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.

And finally

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.

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45 comments

  1. It is incredibly frustrating seeing trains and buses travelling, empty, and free. A more pointless waste of time, energy and money…. the time we need them free is when people are using them en masse. I really fear what the future is for Public Transport, given that so many people will want to stay in their own bubble-cars in future.

    1. ‘people will want to stay in their own bubble-cars’

      There, that’s a ‘more pointless waste of time, energy and money’ for ya.

    2. NZ will be in an almost unique position around public transport because it looks like the risk to people from Covid will be eliminated before too long.

      Other countries’ pathways on returning to PT will be irrelevant here; something we must be mindful of. This is an advantage we have. The public will be able to return to PT confidently. Good messaging will be required, but it shouldn’t be too hard because people want to stop having to physically distance in other realms of their lives.

      The only risk is the government relaxing its border controls slightly and deciding to try to “ease into international travel”, resulting in the odd outbreak. If they do that, it will create unease in the population around public transport and around having holidays domestically. The decision would prioritise the emissions-heavy international tourism over establishing domestic tourism and over re-establishing public transport ridership. In other words, it would be ignoring the climate and public health effects.

      1. I agree with you. There needs to be more positive re-enforcement that PT is save. There is small but growing comments that is PT can be a spreader of COVID-19 which if we don’t keep re-enforcing the positives of PT will play into the hands of National supporters.

        1. With the economic recession forecast to be the worst since the late ’20s; a lot of people may not have much choice but to use public transport.
          Because there is literally nothing in this world that most people own that is more of a money-drain than an automobile.

        2. Daniel – agree, I can’t imagine many people who don’t own a car are thinking of going out and getting one at the moment.

          We only have one car between us, so the reality is if we are both heading out to work again one of us at least will need to use PT.

      2. I think you are right. I have been doing a lot of reading about basic reproduction numbers or the R0 or R-nought value. The PM said ours is now 0.48. In theory anything less than 1.0 means it will die out if you wait long enough. The problem is not every group in a population has the same R0 value so having an average less than 1.0 isn’t enough. It means we will still have restrictions for a while yet as they make sure it is going down in highest risk groups. But eventually you can see a time where it is gone in NZ. Maybe we will all get photos of Jacinda for our walls like old people did with Michael Joseph Savage.

        1. I keep thinking we and the Govt are overreacting to this but then I think I wouldn’t like to catch it so mostly I feel whats happening is necessary. There was a particularly gruesome article on Stuff this morning which outlined how the virus cause blood clotting in its victims lungs and organs. But can we eliminate it in New Zealand who knows its almost as though it can think. The cartoons in the herald depicting the virus as the dark rider from Lord of the Rings is very apt. As for relaxing border restrictions there is already one possible pathway for the dark rider to ride in with returning Air New Zealand aircrew who are allowed to return to their bubble between assignments.

        2. If anyone ever tells you we have overreacted then tell them to google Covid-19 Ireland. They have the same population as us at around 4.9 million. They have had 49 people die yesterday taking the total to 769 deaths. We could have easily been facing what they are going through if we hadn’t closed down.

        3. It’s not a valid comparison Miffy, as Ireland has much higher levels of travellers coming and going from the UK and Europe than NZ does across its border.

      3. Yes. Bit off topic but yesterday I was trying to get my head around why Australia seems to have similar though slightly worse infection & death rate per million people than NZ but without having had such severe restrictions as us. I think it mainly comes down to their earlier & continuing tighter boarder controls and isolation enforcement from overseas travelers compared to NZ. I don’t know but I suspect their hospital care & contact tracing would of been better than us being actually quite a wealthy nation. They also have more people over the age of 70 than in NZ though the median age overall is the same as us. I could be just it’s too early to tell given a bit of timing with those cruise ships, luck or the epidemiological cycle.

        PS this website has some great graphs that are quite easy to use:
        https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/total-covid-deaths-per-million?tab=chart&time=2020-03-05..&country=NZL+AUS

        1. Also, most people in Australia are self-restricting as much as we are required to restrict. And where it’s been theoretically possible to get a haircut, for example, it doesn’t mean any hairdressers are actually open.

          Not having such strict laws simply means a big part of the activity that is happening, and that is keeping the transmission lines open, is a random mix chosen by people themselves rather than as prioritised by government.

          Which simply means the majority of people and businesses will be impacted for longer to enable these self-appointed people and businesses to continue with their activities.

        2. Yes sounds a likely reason. Lots of urban design, behavioral, cultural & health related aspects between each country it seems coming into play.

        3. NZ and Australia have natural advantages over the likes of Ireland and other EU countries. The “not political” Labour party circulated meme comparing NZ and Ireland is misleading.
          The most obvious advantages being our relative isolation – both distance and cost , but also we are not transit countries, have managed borders with immigration controls. But also a key is that it was summer here when this hit which means less colds and flus around to mask C19 symptoms and spread.
          We are also relatively sparsely populated. Australia has lower infection and death rates than NZ so arguable have done better than us. If you look at specific states then some are way better. And others like NSW are heavily skewed by the cruise ship.
          We were both also lucky with timing in that we had time to see what was happening overseas so could implement restrictions be
          BTW, the government have redefined “eliminate” to not mean eliminate, but instead “reduce to a manageable level”. So I would say we have eliminated C19!

        4. Our death rate is so small that it isn’t statistically relevant. Had one person not spread it to that rest home we would have a much lower death rate, this is what happens at these low numbers. As far as infection count that is really dependant on how much testing they do.

