We’re now two weeks into our current level 2.5 restrictions and have at least another week to go. However when it comes to transport, yesterday the government announced one change, lifting seating restrictions on public transport.

On the issue of travel I can also announce today a change of physical distancing restrictions on planes and public transport.

As a result of the extra measures we have in place at Level 2 in Auckland, and in particular the good uptake of our requirement that people wear a mask on public transport, today I can confirm that we will ease physical distancing requirements on planes and public transport.

So from today, public transport operators including airlines, buses and trains do not need to maintain any seating restrictions or passenger capacity limits at Level 2.

Mask use will continue to be compulsory, and has been key in the recommendation by the Director General that this change is safe to occur.

Since the whole COVID situation emerged, one of the ongoing questions is how will it change how we travel, particularly when it comes to public transport. As we’ve talked about before, we were seeing public transport use recovering fairly well with at the beginning of August average weekday usage reaching over 80% of what it was at the same time last year.

The second lockdown has raised more questions though, such as:

  • Will repeated lockdowns erode the confidence in using PT?
  • Has the additional requirement on the use of masks added a further blow to PT use?
  • How does the recovery this time compare to the first lockdown?
  • We’ve also had the issues with the rail network that has resulted in it being slowed down and frequencies reduced. In addition, the Eastern Line is has been closed for three weeks now as maintenance work takes place. How has that impacted things?

Obviously being still in the middle of restrictions means we won’t know how the full story will unfold over the coming weeks and months but pleasingly there are some positive signs.

First of all, here’s the latest version of the graph I’ve published a few times already and with data up to yesterday. It shows the average weekday boardings on all PT services in Auckland and from it we can say:

  • During Level 3, usage dropped to about 41,000 a day, or about 11% of normal. This is almost identical to what we saw during Level 3 in the first lockdown.
  • Level 2 has seen usage recover somewhat and last week reached an average of 170,000 boardings a day. That’s 50% of what we saw at the same time last year. What’s intriguing is that it is slightly higher than was seen during the first lockdown.

After seeing the trend look similar, I thought I’d look a bit closer at the usage for the individual respective days of level 3 and 2 for each lockdown. Interestingly we had twelve days of at level 3 in both lockdowns and are heading for similar numbers at level 2. The graph below usage on each weekday of the lockdown. The only thing that I’ve excluded were the first two days at Level 2 the first time as they were on a Thursday and a Friday so many people waited for the next week to change habits.

Here you can see the trends are public response is remarkably similar but is actually a bit stronger this time. In fact, over the first 10 days of level two, usage is about 10% higher this time around (148k vs 164k).

All of this suggests that people haven’t been put off by a second lockdown and that the requirement to wear a mask hasn’t negatively impacted the use of PT. This gives a lot of hope that when we do return to Level 1, that we’ll at least see usage return to similar levels as it was in early August.

So what about train use? Using the same graph above, I’ve changed it to look only at the train boardings. As expected, the numbers are down on last time but perhaps not as much as I had expected, down by about 11% on the last time we were at Level 2. With us sitting at Level 2 for at least another week, if the Eastern Line shutdown isn’t further extended then it should be open for use again in time for Level 1, if that comes next week.

I also want to give some props to Auckland Transport for the fact they’ve been releasing this data on a regular basis and with this granularity to enable us to have this conversation. It’s particularly noticeable compared to many cities I keep an eye on so please keep that up.

Speaking of other cities, another thing I’ve been keeping an eye on is how our experience on the recovery of PT use compares. This can be made somewhat difficult as there is quite a variety in the frequency and timing of reporting with AT and Transport for NSW being the fastest I’ve found so far. the graph looks at how PT usage numbers are for each city compared to the same month the year before. A few things that stand out to me:

  • Most cities were tracking along fairly steadily and recording growth in PT use. Note, the bump around February will mainly be due to the leap year
  • With the exception of Barcelona being a month earlier, all cities were following the same pattern of starting to drop in March and then plummeting in April in which most cities dropped to between 5 and 20% of normal.
  • You can see that Auckland and Wellington had both recovered fairly well and quickly thanks to the lower restrictions New Zealand enjoyed for a few months.
  • Perth is also recovering well.
  • Like Auckland, you can see the impacts of second waves in other cities too, such as Barcelona and Seattle.
  • Big cities like London, New York and San Francisco are taking much longer for PT to come back. That will be both a factor of the various restrictions each location has but also is likely a reflection of a shift to more active modes

My hunch is we’ll see Auckland pop back up to about 60% overall for September.

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  1. Your point about active modes is well made. Because we have had almost no emergency street repurposing for walking biking etc in NZ, PT return, and driving, are the only options, outside of continued WFH.

    Other cities, notably Paris and London, are instead experiencing revolutions in both active travel and street place quality change, particularly outside dining.

  2. We have noticed a big increase in the number of Greenhithe kids on bikes to going to the high schools. If the choice is a bike ride or a crowded school bus then the bike will be the winner in pandemic times.

  3. It does not seem to be that bad. I think at the worst things will rebound back to normal levels by 2022. Hopefully then the rail repairs can be completed (surely that will have had some kind of impact as will….reduced frequency and reduced number of services). Sometime in early 2021 Puhinui station will re-open and by mid next year the interchange will be operating. That should make a positive impact on things. But with international students gone plus more people working from home it is going to be much longer time for things to get to 2019 levels…anyway that my guess.

  4. Sadly I think for many people using the train is that there is just no other option for them. Like it or lump it, and put up with crawling slow speeds for the next 6 months.

    1. If you are only travelling a couple of stations it doesn’t make any difference. Surely when the Eastern line is fixed it will be able to run to near normal speed.

      1. Royce – If you were only travelling a few stations, a bus service is much likely going to be quicker, especially with the works/speed restrictions currently in place. I was referring to the longer trips, Pukekohe, Manurewa, Henderson to CBD. These aren’t really served by any alternative (unless it’s a multiple bus journey).

        1. From Britomart to Ellerslie (or vice versa) it’s only 3-5 minutes slower. Take it to Penrose and you’ll only lose a few seconds more…

          As for taking the bus… Yeah, nah. I took the bus last week due to a train cancellation… Bus took 45 minutes. The slow train is only about 25.

          Generally speaking, that route from Penrose or Ellerslie to Britomart is much faster by slow train than fast bus.

  5. Compulsory mask wearing might actually encourage more people to take PT since they aren’t being coughed on etc by other sick passengers (there’s always at least one on every bus). Previously people might have felt a bit silly or weird wearing a mask but now that it’s been normalised people can feel more confident they won’t catch Covid or any of the other seasonal bugs going around.

  6. A huge contributor will be when the universities start to go back. Mostly they’ve been taking a very conservative approach when it comes to opening back up, so will be interesting to see the data for October, when all pretty much all students will be commuting into the city again.

    1. While this will be interesting… and I know UoA is putting some considerable effort towards the restart as a logistical exercise (which would speak to an expectation of numbers)… it is worth bearing in mind that you can kind of study from home normally anyway because of lecture recordings (well, at UoA anyway, can’t speak to anywhere else).

      So… I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s nothing dramatic.

      1. I know that a lot of students have really missed campus life, so I imagine the numbers returning to campus will be quite high.

  7. Well, my life has been turned completely upside down by the Eastern Line debacle. I will still use the train, when the service returns, but I know a few people who have said they won’t.
    It’s really disappointing.

      1. Maybe rather than focusing on a slow train to Hamilton, Mr Twyford should have been more focused on the basics of intra-city PT.

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