The Herald has been making a bit of a brouhaha recently about changes to school buses, with four articles in three days last week on the subject.
The articles focus on changes Auckland Transport have been making to school bus services at the same time as rolling out the new bus network. Some parents, students and staff from a few schools are unhappy with the changes, which has seen services change or in some cases have be removed. Like with the general public transport network, AT expect some students will need to use normal buses and transfer to get to their destination. This is leading some of those unhappy with the changes to claim that congestion has or will increase as more parents decide to give up on PT and drive their kids to school.
With congestion such a hot topic these days, complaints like these certainly get attention but it’s a little bit hard to tell just how much of the noise is a genuine concern, how much is just a fear of change and how much is a bit of elitism thrown into the mix – e.g. one of the complaints is that their child now has to travel through Glen Innes.
So, I thought I’d have a bit of a look at school buses.
School buses are a defined part of Auckland’s PT system and ATs Regional Public Transport Plan (RPTP) says this about them:
Auckland Transport funds a number of school bus services that are used exclusively to transport students to schools. These services are designed to meet an identified demand for school travel in situations where scheduled services cannot provide sufficient capacity or route coverage to meet the demand and/or where a school bus service provides the most cost‐effective alternative to private vehicle use.
Auckland Transport’s provision of school services is restricted to the urban area of the Auckland region, as the Ministry of Education is responsible for services in the rural areas of the region. In addition, Auckland Transport has no responsibility for school services that are procured commercially between individual schools and bus operators.
When the future service network has been rolled out across the region, there will be a comprehensive review of supported school bus services to ensure that the new network meets the requirements for school travel.
The driving factors behind this review will be to ensure that demand for contracted services remains strong, that the services represent good value for money, and that a more efficient way of serving the demand through the scheduled public transport network does not exist. Policy 7.3 details the approach to the planning and procurement of school bus services
Overall this seems pretty straight forward. Policy 7.3 also explicitly points out that ATs focus is on school services to local schools.
7.3 Provide safe public transport access for school students to and from their zoned and/or nearest school
That last part is important and it seems fair enough to me that AT shouldn’t be spending public money subsidising services just so someone can send their children to schools on the other side of the city.
Ridership and Resource
As I mentioned in my post about the latest ridership numbers, AT recently provided me with some detailed data on all bus routes. This also includes the school bus routes that AT provide. They show that over 12 months to the end of June, School buses generated over 3.1 million trips. That’s about 5% of all bus trips in Auckland and more than any single bus route with the exception of the Northern Express.
When looking at the data, one interesting thing I noticed is that there is a significant difference in the use of school buses in the morning compared to the afternoons with around 60% of all school bus trips occurring in the mornings. Presumably this is a result of kids either being picked up in the afternoon or having after school activities.
While the ridership numbers sound pretty good, we also need to consider the resource cost associated with that ridership and this is where the picture doesn’t look as rosy. School bus runs, particularly in the mornings, occur at the same time as regular buses are at their busiest and so are in competition for resource (buses and drivers) with the rest of the PT network. To put it another way, at that time there aren’t any spare buses just lying around that can be used to do a school run. This makes them very much like peak only express buses and means in many cases, an additional bus might be needed to service a single route. This is something AT say in the most recent article on the topic
Auckland Transport has defended its attempts to axe school buses, saying it can cost an extra $50,000 to $100,000 a year to operate an extra bus often only needed on a single school route.
AT says more than 70 per cent of students catch regular public transport to school and the council body provides school buses where there is no suitable public option.
We can assume most morning school buses fit this category. These are often run using older buses no longer suitable for the general PT network get relegated to school bus duty but still cost money to operate – I suspect rattly old buses probably do more to turn kids off PT than having to transfer services.
The data shows that prior to the West Auckland network rolling out in July last year there were over 280 different routes run in the mornings. As of June this year, prior to the changes on the Isthmus, that number was down to just over 260 and will have dropped further with the Isthmus changes. From the usage levels, some routes probably need more than one bus but for the purposes of this, I’ll assume 1 bus per route.
The NZTA report on bus numbers and as of the end of June-2017, Auckland had 1314 buses. This number has been increasing a lot recently with the growth we’ve been seeing and the new network rolling out. What all this suggests is that possibly over 20% of buses in Auckland have been dedicated to school runs
Combining them together
The results get more interesting when we combine them together. Many school buses are definitely busy with some routes averaging up to 150 students per direction. But close to 40% of all routes (each direction is considered a separate route) are averaging fewer than 30 kids per day. There are even some carrying fewer than 10 kids a day – I certainly hope AT aren’t running full sized buses around for these routes.
One question I do think that needs to be raised is if any of the school bus routes should instead become part of the regular PT network. As mentioned earlier, ATs policy is to use school buses where the existing PT network doesn’t serve well. The new network has certainly made some changes and improvements but perhaps turning some of the runs into regular services might help provide better connections, not just to the schools but to the wider area.