Auckland has made some big and important strides to improve public transport in recent years, and big changes like electrification, the new bus network, City Rail Link and light rail have or will help to improve PT. While lots of good things are happening, there’s still a lot more to be done.
To help explain one area that’s been bugging me of late, let’s start with this short video showing Vienna’s transport goals.
The video is simple but clear on the goals for Vienna and contrasts with documents in Auckland where goals are either absent or hidden away so they can be ignored. One thing to note is that as of 2015, driving accounted for just 28% of ALL trips in Vienna and they want to move this to 20% by 2025 and eventually reach just 15%.
But one aspect that I find particularly interesting is the discussion of costs. They say
Owning a car in the city is 20 times more expensive than buying an annual pass for the Vienna public transport network. More than a third of the city’s population are already annual pass holders.
Vienna is aggressively pushing passes, particularly their annual pass which is a fantastic deal. The pass can be issued for a year from the beginning of any month and costs just €365 ($628). By comparison, a Vienna monthly pass is €51 (€612 annually) or a weekly pass is €17.10 (€889 annually).
The annual pass doesn’t even have to be paid off in one go and payments can be spread out monthly over the year. It has other benefits too, including free travel for up to two children on Saturday afternoons or free travel for your dog. Companies can even buy them for their staff.
The theory behind pushing passes is fairly straightforward, by having a pass with unlimited travel, people are far more likely to use public transport for a wide variety of trips, than say just using it for commuting and then jumping back in your car on the weekends.
This is also the way that we’re seeing other aspects of society move too with services like Netflix or phone and internet providers and their increasingly used unlimited plans.
But Auckland Transport is going the opposite way. Their strategy has been to push people off passes and towards using stored value by hiking pass prices. It’s a strategy that seems to be working too, prices have increased by about $25 per month over the last four years ($300 annually), rising faster than the increases other fares. Where there once were multiple options for a bus and train pass, depending on how far you travelled, there is now just one monthly pass that costs $215 ($2,850) annually. The change in the use of passes is shown in this graph of HOP balances. Two years ago, just over $2 million worth of passes but that number now appears to have halved.
So what’s causing this strategy from Auckland Transport?
The answer unsurprisingly comes down to money. AT have a requirement from the previous government (through the NZTA) to achieve a farebox recovery target of 50%, in other words, half of PT costs are paid for by user fares. Auckland did meet that threshold for a while back before changing the fare structure (integrated fares) and starting the roll out of the new bus networks. Farebox recovery is now around 45%.
Transport Minister Phil Twyford has previously expressed being open to using altering the farebox targets but we haven’t heard of any specific changes yet.
I should point out that I’m not suggesting that all fares should drop. As I’ve pointed out before, I do think that for the time being, that overall revenue is probably more valuable going back towards improving services. But I also think there are some selected options for changes and monthly passes would fall into that.
Passes change perception of PT
Here is a quick example of how changes to passes change my perception and use of PT.
As many readers will know, I have a fairly decent commute across multiple services from West Auckland to Takapuna. This is a 4-zone trip. I also once a week ride my bike to work (normally riding in one day, riding home a few days later). Traditionally I’ve almost always had a monthly pass as it was the easiest but as an added bonus, let me use PT elsewhere. As a result of this and the changes to monthly passes it’s altered how I pay for my PT.
I find myself now building a spreadsheet every now and then to see if it’s worth me buying a pass or not. That’s not a great customer experience to have to worry about. If I don’t have a pass (much more often), I’ve started to notice I’m thinking twice about incidental travel and are much more likely to look at alternatives to catching a bus or a train. This makes me wonder, if I’m thinking this way, surely many other PT users are too. I wonder if AT’s primary PT goal of increasing PT usage is being impacted by policies like Farebox.
Edit: I forgot to add that AT appear to not only trying to force people off passes with pricing but I found yesterday when I went to get one that buying one online has been made much harder. The option to do so is deep in the AT HOP website that I suspect most wouldn’t find.