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.

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.

Ultimately the issue with services like this is summed up well by Jarrett Walker in a piece in The Atlantic last year. He’s also written a number of posts on his Human Transit blog about the issue.

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.

  1. It could have paid for 2 years of free public transport for kids on the weekends.
  2. They could have bought 800+ e-bikes (possibly more given they’d be buying in bulk) or 4000+ regular bikes.
  3. They could have offset at least some of the fare increases that they introduced in January.
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49 comments

  1. The sunday paper said it is costing us a subsidy of $14.50 for each ride. That is how much the people of Auckland are giving so wealthy people in Devonport can ride in a car instead of a bus.

      1. For that amount they could pay a personal trainer to turn up at their door with two bikes and tell them to peddle harder.

        1. “For that amount they could pay a personal trainer to turn up at their door with two bikes and tell them to peddle harder.”

          Comment of the week.

  2. AT using scarce resources to subsidise an incredibly inefficient form of car travel is just so wrong in so many ways. It gifts critics of AT ammunition when actually AT is doing so many good things when compared to the bumbling performance of it’s Wellington counterpart.

  3. Was in Devonport last weekend and one of these was parked round the back streets near the Library. The driver was sitting in the back reading a book…we came back 1.5 hours later, he was still there reading and it hadn’t moved…real value!

  4. Where will the next trial be? Hobsonville? Howabout a more middle class suburb like Mangere, to get people to the train while the politicians and planners hum and ha over LRT. This form of transport is something that condominiums might have, and I know Devenport believes itself pretty exclusive, but it hardly a gated community. Nothing against AT trying “new” things, but a taxi service is hardly innovative. I thought PT had the side benefit of improving general health, so inhibiting walking does not seem a positive outcome.

    1. The good folk of Kohimarama must be next in line for a trial, what with those rates they pay and donations to candidates and such.

  5. I guess this exposed ATs flawed model for providing attractive options to the private motor vehicle and an acknowledgement that what they do provide is ineffective. Just in this case it focuses on the Devonport peninsula but I’m in no doubt Aucklands traffic woes on’t end there

    It really is a fiddling while Rome burns scenario and rather concerning this is the best that AT can do.

  6. There are many low cost things that could be done to help commuters and show that AT really is service oriented.
    More connected pathways to the stations, eg Meadowbank
    replacement of those many long winding walkways over to to platform with an underpass or simple stairway, eg Penrose
    installing those electronic timetables outside a station so people will rush or not rush the last 100 meters to catch the train, eg Otahuhu
    putting up some “thanks for using Auckland PT” rather than the many signs about $150 fine for not paying and several versions of “A terrorist stole my AT card”, eg All stations
    doing maintenance on tracks at night similar to on the roads where a team of people can dig up and replace a 100 m stretch of road in 8 or 10 hours. eg Fulton Hogan have got it well organised

    1. +1. Some of the current station designs—even relatively new ones like Avondale—are so counterintuitive you’d think AT was actively seeking to discourage users but encourage risk takers.

  7. Integrate Ferry fares with Train and Bus fares, aka $3.50 from Devonport to City rather than $4.90 and people won’t need picking up in Taxis to catch the Ferry, they will be sprinting to get it.

    1. Exactly joe, or $1.95 using a HOP card. This trial is attempting to fix a problem that need not exist, which is disorganised provision of public transport (not just messed up fares but also poor frequencies).

      However, I reckon a trial like this might still be worth attempting somewhere like Titirangi and the Waitakere foothills, where the geography means that it’s difficult to provide frequent transport within close range of every household. This geographical inhibition does not exist in relatively compact urban areas like Devonport where it is easy to provide frequent services nearby to all households.

  8. Being an ex Narrow Neck resident its a pretty pleasant walking to either the Devonport or Bayswater Ferries, the existing buses are OK but could be more frequent, and the cycle paths are hopeless!. The Lake Road sucks particularly at the weekend but, according the police, has the great trade off of reducing crime in the peninsula and giving Devonportonians something to whinge about. I can only imagine a MaaS service really benefiting those people whose mobility is impaired but there were existing private services covering that market.

  9. The manager whose idea this was – and I dare say, their ego is pushing for this to keep going and ignore the fact it is an abject failure on all counts – needs to have their responsibilities reevaluated.

