This is an important year for Auckland Transport. It needs to catch up on delivering projects funded by the Regional Fuel Tax, where progress has been slower than forecast. It also needs to do much of the grunt work to inform the next cycle of transport budgets that will take effect from the middle of next year, implement important but often controversial changes to streetspace allocation, implement critical safety improvements and speed limit reductions, get back on track when it comes to delivering cycleways, increase public transport use at a time when there are no big projects or changes being delivered to ride the coattails of, and – all while being subject to a CCO review that should ask fundamental questions about the roles and functions of a transport CCO and how to improve its public accountability.
All of which made it quite odd that seemingly the very first thing Chief Executive Shane Ellison has focused on is defending the “AT Local” demand responsive system in Devonport – where people can basically book a ride in a car (like a taxi or an Uber) and then get the trip massively subsidised by ratepayers and taxpayers. Ellison’s lengthy piece is in response to a Stuff article late last year which discussed the extension of this trial and raised valid questions about its value for money at a time when transport funding is clearly tight.
Here’s the crux of the stuff article:
A trial of publicly subsidised $1.3 million rideshare service for one of Auckland’s wealthiest suburbs has been extended.
Auckland Transport (AT) launched the AT LOCAL shuttle in November in a bid to cut car use and boost ferry patronage from Devonport, Stanley Point and Bayswater.
Local residents use an online app to order one of six AT-owned electric vehicles to take them home or to a nearby ferry wharf.
The trial was supposed to last a year, but AT announced on Friday it would run it for a further six months to see how it performed during summer when more people tended to use the ferry.
AT described the trial as a “success”, despite a survey showing most people who caught the shuttle had previously been walkers, cyclists or bus users, rather than its target group – motorists…
The piece continues AT’s focus to date on:
- trying to be part of a broader transport technology revolution rather than discussing what issues AT felt were necessary to fix through spending millions of public dollars
- how much people who use the service like it, but then who wouldn’t like a massively subsidised taxi service?
There are a couple of new bits of information worth focusing on.
Apparently the subsidies are lower per passenger than many existing bus routes:
There have been claims that AT Local is a heavily subsidised taxi services in drag. At face value to the average Aucklander, the average subsidy per passenger is now approximately $10.30, will strike them as being high – is it really a great use of ratepayers’ money?
Would ratepayers’ views change if we told them that the cost per passenger on 40 bus routes (among them essential school bus services) are higher, and in some cases much higher than the cost per passenger of AT Local?
There are nearly 200 public bus routes across Auckland and many many more school bus routes. That the subsidy per passenger is lower than some of these is not a surprise but claiming it’s not bad because there are other things worse is not really a strong argument to start with. Further, the average bus trip is about 7km, the maximum trip you could take on AT local can’t be much more than 3km and most will be much less than that so on a per km basis, a better comparison, this is likely to look even worse.
Maybe AT Local could have been introduced as a more cost effective replacement for some bus routes (such as the 40 mentioned above) instead of in a part of Auckland that already has pretty good public transport and is certainly on average rich enough to afford an unsubsidised taxi or Uber to perform a similar job.
Bus use increasing
One of the things I find bizzare about this whole trial is that AT introduced it less than two months after they reorganised the entire bus network on the North Shore and it appears that is working despite the trial.
Some might question the impact that AT Local has had on local bus services. Aren’t those using AT Local those who would have been using the bus services instead?
Evidence to date is clear. AT Local is for the most part creating its own market as there has been an increase in patronage on the two bus routes servicing the local Devonport precinct since AT Local started service in November 2018. Route 806 patronage is up by 43% and Route 807 patronage is up by 60%.
Further an a recent in-market customer survey highlighted that the profile of AT Local customers showed that 30% of those customers had previously chosen to drive using their own private vehicle. The choice those customers are making, in August alone, took approximately 83 car journeys per weekday off a congested corridor like Lake Road making it less congested, for all those for whom AT Local and the Devonport Ferry does not get them where they are wanting to go.
There are a couple of things to break down here.
So bus usage is up decently, which is great, and some customers are using AT local but concerningly over the same timeframe ferry usage has not increased. The (free) carpark remains full which means, the market it’s taking customers from is walkers and cyclists, as Stuff reported. Paying massive subsidies to reduce the number of people walking and cycling is possibly the worst possible outcome.
One of the stupidest things about the trial is that the carpark next to the ferry terminal remains free meaning many people are still encouraged to drive. As AT are trialling AT Local, they should almost certainly be looking to see what impact charging for parking would have on it.
Now I have heard that there is an issue with AT charging for parking at this park and ride which is because technically part of it is on reserve land but they’ve had years to find ways to resolve this but there doesn’t appear to have be any attempt or desire to.
The other slightly new bit of information is some indication about where AT see things going in the future.
