We’ve always keenly tracked how public transport has performed in Auckland and it’s been exciting watching the numbers generally head in one direction over the last 10-15 years, up. From fewer than 50 million annual trips at the beginning of 2006, usage peaked at nearly 104 million trips by the end of February.
March is usually probably the month we’re most excited to see due to March Madness, where the combination of schools, universities and workers in operation combined with lower levels of leave and sickness combine to create a bit of a perfect storm that strains transport capacity.
But usage of public transport has obviously experienced a dramatic fall of late. The March numbers are now available giving us our first glimpse at the impact. Of course, this won’t be the full impact as we didn’t lock down until March 26 – although usage had already been noticeably dropping before then.
Overall there were 6.8 million trips in the month, down a third on March last year, which saw a record of almost 10.2 million trips. The last time numbers were that low was just over a decade ago in 2009. I’m actually surprised it was only down by a third but I guess that’s partly just a timing issue and will be nothing compared to April. Interestingly that drop in usage is fairly similar across all modes.
The drop is also similar to a couple of international cities I have monthly data on already with Sydney down 36% and Perth down 27% – although they have different dates and scale of lockdown to what we’ve had.
In many ways the question now becomes just how much PT use will fall. A report by Stuff’s Todd Niall at the end of March suggested usage was down by 97% on normal.
Auckland Transport figures show use of public transport slumped 97 per cent on the previous year, as the lockdown began.
Across Auckland on the first day of Level 4 restrictions, only 12,770 trips were taken on public transport services, compared with 386,511 a year ago.
If we assume that drop holds and only recovers slightly out till the end of June it suggests annual usage will drop back to about 75 million trips annually by that time. It’s also highly likely usage will continue to hold lower for a long time yet. Who knows how low it will go.
To put some historical context around it, this is likely to be the biggest and sharpest fall in usage Auckland has ever seen. Even pulling the trams out didn’t see usage drop as quickly as it has this last month.
On the other side of the coin, I do expect usage will eventually pick back up but the question there is just how long will that take. Some of that will likely depend on how we come out of this crisis but also what other societal and preference changes occur as a result. I do expect some will say that PT users will flood to use cars (again). That may be true in the short to medium term but it’s important to recognise that the fundamental reasons we were improving public transport in the first place haven’t changed. There is still the same geometric constraints that existed before this virus spread. That means there are only so many roads we have and only so many cars we can fit on a motorway or local roads.
I’m sure AT will be looking closely at the numbers next week as we head into level 3 to see if there’s any noticeable increase in use. Earlier this week they put out some advice on just what that will mean for PT. The update includes some of the things AT are doing, including the increased cleaning. Most importantly they note
- Public Transport will continue to be free however they do want people to tag on and off using HOP cards still so they can help manage demand
- People should try to avoid using PT at peak times.
- On buses, people still need to only use the rear door unless you’re in a wheelchair, other mobility device or require driver assistance
- Bus services will start to return to normal weekday schedules, which will be to provide enough capacity with distancing rules still in place. Trains and Ferries will continue to the same timetables they are on at level 4.
Under Alert Level 3, Aucklanders must continue to stay within their household bubbles whenever they are not at work, at school, going to the supermarket, for medical reasons, or exercising.