COVID is still impacting our daily lives and one area it’s doing so more than others when it comes to public transport usage.
Since the pandemic started, Auckland Transport have been publishing daily public transport usage which has helped give a fascinating insight into the impact it has had on our PT network – I’ve yet to find any other agency internationally going to this level of detail publicly. Here are few key things that stand out to me.
- Usage through levels two and three were similar during the multiple lockdowns we’ve had
- This has not been the case for times we’ve been at Level 1, where:
- Following the first lockdown, usage recovered to around 300,000 trips per weekday, about 81% of normal.
- Since the second lockdown, during which there were a few cases as a result of a bus trip and which resulted in PT increasingly being singled out, we’ve only just reached about 250,000 per day, about 60-70% of normal depending on the time of the year.
Had the February lockdown not happened I get the feeling we would have pushed back towards 300k, especially as the universities came back.
In total, usage over a 12-month rolling period has dropped from about 103 million trips annually to just over 54 million. But that is likely to start going up again soon with and it will be interesting to see if how all this changes in the coming weeks and months once we pass the 1-year mark.
In addition to COVID, Auckland was also dealt a blow with the significant work needed to repair the rail network and which saw different parts of it closed for a month or more at a time. The impact of this can be seen in the graph below, where following the first lockdown, all modes recovered fairly similarly. That all changed following the second lockdown, during which the repair works started. Train usage remained much lower and was only just starting to get back to bus levels now the bulk of the repair work is completed. Meanwhile ferries saw a significant boost after the Harbour Bridge was damaged.
While the numbers have been low of late, we’re still holding up well compared to many overseas cities. For those I have data for, Auckland has tracking well. The graph below is just some of the cities I have and as you can see, some like San Francisco are seeing usage just above 20% of normal.
In an article from Stuff’s Todd Niall last week also looked at ridership.
Auckland Transport (AT) said the city was experiencing not a blip but a “significant structural change” to demand for public transport, including a small shift back to cars.
Proportionately, the biggest fall among AT HOP cardholders was tertiary students, with 47 per cent fewer trips compared with November 2019.
That reflected a switch during 2020 to online study, and the absence of 28,750 international students who had traditionally been high users of public transport.
The student slump equated to 433,000 fewer trips a month.
The most significant fall was adult passengers who take the bulk of trips and pay the highest, un-discounted fares. In November 2020 they took 2.3 million fewer trips than 12 months earlier.
There is also believed to have been a shift from public transport to private car travel, although it is harder to quantify.
AT’s chief executive Shane Ellison thought some of those who had given up or reduced public transport use might not return to their previous use, while others may be lost until borders re-open and a successful roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines boosts confidence.
“It is not the worst possible outcome, from a transport perspective, because working from home is not a terrible outcome in terms of emissions and road safety,” Ellison said.
However, it changed the historic path of big investment in public transport, matched by strong patronage growth, to one where there is now significant capacity and AT might have to seek out customers.
“We will be looking at marketing, but it will be very targetted. Once the rail lines (currently being upgraded) are up to full speed we might target those who we knew took rail with a special offer to come back,” he said.
Ellison was confident a re-surgence in public transport would come when major projects such as the $4.4 billion City Rail link are finished in 2024 and the eastern busway is finished.
Perhaps it’s just me but this suggests AT’s attitude is mainly just to ‘wait it out’. To me that’s not a great strategy, especially given the amount of mode-shift we need in our fight to reduce emissions. It also seems to reflect another AT attitude, that PT is only really about getting people to and from the city centre at peak times – which has been the result of a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
The increasing levels of PT use to the city centre has been one of the main driving forces behind the growth in usage over the last few decades. Much of that growth has occurred on city trips because it’s also the place that’s the easiest for people to reach via public transport. That growth has then encouraged AT to put even more resources towards city centre trips.
But if Auckland is to succeed we need them to change this attitude. We need a PT system that is useful and competitive for a wider range of trips and destinations. The new bus network a few years ago certainly helped with this to some degree but we urgently need to increase both the frequency and reliability of services to other places – more bus lanes could help achieve both.
Despite more people working from home, our roads remain clogged highlighting there’s clearly still a huge need for better public transport. So perhaps the above put another way, instead of waiting for the demand to come back to them, they need to be seeking out new sources of PT usage.
That has the added bonus that when city trips return to ‘normal’, we’ll have even more usage.