In recent years the transport industry has been abuzz with next new thing promised to revolutionise transport and finally solve longstanding issues. Often these try to blur the lines between private and public transport and are really nothing more than existing ideas with a flashy phone app and some slick marketing term such as Micro-transit, Demand Responsive Transit (DRT) or Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS). Given the amount of hype surrounding many of these ideas, transport agencies all over the world have been rushing to try them out, perhaps in a bid to show they’re trying new things or out of fear the public will see them as slow and not responsive to new ideas.
In Auckland this comes in the form of AT Local, that despite the marketing is essentially just a heavily subsidised taxi for residents of Devonport. Back in December we heard the numbers weren’t doing too well, averaging just 18 trips a day with Auckland Transport promising things would improve. Now, a few months on and in the middle of March Madness, the busiest time of the year for PT use, the numbers have improved but remain well below ATs expectations.
Todd Niall from stuff reports:
The trial of a new form of public transport in one of Auckland’s wealthiest suburbs is praying for rain after making a slow start.
AT LOCAL, which is a New Zealand-first, is a new form of public transport that’s currently being trialled for a year at an estimated cost of $1.3 million.
The Uber-style service provided by Auckland Transport allowed residents of Devonport to request a pick-up via an online app by one of five dedicated electric vehicles which then takes them home or to a nearby ferry wharf.
But after three months the number of people expected to use the service on a weekly basis have not even reached half of the modest target set by Auckland Transport.
In response, Auckland Transport said more promotion is planned and they expect that the numbers would increase once the weather changes and there’s more rain.
“With a colder wetter period ahead we may see some different travel behaviours in the coming months,” Kevin Leith, group manager customer and market for AT LOCAL said.
In its first week last November, only 132 journeys were made, compared with the 1200 target. This rose to 583 last week.
“That was really encouraging – we always knew during March and April when people start thinking about their alternatives, was when volumes would go up,” Leith said.
New services obviously need time to bed in but those numbers are very concerning. What’s more, public transport needs to work year round and suggesting it just needs more marketing (what they said last time) and hoping for rain to encourage more people to use the service should be setting off alarm bells within AT. They’re sounding like a problem gambler, always promising themselves that the next roll of the dice or pull of the lever will see them the jackpot. I also noticed that in the past they’ve said they were forecasting 1,400 trips per week.
Kia ora, we have four key measurements:
•Customer usage (number of trips)
•Level of customer satisfaction with the service
•Getting people out of their cars
•How this system could be used in other parts of Auckland
We are forecasting 1,400 trips per week. ^JN
— Auckland Transport (@AklTransport) November 23, 2018
What’s even more concerning is where those customers appear to be coming from.
Stuff spent a morning talking to those arriving at the Devonport wharf on AT LOCAL and more than two-thirds were people who previously walked or used public transport to reach the ferry.
So we’ve heavily subsidised people to stop walking to the ferry.
AT sold the service as helping people get to the ferry or around the area without having to drive car but with most users having previously reached the wharf by other methods, it’s hard not to see this as a major failure. It’s worth noting that when the service launched, AT said the $2.50 price was ‘introductory’ and that the price would increase to $3 in February, however, the AT Local website now says that won’t happen till April and it wouldn’t surprise me if they kept pushing that date out.
What’s frustrating is all of this is:
- It was entirely predicable. As I said when the service launched, Devonport is already a captive PT market, if battling congestion Lake Rd isn’t enough to encourage people to catch a ferry, it’s hard to see what will. AT have also introduced it while at the same time leaving the car parking at the wharf and surrounding streets completely free.
We’ve also seen these services fail in many other cities around the world. In Sydney a similar idea has been labeled “a spectacular failure in some areas” while in the US, many of the private companies trying this idea have gone out of business.
- In many areas we have barely acceptable PT services and infrastructure, for example many bus stops don’t even have basic shelters and promised bus to bus interchanges, as part of the new network, have never been seen.
Superficially, it might seem that offering riders a more convenient service—especially one that comes directly to their door—would increase ridership. And for individual riders who don’t use buses or rail for whatever reason, it might. But for a municipality with a fixed budget for service, shifting resources from fixed routes to microtransit is a way of lowering ridership overall, not increasing it. To put it another way, the “to your door” convenience offered by microtransit is so expensive per rider that it cannot possibly scale to the volumes of people traveling in a city. It can only be a special service for a small number of people.
Finally, if the goal was truly about getting more people on to public transport, here are a couple of other things that $1.3 million could have been spent on that would likely have delivered much better results.
- It could have paid for 2 years of free public transport for kids on the weekends.
- They could have bought 800+ e-bikes (possibly more given they’d be buying in bulk) or 4000+ regular bikes.
- They could have offset at least some of the fare increases that they introduced in January.