        5. Maybe the death rate is so small in NZ it’s statistically irrelevant, but I wouldn’t think the infection rate is. Both countries track pretty similar with each other if you look at this 3 day rolling average graph (need to probably copy and past full link manually):
          https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/daily-covid-cases-per-million-three-day-avg?tab=chart&time=2020-02-26..&country=AUS+NZL
          Also the testing rates & cases per million is pretty similar overall with Australia having a slightly lower testing rate but higher infection rate.

    3. And they are running 6 car trains??

      Given they pay CAF for every kilometre travelled by each set, something is wrong.

      1. Some are three car trains plus all weekends there are rail replacement buses. The ones I see at Middlemore on my daily walk have either one two or three passengers plus some have no passengers.
        There is a steady stream of freight trains to Wuri and metroport trains to and from Tauranga. Plus some trains which are carrying freight bound for the main trunk.

        1. I’m really glad to see Kiwirail taking this opportunity. It’s fantastic planning that we haven’t always seen from their maintenance team. It’s a shame that they don’t have funding for quad tracking or they could get cracking with some enabling works for that!

        2. Duplicate comment from other day in the wrong post:
          Does anyone know if the standard routine Kiwirail line maintenance primarily replaces iron track, crossovers, signals that will likely fail soon or do they “smooth out” minor kinks, bumps? ie More the base support along track sections I’m wondering to give a smoother ride? I guess both would provide a faster track speed limit sometimes too.

      2. Been watching the trains from my home office over the last month. Most I have seen is probably 4 people on a train. Most run empty.
        Really cannot understand why they did not replace trains with buses which buses are also near empty.
        Maybe someone at AT thought it was 20m rather than 2m between passengers.

    4. The irony is: There’s never been a better time to use the bus.

      Hardly anyone else will be on the bus and there’s hardly any traffic to slow it down.

    5. Genuinely the worst take.

      I’m an essential worker without a car. I’m by far and away not the only one. Should we all be on the benefit instead? That’ll save some coin, won’t it.

    1. If it’s just a few months then I don’t think it is a big issue, the problem will be if PT is a no go zone for a few years.

      A couple of things to account for, there are many people who are not that concerned about catching it, rightly or wrongly they think it will just be mild for them anyway. Also many people don’t have the option of using a car. They may not have one or there may only be one in the household.

  2. Also there will be some will continue to work from home.

    Another factor is that people will start to use bike/e-bike more after the lockdown for a good reason.

  3. I’d be interested to see cycling ridership too, but that’s just for the cycleways, isn’t it?

    AT’s figures for cycling on the local streets must be off whatever scale they used before, if they have been counting. I see Bike Auckland is counting.

      1. They don’t count cycling on streets, so the official numbers are going to useless. I haven’t ridden a cycleway since the lockdown, why would I; when the streets are free and cycleways like the NW are full of walkers I can’t keep 2m from to pass?

        1. They count some streets; Tamkai Drive, Lake Road, Grafton Bridge, etc. but I agree, total numbers on most shared paths will be up, but i expect cycling on them will be down.

  4. Need to keep the free PT for a while after things go back to normal to get people back into using it. The temptation to drive (traffic is and will be lighter, car parks easier to get etc) is going to hurt PT usage short and long term unless it gets back on the horse quickly so to speak.

  5. Unfortunately there will be some major dampeners on PT usage and likely for some time. Lack of international students (large PT users I suspect), less tourism, work from home, less cars on road, weaker economy, slower population growth etc are going to be with us for some time. In addition there will be the fear of traveling. With reduced demand AT will need to cut back. The bright spot is bike usage should increase and a great opportunity to invest in cycle ways.

    1. A weaker economy usually increases PT ridership as people are less able to afford it. Look at the jump in 2009 and 2010. Also, we should probably expect New Zealand’s rate of population growth to increase over the next couple of year as the approximately 1,000,000 New Zealanders living overseas are more likely to return.

      1. “ Also, we should probably expect New Zealand’s rate of population growth to increase over the next couple of year as the approximately 1,000,000 New Zealanders living overseas are more likely to return.”

        Good point.

        1. Only as many as can be quarantined until a cure for/protection from the virus is developed. Currently approx 2000 in isolation/managed quarantine. So that 1 million NZers is going to be restricted to a weekly trickle for the forseeable future.

    2. Maybe I’m wrong but I expect that people will get over COVID-19 and lose any phobia of public transport and crowds. Overseas travel will be impacted but I think people will be over it by 2025.

      But what is likely to change is economic prosperity. If the predictions of a recession being the biggest since the great depression come to fruition; people will be leaving their cars in the garage and possibly getting rid of them altogether. Many people will be losing their jobs and having to settle for any work to survive and other people will be working from home if possible partly to save on their own money.

      So I’m not expecting any severe drop in public transport patronage. I think growth over the next decade is more likely.

  6. Parts of the media are also currently unhelpful to public transport. I heard a journalist ask the PM today about AT’s policy to require masks to be worn on PT.

    Here’s what AT actually said yesterday, “While wearing of masks is not needed on public transport, we suggest that customers consider using them as an added precaution against the spread of COVID-19.”

    No wonder the govt is needing to prop up the media sector if it is proving as reliable as Facebook for news.

  7. Miffy takes the comment of the day with this:
    “But eventually you can see a time where it is gone in NZ. Maybe we will all get photos of Jacinda for our walls like old people did with Michael Joseph Savage.”
    Was thinking half of last night how weird that actually is to have a prime minister picture on your wall it’s not in a political office or similar.

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