There’s only one thing dominating public discussion these days and that’s COVID-19. With concerns about the spread of the virus it’s already having an impact on if and how people travel as well as the city at large with the streets feeling much emptier than usual, especially for this time of the year. I can only imagine they’ll get emptier as more and more people and businesses (that can) start working from home.
Somewhat understandably it has led to questions about the use of public transport. The Mayor Phil Goff and Auckland Transport put out a statement yesterday about how they’re taking proactive steps to keep PT safe. They’ve also set up a page on their website that they’ll keep up to date.
As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, we understand this can be a confusing time for Aucklanders and misinformation can quickly spread.
At this stage, no confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 have been linked to the use of public transport and the Ministry of Health has made it clear that there are no issues with people using buses, trains and ferries.
One of the steps they’ve taken is to install hand sanitiser stands at a number of major bus and train stations as well as ferry terminals. These are:
- Albany Busway Station.
- Constellation Busway Station.
- Smales Farm Busway Station.
- Akoranga Busway Station.
- Britomart Train Station.
- Downtown Ferry Terminal.
- Devonport Ferry Terminal.
- Panmure Bus and Train Station.
- Newmarket Train Station.
- New Lynn Bus and Train Station.
- Henderson Train Station.
- Waiheke (Matiatia) Ferry Terminal.
- Otahuhu Train Station.
- Manukau Bus Station.
Here’s the Smales Farm one yesterday.
While AT are saying it is safe to keep using PT, and I’ve definitely still had some busy trains and buses, other services are a bit quieter.
However patronage is lower than expected in what is usually the busiest month of the year, with over-65s using electronic ATHOP cards travelling less.
Goff said there was also “some scaling down particularly among university students” which he partly attributed to up to 4000 Chinese students unable to come to Auckland due to travel bans.
Auckland Transport has not released daily patronage figures for March, but said tertiary student trips were 12 per cent lower, with March “levelling off”.
This could end up being the quietest March we’ve seen in years and the rest of the year is probably heading for a similar fate as we start to see more widespread impacts to the economy. That will also likely raise issues with just how we afford public transport long term given over 40% of the costs of running it comes from fares. Human Transit author Jarrett Walker has written about this issue, noting:
This is a good time to remind ourselves, and our favorite journalists, that ridership is always volatile and heavily driven by factors outside an agency’s control. There are many things transit agencies can work on to improve ridership, but (a) those things together amount to a minority of the total forces governing ridership and (b) ridership isn’t the sole metric of success for transit agencies, and sometimes not even a predominant one.
However, transit agencies can do things that will cause ridership to fall further and stay down longer: They can cut service, as they will be tempted to do now.
It’s not hard to see the dangers:
- Declining fare revenue, due to lower ridership.
- Declining tax revenue, due to economic slowdown.
So what should transit agencies do if they start to run out of money? Cut service? If so, how?
First, let’s distinguish between service and capacity. If revenue falls, many urban transit agencies can trim rush hour capacity without affecting customer mobility very much. If you’re running a commuter bus every 7 minutes at rush hour, cut that to 10 or 12 or whatever the loads support. Because peak commuters mostly plan around the schedule, the impact on travel time is trivial, but you’ll save something. Peak-only service is very expensive, so you can save a lot by trimming that. What’s more, preliminary numbers I’ve seen show commute ridership falling much more steeply than all-day local ridership, which suggests that the peak should bear the brunt of any temporary service cuts.
By contrast, when you start cutting all-day and all-week service, by reducing frequencies, you start to dramatically reduce the usefulness of network, and this is the most efficient way to drive riders away. You also trigger social justice impacts, because lower income riders tend to be all-day, evening, and weekend riders, not just peak riders.
Remember, the riders you drive away due to service cuts will stay gone until the service improves again, while those who are just working from home will come back post-crisis if the service is still there.
Auckland Transport currently run a lot of peak service, particularly on the likes of the Northern busway and so scaling that back a little would be preferable to cutting off-peak services. This is from a few years ago but highlights the difference in the number of peak vs off peak buses.
With roads increasingly quiet and economic disruption starting to be seen, I also wonder what impact this is going to have on other areas we often talk about. For example, we should hopefully see a reduction in the number of deaths on our roads fewer vehicles on the roads that should also see a reduction in emissions. This is something that’s already been seen in China with this article from Forbes suggesting that already the reduction in factory and vehicle generated air pollution in China has potentially saved as many as 77,000 lives.
But people will ultimately still need to get around so perhaps this becomes a perfect time for the likes of AT to roll some quick win cycleway and safety projects. That would enable more people to get around safely while a reduction in crashes can help reduce the load on the medical system.
I don’t particularly want to speculate on what the long term implications of this are, if any so in the meantime, make sure you’re following the advice of health professionals.