Yesterday Auckland Transport held their day of free public transport to celebrate reaching 100 million trips within a 12 month period and it appears to have been a great success with services reported to be four times busier than usual and it felt like Aucklanders were out celebrating Auckland.
Free public transport day has been a huge success. Britomart is bulging with people and AT staff day there are 4 times as many people than normal. Extra ferries on as well and double decker buses very popular.
— Phil Goff (@phil_goff) June 23, 2019
Hopefully AT will release some official figures but a quick back of the envelope calculation suggests it that could put usage yesterday on par with or even higher than what we see on a normal weekday. That’s impressive given fewer services run on Sundays and trains are not frequent (only every 20 minutes). That outcome certainly fits with what I saw on social media as well as a short trip I made. Unlike on a weekday where services are extremely busy at peak times when people are commuting to and from school and work, but are then much quieter off-peak, yesterday services were quite busy all through the day. On the trains it was pleasing to see that AT were running all services (except Onehunga) as 6-car trains which helped to better cope with the demand.
As well as the trains the double decker buses were popular, especially with the kids, as were the ferries. Although the Devonport ferries were the only services I saw any real complaints about. They were extremely popular and where Fullers were reportedly only running some of their smallest vessels. As such, by the afternoon there were long queues on the Devonport Wharf with some people having to wait for later services.
As well as celebrating hitting the 100 million milestone, clearly one of the goals of yesterday was to get people who don’t usually use public transport to give it a try. I get the feeling they were also quite successful at this. One thing that was particularly noticeable was how many families were using PT to explore the city and in many cases possibly visiting areas they’ve never been before – for example I overheard one family talking and wondering if they should get off at the next stop for a walk/look around or carry on just riding the train to Swanson. For a lot of people/families it seemed to be the first time they’d used public transport. There definitely seemed to be a lot of smiles as well as ohhs and ahhs from the kids (young and old alike).
There were many great comments on social media, one of my favourites was this thread on Twitter
Off to Riverhead, making use of free public transport today! pic.twitter.com/AKqZFqIIKt
— Kara K (@BitchAboutDevo) June 23, 2019
Another good thread was Alec Tang’s with his adventures with his kids
I think one of the issues PT has in Auckland is that many people don’t realise just how much it has improved, particularly over the last few years and with the new network providing much better weekend frequencies. One example of this I saw was below after having initially saying “Pity there are stuff all buses around here on a Sunday”
Ha. I went to check the timetable after tweeting and found there are now more than I thought. A lot more. Last time I used a bus at the weekend it was one an hour and only two return buses after 6pm. Quite an eye opener.
— Bill Bennett (@billbennettnz) June 22, 2019
With so many people out and about, it also meant that many areas were much busier and lively that usual. The city centre was reportedly buzzing with families. This helps highlight one of the big issues with PT as the pricing structure has focused on comparing a PT trip to that of a single person driving and paying for parking (in the city) and so it becomes almost prohibitively expensive for families or groups to use. At least part of this issue will disappear in September when it will become free on weekends for children under 16.
A child's joy and curiosity from a double-decker crossing the Harbour Bridge epitomises what today's free public @AklTransport meant to so many young people. The next chapter with @richardhills777 begins 7 September when under 16 yr-olds get to travel free every weekend. pic.twitter.com/99nTwShJCb
— Chris Darby (@DarbyatCouncil) June 23, 2019
The busy city centre is something that can clearly be seen in Heart of the City’s pedestrian counts. I pulled the data for outside 45 Queen St for the same Sunday last year (24-June), for Sunday last week (16-June) and for yesterday. You can see below, the numbers for Sunday last year and last week were very similar but during the middle of the day yesterday were about 65% higher. It would be interesting to know how retailers in the city and places like Devonport did as presumably this also meant a lot more people buying things.
While I do think there was certainly a “special occasion” feel the levels of usage yesterday, if there’s one other thing the day highlighted was how much opportunity there is to grow usage off-peak and on weekends. Extending that back of the envelope calculation from earlier, even if we could just double our normal weekend usage, something we clearly now know the system can handle without needing any additional buses or trains, that is likely to add about 13 million trips a year. That’s more than two years of normal PT growth. My guess is that levels of off-peak/weekend usage is one of the big differences between Auckland and many of the cities we look up to in the international comparison I wrote about the other day.
Finally, a few additional questions/thoughts looking forward to the future.
- AT should look to do this more often. For example imagine how great it would be if PT was free on say the last Sunday of every month and tied to a series of open streets type events around the region where key town centres were closed to traffic and opened people.
- With so many people giving PT a go for the first time, perhaps AT needed to think about how they could get them to use PT more (other than just having given them a good experience). For example, making it easy for people to buy HOP cards (they need to do this regardless).
- What impact does or should this have on how officials model and assess levels of usage for PT projects or the elasticity assumptions used by AT when they set prices?
- This is bound to see calls for PT to be free all the time. While I can certainly appreciate the sentiment behind the idea, I’m not sure that would be a smart move for Auckland just yet. That’s because I think the system simply wouldn’t cope and so we’re better to put more investment into further improving them. The strategy of targeting certain groups, such as the free kids on weekends, is a better first step.
Did you get out and use the PT network yesterday? If so, what were your thoughts on it.