As you will have undoubtedly seen by now, the current Level 3 lockdown in Auckland has been extended till Sunday and then Auckland will move to Level 2 from Monday – like the rest of the country.
Level 2 of course means that more businesses and activities can take place, though there are still conditions around distancing and the size of gatherings allowed. More activity means more of a return to normalcy and more travel but this time one difference in Level 2 is that the government have mandated that masks must be worn on public transport. This requirement has come after it appears now two people contracted COVID while sharing a bus with someone who was infectious.
A fateful bus trip
It has emerged that there may have been a vicious irony at play with that bus trip. The reporting so far has suggested the trip took place on the morning of the day the city went into lockdown and that bus took 2.5 hours to move just 750 metres.
The trip in question: the 22N Service from Symonds Street Overbridge (Stop 7162) to New North Road (8200). The date: Wednesday 12 August, the day Auckland moved into Alert Level Three. The time: between 10:30am and 1:04pm.
According to Auckland Regional Public Health, the trip took two and a half hours. The reason for this was because “there was very bad traffic congestion that morning as people were heading home before the midday lockdown,” the Auckland Regional Public Health Service (ARPHS) said.
They said the two people sat on the bus for an hour at Symonds Street.
It appears most likely that the congestion that caused this was actually the result of people queuing for the COVID testing centre that was initially set up on New North Rd.
With the lockdown only having been announced late the night before there was likely little that Auckland Transport could have done to address this by the time this bus trip took place. We need our buses to be able to operate without random events suddenly rendering them useless. So what it does highlight is how important it is for AT to get on and deliver what they now call their Connected Communities programme. This programme was set out in the latest Regional Public Transport Plan and is meant to be delivering ‘whole-of-route bus priority as well as safety and walking & cycling improvements to the corridors below (and some in the south). The issue, as I’ve pointed out before, is the programme is going nowhere fast. Note: I’m not suggesting that had AT delivered whole-of-route bus priority that those on the bus wouldn’t have contracted the virus.
Not everyone who was on the bus has been contacted yet highlighting why it is useful to register your HOP card.
Efforts are being made by ARPHS and Auckland Transport to follow-up on all the close contacts from the bus trip made on 12 August.
There were 16 passengers on the trip, plus the driver, of which only 11 were considered close contacts. Of these, seven have been contacted using their AT HOP cards. Of the remaining four, two were using unregistered HOP cards, and for two people, ARPHS only has their names only.
There are a few other bus trips now in question too.
Wearing masks on PT is a sensible step and it would be good if it led to a longer term culture of accepting mask use to provide benefits not just through this pandemic but at other times too. As always, wearing a mask isn’t just about you but also others on the bus too, including the driver – who is often forgotten about but that shouldn’t be.
Here’s a depressing public transport stat: Forestry is NZ’s most dangerous industry, at 57 deaths per 100,000 workers a year.
So far this year, driving a bus in London has a death rate of 176 per 100,000 – triple this country’s most dangerous job.
Wear a mask on the bus.
— Joel MacManus (@JoelMacManus) August 19, 2020
However, during the announcement it did feel a bit like PT was being targeted a little bit and that the same requirement should apply to other aspects of society. And it seems I’m not alone with some experts saying the same thing too.
Mandatory mask wearing on public transport does not go far enough and should extend to any indoor place, a public health expert says.
New Zealanders should instead be following the lead of countries like Taiwan and wearing them at malls, universities, supermarkets, workplaces and bars and restaurants if they want to get a head of the virus, according to Otago University public health expert Professor Nick Wilson.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that from next Monday face mask wearing would be mandatory on all public transport including planes, buses, trains, ferries and Ubers. Children would be exempt.
I think it’s good that taxis and Ubers are included in the requirement however one issue that I’m sure is bound to crop up is where someone tries to board a bus without a mask – in fact there was a case last week where a user was denied access to the bus for not having mask. There would obviously be extra cost involved but I wonder if AT needs to consider having a stock of masks on PT that passengers without one can take and use. At train stations and ferry terminals these could be in the vending machines that AT have installed.
I do wonder if this incident and the mask requirement will have a longer term impact on the use of PT and general mode share. Only time will really tell that but what I can say so far is that as of the end of last week, the average daily PT use in Auckland was at about 11% of this time last year. That’s the same as what we saw during Level 3 in the first lockdown. During Level 2 in the last lockdown usage rose to around 45% of the same time last year and had reached about 81% of ‘normal’ in Level 1.
If there is to be long term mode shift as a result of these three cases then it feels even more important that AT get cracking on improvements to provide safe cycleways and walkways for people to use.