  10. Jim and Joe – such good points. And great points in the article too. I wonder how things may have been different if perhaps there was some sort of minibus transit further up the shore where people go to the park and ride. This could be something that is hailed, or maybe booked in advance but you still have to be at your pick up point on time. Would love to hear people’s thoughts. I completely get Jarred’s high frequency legible PT routes idea but because Auckland is so sprawling it does mean that some people just are nowhere near close enough to PT hubs hence the park and rides. Moving towards more housing near transport nodes is a great long term solution but in the meanwhile how can we make PT work for households off the beaten track? And is it a PT solution, with feeder buses, or should it be a private one – encourage commuters to organise a regular taxi share to transport hubs?

    1. The north shore already has a system of shuttle buses to the northern busway. You walk a few hundred meters at most to a local pick up point at a scheduled time and get on this shuttle bus. You can even use hop and the fare is included in your NEX fare.

    2. Just what we need in NW Auckland, a series of shuttle busses from Kumeu and environs to Swanson rail station. Or maybe that would be too expensive compared to just getting a couple of DMU shuttles a Huapai to Swanson

  11. It would be interesting to see what some other priced alternatives would be. I think you could take at least the 804 and probably the 801 to 15 minute frequencies or better for that much!

    1. Sailor Boy, exactly right – and if there is a shortfall then charge something for the park and ride to make up the balance.

      As some have said earlier it is just bizarre that AT are focusing on the provision of fringe services when if they had concentrated on having no fare increase they would have another 800k passengers per year on the network.

  12. Well done Councilor Chris Darby for supporting this massive, predictable fail. Another light-weight councilor we don’t need.

  13. Being as AT are throwing around crazy ideas…why do we still have the navy based in Devonport / Stanley Bay? Not knowing enough about it, it seems crazy to still have it there. Could use that land for medium density housing and upgrade Stanley Bay ferry, running higher frequency, better local connections and reliving the pressure of trying to dump everyone at Devonport ferry.

    1. People have suggested moving the navy base to Whangarei. Not sure how some of their embedded units would feel about moving away from NZ’s main internet cable landing site and the rest of the drone industry.

  14. There have been a few of these expensive-but-doomed trials in the last few years, such as the AT staff shuttle between Henderson and the city centre, and a similar last mile service at (I think) Half Moon Bay ferry terminal.

    It would be nice if transport agencies took previous failures into account before doing the same thing again. Trials are only valuable if you are willing to learn from them and do something differently in the future!

    The lesson here is that microtransit only make sense in a very small number of cases. In most contexts, fixed-route buses a more cost-effective way of delivering public transport.

  15. Ugh its so frustrating that they put this somewhere with a great ferry service and a reasonable (but definitely could use work) local bus service, meanwhile many other places in Auckland still have no weekend service and/or limited frequency (2hr or even 3hr frequency) – or even no service at all!

    1.3m a year could of got buses to Huia and Piha going… so west Auckland can actually get to their beaches without a flipping car and the residents along the route could have an alternative too.

    Surely thats a bigger win versus some dumb subsidized uber van with AT branding…

    Ugh the question I have to ask every day is **Why are our transport authorities so broken**.

  16. Can we have an AT local service for Kumeu/Huapai/Riverhead? One that rounds up potential PT users and delivers them to Swanson Railway station? Then delivers them back to home locations in the evening.
    This SH16 debacle is getting way out of order. The promised hope for transport salvation is futuristic likely 20+ year at minimum Light Railway that for many commuters in NW Auckland is looking like a never-happen politicians promise-lie to fool gullible voters.

    1. Agree, it could only be better value than this absurd trial. In fact make it a scheduled bus, for the cost of this trial I think you could have quite a decent all day service. It could be an interim-interim, in that it fills the gap until an interim NW Express bus that uses the motorway shoulders can be got up and running.

  17. Yes, I can only see this service really been good for those that normally walk and it’s raining or for those that the PT really doesn’t work. Of course all at huge subsidy. So just charge for parking & all the other simple things. Is kind of interesting the data from this though when it all finishes.

    I’m still waiting on a simple fix to our local bus stops that aren’t correct on their app….and an extra shelter or seat or two would be good.

  18. It was all totally predictable. In fact, this website predicted it!
    These schemes have been failures wherever they have been tried.

  19. But it gets worse! The article that I read online said that AT were thinking of replicating this service elsewhere with an even lower price point.
    How can Devonport/Takapuna be such a mess for squandering AT money? $30 million is being spent on a new car park and apparently another $3 million is planned for a bus terminal where the service should be turn up and go.

    1. That’s something to ponder at the next local government election – what is clear is that our two councillors are decades behind those in other wards when it comes to delivering public transport infrastructure and understanding the value of retaining public spaces.

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