The “success” [my added quotation marks] of AT Local in Devonport means we see a on demand shared ride services having a future in several use cases;
- First leg/last leg trips to rapid transit services (a la Devonport)
- Early provision of transport services in growth areas in Auckland such as in the North West (around Westgate and Kumeu), the North and in the South
- Replacing bus services with low utilisation (such as the 40 noted above) and re-allocating those buses to fast and frequent bus routes which are in desperate need of more capacity and frequency
- Providing an alternative pathway to accelerate the current public transport fleet to zero emissions at a lower cost to ratepayers
- Providing an alternative to the insatiable appetite for park and ride. With the capital cost of park and ride being $18,000 per at grade car park and $24,000 for a anything other than an at grade carpark the maths quickly tells you that an on-demand service could form an effective alternative to fulfilling the never-ending demand for park and ride
AT’s On Demand Roadmap released this week provides more insights on how On Demand might be a valuable piece of Auckland’s mobility horizon. You can find it at https://at.govt.nz/about-us/transport-plans-strategies/on-demand-and-shared-mobility-roadmap/
Some of these focus areas for on demand services might be well worth exploring – especially if they can deliver a better service for the customer at a lower cost to the public. An alternative to park and ride also might be a good way of saving money (although as mentioned, it doesn’t seem AT have any intention of charging for P&R).
Of course AT aren’t the only transport organisation trying out this kind of thing around the world. Unfortunately – and somewhat unsurprisingly given the low passenger to driver ratio – it seems that the schemes almost always provide terrible value for money. A recent Wired article dug into the widespread failures of these schemes, starting with the fact that fundamentally the idea of providing demand responsive transit is not actually new at all:
Earlier this year, Singapore decided against renewing a pilot for on-demand buses. In Germany, microtransit company CleverShuttle—which bills itself as more of a ride-pooling service than a bus—pulled out of three of the eight cities it was operating in, citing economic and bureaucratic hurdles. In a pilot project with shared rides company Via, bringing underserved residents to public transit nodes, Los Angeles Metro is spending $14.50 per trip—twice what it spends on a regular bus trip…
…On-demand buses have been a thing for decades. Public transit agencies often call them demand-responsive buses, and deploy them to serve users who lack easy access to standard routes because they live especially far away, or may have special needs. Because they reach relatively few people, they’re expensive to operate. They’re inefficient too, often making riders wait undetermined amounts of time for a ride. So cities must strike a balance between making public transit accessible to the largest number of residents, and meeting their budget goals…
…According to the tech companies pushing this solution, making on-demand busing work is a matter of crunching vast amounts of transit data, now made available by location tracking, and using algorithms to create custom shared routes. Data will help agencies reroute buses in real time based on factors like user demand and congestion, says Amos Haggiag, CEO of Optibus, whose software helps cities plan and manage bus routes, both on-demand and fixed. “I do see mass transit, even the large buses, as much more dynamic.” Many of those companies, including Uber, think all buses, not just those in low-ridership areas, should run on demand.
However, this developing technology doesn’t bypass the fundamental geometry that it’s expensive and inefficient to shift people around in small vehicles carrying one passenger, and often nobody when they’re re-positioning. In Los Angeles, the finances of their demand responsive scheme are eye-wateringly bad:
Giving away free rides, the service got up to 1,675 rides per week. With a $1.75 million Metro expenditure for one year – 260 weekdays in that year, Metro is spending $6,730 per day for these rides. 1,675 rides per week translates to 335 rides per day. 335 rides for $6,730 means that each ride is costing Metro $20.09 (that is just Metro’s cost – these also cost FTA and forgo Via’s “risk sharing”).
That $20 cost is for the one peak week so far – week 26. This means that for overall six months so far, the cost per ride is something more than double that $20. Given the current trend, ridership growth should continue. Though even if it were to double, the cost would only drop to $10/ride – still higher than Metro’s system-wide bus ride cost (around $7, given a $1.75 fare and a ~25% fare recovery).
Compare this ridership to a relatively poorly performing Metro line – say the 201 bus, which runs from Koreatown to Glendale. Similar to Mobility on Demand, the 201 bus operates from about 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, and provides first/last mile connections to a Metro rail station (Wilshire/Vermont). Unlike the Mobility on Demand pilot, the 201 is not free, but charges $1.75 per ride. Unlike Mobility on Demand’s 7-to-9-minute response times, the 201 runs once each hour. According to Metro stats, weekday ridership on the 201 for the first half of 2019 was 983 riders per day on weekdays. Line 201’s 983 daily bus riders is roughly triple the 335 daily riders that the Mobility on Demand pilot is serving. With free rides and $1.75 million from Metro (plus FTA funding and Via cost sharing), the newfangled pilot is serving about a third as well as a low-performing bus route.
This isn’t to say that AT should have nothing to do with demand responsive transit. But it should be a highly niche product that’s only really looked at where existing public transport is clearly unable to meet the travel needs of an area in a cost-effective way. Perhaps it could be a way of providing better travel choice to rural towns? Perhaps a way of enabling people to access West Coast beaches during busy summer weekends without needing to drive themselves out there?
The current approach – especially in rich Devonport – just feels like a very expensive “nice to have” that undermines AT’s arguments every time they cry poor about not having enough money to do important things like improving frequencies on the PT network or getting on with building cycle lanes.