are using over 10% of the total budget for ferry travel to Waiheke.
Who needs a bit of extra help – rich pensioners commuting from Waiheke Island and costing us $38 per return trip, or struggling south Auckland families who would just need a $1-2 subsidy per trip to halve their public transport costs?
We need to make our fares fairer.